Friday, March 23, 2007

Quid est veritas?

Jesus said, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?"
-- John 18:37-38

Like Pontius Pilate, there are many in the world who question what truth is. They wonder if it really exists, but they avoid coming to any conclusions regarding the question that they have raised. Others believe in certain kinds of "truths," denying that there is any one truth, and insisting that a given truth depends upon one's perspective or the situation, rather than being absolute. Still others believe that truth can exist, and in a certain fixed manner, but they deny that such truth is transcendent of the known and visible world.

"Skepticism" is the proposition that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain. Thus, it is a method of suspended judgment and systematic doubt. For the skeptics, truth is not necessarily unobtainable, but rather an idea which does not yet exist in a pure form. Religious skepticism is skepticism regarding faith-based claims. Religious skeptics may focus on the core tenets of religions, such as the existence of divine beings, or reports of earthly miracles.

"Relativism" consists of various theories each of which claims that some element or aspect of experience or culture is relative to or dependent on some other element or aspect. There are grades of relativism: most relativists deny the existence of universal moral values, which make them moral relativists, but few deny the existence of universal truths when mathematics are concerned.

The term “relativism” often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no universal or absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture. In this sense, relativism constitutes a denial of the capacity of the human mind and reason to arrive at truth, leading to moral license and a denial of the possibility of sin and of God. A common reaction by those who newly criticize the idea of absolute truth is the absolute statement: "Absolute truths do not exist." The non-existence of absolute truth would, if true, be as true as the existence of absolute truth in an absolute sense.

Some relativists suggest that truth is subject to consensus. That is, when two or more individuals agree upon the interpretation and experience of a particular event, a consensus about an event and its experience begins to be formed. This being common to a few individuals or a larger group, then becomes the “truth” as seen and agreed upon by a certain set of people — the consensus reality. Thus one particular group may have a certain set of agreed truths, while another group might have a different set of consensual “truths.” Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of his or her own culture.

"Moral relativism" is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries or in the context of individual preferences. Some maintain that moral judgments are primarily expressions of emotional preferences or states, devoid of cognitive content; consequently, they are not subject to verification. As such, moral propositions are essentially meaningless utterances or, at best, express personal attitudes.

"Situational ethics" sees moral absolutism as unduly legalistic and contrary to charity, and it is concerned with the outcome or consequences of an action; the end, as opposed to an action being intrinsically wrong. The theory asserts that there are moral truths, but the morality of a given act can be determined only in reference to the circumstances in which it is made. Thus, an act might be moral in one context and immoral in a different context. In the case of situation ethics, the ends can justify the means.

"Positivism" takes varying forms, but one form maintains that truth consists only of that which is created and reduced to positive, concrete, and tangible form, such as a written statute. Legal positivism stands in opposition to various contrary ideas in the tradition of natural law, and many legal positivists endorse the idea that legal validity has no essential connection with universal or transcendent morality or justice. As such, the “law” can be arbitrary and changeable. Also, what is legal determines what is moral, rather than morality determining what is law. Similarly, another form of positivism insists that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method. (Adherents include John Austin and Auguste Comte)

Materialism holds that the only thing that can truly be said to exist is matter; that fundamentally, all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions, and matter is the only substance. Such a view necessarily denies the existence of a transcendent reality, including the spiritual.

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