Seeking truth

Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have a distinction between upper case and lower case letters. In place of having capitals as we use in English writing, the text uses articles. There is truth and there is The Truth. It is a little bit more complex than that because the original Biblical texts don’t have spacing to indicate the difference between individual words, let alone markings to designate sentences and paragraphs, so translating original texts can prove challenging. In more contemporary renderings of the texts, there are spaces between words and breath marks that allow readers to pause in appropriate places as they read.

Articles are not separate words, but rather prefixes attached to existing words, so in the example of the previous paragraph, truth is torah and The Truth is hatorah. That particular example is important because truth and truth telling is very important in the Biblical narrative. Because the texts circulated as oral tradition before they were written, it was essential that word-for-word accuracy be maintained. Small changes could mean big differences. There is just one word difference between “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and “Thou shalt commit adultery.” That difference is a big deal, however. To preserve the texts, ancients employed group memorization. The texts were handed down through a process of oral recitation in which there was an entire group of people participating and making corrections as the text was repeated.

It was only the advent of the printing press that allowed written language to approach the accuracy of spoken language. However, writing soon began to dominate research and technical communications. Before long the culture shifted to placing more trust in written documents than in spoken ones.

Returning to the example of truth and The Truth, the texts understood and expressed that human knowledge and perception is limited. The absolute truth is not possessed by humans, but rather known only to God. Humans can see partial truths and they can make judgments, but complete truth and the final judgment is left to God and God alone.

Any mother with more than one child or any police officer investigating a minor accident has had the experience of two people having a completely different memory of the same event. He-said-she-said arguments that offer only two eyewitness accounts often make it nearly impossible to obtain what might be called objective truth. Different witnesses will disagree about the color of the traffic signal with no way of knowing who is correct.

There is, however, a general agreement that such a thing as the truth exists. Our court system is based on a particular method of seeking the truth. It calls for multiple witnesses when available and a ritual of swearing to tell the truth. When people tell the truth to the best of their ability, a picture of a broader truth can emerge. And, when people intentionally lie in such a situation, the lies can be discovered and discounted. At least that is the theory.

I have, on occasion, commented that the standard of the oath that is sworn may be impossibly high for humans, however. The traditional promise, “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” is meaningful. To be hones, to be complete and to exclude falsehoods should be our aim in every interaction with others. However, there are lots of times when we are unsure of the truth and have only partial information. Only God knows the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and to claim that I would have the ability to produce the same is a bit idolatrous. I have, however, on occasions when I have been called upon to produce sworn testimony, done by absolute best to be faithful the promise that I have made.

It seems to me, however, that we are entering a new world when it comes to truth telling. It may even be that we are already living in a post-truth society. There has already been much commentary given about the intentional falsehoods and direct lies that are circulated in social media. I am not very active on Facebook or Google, but when I do try to use those forums to connect with people, I am appalled at the number of stories and short posts that contain things that are directly contrary to objective truth. Direct and absolute lies circulate as if they were the truth.

In the recent political campaign an article stating that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump was shared over 100,000 times. The pope did not endorse a candidate in the US election. And the sharing of direct lies is not contained by one political party or philosophy. Another article falsely stating that the Pope stated that Donald Trump is not a Christian also circulated to many thousands of viewers.

Once an article makes it to social media it seems to be passed on with no consideration to the truthfulness of the claims made. The result is that deceptive information is being passed around without restraint.

In most cases, the Internet itself provides the tools for simple fact checking. It isn’t hard to find the truth. Pope Francis did say he would never interfere in an electoral campaign: “The people are sovereign. I would only say, study the proposals well, pray and choose with your conscience.” The pope did not endorse either candidate. The truth is quite easy to discern. That didn’t stop blatantly false stories from being delivered to hundreds of thousands of people.

Direct lies circulate every day. It is one of the reasons I am weary of social media.

A civil society can only be based on the truth. Direct misleading of people is not the hallmark of a free and open society. I’ve tried to be very careful with what I say in my blog and with what I share in every day life. But I am human. I have been misinformed. I have, on occasion, failed to undertake appropriate fact checking. I hope that my readers will hold me to a higher standard. I hope I will hear when I have passed on a factual error so that it can be corrected.

I pray that we will raise our standards above those of social media. We may not be able to possess the complete truth, but we can make every effort to tell the truth to the best of our ability.

In the meantime, don’t count on me to pass on any story you sent to me on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!