2 Truths, Some Lies, and an Elephant

By Camille Ward, FaithCounts.com Contributor

elephantAccording to Winston Churchill, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

What is truth, and what makes it so valuable?

Webster’s dictionary defines “truth” as “the state of being,” “reality,” or “fidelity to an original or to a standard.” In contrast, “false” means “misleading,” “based on mistaken ideas” and “inconsistent with the facts.”

The struggle to define truth is the product of differing experiences, limitations of human speech, and different interpretations or perspectives. Consider the story of the six blind men and the elephant, a traditional Indian tale:

Six blind men were each invited to touch an elephant so that they might each understand what it was. The first man touched the flexible trunk and declared, “it’s a snake!” Another, feeling the sturdy leg declared “no, it’s a pillar!” Each one in turn felt a part of the elephant, believing they had discovered a wall in the solid body, a rope in the tail, a spear in a sharp tusk, and a fan in the heavy, flapping ears. Each man did his best to deduct the truth, but still lacked the complete idea. So were the blind men telling the truth? It was the truth as they understood it, yet those with sight knew that the elephant was none of the things the blind men described. Despite seeing eyes, our own wrestle to uncover truth functions similarly today.

There are multiple schools of thought where truth is concerned, and they don’t often agree. Some of these philosophies’ definitions include the following:

1: Truth is what is agreed upon by the majority. False. Everyone may agree that it is perfectly safe to jump off a 50 foot building, but that won’t change the outcome. So while it may be wise to learn from others, it is also important to remember that while a majority rule may suggest proximity to truth, it doesn’t create it.

2. Truth is what each person knows or believes as an individual. False. Our beliefs color everything we see. Like the story of the elephant, people can come to different conclusions about the same idea because they interpret them through their own experiences. Just because someone isn’t lying doesn’t mean that they have the whole truth. I might find a rope where you find a snake, but the elephant will still be an elephant.

3. Truth does not exist beyond human thought. False. This statement suggests that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do something. Which is great if you are finger-painting, but not if you are a participant in a murder trial. Instead, I believe that things exist that I have never seen nor will I ever see—my inability to comprehend these things does not prevent them from existing. If we believe reality exists beyond human thought, then so does truth.

4. There is such a thing as an absolute truth: True. The pursuit of truth is similar to scientists’ attempts to reach a temperature of absolute zero. Absolute zero is measured at 0 Kelvin, or -459.67 F (-273.15 C), when no more heat energy exists. Scientists have gotten very close to absolute zero, but they have never reached it. Similarly, I believe that while our personal experiences make absolute truth impossible to attain by men, it still exists. As humans seek to get as close as they can, they reap benefits of increased clarity and wisdom.

5. Truth is independent of men or human thought: True. Unlike men, truth is not affected by the passage of time. Truth is unchanging, holding to a standard that we cannot comprehend. That does not mean that it does not exist. While no man may have the full truth, I believe that someone out there does. God. In fact, I believe that truth is an essential aspect of his divinity. Even if we can’t reach truth, we still benefit from seeking after it—for as we come closer to truth, we come closer to God.

elephant, lies, six blind men, truth