Dr Ivo Coelho – What is Truth?

Article in PDF Download HERE

What is Truth? by Dr Ivo Coelho, Philosopher, Priest, Author and Direzione Generale Opere Don Bosco, Rome.

“Mark Ulyseas asked me to write about truth: What is truth? And how does one recognize it, define it, live with it?The question cannot but have an echo for anyone who has heard of Pontius Pilate. For someone who, in addition, happens to live not far from where the question was uttered, and who, in addition, also has what you might call a professional interest, the invitation was tempting. So here I am.

The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear to me that the question about truth is complex. But I have also learnt, from one of my teachers, that when something is complex, a good strategy is to break it down, and to tackle problems one at a time. This means that we will not be able to say everything all at once, and that whatever we say will have to be qualified in many different ways by what is said later. But that is exactly what it means to write from a ‘moving viewpoint.’

I hope everyone is familiar with the word ‘insight.’ To have an insight is to understand something, to grasp connections, to get the point. A very famous example is that of Archimedes running out naked from the baths of Syracuse, shouting Eureka! I’ve got it! What did he find? What did he ‘get’? He had been mulling over a problem set by the king, and he finally made the connection between different densities of different metals, and the experience of loss of weight in water – that’s where the baths helped, I guess. But each one of us makes connections between hundreds of things everyday, and hopefully everyone remembers at least some moments when we made connections, moments of significant insight, when things fell into place, when things clicked.

My own memory is from way back when I was in primary school. We had an arithmetic test, and we had to memorize the multiplication tables for the number 5. I found that I just could not memorize the table. But I distinctly remember, just as I was leaving home for school, hitting upon the simple fact that the tables went “5 – 10 – 15 – 20” and so on. Once I understood that, I had no more need to memorize the table for 5. It was a little and delightful moment of insight.

We could ask here: how do we ‘know’ that an insight is correct? I am not asking about rules here, or methods. I am just asking: we all have insights, and, while not all our insights are correct, we have had hundreds of little insights that are correct, and that we live by. What is happening here? What is the mechanism by which we ‘know’ that our insights are correct? I want to suggest that this is a matter of questions. As long as questions keep arising, we ‘know’ that we are not yet there. But when questions pertaining to the matter in hand stop arising, we ‘know’ that we are there, that we have ‘got the point.’ The coming to an end of further relevant questions is the way we ‘know’ that our insights are correct.

I am talking here of what Aristotle called physis, “inbuilt principles of motion and of rest.” One of these inbuilt principles is conscience: I think all of us are familiar with the restless conscience and with the restful conscience. When our conscience is restless, we ‘know’ that we have either not arrived at the right thing to do, or else that we have done something that we ought not to have done. And when instead our conscience is at rest, we ‘know’ that we have reached the right thing to do, or that we have done the right thing. Conscience is the inbuilt dynamism that concerns right and wrong. But we also have an inbuilt dynamism that concerns truth and falsity, and that is what I have been trying to talk about. When further relevant questions come to an end, we ‘know’ that our insight is correct. When instead questions keep arising, we know that we have not yet reached understanding.

At this point I must add that, when it is a question of factual judgments, making connections alone is not enough. In order to make the judgment, “It is a goal,” it is not enough to say, “If the football goes into this particular area defined by these posts, it is a goal.” A conditional statement is far from being a goal! It is merely, perhaps, a rule of the game. What we need is the additional element, “The football has gone into the area defined by the goal posts,” and then it follows immediately, “It is a goal,” or “A goal has been scored.” But from where do we obtain this additional element? Very simply, from the evidence of our senses – either our naked sight or else, as happens more and more in professional games, our sight aided by sophisticated equipment.

Still, the first and primary evidence that a referee relies on is the evidence of his senses, aided perhaps by the sense evidence supplied by the linesmen. So here, I think, is a very simple example of how we make factual judgments: we have an insight or connection between different elements, and we have sense evidence, or experiential evidence. More technically and precisely, we could put it in this way: we have a ‘conditioned,’ which is the judgment of fact to be made (“It is a goal”); we have a link between conditions and the conditioned (“If the football goes into this particular area defined by these posts, it is a goal”); and we have the fulfilment of conditions (“The football has gone into the area defined by the goal posts”). If the conditioned is “B,” the link “If A then B,” and the fulfilment of conditions “A,” then it is easy to see the syllogism here: “If A then B; But A; therefore B.”

