Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Church, State, and Humanity, I: What is Truth?

Every now and then we get something from one of our readers that starts a train of thought, or forces us to clarify either our thoughts on something, or how we expressed those thoughts.  This is understandable.  When you’re dealing with something that is “so old it’s new” as the Just Third Way, sometimes you need some kind of shock (in a nice way, of course) to try and get not only your critics, but yourself, out of a rut you may be in.

Anyway, recently we got a somewhat lengthy essay from one of our readers.  We’ll call her (or him), oh, . . . Sammy.  The essay clearly wasn’t meant for publication, or we would have considered doing so, if only to save us the labor of having to come up with the daily posting for this blog.  Instead, we’re posting our reaction to a brief extract from the essay:

“ ‘To Hell with the news!  I am no longer interested in news.  I am interested in causes.  We don’t print the truth.  We don’t pretend to print the truth.  We print what people tell us.  It’s up to the public to decide what’s true.’  — Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post in 1989 — He is speaking for all the liberal press AND media.

“Somehow, the Founders put communicators in the First Amendment: speech, press, assembly, religion — and they certainly had TRUTHFUL information in mind fantasizing about the people being able to make good decisions with all the facts...which should be basic professionalism and humanity anyway.  And Americans ARE prevented from publishing whatever is on their minds...editors censor all . . . there should be two pages if every issue of REALLY ‘free’ press printing all received from ‘the people’ giving ‘the free press’ TO THE PEOPLE as the First Amendment actually does . . .”

Here is our response.

Dear Sammy:

In a sense, Ben Bradlee was correct.  Today’s media are not in the business of telling the truth or reporting the news.  They are in the business of selling a product.

It is only coincidence that the product they are selling appears to come under the First Amendment.  The news media are not a free press, any more than capitalism is a free market.

The fact is that you don’t usually make good sales in a non-essential item (or, more accurately, in something perceived as non-essential) by giving the customer unpleasant or unpalatable reality.  You make good sales by giving customers what they want.

The issue of who decides what is true, however, is a bit more involved than simply saying that truth is subject to the democratic process and that “[i]t’s up to the public to decide what’s true.”

The Problem of Truth

“‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” Or so Francis Bacon put it in his essay, “Of Truth.”  I’m not sure Pilate was “jesting,” but he was expressing succinctly today’s confusion between absolutes, and the application of absolutes.

As Mortimer Adler noted in his book, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985), there is massive confusion today over the difference between knowledge and opinion.  Knowledge is based on reason, verified by empirical evidence and logical argument, and is always manifestly true.

Opinion, however, is based on faith, not necessarily religious faith, but faith in something.  Faith, which applies to that which is not manifestly true, should (but does not always have) a foundation on reason.  (Æterni Patris, § 2.)

Opinion is therefore not necessarily true.  It may be true, but if opinion contradicts knowledge, just as when faith contradicts reason, then there exists an error that must be resolved.

There is therefore objective, absolute Truth (knowledge), that is, fundamental principles that cannot be changed.  No one, whether politicians, academics, religious leaders, “the people,” or even the news media, can change absolute truth, any more than they can decree that 2 + 2 now equals 10.

What can and must change to meet current conditions, however, are the applications of absolutes.  Any and all changes not only can be made by politicians, academics, religious leaders, “the people,” and even the news media, they must be made to conform our behavior and institutions to changing conditions — as long as the changes do not contradict the underlying absolute truth or principle.  Adding two dollars to two dollars can never get us ten dollars, for that violates the absolute truth of the fact that 2 + 2 = 4.  As Pope Benedict XV explained the relationship between absolute principles, and the relative application of principles,

“Nor do We merely desire that Catholics should shrink from the errors of Modernism, but also from the tendencies or what is called the spirit of Modernism. Those who are infected by that spirit develop a keen dislike for all that savors of antiquity and become eager searchers after novelties in everything: in the way in which they carry out religious functions, in the ruling of Catholic institutions, and even in private exercises of piety. Therefore it is Our will that the law of our forefathers should still be held sacred: ‘Let there be no innovation; keep to what has been handed down.’ In matters of faith that must be inviolably adhered to as the law; it may however also serve as a guide even in matters subject to change, but even in such cases the rule would hold: ‘Old things, but in a new way.’” (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, § 25.)

Thus, just because we believe something doesn’t make it true.  Even Catholics don’t believe that.  The doctrine of “papal infallibility” isn’t that something is true because the pope says it, it’s that the popes say something because they believe it is true.

We’ll start to address the implications of this in the next posting in this series.

#30#

2 comments:

Faith said...

Well, you did it. You made me think.

nail-in-the-wall said...

[Truth with a capital "T".]

"When the Truth wins, we win."