Is It Possible to Know the Truth?

Logic and the Bible say yes

“Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.  Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.” – Proverbs 23: 22-23 (ESV)

In my previous post, I argued that “truth” had become an idol — a fetish — a substitute for genuine transcendent Truth, and for authentic spiritual development. I also cautioned against the folly of succumbing to confirmation bias. I hope you’ll read it if you haven’t already.

In this post, I’d like to offer some additional thoughts on what philosophers call the problem of epistemology — that is, How do we know what we know?

Navigation, compass, detail, console, true north, destination

Navigate by fixed principles – and you’ll get there.
(Photo by Jon Ottosson)

Begin at the beginning

If you’re a regular reader here, you may have noticed that I have interspersed original posts in this ongoing series on Identity, Stimulation, and Security with updates and re-posts on subjectivity and worldviews. These were important refreshers, as they will help to illuminate what I want to say here.

If you have identified your worldview, and you have a biblical worldview, you already have a grasp on the foundation question of origins. Where did we come from? If you believe in a divinely created and purposeful cosmos, you have a framework for accepting knowledge — of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong — as a given. If an infinite, personal god, who is present in his creation and yet distinct from it, created the world and everything in it, the existence of knowledge and truth would seem to follow as built-in attributes.

Said another way, if humanity exists and humanity has an awareness of a personal (as opposed to impersonal) creator god, that god must be relational in his personhood, and therefore knowledge is a gift a relational god would give to creatures made in his image.

Life is but a dream?

I always enjoyed the movie The Matrix. Scratch it deep enough and I think it tells a story of redemption, despite its superficial Buddhism. And don’t we all want to believe there is more to this life than what our senses perceive — that somehow, we can level up and overcome the limits of our mortal existence.

Tesla and Space X CEO and founder Elon Musk asserts that he believes we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation a la The Matrix. And he’s not alone. A California professor of cognitive science explains his view that reality is nothing close to what we perceive in this article published in The Atlantic.

This is not a new phenomenon. Hinduism teaches that reality is maya — illusion. But I am aware of far more people subscribing to this view and to its corollary that nobody can truly know anything than at any other time in my life.

Once you rule out objective reality as a valid explanation…

If one subscribes to the postmodern assumption that there is no such thing as objective reality, and if one is willing to be honest, one will arrive at some uncomfortable conclusions.

First, if objective reality doesn’t exist or is otherwise unknowable, one must conclude that he is on his own. He can not place faith in the existence of his dearest friends, his loved ones, or his own life. Given the obvious relational bent of humanity, and the relative rarity of hermits, this existential aloneness will strip a man of hope.

Second, because it’s all imaginary, logically morality would no longer be binding in any meaningful sense. If the only reality is what occurs within the walls of my skull, why would I deprive myself of any pleasure, or give a thought to any consequence of my actions.

I think very few people actually believe this to the point they are willing to take it to its logical conclusion. And this indicates that narcissism and/or solipsism don’t account for the world we have. Scientific observation and measurement based on physical and material laws of nature show us that there is a verifiable and consistent physical reality that we inhabit. It isn’t all in our heads. If we each had the ability to configure our respective physical and moral universes, rocks might sink in my world, and be lighter than air in yours. But we all know this isn’t the case.

I read and enjoy Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ writing. His thinking has influenced the way I view persuasion in politics, among other things. Although I admire him a great deal, I disagree with his view that our world is illusory. Again, this is a matter of worldviews. Adams is a materialist, and I believe our cosmos is a strict system, presided over by its creator. Both hypotheses are difficult-to-impossible to disprove. However, the presence of physical laws and their repeatability when tested, gives my hypothesis the edge.

Is it possible your “facts” are untainted? How do you know? And if all before us is illusion, why can’t we choose to abolish sickness, suffering, and death? Either there is objective external reality, or we’re piss-poor gods. If there were no such thing as objective external reality, why is there so much “out there” that troubles you?

Imagination has a dark side

As we have discussed here many times, we live in a broken world. Not just in terms of the environment, but in terms of minds, bodies, and spirits as well. Those of us with a biblical worldview have an explanation why this is, but it does not relieve us of the desire for something better. That’s why Jesus, the Redeemer, came to earth.
However, if you reject Him and choose instead to live solely in the realm of fantasies, you are setting yourself up for a fall. At some point, you have to unplug and live in the world that is. Visualization is a training aid. Fantasy is rehearsal. If you try to implement what you learn from FPS shooter games, you’ll die or go to jail to die. Nice. If you try to implement what you learn from porn, you’ll ultimately be lonely.
Ultimately those of us who retreat into fantasy — whether through porn, video games, gambling, or fantasy sports leagues — are seeking control. We are seeking an escape from pain or responsibility or hopelessness. But this so-called control is the real illusion. Yes, in the simulator (of whatever sort), you appear to be in control. But you are limited to the parameters established by the developers. You do know they’re trying to sell you something, right?

No barrier vs deception 

Living in the view that the world is an illusion leaves you open to manipulation. Since one has to dispense with the idea of fixed stars for navigation, one ends up cobbling an ethical framework to suit his own preferences. Ultimately, this is the serpent’s lie from Eden: “You’ll be like God!”
And worse, a self-made ethics confers no obligation on one to consider the views and needs of others. This is part of the reason our politics and our civics are so polarized. Taking the “My way or the highway” high ground stifles dissent. It may be nice to have peace and quiet, but one does not love his neighbor by shouting him down.

 What does the Bible say?

Without loading you up with a ton of verses, the Bible speaks a great deal about wisdom. My functional definition of wisdom is the effective application of hard-won knowledge. The truly wise look past surface appearances and strive to overcome their biases to seek — here’s that word again — Truth. Look again at the citation from Proverbs at the top of this post. Logically, God would be a monster if he commanded and encouraged the acquisition of something that was impossible for human beings to attain.

Consider again the example of Jesus. A significant part of His earthly ministry was teaching. If the world is a computer simulation, and knowledge is impossible, why would God incarnate waste His time trying to teach?

Then how should we live?

In Eugene Peterson’s modern-language translation of the Bible, The Message, 2 Timothy 4:3-5 reads like this:

“You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.”

So how about you? How are you cultivating an appetite for Truth? Add your comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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3 thoughts on “Is It Possible to Know the Truth?

  1. Thanks for sharing this George. This is one of your finer articles for its genuineness and depth, and the series is quite robust yet well organized and articulated in its reflection.

    I personally identified with this article as the root of my spiritual sickness during adolescence and young adulthood hinged precisely on the points explored here— ultimately bearing fruit for death and madness, quite literally, as the only response I could articulate to the absurdity of an existence without an absolute and sovereign Will was a combination of self-destruction (persistent suicide attempts), anti-social and self-serving/manipulative behavior towards others (cheating, lying, stealing, adultery), and deep intoxication (habitual and flagrant alcohol/drug use with dangerously scarce exercises of self-control). In short: a slave to corrupt desires, madness, vanity, and depravity. The Word of God not only revealed life and power and glory, but gave order to chaos, purpose to being, and the freedom of clarity in the light of real Truth.

    For a quick laugh please note that when I typed “genuineness” above it auto-corrected to “genuine mess”. Ha!

    • David —
      Thanks for reading and for your comments. As you can see, these posts have been a bit longer than usual. I am trying to reduce the risk of “genuine-mess” that would obscure my point.

      Your own story bears out what Jesus said — “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” And I must say I am impressed with how you are walking in that freedom.

      Keep walking!