The question of what is ‘true’ has loomed over the history of the Western intellectual tradition since the pre-Socratics, when philosophers as early as Thales tried to ascertain what was the fundamental makeup of the cosmos. Thales thought the cosmos was ultimately made of water; Anaximander thought the originating principle of the universe was the infinite. Others like Heraclitus and Parmenides didn’t try to explain the origins of what we see but the fundamental nature of the world, with Heraclitus advocated for the fundamentally changing nature of the world whereas Parmenides consider the way of truth to be fundamentally unchanging and everything else to be appearances and opinions. While Parmenides ultimately used truth in the way that has come to influence Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the course of Western intellectual thought, it wasn’t unique to him as the pre-Socrates as a whole were trying to discover something more fundamental that was responsible for what they otherwise readily knew. As a consequence, when we talk about truth, we today use it to refer to some sense of the way things really that appearances do not deliver to us.
But, here is my hypothesis that will probably never be directly validated: what was guiding the intellectual activities of pre-Socrates prior to Parmenides wasn’t a sense of truth that is distinct from appearances, but a sense of discovering what we can reliably understand about the world around us. I would suggest when Thales was suggesting the originating principle as water, he was saying something about the world could be understood in relation to water. Rather than Aristotle’s fitting Thales into his hylomorphism, what if Thales theory of the originating principle was more about saying something about the effects of water upon the world than it was simply trying to discern an original cause. In this sense, Thales intellectual purpose could be considered more pragmatic, concerned about getting to a systematic understanding of how things are rather by finding something that could shed light on all of it. To be clear, it would still entail Thales believing water is the origination of everything as ‘true,’ but for a specific reason: the perceived reliability of the idea. Something that is considered reliable is therefore also true. It was Parmenides who then took this sense of truth and separated it from the world of appearances. I present this hypothesis more so for the purposes of a thought experiment than any full confidence in the idea: what if Parmenides conception of truth was a change from an earlier understanding of truth as something that is reliable?
Allow me to flesh this idea out in a modern context of diagnostic medicine. What is the difference between the symptoms of an illness and the causes of an illness? A symptom is not responsible for all or most of the problems a person has, whereas something that is a cause is implicated. Consider a person who has a painful headache and feels very exhausted. It is likely that a person’s exhaustion is the cause of the headache. In this case, knowledge about the physical effects of exhaustion is reliable to understand the headache and this is the end of the story. However, in another cause, it could also be the headache that is functionally causing the exhaustion. In both of those cases, there is some knowledge we have about one phenomenon that is useful to explain another phenomenon. Still, it could also be the case that there is another cause, such as the person has motion sickness (Thanks WebMD symptom checker!), in which case neither symptom can be considered the cause of the other.
What is at play here is this fundamental idea: our knowledge about one thing is intuitively considered to provide us a reliable understanding of something else that I am aware of (although, what I know about and what I am understanding may, in fact, be considered coextensive upon further understanding). I know one person is sad because I see them crying. I know a computer hard drive is crashing because I hear a clicking. My sense of the truth of the matter of a person feelings and the state of my computer is understood in terms of what could be referred to as appearances. AT the same time, another person may mask their emotions, leaving me clueless as to what they are feeling. My hard drive may be about to crash but there will be a discernible signal of this being the case.
This is how our sense of knowledge and understanding works in day to day life. Truth is delivered by appearances rather than distinct from the appearances. It wasn’t until philosophers tried to analyze thinking itself that we developed a concept of truth that approaches our modern notion of theory. Now, there is a good reason for Parmenides thinking: many ‘appearances’ provide little explanation whatsoever ever. The color of the table I am sitting at doesn’t explain why I can put my laptop on it without it falling to the ground. Then, there are the cases of deceiving appearances. A person’s crying may not be a sign of sadness, but a sign of happiness. The sound of clicking coming from the computer may be a problem with the fan rather than the hard drive. Our inferences based upon appearances are often at fault and there are many appearances that seem to have no significance. It is a small move from many or most appearances do not reliably tell us anything to all appearances are unreliable. While most of our brains are capable of handling the issue of selective reliability of perceptions well by learning to contextualize perceptions and beliefs with other perceptions and beliefs to determine if something is reliable in this case or not, the conscious act of analysis would not discover the contextual nature of reliability that happens largely without conscious knowledge of it, but most of us would have been left unsure how to distinguish between appearances and thereby regarded no appearances providing truth in virtue of our instinctual bias and strong aversion to false positives rather than false negatives.
The point here? Parmenides ontological distinction between truth and appearances is reflective of the failure of conscious analysis to reflect the way most people developed a sense of what is true. It is a reflection of philosophy’s difficulty with understanding the way human thinking generally makes sense of the world; our brains are capable with some degree of success of discerning which perceptions provide a reliable understanding of other things in our experience, environment, and world more broadly. The way we are generally able to determine what is true is by developing intuitions for what is reliable, which is a result the neural integration of the various networks of neurons together that fire under certain specific experiences that occurs over the course of time.1 That is to state that our sense of what is true is (a) largely the result of pre-rational assumptions that (b) are sensitive to experiences but not necessarily rational reflection, and (c) emerges from what appearances our conscious minds would perceive to be reliable due to the processes of neural integration that occur mostly outside of conscious thinking.
To my understanding, the concept of reliability wasn’t a major factor in philosophy until the emergence of it in 20th century philosophy in the field of epistemology. The closest we get to the notion of reliability that I am personally aware of (and I am not a scholar on the history of philosophy) is with Hume’s explanation of causation as constant conjunction as an explanation for our understanding of causation. The pragmatist tradition gets close to the idea in proposing that truth is discernible by the consequences, but, in my admittedly truncated knowledge, it still regards truth as operating more in the philosophical, theoretical sense than investing a sense of truth within our appearances.
