Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The truth shall set you free

Jesus tells us that "the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32). I had a very interesting conversation with Richard Gale recently about this. Richard Gale expressed scepticism about the value of leading the examined life and of self-knowledge, and this led us to the idea that whether the truth indeed shall set us free, and whether knowledge of oneself will be a good thing, depends on what in fact the content of the truth is.

I find this very interesting (and the use I shall make of it is definitely not endorsed by Richard Gale). Suppose for instance the ultimate truth about us is that our lives are necessarily meaningless. In that case the truth will not set us free. If anything, our lives would be more bearable if they were lived by the fiction of meaning, nor can one consistently say "Maybe so, but freedom from social fictions is worth having", since if our lives are necessarily meaningless, there is no point to such freedom.

So it seems that in concluding that one should embark on the Socratic quest for self-knowledge and the truth about the deep things of life one is optimistically supposing that the probability of finding soul-crushing despair is not so great as to make the quest too risky.

I think one is right to have this kind of optimism, but justifying it is not so easy. One might reason like this: Either theism or naturalism is true. If theism is true, the truth about the deep things of life is probably very much worth having. If naturalism is true, then probably neither knowledge nor ignorance has great significance. And then one applies something like Pascal's Wager.

9 comments:

James R Ament said...

It is possible that Jesus meant himself, as in "I am the Truth and I will set you free," rather than "truth" in the abstract.

enigMan said...

Truth is the fit of our words to the world, so maybe the Truth is the fit of the Word to the world, e.g. the power of Jesus.

enigMan said...

Another possibility is that the truth is the way the world is. The way the world is, you will be set free, because the world is where we die.

And knowing that, or rather, realising that (since people know it but still seem able to realise it from time to time), you may be harder to bewitch.

David Balcarras said...

I think it might be inaccurate to interpret "truth" here in terms of correspondence or as any modern conception of truth. In this passage truth is alatheia in Greek, which has an etymology that suggests a meaning along the lines of "unconcealment" or "unhiddenness", and so Heidegger takes truth as alatheia as the disclosure of being.

Thinking of truth in this way makes it easier to understand why it sets you free, because it is not only propositional correctness, but the phenomena of coming into the truth, the opening up of being, and being liberated from illusion, the inauthentic, and the untrue.

enigMan said...

The truth does seem to be hidden, and I imagine that it was much the same in the ancient world. Politics has always been about manipulating people, for example, and neuroses are not only a modern phenomena. But nor is 'correspondence' a modern theory of truth. What is uncovered by honesty is the way the world is.

enigMan said...

[If] the ultimate truth about us is that our lives are necessarily meaningless [then] the truth will not set us free [...] our lives would be more bearable if they were lived by the fiction of meaning

I don't see how that could be true. I have lived some of my life with that naturalistic belief, and from within that world-view it seemed that truth was a key to freedom, e.g. from oppressive belief systems. Oppression is not more bearable because you believe that your oppressors are right, or even that they are in the right ball-park. On the contrary, seeing them as, if not bad, then mad, might help you to side-step their oppression.

In such a naturalistic world, the belief that morality was a matter of taste might free us from both sides of oppression. E.g. if being gay is not seen as a moral issue, then gays are freer to be gay, and the homophobes are freer to do something better with their lives.

As for whether or not there would be anything better, in an ultimately meaningless world, I think that it is obvious that there could be. There are nice people, living good lives, and we would be more likely to be them if we were not distracted by false beliefs, whether or not there is ultimte meaning to such lives. Indeed, if God can be a timeless entity, and make it all meaningful by existing timelessly, then it is hard to see how His non-existence would blunt life's pleasures by much, or sharpen its sorrows.

Jarrett Cooper said...

To romanticize a little bit. I believe the elegance of the Christian truth far exceeds that of the truth of the naturalist. What is fascinating is that even though both Christian and naturalist alike know of truths, we don't fully know the truth.

I can't help but be reminded of this passage:

"For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known." (1 Cor 13:12)

That passage and the ones surrounding it is poetry of pure wisdom and love. Basically, there are some truths we know (not completely, or only partially), but when the times comes the truth will be something we fully know. Amazing!

Kenny said...

Schopenhauer defended the view that life could be made bearable only by recognizing its ultimate pointlessness. When you recognize the impossibility of your desires being satisfied, you can adopt an attitude of detachment, which helps you to tolerate your situation.

(I sometimes tell people: the alternative to Christianity is despair; if I wasn't a follower of Jesus, I would be a follower of Schopenhauer.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

But if nothing has a point, what's the point of tolerating the situation rather than just screaming in agony for the rest of one's life?

Answers like Schopenhauer's remind me of Kierkegaard's anecdote of the preacher who says something like: "God is utterly ineffable, completely beyond our understanding, and I can't say anything about God. But I will now give you a glimpse." Uttering the second sentence shows that one didn't really mean or didn't really get the first sentence. Likewise, when one says: "Everything is pointless, but we should..." the "but" shows that one didn't really get the first clause.

If everything is pointless, there is no point to any of the five main proposals for dealing with the pointlessness either: a life of pleasure, a life of clearheaded fight against self-delusion, a life of self-deceit, a life of resignation, or suicide.

I think this observation shows that we can't really get away from the idea of there being a point to our actions. (What could be the point of getting away from it? :-) )