Truth vs. Truths: An Enduring Dilemma for Skeptics

By Gardner, William M. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Truth vs. Truths: An Enduring Dilemma for Skeptics


Gardner, William M., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IT IS IN OUR NATURE TO SEARCH FOR TRUTH, AND because we can read the preserved words of great thinkers of the ages, our personal search is not so much for truth as among truths. We pick and choose from truths condensed and refined over thousands of years: debated truths of government and justice, revealed truths of morality and faith, reasoned truths of mathematics and philosophy, and researched truths of nature and history. We use methods inherited from one great thinker to test the assertions inherited from another, rarely noting our indebtedness to the past. But that debt exists and to repay it we must carry on the search for truth.

What is Truth?

Some see truth as self-evident, absolute, and universal, while for others truth is just a noun, open to changing definition. In fact, neither view helps us understand truth. The meaning of a word is found in its history of use, and the word truth has four histories. Consider the following assertions:

   All men are created equal.
   God created man.
   I think, therefore I am.
   Humans evolved from an earlier species.

The four statements arose in different intellectual domains, and each was evaluated and affirmed as true, but with four entirely different tests of truth. The first statement appears in the Declaration of Independence and is one of the most thoroughly debated declarations of all time. The assertion that God created man is unequivocally affirmed in the sacred text of many religions, and its truth is taken on faith alone. Descartes could doubt the existence of everything, but he could not deny that a doubter (the thinker) existed. Finally, the assertion that humans evolved from an earlier species resulted from, and has been confirmed by, scientific research. These four methods of establishing truth reflect the four ways that the word truth is traditionally used.

Four Domains of Truth

There are four established domains of truth. They differ not only in the tests of truth they employ, but also in the types of assertions tested, the qualifications required of individuals who perform those tests, and the archives where confirmed truths are preserved.

To make comparison and discussion easier, let us give the four domains names that reflect their respective ways of establishing truth. The first domain, both historically and developmentally, is Rhetorica, where statements are advanced or discredited by a process of persuasion and debate, or rhetoric. With the evolution of early human civilizations, a second domain, Mystica, gained importance. Here, truths arose from and are found in spiritual revelation, prophesy, personal enlightenment, sacred texts, and other mystical processes. With the advent of formal education, a third domain, Logica, arose. In this domain, statements are tested and validated by the methods of reason--that is, by logical inference, or formal proof. In the fourth domain, Empirica, truth is confirmed by the documented empirical findings of research and discovery.

Each truth arises and is validated in only one of the four domains, and may not be testable in others. If a truth is tested elsewhere, it is likely to fail the test. A statement accepted as true in one domain may, therefore, receive little notice in another, and if noticed it may be treated with derision. For example, faith healing ceremonies may only amuse the elders of Rhetorica, Logica and Empirica, but within the borders of Mystica it is a widely accepted truth that faith, prayer, or religious rituals can cure the ill.

In our personal search for truth, we wander freely from one domain to another, gathering truths and incorporating them into our unique system of truths. But as we cross the border from one domain to another, we discover conflicting truths and may become confused. As we will see, this confusion often results from our failure to respect the differences among the four domains.

Rhetorica: The Motherland

In Rhetorica, partisans argue about what is true and what is not. …

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