Of course the professional philosopher and even just some smart person will object immediately: in order to explain how we made one judgment, you have had recourse to two others, one of which is itself a factual judgment. But I reply: we don’t really operate by formulating such judgments. These are merely ways of helping each one to identify operative procedures in our knowing. I must admit that I have taken something of a shortcut in the example I have given, because it is merely an accepted convention in the game of football; still, it serves the purpose of a simple illustration of a link between conditions and conditioned. But back to the operative procedures: the point is to become aware, for example, that the absence of further relevant questions on some particular point is our inbuilt criterion for correctness of insights.

Once again, however, a question will arise, and must arise: is not the absence of further relevant questions a very subjective criterion – just like, in fact, the personal conscience of each one? It is true that we have the experience of questions coming to an end on some particular point. But then questions can come to an end for so many reasons: not only when there is nothing more to be understood, but also because we are bored, or distracted, or prejudiced, or whatever. Is there any way of distinguished between these cases? Is there any way of finding out when it is that questions have really come to an end on any particular topic? Here is where we have to face the human condition squarely: there is simply no recipe for making correct judgments. There is no method that leads in a foolproof way to truth, no criteria that are so ‘objective’ as to be independent of the person making the judgment.

Is there then nothing more to be said? No, for while there are no rules for making correct judgments, there are certain factors that we can certainly keep in mind, factors that make correct judgments more probable.

A first factor is that we should give further questions a chance to arise. A second factor, interestingly, is that questions should be set correctly. Setting questions badly or incorrectly is one of the major reasons why we never arrive at truth. (A famous example here might be a bit abstruse: Aristotle was searching for the cause of motion. Newton, instead, asked, not about the cause of motion, but about the cause of acceleration, or change of motion. The fruitfulness of this change of question is manifest by the enormous development of the science of mechanics and of physics in general as a result. Newton’s great insight was that motion does not have a cause, an insight that he formulated in the familiar law of inertia, “A body continues to be in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless it is acted upon by an equal and opposite force.”)

But this raises a problem. For setting questions correctly can be done only when we are familiar with a situation or a subject, when we have mastery in that domain. (Your car breaks down. You call a mechanic. He takes a look, tightens a screw, and charges you a hundred dollars. You object: a hundred dollars for tightening a screw? And the mechanic replies: one dollar for tightening the screw, ninety-nine for knowing which screw to tighten.) But this means that in order to make one judgment we have to be in possession of a whole set of correct judgments, and we cannot have a set of correct judgments unless we make a whole series of correct judgments. A vicious circle! But not impossible to handle. For what do we do when we do not have something? We borrow from those who have. So if we do not have the necessary set of correct judgments, we borrow from those who have, from the expert, the master, the guru. Such borrowing has a name: it is called learning. The vicious circle is broken, in other words, by the process of learning. All learning is a borrowing from others who know better. All learning involves a suspicion of personal judgment till such time as one can make judgments on one’s own. All learning involves, therefore, a modicum of humility. And learning is not only formal, but also informal, and, in fact, mostly informal. It is the process of education, acculturation, socialization. And with this we are smack in the middle of society, culture, tradition, history.

The third factor, then, is mastery of the situation. Through a self-correcting process of learning we move gradually towards mastery of situations. And one who is master of a situation can be relatively confident that her setting of questions is correct, and that questions have really come to an end.

The fourth factor is temperament. Am I hasty by temperament? Or am I perhaps indecisive? And here all that we can do is become aware of our temperament and make efforts to balance them.

These factors make it obvious that personal and historical factors enter into judgment: there is no criterion of truth that is so objective as to be independent of the person. Objectivity, in other words, is the fruit of authentic subjectivity, where subjectivity is not merely the subjectivity of the individual but also of the tradition that has formed him or her, and where personal authenticity includes not only moral and religious aspects but also emotional-psychic and intellectual-philosophical ones.

