Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Death of Truth

Allan Bloom, author of the landmark critique of American education The Closing of the American Mind, starts his analysis this way: 'There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4.

"What Professor Bloom observes is not a trend but a revolution. Like most revolutions, it did not start with a rifle shot or a cannon but with an idea that was whispered in many different environments and diverse situations. This revolution started in academia and eventually engulfed the common person. Its growth has been so subtle and thorough that it is now a core belief-not just of the college elite, but also of the rank and file, white collar and blue collar alike.
What Is Truth?

Since the sixties we have been in the throes of this quiet but desperate revolution of thought - the death of truth. We don't mean 'truth' in the sense of something being my personal opinion. Rather we refer to the death of what the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer called 'true truth,' the extinction of the idea that any particular thing can be known for sure.

Today we've lost the confidence that statements of fact can ever be anything more than just opinions; we no longer know that anything is certain beyond our subjective preferences. The word truth now means 'true for me' and nothing more. We have entered an era of dogmatic scepticism.

Ideas that are whispered are seldom analyzed well, for they simply don't draw enough attention. By means of repetition and passive acceptance over time, they take on the force of common wisdom, a 'truth' that everyone knows but no one has stopped to examine, a kind of intellectual urban legend.

Once ideas like these take root, they are difficult to dislodge. Attempts to do so result in Bloom's 'uncomprehending' stares. The ideas become so much a part of our emerging intellectual constitution that we are increasingly incapable of critical self-reflection. Even if we did, we have little conviction that such analysis would do any good anyway. As Kelly Monroe remarked in her book Finding God at Harvard, 'Students feel safer as doubters than as believers, and as perpetual seekers rather than eventual finders.'

When truth dies, all of its subspecies, such as ethics, perish with it. If truth can't be known, then the concept of moral truth becomes incoherent. Ethics become relative, right and wrong matters of individual opinion. This may seem a moral liberty, but it ultimately rings hollow. 'The freedom of our day,' lamented a graduate in a Harvard commencement address, 'is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.'

The death of truth in our society has created a moral decay in which 'every debate ends with the barroom question "says who?" ' When we abandon the idea that one set of laws applies to every human being, all that remains is subjective, personal opinion."

*Thanks to Greg Koukl & Francis J. Beckwith for their wonderful book 'Relativism -Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air'