However, there is a tradition within Western history that does regard reliability as the conditions for discovering truth and can ‘invest’ this sense of truth within what appears: the Hebraic-Christian tradition. Without going into a full analysis of the tradition, I will simply give a basic exposition on this from the perspective of my orthodox Christian theology: we as Christians trust God and we trust God is known in the historical appearance of the human Jesus Christ. Faith is not the result of some calculated reflective process that determines the truth of the Christian claims apart from the reliability, or to use more Biblical language, the trustworthiness of God. The truth of God is known by the trustworthiness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of promises and prophetic visions of the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Then, when it comes to the Spirit, they do not appeal to some higher methodology to distinguish between various claims to inspiration from the Spirit, but rather they seek the test the true origins of people’s claims to revelation, prophetic inspiration, etc. on the basis of what is considered to be reliable, which is most notably summarized in Jesus as Lord.
Now, in making this claim of a way of knowing truth that is closer to pre-analytic forms of knowing truth, I am not trying to say the Christian tradition is true in virtue of this fact. Even if my hypothesis about reliability as a theory of truth is the right way to go, it could be the case that the early Christians wrongly thought knowing Jesus is an absolutely reliable way to know the truth about God. The point is rather this: there is a distinctly different way of conceptualizing truth within the history of the Western intellectual tradition that has largely been won by the tradition of the Greek philosophers. While it was present in the Augustinian synthesis of the Gospel with Neo-Platonist ontology and in the metaphysics of Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle, it wasn’t until the revival of classical thinking in the Renaissance that lead to the emergence of the Enlightenment that truth as a theory really became the prevailing understanding of what truth is. Furthermore, because of the Enlightenment’s reliance upon reason, rather than reliability, as the conditions for discovering truth, there was a neglect of the way that claims to truth were often times far from the case and become increasingly unreliable.
In this context, post-modernity found its genesis in question the foundation of ‘truth’ in the Enlightenment, with people like Foucault developing skeptical responses to claims to truth as veiled forms of power. When truth is disconnected from an unconscious sense of reliability or trustworthiness that is responsible for pre-analytic conceptions of truth, “truth” becomes increasingly untrustworthy and worthy of the post-modern scorn. But much as Parmenides conscious reflection made him mistrust all appearances even though this was not an adequate reflection of how people generally thought, post-modernity mistrusted all claims to the truth even though most people have an intuition of truth that created an aversion to the stronger forms of relativism. The ultimate consequence of this is that whereas Parmenides thought all appearances as unreliable, postmodernity has simply masked the unreliability of appearances in a veiled attempt at power without being trustworthy and reliable. AT the end of the day, post-modernity reflects the ultimate failure of Parmenides, mediated through the influence of Plato’s Socrates, to take account of the concept of reliability that unconsciously directs pre-reflective thinking; post-modernity is Parmenides without the way of truth, and thereby making the same fundamental error but with one significant consequence: the views of post-modernity are fundamentally untrustworthy to all but those who the various fragmented views represent. Post-modernity and the views heavily influenced by it are incapable of bridging people together to work towards a communities, social networks, and societies that can be trusted by a wide range of people because it has no real concept of reliability and trustworthiness to begin with, but only the suspicion that is ultimately selectively ignored for one’s own claims.
This is not to suggest that the solution then is to go back to modernity, as its conception of truth did not reinforce reliability but rather the unthinking idolatry of reason, The Enlightenment worked only so far as its conception of truth was ultimately considered reliable, even as it was not capable of giving what the proponents of the Enlightenment promised. The way to move forward is to rediscover a new conception of truth that is really the notion of truth in its more pre-analytic form as practiced in most of daily life. It is in “relying” on reliability and, when applied to social relations, trustworthiness to provide us what is true.
And from a perspective of Christian theology, it would deliver the possibility of re-conceptualizing our understanding of various theological and doctrinal matters that have been influenced by the historical victory of the Greek and Enlightenment philosophical conceptualization of truth over pre-analytic conceptions of truth. For instance, we can consider Scripture is to be true not because it provides us abstract knowledge about God qua God Himself in isolation (such as the predicates of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. or metaphysical claims about God’s nature as being in opposition to sin) or even that it provides some “witness” to God that is separate from the truth of God (thereby unwittingly recapitulating Parmenides’s distinction of appearances and truth), but because we discover it reliably informs us about God’s will and purposes for our lives and the world. Additionally, the basic formulation of the Trinity as God being three-in-one can be understood as an important reflective account explaining how we can know God through the trustworthiness of our knowledge from Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Spirit that conditions and forms our faith and spiritual life, and not simply as a doctrinal formulation about God Himself. Finally, it can provide an answer to a specific type of apologetic and philosophical questions: how can we know God exists? By finding that God is trustworthy, rather than by some other form of rational analysis independent of discovering the trustworthiness of God.2
- To be clear here, I am not defining the conscious mind as simply the byproduct of neural processes; I am describing the way our “unconscious” operates without our conscious, reflective awareness. The relationship of consciousness to neurology is another topic that is not directly pertinent to the topic at hand.
- To be clear, this does not rule out the rational analysis of the claims of trustworthiness of God. Only that trying to determine the truth of the Christian vision of God, for instance, by any reflective means that does not take seriously the assessment of the reliability of such belief and knowledge is to essentially overlook the way we generally come to know the truth.