Most people really do not carefully consider why they think that something is true. Most people just accept ideas as true or not. Often an idea just seems true or an individual trusts the source of the idea or it just makes sense to them. A rigorous standard of truth is commonly missing in the thoughts of most. In my previous posts, I have established that we can know some truth, but that still leaves open how we can know what is indeed true. This is an essential question if we are to have any real debate or discussion, yet it is a most difficult question indeed.
The first difficulty is that of how to deal with this question without creating an infinite regression. By infinite regression I mean a series of ideas each depending on other ideas for their validity that has no end. In this case, whatever anyone holds as a criterion for determining truth needs itself to be proven to be true on the basis of another criterion which then needs to be shown to be true and so on. The normal way to deal with this problem is to appeal to fundamental truths, or axioms, truths that are so self-evidently true that they need no other support. For instance, a person cannot deny his own existence for he must exist to deny anything. Most of us would recognize that the law of non-contradiction, the idea that something cannot be both true and false at the same time from the same point-of-view, is true. The laws of logic are usually considered to be certainly true including the laws of mathematics. Other ideas are considered to be true by definition. For instance, in plane geometry a triangle is defined as having three sides therefore any shape having three sides is a triangle. In grammar, an adjective is defined as a word modifying a noun in any of several ways, therefore any word that modifies a noun is an adjective. From these axioms, we can deduce other things to be true building systems of truth by which we can evaluate our own observations and other systems of thought and methods of discovery.
There are several problems with the above process. First of all, although there are some axioms or fundamental truths that are nearly universally accepted, no one set of axioms is. Even when people agree on the laws of logic, they often disagree in their application. Even definitions, especially the more complex ones, are often disputed. Furthermore, each individual is different from other individuals. When someone says “prove it to me” what that person will accept as proof is often different from what the person to whom they are speaking would accept as proof. We all view evidence and arguments through our own set of axioms, what may be called paradigms or worldviews. There is no universally accepted set of axioms, no paradigm upon which everyone agrees. This, then, reduces the quest for truth to a battle of authority and a contest of paradigms. Very often this idea is missed in discussion and debate as those involved speak past each other ignoring the differences of worldviews. This is nowhere more important than in the kind of discussion in which a Christian apologist will frequently find himself. An individual with a materialistic worldview has to deny his own paradigm to even consider that God could possibly exist. These problems help us to understand why Paul said that our faith “should not stand in the wisdom of men” (I Corinthians 2:5).
All of this is not to say that the pursuit of truth is hopeless. First of all, there are axioms which are nearly universally accepted. Also, the methodologies using axioms, definitions, and logic to organize and evaluate observation works very well for most ideas. However, we have a better authority than our own minds and abilities; we have the revelation of God Who is true and the Author of all truth. Jesus, Who is the truth (John 14:6) tells us that He will send “The Spirit of truth” (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13) Who will guide us into “all truth” (John 16:13). Jesus Himself tells us that God’s word is truth (John 17:17) and that those who continue in His word will “know the truth” (John 8:31, 32). Therefore, we can know that whatever God’s word says is truth. This is not empirical, but revelational. What we can gain through our senses and deduce with our minds may or may not be true, but what is revealed by the Spirit through God’s word we can certainly know is certainly true (I Corinthians 2:9-16). What, then, is in accord with the Bible is true and what is contrary to the Bible is not true and what is not addressed by the Bible can either be true or not true. I would further argue that the laws of logic and nature are also revelations of God (Romans 1:19, 20) and can be used to determine truth though the process of using those laws by finite, fallen humans is not perfect. Therefore, although there are many ideas and concepts that we cannot know for certain since we are limited, fallen beings, yet there are truths we can know to be true for certain. We can know axioms, what is clearly stated in the Bible, and many things revealed by God in creation. Our overall knowledge, however, will always be limited and flawed because our perception and reasoning is limited and perverted by sin.
One could object to my use of the Bible to support the idea that the Bible is truth. This is open to the charge of begging the question. I would admit that I am stepping out on an article of faith here, but a rational faith that can be supported by sound evidence and reasoning. I would even argue that this is the most rational faith. Furthermore, we will always need to exercise faith in life including determining what is true. Faith is needed to either decide what is the ultimate criterion to stop the regress or what set of axioms is correct or what authority is trustworthy. This is necessary because God created reality in such a way as to make faith necessary for “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6) and bringing pleasure to God is why we are created (Revelation 4:11). For most people, that faith is placed in their own minds. I think that faith in the Creator of truth is far better. Ultimately, I believe that there is a God Who created truth because that God has revealed Himself to me, not by some secret, mysterious way, but by His self-revelation, including the Bible, which is available for all to investigate. Lord willing, I will deal with the role of faith in our knowledge of truth in my next post.