What I have been saying is in some way a translation and development of Aristotle when he says that the criterion of moral judgments is the good conscience of a virtuous person: not just any good conscience, but the good conscience of a virtuous person, a person who is totally authentic. It is also a translation and development of Thomas Aquinas’ teaching about wisdom as the habit or virtue of right judgment: just as judgment does not consist merely in reduction to its sources in sense and in intellectual light, but needs to be the judgment of a wise person, so also the awfully subjective character of the cessation of further relevant questions is complemented by recognizing its insertion into the larger context of the authenticity of the individual and of his or her tradition. Yet again, what I have been saying is related in some way to the whole Christian tradition of spiritual discernment, right from St Paul who says that the unspiritual man cannot grasp the things of the Spirit, to the Fathers of the Church who taught that fish cannot be seen when the water is muddy, and that the sense of taste cannot be relied on when a person is sick. It is also related to the great Sankaracarya’s nitya-nitya-vastu-viveka, the ability to discern between what is eternal and what is not, on the model of the paramahamsa or the great swan that is able to take in the milk and leave behind the water in a mixture of milk and water. Discernment requires that we are spiritually whole and holy. But in most ordinary cases, that boils down to simple familiarity and mastery of situations.

We do reach reality, then. Not because we have some god’s eye point of view (Hilary Putnam), not because there is some skyhook by which we can suspend ourselves so as to transcend the human condition (Richard Rorty), but because we have an inbuilt measure, an inbuilt principle of movement and of rest, and habits of wisdom or prudence or mastery of situations.

But we have been talking about simple, ordinary judgments of commonsense of the type we need to live and travel and earn livelihoods and do the thousand and one things we do every day. There are, of course, more complicated cases, in the areas of religion and philosophy and politics, and, I would add, interpersonal relationships. Especially in the first three areas, we often come across radically differing positions, interpretations, judgments, themselves rooted in radically different viewpoints or horizons or backgrounds. Is there any way of handling such differences? Is there any way of passing judgment upon traditions? Is it possible to make judgments about personal or community attainment of authenticity? Are we not thoroughly conditioned by our backgrounds, our traditions, our viewpoints? Once again we are faced with the problem: we cannot jump out of our skins.

And this is true: we cannot jump out of our skins. We are conditioned by our histories and our traditions. The question to be asked is: are we absolutely so conditioned, so that there is no freedom at all? Are we condemned to live and die in the traditions in which we were born? In point of fact, we know that people do make radical choices that involve getting out of the traditions of their birth. The most common instances are in the area of religion. How does, for example, the Jewish Alphonse Ratisbonne become Christian? But radical ‘conversions’ are not necessarily limited to the area of religion. People change philosophies radically too, as sometimes they change their politics. We are not, I would say, absolutely conditioned by our backgrounds.

Having said that, I would say that contemporary psychological counselling offers us a good way out: you cannot get rid of your past history, but you can certainly become aware of it, and to the extent you become aware of it, name it, appropriate it, to that extent you will become free of its conditioning. Martin Heidegger, in fact, recommended something along these lines when he said: don’t try to jump out of the hermeneutic circle of your historicity; rather, try to enter properly into it. Moving towards truth is a question of attaining self-transparency, engaging in self-appropriation, thematizing our horizons, objectifying our subjectivity – while recognizing with Hans-Georg Gadamer that this effort will always remain incomplete.

Self-transparency, self-appropriation, thematization is not to be confused with introspection in the sense of closing our eyes and trying to spot what is going on inside. Here is where conversation and dialogue enter into the picture: it is in conversation, whether with an actual person or with a text, that we move towards self-transparency and self-appropriation. Paul Ricoeur is completely right when he points out that self-knowledge is attained at the end of a long detour. We come to knowledge of ourselves only through encounter with the other, with the text, with the tradition/s, with living persons.

Is this a foolproof method? Will it really solve our problems? Is it really able to handle radical differences in horizons? And here we have to say that there is really no foolproof method, no automatic criterion. All we can do is become aware, as much as possible, of our horizons. All we can do is bring these horizons to light, and then make our decisions, this time with explicit deliberateness. Such explicit deliberateness is as much authentic as can be expected of any human being. Thus, as Rorty would say, there is ultimately no algorithm, no explicit criterion for selecting between one radically opposed horizon or another, no touchstone for choosing between incommensurable universes of discourse. However, there is also what someone has called the experiment of history, the judgment of history over traditions. Just as radical lack of harmony in a person ends up in self-destruction, so also radical lack of harmony in a tradition results eventually in the decline and destruction of that tradition. We just cannot think and say and do anything and everything with impunity. We pay for it with our lives.

A few other points before I end. First, not all factual judgments are as simple as “It is a goal.” The appeal to experience can be quite complex, as when I meet a friend and say, “Something has happened to you.” Involved here is the type of insight that identifies this set of data as ‘my friend,’ compares this set with a remembered set of data, perhaps from the previous day, and registers that, while both sets of data belong to the unity, identity, whole that is ‘my friend,’ yet there is no perfect overlap. There issues the judgment, “Something has happened to you,” though out of courtesy and delicacy we often phrase this as a question, “Has something happened?” adding, perhaps,“ You don’t look cheerful.” The governing insight (the ‘link’ between conditions and conditioned) might be put as follows: “If both sets of data pertain to the same thing, and if there is no perfect overlap between the two sets, then something has happened.” The fulfilment of conditions is given in the perceived and remembered sets of data.

A second point involves language. The process of making judgments obviously involves mastery of some particular language. Connected with this is that commonsense judgments involve a language that is not precise and defined, whose concepts and terms are most often blurred, and that still functions perfectly well for commonsense purposes. Even in a most simple judgment such as “This is a dog,” the concept dog is far from being perfectly defined. What we usually mean by dog is what we would certainly pronounce to be a dog in any concrete situation with which we are familiar, what we could learn to be a dog, and what we would be willing to believe is a dog. And that is enough! This point might seem to be from the Ludwig Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, but, for the record, is actually from Bernard Lonergan’s Insight. In the area of ordinary language, meaning , as Wittgenstein famously said, lies in use. And in this area, I think there is much to be said for Rorty’s brilliant analyses of truth as consensus. In my opinion, the great bane of a large part of the contemporary Thomist tradition is its failure to recognize adequately the distinction between commonsense and theory. But that is a rather technical aside, best forgotten for now.

Let me get back to the starting point. As might have become evident, I jumped straightaway into the question, how do we recognize truth, without bothering to begin by defining truth or establishing its meaning. Perhaps this procedure is not as foolish as it might seem to be. If meaning lies in use, then implicit in our performance of knowing will be a meaning or meanings of truth. The kind of meaning that my own analysis of knowing suggests is really the classical one, the idea of truth as correspondence between knowing and being. Along the way I have brought in also another theory, that of truth or objectivity as consensus. And while it might not have become all that evident, I believe that there is a good measure also of the pragmatic theory of truth, most especially in the area of common sense: if I mistakenly identify someone as my friend, and if I care to prolong the interaction even just a little bit, very quickly I will be disabused of my notion. In the area of common sense we do not have to wait upon the judgment of history. We have what I have been calling the self-correcting process of learning.

And what of truths that we live by? Here is the whole great area of morality and religion, where by religion I intend to include all global attitudes towards life, including all the varieties of agnosticism and atheism. This is a much larger and complex issue. But I do think it is related in all sorts of important ways to the little issues I have been discussing above. Religion and morality: those are certainly the exciting areas. But I tend to think, more and more, that great disagreements in the first two are often rooted in the area of ‘boring philosophy.’


Father Ivo Coelho earned a PhD in philosophy at the Gregorian University, Rome, for his work on “The Development of the Notion of the Universal Viewpoint in Bernard Lonergan: From Insight to Method in Theology” (1994). He was principal of Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy (1988-90), Rector (1994-2002), secretary of the Association of Christian Philosophers of India (2000-02), and provincial of the Mumbai province of the Salesians of Don Bosco (2002-08). Currently he is Rector of the Studium Theologicum Salesianum in Jerusalem, while continuing to edit Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education. Among his publications are Hermeneutics and Method: The ‘Universal Viewpoint’ in Bernard Lonergan(2001), “‘Et Judaeus et Graecus e methodo:’ The Transcultural Mediation of Christian Meanings and Values in Lonergan” (2000), and “Lonergan and Indian Thought” (2007). He has recently edited Brahman and Person: Essays by Richard De Smet (2010), and Violence and its Victims: A Challenge to Philosophizing in the Indian Context (ACPI vol. 11, 2010), while Understanding Śaṅkara: Essays by Richard De Smetis in the press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.