At the heart of the Renaissance / Enlightenment is the concept that there is another way to arrive at truth than to ascertain how it conforms to Holy Scripture. It had been the profound writings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) that convinced Holy Church with its staggering authority and power to control, that Aristotle had observed nature carefully and sufficiently and then expounded on it in a way that confirmed that natural philosophy and Christian theology were in agreement. In other words, the Church was satisfied that Aristotle had described nature correctly. It need not be questioned.
The Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1545) compiled a theory of heliocentrism based on observations and prior writings going back to Greek and Persian sources that contradicted Aristotle. Galileo (1564-1642) was a natural philosopher who deferred entirely to mathematical calculations and precise observations to expand on Copernicus’s theory. Through the use of telescopes which he made, Galileo found moons revolving around Jupiter and this broke the last links to the Acquinas – Aristotelian theory that the earth is both in the center of the universe and that the earth does not move. It remained for Isaac Newton (1643-1727) to formulate laws of physics to explain how objects react to one another (laws of motion and gravity).
Taken as a whole, theology was no longer necessary to account for how nature operates.
Meanwhile, the European world was growing better educated and power was shifting from those born to it (royalty in particular) to those who acquired it (merchants and bankers). Books became available, education expanded and even the Holy Bible itself became the property of anyone who could read it in their own language.
The Church lost control but fought the loss every step of the way.
By the 19th century, at least superficially, it seems that the shift was clear. “Truth is decided within its realm of discourse: theological truth by theological rules, moral truth by cultural principles, mathematical truth by mathematical logic. Scientific truth is figured out by careful observation and verification of conclusions and by duplication of test results.
Who owns the truth?
The more basic question is whether it can be owned at all. It seems independent. Applications of truth can be owned. Patents and copyrights try to do that. When it comes to expressions of truth, however, the ground becomes soft and treacherous. Propaganda is exploitation of that miry territory where truth is manipulated by those with power to do it. Often the problem is to determine the effects of certain expressions of truth.
Here in Thailand free expression of opinion is permitted unless it offends those who have custody of the cultural pillars: the state, the religion, and the monarchy. In real terms, however, other restrictions on free expression are to be found. One can be prosecuted for telling the truth if it destroys someone’s character. This very week, in an apparent extension of that, Thai Air has pressed charges against a passenger who berated the airline for diverting a flight from one city in Australia to another. This posting on the Internet by the passenger “damaged the airline’s reputation,” the airline asserts. But in the USA what you say about someone is only slanderous or libelous if it is factually untrue. Last week a woman in New York was awarded $83 million because of what Donald Trump said about her. The award was made because what Trump said about her was untrue, not because it damaged her reputation.
Now we are at a time when the very nature of truth is again being attacked.
Sometimes the attack is direct, an assault on a specific truth. It seems that was the case with regard to scientific studies of COVID-19 and the development of interventions, vaccines, and preventive measures like face masks. Any and all facts about what is happening in Gaza are attacked almost as soon as they are expressed. The result is that nothing is true in the sense that it becomes the basis for beliefs about something. Beliefs are superior; they determine what is true when all truth is corrupt. What remains is to compile a belief system that has adherents with power.
What this means is that sometimes the attack on truth is philosophical, an assault on the idea that there is any truth aside from what individuals work out for themselves. It is claimed that the mechanisms and systems are flawed by which truths are discovered and refined. Educational systems in particular are said to be corruptible. For one thing, what these institutions of education are designed to produce is servants of mega-systems, workers who function as needed. Mega-systems are evil. To hell with them! Rebellion against mega-systems, the military – industrial complex or international banking cartels for example, has a nice ring to it for some. Gen X voters going for Trump say the factor that attracts them is his rebellion against controls. The problem for those who take up arms against education is that the mega-systems still control the supply of money and those who fail to function as needed are deprived of resources. It is hard to sustain rebellion when you are all alone. “Yield and survive,” makes a lot of sense to most people.
It remains to be seen whether this post-modernist (anti-structuralist) attack on truth is a tidal flow or just a wave that will have only temporary consequences.
As for me, it is frightening to imagine what would happen if a consensus develops to once again confine truth to a single philosophical formula owned by an authority conducting inquiries and demanding conformity and adherence.
That never works out well.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.