Is Truth Knowable?

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Postmodernists maintain that propositional truth claims are inevitably constructed within the quagmire of individual or group perspectives, linguistic limitations, and cultural contexts. Furthermore, postmodern thinkers argue that, given the sheer amount of data (including that which is inaccessible to us), the innumerable ways such data can be interpreted, and the never-ending disagreements over much of that data, it's beyond arrogant to assume one can know truth. Given our individual limitations and societal constraints, postmodernism has given up on any kind of objective, knowable truth.

The postmodern understanding of "truth" was perhaps best expressed over 1,800 years ago when the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius said the following: "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not a truth." 

Postmodernists have made one extremely important contribution to the fields of philosophy and knowledge, and that is to remind human beings of their limitations -- to, in essence, put people in their place!

Modernism needed to be humbled. The idea that we could construct a perfect society through knowledge and reason alone is presumptuous, to say the least. And that was the lie embraced by modernists during the height of the Enlightenment Age. Postmodernism shatters those delusions by reminding us (painfully) that scaling the Mountain of Truth is fraught with danger, deception, and difficulty. No individual, group, or society can (or will) lay claim to perfection - including the acquisition of complete and perfect knowledge. For that realization (something most of us have accepted), we owe postmodernism a debt of gratitude.

Unfortunately, postmodernism wasn't content to simply point out the flaws of extreme modernism. We now find ourselves in a postmodern world that argues truth (even if it exists in any kind of objective, meaningful sense) is unknowable.

You're undoubtedly familiar with the age-old story of the blind men and the elephant. As the story goes, several blind men are asked to touch and feel an elephant (a creature which the story assumes they've never seen or experienced). They are then asked to describe the creature. And each person provides a description according to his own perspective - i.e., the part of the elephant he experienced. The point is often made that truth (especially religious truth) is like that elephant and we are like the blind men. We each understand truth from our perspective alone, but truth is bigger than all of us and thus beyond our comprehension.

The problem with this illustration is the Story Teller! As Timothy Keller points out, the illustration "backfires on its users." In his excellent book The Reason for God, Keller writes: "The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each bind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?" (emphasis his). In other words, according to the illustration, some people do not have access to all the pertinent facts, but some do (or, at least, one person does).

What's more, the illustration assumes only one attempt on the part of the blind men to understand the elephant. A diligent truth-seeker is likely to invest a great deal of time in such an exercise - probably making multiple attempts. He would also likely interview others who have taken part in the exercise. Over time, it's reasonable to assume he'd have a fairly comprehensive picture of the elephant in his mind. Perhaps it wouldn't be completely accurate, but it might be pretty close.

And therein lies the real lesson of the illustration: People most certainly have limited perspectives. And if they give into laziness or cynicism, they most certainly will not discover or understand the truth. That need not be the case with us.

But what about Immanuel Kant? 

This is not a philosophy textbook, so I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail on Kant's views, but Kant did more than perhaps any other Enlightenment philosopher to cast skepticism on the idea of acquiring true knowledge. As such, Kant helped lay the groundwork for postmodernism.

The basic gist of Kant's thesis is this: When we experience something, our mind formulates data it receives from our senses (smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing, touching). Accordingly, we can never really know the thing itself. All we can know is what our mind tells us about the thing. The thing itself is beyond our knowledge - and will forever remain there, since we can only experience reality through our senses.

Let's agree that Kant succeeds in emphasizing the inherent limitations of our senses. There is, however, a danger in taking Kant too far. While our senses can't access or understand all of reality, there's no valid reason to question that they can access and understand at least some of reality. 

As I write these words, there is a glass of water on the table next to me. I see the glass of water with my eyes. I can feel the outside of the glass with my hand and dip my fingers into the glass to make sure there's water there - and that my eyes aren't deceiving me. I can also swish the water around and listen to it with my ears. And I can, of course, drink the water. Putting all this sensory data together, there's no legitimate reason for me (or anyone else, for that matter) to doubt the plain fact that I'm interacting with an actual glass of real ice water! Kant proves that we rely a great deal on our senses to discover and understand reality, but he fails to prove that all reality itself is contingent on our senses.

The argument that truth depends solely on (or is accessed exclusively by) our senses is also self-refuting. In their book I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek write: "Kant violates the Law of Non-contradiction. He contradicts his own premise by saying that no one can know the real world while he claims to know something about it, namely that the real world is unknowable!" (emphasis theirs).

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