*First read my first two posts in this series.
3) My Third Principle: Two Criteria for Deciding What Is True (By Roger E. Olson)
As I move on in this series of “my principles,” what I say will increasingly assume readers’ knowledge of the previous essays. Unlike many television shows, I will not “summarize” the main points after each “commercial break.” I will simply depend on readers, and especially commenters, to have read through the series so far.
So how do I decide what is true? Simply put, that is not always possible; in many instances I must suspend judgment or halt between two or more possibilities and wait for further information and/or insight.
There are cases, however, where deciding matters; I cannot simply suspend judgment. As a Christian theologian many of those cases involve religious truth claims.
For example, if someone asks me whether I believe there is life on other planets or whether I believe we, on earth, have been visited by life forms from other worlds, I feel entirely comfortable saying “I don’t know.” On the other hand, if someone asks me if I believe a certain religious leader’s claim to be a mouthpiece for God is true, and especially if people under my spiritual-theological care are being influenced by that claim, I feel a certain urgency to decide.
So whether I feel the need to decide whether a claim is true or not depends very much on the situation; very often I simply suspend judgment and wait—even if there is some urgency in the situation but insufficient information or insight.
Throughout my life I, like most people, have occasionally had to decide whether a truth claim is believable and whether I should accept it and adjust my thoughts and my life to it. That is, whether I should give it my assent. Occasionally I do, but do not think it important enough to attempt to persuade others to agree. Occasionally I do, and think it is important enough to attempt to persuade others.
I find it very puzzling that many people seem to think that if I believe something is true I must be attempting to persuade others to believe it as well. That is not always the case. I believe many things are true that I would not attempt to persuade others also to believe are true.
As I look back over my lifelong search for truth I realize that I have generally used two criteria when I have felt it important, if not necessary, to decide what is truth. And I think most mature, reflective people either do the same—also use them—or ought to. I claim no originality here; these are standard, well-known (even if much debated), criteria for discerning truth. Also, they are not sequential; one does not follow the other chronologically. Calling one “first” and the other “second” implies no temporality of use or even levels of importance. I use them together, simultaneously (as much as that is possible), and consider them equally important.
The first criterion is coherence. There are two “sides” to it.
When I am confronted with a truth claim and feel the need to decide, after grasping its meaning to the best of my ability, I apply the test of logic. Does it contain within itself a self-defeating absurdity—a logical contradiction such that, in order to embrace it as true, I would have to sacrifice logic itself and embrace a sheer contradiction? Deciding whether a sheer logical contradiction (of the form “A = not A”) exists is not always a simple matter. My point is simply that insofar as I believe believing a truth claim involves embracing a logical contradiction I cannot embrace it.
The second side of the coherence criterion is whether the truth claim with which I am confronted, and about which I must decide, logically contradicts what I already believe to be true. If so, I face a decision. Either I must adjust what I already believe to be true, in order to be coherent with the new truth claim, or I must reject the new truth claim as false.
Incoherence is unintelligility; unintelligibility is nonsense. I cannot believe nonsense.
Understanding this criterion (viz., coherence) requires understanding the nature of logic. Occasionally someone will claim that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ or in extraterrestrial life or in (fill in the blank) is “illogical.” People who say such things do not understand logic unless what they mean is only that these things would be illogical for them to believe because of other beliefs they are not willing to reconsider and that stand in stark, logical contradiction to those. There is nothing inherently illogical about belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ or in extraterrestrial life, etc.
The second criterion of truth is experience in its broad sense. By “experience” here I do not mean empirical experience alone; in “experience” I include all that a person has experienced and is experiencing in life to the exclusion of illusion. Yes, of course, this assumes some ability to distinguish between “real experience” and “illusion.” I consider it a matter of common sense that all mature, reflective people believe it is important and possible—at least up to a point—to distinguish between them. I worry about a person who says (and this is the title of a book I have seen in bookstores) “I’ve Given up My Search for Truth and Now I’m Just Looking for a Good Fantasy.” I cannot take such person’s attempts to persuade me of anything seriously.
When I am confronted with a truth claim and someone expects me to believe it, and it seems important to decide whether to believe it or not, if it does not fall to the coherence criterion, I must test it by experience. Does it shed light on, illumine, my experience? Does it fit with everything else I experience? Do I experience it as having the “ring of truth?” Does it expand my search for truth and answer questions raised but not yet answered by my experience? Does hearing or reading it bring about an “Aha!” moment of insight that makes sense of my life experience?
If the answers to these questions is “Yes,” then I consider it possibly true and worthy of further investigation if not immediate acceptance.
I would say that about ninety percent of the truth claims I read or hear every day are so trivial as to warrant no decision for or against their truth status. The other ten percent challenge me to think, to reflect, to consider, even if not to decide. Occasionally, however, I hear or read a truth claim that impinges on me in a special way and calls for a decision—for or against its truth status. Then my two criteria “kick in,” as it were. Deciding whether to accept it as true may take a very long time and, in fact, may be an endless process.
[Link to original post and comments at Roger Olson’s blog]