Jul 24, 2011

The Relationship of Truth and Relativism


I came across this essay in my files. It is written by Marian Larman, a Benedictine priest who taught philosophy. This essay has a personal import for me. Larman wrote it during the last year of his life. He had retired as pastor of a small church in Saint Benedict, Louisiana. Because of declining health, he moved into the infirmary at the monastery where I was a monk. On some mornings I would visit the infirmary. Two parakeets inhabited a bird cage in the solarium, a rectangular room that allowed in plenty of sunlight. Father Marian would sit in the solarium reading a newspaper or a newly acquired book on Saint Thomas Aquinas. While an ardent Thomist, he did not hold to the belief that there we through faith we have access to an overarching truth. There may be an absolute truth but we finite beings are limited to what we can know. We would have quiet conversations sometimes. I mainly listened as he told me about his ideas. Father Augustine, who took care of the infirmary allowed Father Marian to write in the infirmary. He acquired a small manual typewriter on which he wrote the following essay. While he equates truth to adequation in the following piece, a position I find difficult to swallow, since I have difficulty with the concept of absolute truth (especially in regards to theology), the following essay is a fine example of a Thomist attempting to square his views with relativism and the charge that all is merely subjective and everyone has their own version of truth (or, the verso, all is objective and all there is absolute truth). I have simply typed his essay as it appeared in the typewritten manuscript.

The Relationship of Truth and Relativism
"What is truth?"  Whether a valid question or a cynical remark from the lips of Pilate, the question is one of major importance for all of us. In the minds of most people relativism means a denial of objective truth. It seems to advocate an "anything goes" attitude. This poses a real problem for those who are convinced that truth is eternal and unchanging. This is an attempt to show that truth is indeed eternal while at the same time it admits of a certain relativity.
When dealing with the question of truth in his De Veritate St. Thomas Aquinas defines it as "the adjustment of the mind (intellectus) to reality -- Adequatio intellectus rei (or cum re)."  I translate the Latin word adequatio as "adjustment" because adequatio is a process word, that is, a word that refers to a continuous action rather than an individual act. Aquinas goes on to say that God's mind (intellectus) measures reality. He is the creator of reality. The human intellect, on the other hand, as speculative or theoretical and insofar as it understands things or reality is measured by reality but does not measure reality and and the human intellect, in so far as it is practical, is measured by reality and makes and/or measures things or reality.  
According to Aquinas, therefore, God's intellect or mind is the cause of reality or the foundation or basis of objective truth, whereas the human intellect deals with subjective truth. What that means is that objective truth and reality coincide whereas human truth deals with reality but does not necessarily know it completely and that is why in a certain sense, it is subjective. The human intellect discovers truth in reality by its speculative nature but brings about changes in reality by its practical nature. From the divine point of view truth and reality coincide but from the human point of view truth is the amount of reality that the human mind has come to know or has adjusted to.
What this amounts to is that the human knower is historically and culturally conditioned. That the human mind has grown in its capacity to adjust to reality is factual. That all human beings and cultures have not developed equally over time is also quite evident.  Our human history and even Sacred Scripture testify to this. Blood guilt and tribal and family feuds along with varieties in marital and judicial procedures and customs likewise confirm this.
Does this mean that relativism spells the demise of objective truth?  Not at all.  It does, however, mean that there is some reality in the pursuit of truth.  We cannot know for certain if we have arrived at the complete truth about any aspect of reality but we can be assured that we do know some truth about certain aspects of reality.
To understand this more fully we must begin to realize that the pursuit of truth is a process, not an all-at-once accomplishment.  That is why I translated the Latin word adequatio as "adjustment".  Development is something that we take for granted in daily life and we seldom really question it or critically examine it.  It intrigued some ancient philosophers who discussed it as the problem of how something could change and develop and yet remain the same.  Aristotle arrived at the concept of potency by considering the following.  An oak tree is an oak tree.  An acorn is an acorn.  Yet it is possible and even likely that an acorn can become an oak tree.  This actually does happen in reality. Therefore, he concluded, an acorn must potentially be an oak tree. This discovery of the concept of potency was a very important and significant discovery, one that neither Aristotle nor his followers fully understood.  Potency contains the idea of motion or development and is the key to understanding the sameness/difference problem that beset so many thinkers: it is the area of becoming -- the middle ground between being and non-being. Personal identity persists through and beyond the human lifetime: we are and are not the infant we were born many years ago.  Alfred North Whitehead once remarked, both the newborn babe and the experienced sea captain are equal in the sense that they both have the basic right to inherit a fortune if mentioned in a will, but you would certainly choose the experienced sea captain over the newborn babe if you were asea amid a terrible storm, despite their basic equality under different circumstances.  Growth and development on the part of the individual are responsible for making such a choice.
If human truth is the adjustment of the human mind to reality then it follows that the pursuit of truth by a human being is developmental.  What this means is that we can and often do know some truth about reality but that we do not know the total and complete truth. Nor is there any real need to do so. If our pursuit of truth is developmental and proceeds from ignorance towards total and/or complete truth, then on a scale of 0 to 100, we could be anywhere in-between. At five years old I have some truth and knowledge about God. Hopefully at thirty-five I know more and at seventy even more.  This does not mean that what I knew about God at age five or thirty-five was entirely false. It only means that I did not know as much about God then as I knew at age seventy.  And so it is with our pursuit of truth and our knowledge with regard to other people and things, our world.
Another way of expressing the same thing is to consider God's revelation to us. Revelation is a form of communication and communication is a two-way street. It happens between the one who reveals and the one to whom the revelation is made. As we have seen above, God measures and limits all of creation, he establishes its truth. God is the perfect revealer. Unfortunately, we are not perfect receptors.  That is why there can be and has been a development of dogma and church teaching.  As listeners and receivers we are limited. We are historically and culturally conditioned.  Again, this does not mean that we cannot know God's revelation but only that we do not grasp it fully or all-at-once. God revealed himself in his creation and in the bible. How is is it that people who see the same creation and read the same bible end up differing so much?
I am convinced that the implementation of what Vatican II was all about has been missed, the need for fruitful and continued dialogue with the world all around us. You cannot effectively and convincingly dialogue with another if you are convinced that you posses the truth and that the other must seek it from you.  Our creaturely limitations mean that we never see anything as a whole.  We only see things from a particular perspective.  Once, before a class of some 600 students, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset held up an orange and asked his students to tell him what they saw.  They unanimously answered: we see an orange.  Ortega y Gasset replied: No, you do not see an orange, you only see half an orange.  From previous experiences you fill in the blanks. This, of course, is one explanation of the possibility of human error and surely an instance of our limited perspective when we examine reality.
To practice effective dialogue we must acknowledge that truth for the most part results from a common effort, a community enterprise.  We are willing to share with others what we think to be true and we must also be willing to let them share with us what they think to be true.
All this does not mean that there is no objective truth.  We have to assume that all beings of good will are trying to their best to pursue and grasp truth.  It does indicate that there is a lot of work yet to be done, many questions to be raised, not to be afraid of changes and developments, to encourage philosophers and theologians to do research and critical thinking and to trust in the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit.


Fr. Marian Larmann, O.S.B.

St. Joseph Abbey

May 4, 2005


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