How to find truth


The University of St Thomas first took no stand, then it denied permission for Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak on campus, then it revoked its denial and invited him to be part of its intellectual community.

In its embarrassment, the University’s reversal of course was an important acknowledgment of the need for free speech and free thought at least in academia if not in our lives. And so I applaud the University and its President for doing the right thing in the end.

But this incident of speech suppression on behalf of one interested party – spokespersons for the Jewish community seeking to abort criticisms of Israel – only opens Pandora’s new box of nihilism.

St Thomas University in its denial, then retraction, only confirms the worst fears about our times: we have no standard for truth. How ironic that a Catholic university dedicated to sustaining the truth of its Church in the world should be the one to expose the open casket from which all manner of troubles have come.

Once political correctness becomes the standard for truth, truth in any meaningful sense is dead. My truth – at least to me – trumps the truth value of your beliefs; and for you, your truth is better than my truth.

So we end up being polite (if we want to be), seeking compromise on socially constructed truth conventions, playing power games to get our truth acknowledged, and generally just being selfish and short sighted about everything important.

Our politics in recent years has carried relativistic truth to new heights of celebrity. For Bill Clinton, truth depended on what meaning you applied to the verb “is”. He wasn’t just being a lawyer – “lawyering” the truth; he was being a thoroughly modern intellectual. His audience told him what was to be the truth and so his truth shifted from audience to audience.

Focus groups and polling give us the multiple truths of our times. What is Mitt Romney’s truth about abortion or homosexuality?

Oddly one politician is rather consistent with his truth. George W. Bush has his unyielding version of our enemy in the new world war on Islamo-terrorism and his point of view on bringing democracy through American arms to Iraq. This Bush doesn’t play to focus groups in setting his Iraq policy or enhancing our police state apparatus. That is true.

But he does play to a limited constituency with strange ideas about a coming millennium and uses his own standard (fending off Gog and Magog) to find his truth. His beliefs too have no claim to substance or permanence.

It is advantageous, I submit, to have real truth at hand. Truth limits our megalomania, our selfishness, our willingness to ignore others; truth promotes constructive engagement.

Now false truth does indulge our megalomania, selfish passions, and willingness to ignore and abuse others.

But how can we tell the real from the false?

One thought: don’t suppress any assertion.

Another thought: investigate the truth value of the assertion or the argument.

Who carries the burden of proof? He or she who asserts a truth or those who listen?

It should be clear: the burden of proof lies with those who would have us accept their understanding as a common truth.

And the more self-absorbed, self-centered, self-interested they are, the heavier the burden of doubt they must overcome by giving us classy and grounded facts and reasons to see things their way.

Speaking from power – either the power of the gun or the wallet or the asserted moral power of victimhood – doesn’t get the job done.

As Cicero said in his confrontation with Cataline in the Roman Senate: Quo usque tandem abutera, Catalina, patentia nostra?

“For how much longer, Cataline, will you (today we would add “and all of your ilk”) abuse our patience?”