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sources of truth
An argument in kindergarten may perpetuate in an “is not!” … “is too!” loop. But already in elementary school, the astute kid discovers the power of “because” as in “You are wrong. I am right, because ...”
What our astute kid has discovered is the power of a truth-source. It is easier to convince someone if you can point to an external source of truth. If such a source is widely accepted, so much the better.
Perhaps this begs the question: what is truth? There is a lively discipline of philosophy that focuses on just that question: epistomology. And epistomologists are generous; they have given many, very different definitions of truth. Sadly, this does not help us.
- What did people consider to be truth throughout history?
- And how did that help in gaining power?
These are the questions that truly concern us. So even if the sophisticated epistomologists' definitions are correct, they do not help us understand why priests held so much sway over their flock in the Middle Ages.
We will answer these questions from the axiom that people believe truth to come from one or more external truth-sources, and that throughout history different truth-sources have gained prevalence.
To narrow down what is meant by truth-source, let us consider the following example:
Alice and Bob are both reasonable, modern people; thank you very much. Of course, reasonable minds may still differ on what is true. However, they do not differ on what is truth. Both agree that the grass is green because their eyes tell them so. Both agree that scientific facts are true, because they have been verified by experiments. Both are empiricists: they believe that truth is obtained through the senses. Let Cathy be a Christian fundamentalist. The division between Cathy on one hand and Alice and Bob on the other hand runs much deeper. They differ on what is truth. For Cathy believes that the holy scripture is true, and that anything that contradicts the holy scripture is therefore false. If our senses contradict the holy scripture, then our senses are deceived. Now, this argument can not be resolved by proving that Cathy is wrong. Alice can only prove something to Cathy, if both agree on the definition of truth. Alice can produce empirical evidence that the earth revolves around the sun. Cathy may even accept these empirical facts. But if she is a real fundamentalist, she will still dismiss them as irrelevant for determining what is true. For her, the holy scripture defines truth, and the holy scripture states that it is the sun that revolves around the earth.
The above shows just how deep the division between empiricists and fundamentalists runs. It is, in fact, unbridgeable. And it suggests that a truth-source is a personal, and most private choice.
And if anything, the choice of truth-source is consequential. If we subscribe to empiricism, the whole body scientific follows. If we choose fundamentalism, then a different, but still all-encompassing paradigm follows.
It then seems that history writ large is a ‘struggle for truth’. At the crucial hinge-points of history, some people succeed in raising a new truth-source to be generally accepted. By this, they establish a new civilization, in which the ultimate power is reserved for those with access to that truth-source.
For whoever has a patent claim on truth, can use that as a foundation to build his house of power. Others, who obtain power through money, force or triangulation, find that power to be fleeting.
Of course, this leaves the reader wondering what ‘ownership of truth’ or ‘patent claims on truth’ really are. Let me give a few examples.
- The power of a medieval priest over unwashed villagers is based on his claim to know God.
- The power of a professor over a 21st century audience is based on his claim to know science.
- The power of an imam over his illiterate followers is based on his claim to know the holy scriptures.
In each of these examples, a powerful person claims to know the truth, claims ownership of a truth-source. This truth-source may be a holy scripture, it may be empirical research or it may be ecclesial doctrine. Ownership of this truth-source affords his position over the powerless, who believe his truth-claims. And in each of these examples, the powerless lack independent access to the truth-source.