November 18, 2018

Does Truth Change?

Heraclitus famously observed, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This observation (and other considerations) led Heraclitus to conclude, “There is nothing permanent except change.” That idea continues to be influential to this day, 2500 years after his death— understandably, for we encounter change every day of our lives. Your hometown probably didn’t exist several hundred years ago; then it was built, structure by structure, street by street. Today the house you lived in may no longer be standing, and even if it is, it has no doubt undergone one or more renovations. Also, old vehicles have been traded for new, businesses have come and gone, and the people you grew up with have married, had children, and moved on.

Change has a much larger dimension, as well. Entire countries change over time, as do cultures and customs. Inventions create new ways of doing things and new tools to use in doing them, only to be displaced by new and better inventions. And the process is endlessly repeated.

Such pervasive change would suggest that Heraclitus was correct in concluding that change alone is permanent. Yet he was mistaken. There is one thing that is unchanging, and that is truth. This is the case with the truths found in every subject from anthropology to zoology. Let me offer a brief illustration:

1) Was anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s description of Dobuan culture accurate? 2) Did any of Ignaz Semmelweis’ medical colleagues support his breakthrough theory about puerperal fever when he first proposed it? 3) Exactly how many people were killed in the Holocaust? 4) How significantly has the use of fossil fuels contributed to climate change? 5) How many workers were involved over the centuries in the building of the walls that comprise the Great Wall of China?  6) Was the original inventor of the wheel a man or a woman? 7) Who struck the first nail that secured Jesus of Nazareth to the cross at Calvary?

We can say with absolute confidence that there is a single truth in each of these cases, regardless of whether it is easy to discover (1, 2), difficult to discover (3, 4), or impossible to discover (5-7). Moreover, these truths will remain unchanged no matter how much time passes or how much water flows down the river.

Some people disagree. They say things like, “the sun revolved around the earth, and then the earth revolved around the sun,” and “the earth was 5,000 years old, and now it is 4.5 billion years old,” and claim that in both cases the truth changed. To say this is to confuse truth with belief. We can convince ourselves that something is true, call it truth, proclaim that teaching for generations, and make it the foundation of a dozen social institutions, yet if it was false in the beginning it will remain so for all time.

Unfortunately, for the better part of the last century, it has been fashionable to start with Heraclitus’s notion that everything changes, decide that truth must therefore change, combine that idea with the democratic-sounding “no one’s opinion is better than anyone else’s,” and end up convinced that whatever a person believes to be true, is therefore true. That is why modern discourse is filled with the expressions “my truth,” “your truth,” “their truth.” The end product of this strange thought process has been the elevation of sundry kinds of mental behaviors—not only reasoning, but also assuming, guessing, speculating, imagining, theorizing, hypothesizing, wishing, and supposing—to the level of truth.

Given this cultural development, it is hardly surprising that history has lost its position of honor in academe. Why should people spend hours seeking the truth in scholarly writings when they can seize the first satisfying notion that floats through their minds, call it their truth, and demand that others refrain from questioning it.

No less surprising are these contemporary phenomena:

Educators preferring to propagandize students with their viewpoints on issues (their “truth”) rather than guiding them to discover truth by considering all sides of issues and drawing unbiased, logical conclusions of their own.

Campuses embracing political correctness, which posits that questioning or challenging someone else’s personal truth is a grave offense appropriately answered by shouting down speakers, burning down lecture halls, and overturning whatever police vehicles escaped destruction during the last sports victory celebration.

Journalists shaping the news to fit their personal agendas (their “truth”) rather than being objective and non-partisan.

Politicians expressing unsupported (and sometimes unsupportable) claims about their opponents as the “truth” simply because they suit their purposes.

Appointed government officials acting on their personal “truth,” even when doing so entails violating their oaths of office and/or the Constitution.

Participants in media debates ignoring civility and respect for others by shouting out their personal “truth” while others are trying to speak.

Although truth cannot change, our belief about it can. That is exactly what has happened in our time and to our detriment. We discarded the traditional view that truth is searched for and discovered, and embraced instead the ego-inflating delusion that we can create truth according to our personal specifications. As a result we have destroyed our motivation to seek truth and opened our minds and our culture to falsehood. By exalting ourselves, we have been humbled, our minds have been weakened, and society is showing the strain.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero