What is truth ?
This is a question that has been asked by
countless people for thousands of years – according to the Bible,
Pontius Pilate asked the same question of Jesus. Look up ‘truth’ in any
dictionary and you will find a definition such as -
fact or actuality
a statement proven to be or accepted as true
And yet there is no single definition on which all
scholars or philosophers agree and there is great debate as to whether
truth is absolute or relative or objective or subjective. And of course
truth can be sought after in many areas of life – in law, in science and
mathematics and in religion and spirituality.
Let us look at some examples in these categories.
We are all familiar with the idea that a witness in a trial may be
called on to swear that what they are about to say is – “The truth, the
whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. In this case what is expected
by the courts is that the witness will describe events as they
‘actually’ happened and will not lie in any way about them. So the type
of truth we are dealing with in law is properly covered by the
definition given above – conformity to fact or actuality.
Science and Mathematics
Science and mathematics is based on the premise that statements can
be made about the way the world works that can be proven to be ‘true’ in
all circumstances. An example in mathematics might be Pythagoras’
Theorem. This asserts that for a right triangle with short sides of
length a and b and long side of length c: a2 + b2 = c2
Although a simple proof of this is often taught in schools, experts
have apparently found as many as 370 ways to prove it is true. Another
example with countless scientific applications is Newton’s Third Law –
“for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”.
These are just two examples of ‘truth’ in science and mathematics.
Such ‘truth’ is covered by the second definition given above - a
statement proven to be or accepted as true.
Religion and Spirituality
But when we move to religion and spirituality we have to leave these
Let us look at an example.
The Golden Rule (found in various forms in all religions) says: “do
unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Now the question we are
faced with is this: “Does this statement express a ‘truth’ about the way
we should live?” or to put it another way “Does this statement describe
a ‘true’ way of living?”
Is it the truth?
Well we can’t check it against the definition - conformity to fact or
actuality – because people might follow this way of life or they might
not. And we can’t compare it with - a statement proven to be or accepted
as true – because although many people might accept it as true there are
probably as many others who do not. Of course we might argue that the
Golden Rule is the truth because it is in the Bible, or because you can
find it in Buddhist teaching or in Hindu scriptures or elsewhere, but
then it is likely to be accepted as the truth only by people who follow
that particular spiritual path.
Now spiritual truth is not just something you learn – it is there to
be applied in daily living. But what are the outcomes of applying, for
example, the Golden Rule in our daily lives? Well the simple answer is
that it helps us turn away from our selfish interests and act more for
the benefit of others. And we can easily see that this is a ‘good’
outcome not a ‘bad’ one. And here we have a solution to our quest to
know what truth is.
Truth is what leads to good
Now suppose the Golden Rule was written as “do unto others as you
would not have them do unto you”. This would encourage us to do all
sorts of things that were not in other people’s interest and the outcome
of living by such a rule would clearly be bad. So such a rule would not
be the truth.
Now the only problem with this definition is that it
leads us to ask the question - "what is good" - and yet we surely have
some intuition as to what is good. After all, if we watch a mother
caring selflessly for their baby we would describe the mother's care as
'good'. Or if we knew someone who devotedly cared for their elderly
parent we would also describe that person's love as 'good'.
All such experiences show us what is truly good. This
helps us to answer the question “What is truth?”, with simplicity
Truth is what leads to good
Emanuel Swedenborg used the term ‘the good of truth’ to describe how
truth leads to good and he emphasised the importance of understanding
both truth and good.
It is clear that there is nothing a person needs more to know than
what good is and what truth is, how one has the other in view, and how
one is linked to the other. New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 12
He also commented on how to recognise something that isn’t the truth.
If anything is called truth which leads away from good, this is not
worthy of mention, for it is not truth.
Arcana Caelestia 6822
What is Truth - Top of Page