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Epistemology

Truth or the Lack Thereof?

“Truth is the highest thing that man may keep.” – Chaucer

“In nomine Patris, et Filli, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” It’s Sunday morning, on 8 May 1456, and we’re in a cathedral; decked out in brilliant splendour and full of grace. The Priest is facing away from the congregation at the altar, and we hear him chanting, “In nomine Patris, et Filli, et spritus Sancti. Amen.” In English that would be, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It’s the beginning of another mass at the end of another week. We’re here today however, not for the mass, but for the young boy. He’s in the front row, dressed in his finest clothes, an overgown and cape, and evidently from the local aristocracy. There’s so much about the boy we could learn about the boy, but today we only have time to delve into one topic; his faith.

As with all people at that time, he was Catholic and devoutly so. His belief and faith in God was unwavering. What makes him so faithful in God? How does he know God’s real? Is God real? That is what we’re going to focus on today; how one comes to know something, believe in something, and how this entire hierarchy operates.

To understand that we have to look at the structure of knowledge and of truth, which exists as an extension of belief. We can represent this entire process as the legendary city of Atlantis as seen in the image above, with it’s multiple circular canals and series of gates. As you pass from gate to gate the criteria for entry is more and more stringent and those who are let in are fewer and fewer. This represents our process of knowledge, as it passes from opinion, to belief, and finally to truth.

In the very outside circle we have our opinions. They are our various view points, knee jerk reactions, and feelings on everything; be it our faith in God, or the latest news we read about in this morning’s Guardian. These ideas form the basis of our knowledge structure, however they are unjustified. These are the things that we haven’t had time to justify simply because of their frivolous nature or for a variety of other reasons. Everyone’s knowledge at one point started off here as an opinion, before progressing on.

Travelling in one gate, we have our beliefs. These are the opinions that were once at the bottom of the knowledge structure, but now through your own personal reasoning have been justified as truth to you and in the process becomes one of your beliefs. These however are beliefs that aren’t accepted as knowledge nor “real truth” because they are either not yet accepted or rejected by the masses.

Reason, in my opinion is the reason that we can acquire knowledge. As the boy at the mass would say, “God made man reasonable, so he could take control of himself and think for himself.” In modern times, there are two different opposing views of how we can know stuff. One is the empiricist view that we acquire knowledge through experience and the other is the rationalist view that we acquire knowledge through the use of reason. I don’t disagree with the fact that experience is a very important factor in being able to know things, however I don’t think that it is the defining and deal breaking factor. For example let’s examine how the boy knows that God exists. Last year, his father the Duke of the land was extremely sick and on the verge of dying. The boy seeing this prayed to God to save his father and miraculously his father got better. Empiricists would say that the boy knows that God exists and justifies his belief because he witnessed a divine event. However, despite having experienced this divine act, I would argue that the reason he knows now beyond reasonable doubt that God exists isn’t just because of his experience. After his experience, the boy must’ve had to take in what he saw over the months, and then reason through this to acquire his belief. He would’ve had to reason that because I prayed to God to save my father and my father subsequently got better quickly, it was God who saved him and because he saved him therefore he must exist.

Lastly, at the centre of the city sits knowledge, and “real truth.” These are beliefs that are shared among the majority of people. Through commonly agreed upon or similar reason, these are considered at the time true, and knowledge. The important and interesting thing about the tip of this centre part of the city is that it only represents the knowledge that is common to your own reasoned through beliefs, and the commonly agreed upon beliefs. If society agrees upon something but you don’t accept it then it is simply just a belief. A false belief perhaps in the eyes of others, but to you it is true. You may say, “If it’s true, then why isn’t it at the very centre of the city?” This is because the centre of the city represents “real truth” as defined as what the masses believe. What you believe in that the masses haven’t yet accepted or have rejected is your own personal truths otherwise known as your beliefs.

However, by defining “real truth” as what the masses believe we run into the very interesting problem of “What if the reason of the masses is false?” Well, let’s return to the boy and his faith. At that time everyone in Europe is Catholic and they all believe in God. Therefore, because the masses believe so, God at that time is real and knowledge. However, through time better reasoning leading to different beliefs have sprung up. This caused a shift of the masses away from the reason of before to this new better reason, until this new reason becomes the truth. So, through time our truth is always changing and progressively getting closer and closer to what really, actually, and objectively is true. Truth however will always be behind the reason that dictates it as the masses can only shift from one truth to another so quickly. Sometimes the shift may be quicker, but other times it can take a very long time. For example, for something like religion even though many people are shifting away to “new and better reason” it still endures. Right now, it’s as if we’re stuck in a limbo situation where there isn’t enough people on either side to justify either POV as the truth.

This process can be summarised through a quick progression of the boy’s mind. At first he thinks that there’s God out there. He has no reason behind it, he’s simply told that, and he accepts it no really as truth, but not as lies either. Then, this opinion passes from the outer circle into the middle circle as he justified his opinion that God is real after reasoning through a divine intervention. Lastly, this belief reaches the centre of the circle and becomes both to the boy and to the masses knowledge as it is a commonly agreed upon belief achieved through reason.

Our journey ends here, as the church bells ring and as we bid farewell to the boy who’s mind we just examined. The priest at the altar chants, “Cor Jesu sacrtissimum, miserere nobis,” three times before we rise with the crowd and quietly exit the cathedral leaving all the glory and splendour behind.

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