Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Truth: The Greatest Adaptive Problem of Humanity

In the last few months, I have been wrestling with one particular set of theological and epistemological questions… and I’m not done with them yet.  That has been part of the reason for the fall-off of writing here at Celestial Lands.  Unsure of where I was flowing around the issue, I was unsure of what I could authentically write.  And because I have begun to see this as perhaps the greatest “adaptive” problem facing the human race, it has been hard to see anything else to write about around it.  (I could get sidelined into a conversation about “technical” and “adaptive” problems, but instead you can look it up).

Human beings have a problem with Truth.

Now, most times when someone says that someone has a problem with the truth, what they are meaning to say is that said someone does not tell the truth.  Either they are a blatant liar, or the speaker means to imply that the person lives in a fantasy land that only vaguely resembles reality.  With my statement, I’m meaning to imply the second of those two possible meanings.

The entire human race (including myself) lives in a fantasy land that only vaguely resembles reality.  And because of that, we are incapable of telling the Truth.

Let me state the thesis I am working through without some of my normal, literary hyperbolism.  Humanity is incapable of accessing objective truth, and yet has an inner yearning for objective truth, and within the tension between these two aspects of humanity lies much of the conflict and tension of the human race.

I believe this tension is the source of most human religion.  I believe that this tension is the source of most human conflict… from an argument between children to wars between nations.  I believe this tension is the source of most human internal emotional suffering.  I have seen this tension arise in individual pastoral care and in debates in the intelligence community.  I have seen this tension tear families apart.  It defines the widening gap in our politics, and it defines the widening gap between religious faiths.

It is perhaps important that I say why I believe that objective truth is forever unattainable by human beings.  I’ve written about this many times, but it is always good to begin at the foundation.  Simply put, objective truth is infinite, and the human ability to conceive of objective truth is finite.  Objective truth is always larger than our limited view allows us to see.  Objective truth is always more complex than our limited mental capacity can allow human beings to comprehend.

And yet, we have a deep yearning for objective truth… a yearning that forever impels us to seek that which we can never obtain.  Humanity has been endlessly creative in seeking to address the yearning for objective truth.  All of modern science has arisen from the human yearning for objective truth… and the good scientist will understand that Truth is always larger than any scientific result, or even all the results of science combined.  Good science realizes that all of scientific knowledge can be challenged by the next result… and that each result must be challenged by all of scientific knowledge.  Science channels the human yearning for objective truth to serve a never ending (and ultimately impossible) quest for that objective truth.

Recognizing the limitation of humanity to perceive objective truth, religion has long sought to address the human yearning for such objective truth through divine inspiration… and humanity has on the whole benefited from this creative way to address the human tension with the truth.  I’m not going to argue whether this religious inspiration is true or that one is… I think that misses the point.  Where science tries to address the human tension with truth by getting as close to objective truth as possible, religion has long sought to address the other end of the Truth-Tension equation.  Religion has sought to allow people to ease the tension by naming truths that can be believed in without proof, so that human beings can live with our yearning without making it the central motivation of our lives.

At their best, human religions have defined truths that can be believed without proof that overall serve to better human communities.  Such religion has allowed individuals to live in the tension without the effort and costs of the “forever seeking” model of science.  Such religious truths have allowed many people to live their lives, and to do so believing in “truths” that are of overall benefit to the human community.  (Seeker religions have sought to address both ends of the truth-tension equation at the same time).

So of course science and religion have long been in conflict… they each promote different “technical” fixes to what is inherently an “adaptive” problem.  Different human beings are drawn to one or another (or both) of these two different technical fixes, for a myriad of reasons that it would be impossible to catalogue.

There are other “technical” fixes to addressing this tension.  There is the post-modern/nihilist answer that there is no such thing as objective truth, and therefore we live entirely in a relative universe… in other words saying “It’s an insoluble problem, so I’m going to Tahiti.”  There is also the “many truth’s” answer that is quite popular among many of my fellow liberal religionists.  This is the idea that there are many different truths, all of generally the same value.  Rather than denying that there is any such thing as truth (nihilist), the “many truths” model refuses to make any judgments at all between the many different things that people might believe.

Add to this the most common answer to this tension… simply deciding that whatever your perspective and beliefs are, they represent objective truth… the “I am right and everyone else is deluded” answer.  The most common answer, and perhaps the least helpful…

There are several other ways that people attempt to address this tension between our human inability to conceive objective truth, and our yearning for objective truth.  All of them attempt to address different aspects of this tension… and I perceive all of them to be attempts at providing a technical fix to an adaptive problem.

So, here’s the project I’ve had on my heart this spring… rather than simply trying to live with the tension of an unattainable objective truth and a human yearning for objective truth, is there any way to help humanity adapt so that we no longer are held captive by such a yearning for Truth with a capital T?  Can we change the equation?

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David



2 Thoughts on “Truth: The Greatest Adaptive Problem of Humanity

  1. You talked a lot about science, but it isn’t an ‘other’ or ‘alternative’ approach to truth. Science finds truth, and not just facts, but truth about the world around us. In our search for truth, the scientific method is the method we have to avoid fooling ourselves.
    You called religion “naming truths that can be believed in without proof”. The fallacy is that there are no truths that should be believed without proof. Lying to ourselves is ‘black magic’, it may work for a while and in certain cases, but there are lots of downsides.
    A scientific approach to ‘living with yearning’ means that we know what we know and we don’t know what we don’t know. There are at least some degrees of freedom between absolute certainty and absolute ignorance, but science gives us the way to understand the certainty of evolution and gravity versus the certainty of chiropractic and dark matter. And while openness to change is a fundamental component of science, it is disingenuous to suggest that science ‘disproves’ itself constantly. Einstein ‘disproved’ Newton, but Newton was accurate for all practical purposes. Einstein just pushed the math and theory into the subatomic and light-speed level of precision. Anti-Vax Dr Wakefield had his results published in a scientific journal, and despite instant objection, it took a few years for his fraud to be revealed, but it was revealed, in just a few years. The scientific approach is to take his studies and the negative peer review in stride.
    The alternative, often religious approach, is to hold onto beliefs without proof or in contradiction to proof. For the sake of argument, I like to talk about “beliefs” as feelings we have, emotions. We don’t fully control them, and they pop up in our brain processes. I may ‘believe’ my lucky shirt will help my team win the big game. I ‘know’ that my shirt will in no way affect the outcome. My “knowledge” is based on “proof”, or more specifically evidence of the way the world works as discovered through science. I may “know” one thing based on evidence, but that doesn’t mean I won’t wear that shirt because of some silly beliefs I may hold.
    When speaking of “truth” it is critical 1) to acknowledge that the scientific method is the most reliable method to find truth and 2) to admit that we have lots of unproven beliefs but when push comes to shove (as religious arguments sometimes do) we must defer to the evidence and what we ‘know’ rather than to unproven beliefs. To progress, humanity must reject the destructive cultural meme that beliefs, even unproven or demonstrably false beliefs, are inherently valuable.

    easy to fool ourselves
    belief vs knowledge

    yearn for truth, yearn for god. not the case

    living with yearning has been replaced by false sense of certainty, dogmatism, and religious persecution

  2. Hey David,
    Ahhh the quest for confidence and commitment without certainty. I’d propose from a religious perspective that here is where grace takes a critical and life saving, maybe world-saving place. Of course, to believe grace is true puts us into the conundrum that you spoke of, and around the circle of we go.
    I think you’ve tapped into the unending post-modern/hyper-modern spiral of doom. I don’t know if their is a way off of it without taking a leap of faith.
    peace and grace,

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: