How do we know what’s true? And what is truth, anyway?
Google for “What is truth?” and you find a lot of pages cite Pontius Pilate, the most famous asker of that question. From this essay
When Pilate came face to face with the Man of Galilee, he asked, “Are you a king?”
Jesus replied, “For this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”3
I don’t know what kind of man Pilate was, nor do I know what he was thinking. However, I suspect that he was well educated and had seen much of the known world.
I sense a certain weary cynicism in Pilate’s reply. I hear in his words the voice of a man who may once have been an idealist but now—after a great deal of life experience—seems a little hardened, even tired.
I don’t believe Pilate was encouraging a dialogue when he responded with three simple words: “What is truth?”4
How do we now determine what’s true?
In particular, how do we determine what truth claims are verifiable factual statements, what truth claims are not verifiable, but come from reliable sources (and how do we know whether to rely on a source) what ones are verifiable conclusions based on verifiable or reliable statements of fact?
More problematic, how can we ensure that a truth claim that we have determined as verifiable or at least reliable is not misleading?
For example: is poverty increasing, decreasing, or remaining about the same? Assuming we use the World Bank’s definitions to avoid ambiguity, can you guess the event in 2015 that increased the number of people in extreme poverty? Hint: it was not a war, or a natural calamity, or an economic downturn? (Find out on Monday, or do some research.) Hint: Wikipedia article on Poverty.
On a broader scale: how do we come to rely on scientific truth? Postmodernists argue that science is “just another belief system.” Some religious folks have argued that their belief in the truth of their religion has the same basis as the belief that some have in science. Most of us have never seen an atom or Jesus rising from the dead, yet our belief in one or the other of these “facts” is based on what people who we trust have told us.
Occam’s razor says that given two explanations we should choose the simpler one over the more complex one. So why choose the explanation of the universe that starts with an unexplained Big Bang, proceeds, under the guidance of unexplained laws of physics, through the generation of the first stars, which then go nova so that we have elements other than hydrogen and helium, and give rise to star systems that have those elements, and planets, and the whole 4 billion year story of evolution that leads to what have now, rather than the simpler explanation that starts with an unexplained Creator God who made everything pretty much the way that we see it? Isn’t that simpler? Doesn’t that explain things just as well?
I’ve never seen anything evolve, nor have you, nor has anyone. So why believe in the explanation given by evolution rather than the one from creation science?,
No evidence? Here’s a page from a creation science site that uses the verifiable and reliable facts of science to make a reasoned and logical argument that evolution cannot be true.
Note that this whole system (DNA, RNA and fully functional enzyme machinery) must be present in any living cell. To get enzymes you need RNA, to get RNA you need DNA, to get DNA you need enzymes … get the picture? No one has any idea how such a sophisticated set of nanomachines could have made themselves without intelligent design. This had to be designed by a super-intelligence. This is one characteristic of the Creator of all described in the Bible: omniscient / all knowing.
The site contains more science than most people know to support their argument that the Biblical story of creation is the correct one. They do not dispute the fossil record, or the existence of genes, or any other verifiable fact about the universe. But from those facts they draw very different conclusions.
Do you know enough science or epistemology to dispute their conclusions? Or do you just reject them out of hand because you believe, based on what people who you trust have told you, that evolution is true and the Bible is not.
Would you agree with this statement:
If you have a valid argument for something, then you should accept the conclusion. Even if the conclusion is unpopular, or inconvenient, or you don’t like it.
From an essay written by Scott Alexander, of SlateStarCodex.com fame, from an earlier blog. The term he coined is a good one “Epistemic learned helplessness.”
The key is: “How do you know when an explanation based on a set of facts is a good one.” Here’s an answer, courtesy of David Deutsch.