America’s Flawed View of Truth

America’s Flawed View of Truth

A discussion of truth may seem too academic to have any practical value, but it really isn’t. In fact, our understanding of truth is crucial to the proper functioning of our minds. It therefore profoundly impacts our attitudes and thinking habits and shapes our approach to everyday living.

The concept of “truth” has been with us since the dawn of human history. Although philosophers have at times disagreed about its meaning, the definition that long guided our country, as well as most of western civilization, is this: “Truth is conformity to fact, reality, actuality; the state of being the case.” (The opposite of truth is falsity, error.)

Philosopher Mortimer Adler explained that this understanding of truth is based on two ideas—that “there is a reality independent of the mind,” and that truth is present in the mind when “the mind agrees with, conforms or corresponds to, that independent reality.” He added, “When what I assert agrees with the way things really are, my assertions are true; otherwise they are false.”

This long-standing understanding of truth has been under assault since the mid-twentieth century when Psychologist Carl Rogers argued that “[reality] clearly does not exist in the objects we see and feel and hold.” He went on to claim that the idea of a reality outside ourselves is “a luxury we cannot afford, a myth we dare not maintain,” and that our feelings and impulses are better guides than thought and reason. Rogers’ test of truth was the exact opposite of the traditional test. In other words, he believed there is no need to test our beliefs against the way things really are—if we feel they are truethen they are true!

Over the following decades, that notion became deeply rooted in American culture and now has become (to use an overworked phrase) pandemic. Following are some examples of its impact:

People who believe that looting, rioting, and arson are forms of “peaceful protest” regard this not as an opinion but a “truth” that others should respect. Full of conviction, they then tweet and email it to their families and friends.

Other individuals publicly state (with a straight face) that the U.S. southern border is closed even as, at that very moment, thousands of illegal immigrants are crossing the border, being put in buses, and transported across the U.S. Such people clearly have embraced a demonstrable fallacy as their “truth.”

Let’s pause for a moment and note the possibility that some people don’t really believe their false “truths” are really true but simply have an ulterior motive for saying them—for example, to manipulate other people’s thinking for their own advantage. That possibility does not lessen the impact of the fallacy I am describing. It simply employs it deliberately rather than unknowingly.

Continuing with the examples:

For decades many people have embraced as unassailable truth the idea that abortion is moral because a woman has a right over her own body. Some have added that a fetus is not human but merely a mass of matter. They continue to make these claims while ignoring the scientific fact that though the fetus resides in the mother’s body, he/she is neither a part of that body or a mere mass of matter, but is a separate, developing being with a unique DNA. The argument in favor of abortion is simply utter falsity disguised as truth.

History teachers who believe the falsity that 1619 rather than 1776 was the true foundation of our country feel justified in teaching that to their students, regardless of what experts in their field say or the curriculum mandates. The same is true of teachers who feel there are not just two genders but fifty or a hundred, and those who feel that because they regard their political preferences as truths, they have an obligation to require their students to accept them and to forbid disagreement and dialogue.

Journalists who believe that reality and truth lie within rather than outside them see no need to investigate before writing their stories, but instead express what they feel about the subject and, often as not, consult their imaginations to provide the details. The result is to praise people they like and attack those they dislike without consideration of fairness or accuracy. And because they have raised their feelings to the status of truth, if anyone questions the accuracy of their reporting, they accuse that person of racism, sexism, and whatever other ism comes to mind.

Governors and mayors who believe their opinions are beyond questioning make decisions and rules without wondering about the consequences, on the assumption that because they possess the truth, only positive consequences can possibly follow. If negative consequences follow and a number of their constituents are financially harmed, made ill, or die, their first (and sometimes second and third) reaction is to denounce the reports as false and the reporters as liars.

Congressmen and Senators who believe they possess the truth all too often oppose the very process for which they were elected—genuine debate, reasoned comprise, and the passage of problem-solving legislation. Ironically, the process they oppose is in reality a path for acquiring truth and applying it to human affairs.

Many people believe that if they feel a law, or rule, or regulation is unfair, then it is unfair and they have the right to ignore it. This behavior can be seen in people who violate condominium rules against pets, in those who jump subway turnstiles to avoid paying the fare, in shoplifters, and in violators of handicapped parking rules. And these are just the minor examples. More extreme ones include rape and other physical assaults.

Many family members believe that their political and religious views are unqualifiedly true and demonstrate this belief by imposing them on their relatives. If the relatives try to change the subject, they refuse to take the hint and continue their imposition. If, instead, the relatives politely state their disagreement, the imposers grow agitated, raise their voices, and in some cases question the relatives’ soundness of mind. This reaction can occur even if the relatives have advanced degrees in the subject under discussion. In such cases, the imposer’s attitude is, “How dare they reject my truth?’

These examples illustrate that it is a mistake to believe truth exists in our minds rather than outside ourselves and that this mistake produces a variety of unfortunate consequences. However, I did not mention a significant consequence the examples have in common, a fundamental one that affects our very human nature—the exaltation of self to “be like God,” as Satan promised Adam and Eve in tempting them. (Genesis 3:5). That exaltation of self leads us to deny our human imperfection, close our minds to learning, become blind to our mistakes, cast aside humility, and ignore the promptings of both conscience and the Holy Spirit. In time, it makes us so full of ourselves that there is no room left in us for virtue or wisdom.

Jesus directly warned of the exaltation of self when he said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Only when enough of us renounce the false notion that we create our own truth, and gain the humility to search for it outside ourselves, will our country escape its present and growing intellectual chaos.

Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero