The Beginning of Truth

Posted in: Club Newsletter, Featured, Reflections Articles

Continuation of Observations on the Elements of The Rotary Four Way Test:  Is It the Truth?

– John A. Frost

Frost_John_2012The inspired ethical standard of The Rotary Club embodied in The Four Way Test opens up a path to discovery and revelation.  I have dwelled on the notion of “Truth” my entire adult life.  I have written about the concept in the past, but this article is an expansion of the philosophical, ethical and practical implications of this word we think we understand but, as you will discover, there may be much more to learn.

In Christian precepts, truth is asserted negatively:  “Thou shall not lie,” as prescribed by the Eight Commandment.  Here begins the first of many conundrums:  is it a lie if one’s beliefs do not comport with the facts or the truth.  For instance, suppose one were to advise Christopher Columbus not to sail west from Portugal lest he sail off the edge of the earth into a great abyss.  This was a prevailing belief by most, except the most radical of astronomers.  The facts and therefore the truth of such advice was false.  Even today, one might be asked to go to a globe to trace the shortest distance from Los Angeles to Tokyo.  Those who are not trained as a navigator would probably draw a strait line across the Pacific, measure the distance using the map scale and proclaim the truthfulness of the distance.  However, as all navigators know, the shortest distance is not a strait line, it is a curved line referred to as “the circle route” which uses a hypothetical plane slicing the globe connecting the two cities and then noting where it intersects the surface of the globe.  I am not a navigator but I “learned” this in high school geometry class when the students were given the problem of determining the answer.  (I was the only one to get it correct as I had an uncle who was a navigator for the Army Air Corp during World War II.  He even helped me with how to calculate the distance based on the circumference of the “great circle” using a protractor, compass, and a slide rule.)

The great linguistic philosopher, Bertrand Russell, whose writings are often obscure and obtuse, asserted that the most important book is the dictionary.  His idea is that the meaning of words are crucial to any understanding of concepts like truth, beauty and art.  Yes, in a way, he was a “relativist” in disguise as one of his conclusions might be expressed as “the truth lies in the eyes of the beholder.”  Often, he asserts that the truth can only be discovered in mathematics and the application of strict scientific proof.  Oh, how this undermines our jury system of justice.  As we are learning after scientific DNA evidence, many convicts are being released as the “facts” leading to their conviction turned out not to be the “truth” from incontrovertible scientific evidence. The wrongful conviction was arrived by a jury trial in an adversarial courtroom.  One can blame the system, or, one can blame the science of the time.  One can only imagine the agony, turmoil and pain of the prisoner who has been wrongfully convicted based on factual error.

For a long time a particular celestial body was described as a planet, namely Pluto.  However, as definitions change, the planet was demoted to asteroid status.  Well, maybe the newly discovered facts regarding the five moons of Pluto may cause the definition of “planet” to be revised once more.  The conclusion is that arbitrary definitions “create” the truth of facts.  This in turn, brings us back to the meaning of words and language which embodies the “truth” of matters.  One must accept “definitional truth” with the proverbial “grain of salt” recognizing that definitions often do change the facts of a here-to-fore truthful assertion.

I know it seems like John is arguing about how many angels can sit on the head of a pin but thinking about the meaning of the concept of truth may reveal the ultimate wisdom of the simple phrase:  “Is It the Truth?”  This Reflection does not put the matter to rest.  More to come, stay tuned!

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