This is another of those questions in the realm of metaphysics. This field of study asks essentially only two questions: What exists? and How do I know?. It encompasses not only the body of knowledge, but also how we come to know and how we organize what we know.
The philosopher Protagoras (c. 490 BC – c. 420 BC) insisted that “Man is the measure of all things.” In modern times, this concept is called relativism. Truth is relative to individual perceptions or experiences. Each person has his or her own truth. In this case, there can be no absolute truth, no right or wrong, no distinction between beautiful and ugly. There would be no mutual grounds for judgment.
Democritus of Abdera (460 BC - 370 BC) provided the materialistic answer. He argued for an atomic theory of reality. Atomists believe that only two things exist: atoms and void or atoms and the space between the atoms. This school of thought seems to raise more questions than it answers. If the atomists are correct, are we then to believe that thoughts do not exist or desires or feelings or dreams or intuition, for example? Even if we allow for the more recent discoveries of subatomic realities, they cannot account for these realities.
Scientific method is based on experimentation and observation, but we know our senses can easily be deceived. Put an iron rod into a pool of water and it appears to bend. It can often be difficult to detect the origin of a sound. By smell or taste, a connoisseur can detect hints of berries or spices in a glass of wine that contains neither. Have you ever had to feel your way around in the dark or during an electrical blackout? Sometimes it is hard to figure out what we’re touching. Granted, using all our senses together makes identification easier, but our senses are not perfect.
If truth or reality is based on observation, then one might suggest that a blind person or one who is deaf is less capable of knowing than others. However, the fact that the sun rose this morning is no less true for the blind than it is for the sighted. The fact that a deaf person did not hear it does not mean that the falling tree made no sound. Clearly, there is more to reality than meets the eye or can be taken in with our senses.
The mathematician and politician Pythagoras (c. 570 BC – c. 495 BC) developed an abstract and rational method of answering questions about reality. Observation played no part in his search for truth. His method was founded on mathematical equations and was largely intuitive. Will that method more accurately ascertain the truth than observation and experimentation? I dare to say that while some might put their faith in numbers or equations, very few would trust another’s intuition to define truth for all.
By what other means do we attempt to ascertain or verify truth or reality? The list would be long, to be sure. It would include, but not be limited to the following: logic, law, persuasive argument, general agreement, vote, revelation, religion, endurance over time and custom. None of these methods is fool proof. Logic can be flawed. We know there are unjust and sometimes outdated or even ridiculous laws on the books. The better debater does not define reality. A majority vote does not determine truth. Revelation is not universally accepted and is sometimes mistaken as hallucination. Religion is confined to spiritual truths, which cannot be fully understood within the limits of the human mind. Long held beliefs about the flatness of the earth or its centrality in the universe have been proven wrong over time. Customs vary widely from place to place and as such cannot define a universal truth.
Basic to the question of reality is that truth cannot contradict truth. If something is true or real, it will hold up to close scrutiny by any of these methods and all of these methods. What do you hold to be true and real and by which of these methods have you tested that truth or on the basis of which methods do you accept truths?
The truth is like a lion.
You don’t have to defend it.
Let it loose. It will defend itself.
– Augustine of Hippo
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