What Is Truth?

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If you believe it, does that make it true?

What is truth, anyway?

This question has come up more than once lately among my friends and writing colleagues.  In this age of “fake news,” what have the sages said about truth?  I thought I’d take a look.

truth

/tro͞oTH/

noun

That’s from Oxford Dictionaries online.  Not much help, is it?

Here are some thought-provoking excerpts from Psychology Today:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201808/what-is-truth

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. –Thoreau

…In Plato’s Cratylus, on the philosophy of language, Socrates says that aletheia (Greek, ‘truth’) is a compression of the phrase ‘a wandering that is divine.’ (I love this phrase) Since Plato, many thinkers have spoken of truth and God in the same breath, and truth has also been linked with concepts such as justice, power, and freedom. According to John the Apostle, Jesus said to the Jews: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’

…Today, God may be dying, but what about truth? Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, claimed that ‘truth isn’t truth,’ while Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, presented the public with what she called ‘alternative facts.’ Over in the U.K. in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove, then Minister of Justice and Lord Chancellor, opined that people ‘have had enough of experts.’

Truth is a property not so much of thoughts and ideas but more properly of beliefs and assertions. But to believe or assert something is not enough to make it true, or else the claim that ‘to believe something makes it true’ would be just as true as the claim that ‘to believe something does not make it true.’ For centuries, philosophers have agreed that thought or language is true if it corresponds to an independent reality. For Aristotle, ‘to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true.’ For Avicenna, truth is ‘what corresponds in the mind to what is outside it.’ And for Aquinas, it is ‘the adequation of things and the intellect’ (adæquatio rei et intellectus). Unfortunately for this so-called correspondence theory of truth, the mind does not perceive reality as it is, but only as it can, filtering, distorting, and interpreting it.

There’s the crux of the matter: our minds interpret “reality,” (whatever that is) and so we have the premise of the old Rashomon film: one event, multiple interpretations of the situation.

“The Rashomon effect describes how parties describe an event in a different and contradictory manner, which reflects their subjective interpretation and self-interested advocacy, rather than an objective truth.”— www.enwikipedia.org/wiki/Rashomon_effect

My quest for an answer quickly lands me in theology:

https://www.gty.org/library/Articles/A379/What-Is-Truth  (John McArthur)

Here’s a simple definition drawn from what the Bible teaches: Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. Even more to the point: Truth is the self-expression of God. That is the biblical meaning of truth. Because the definition of truth flows from God, truth is theological.

Truth is also ontological—which is a fancy way of saying it is the way things really are. Reality is what it is because God declared it so and made it so. Therefore God is the author, source, determiner, governor, arbiter, ultimate standard, and final judge of all truth.

OK, but if we go with this, then who relays God’s truth to us?  Trump?  The Pope?  Is anyone out there getting the word directly from God?  The author of this article claims that truth is found in nature and in Scripture.  He continues:

Truth is not subjective, it is not a consensual cultural construct, and it is not an invalid, outdated, irrelevant concept. Truth is the self-expression of God. Truth is thus theological; it is the reality God has created and defined, and over which He rules. Truth is therefore a moral issue for every human being.

I can accept that truth and morality are closely connected. Onward!

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, we find a gathering of many thinkers on truth.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth/ (Michael Glanzberg)

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth .* (for the complete outline, see below)

  • The basic idea of the correspondence theory is that what we believe or say is true if it corresponds to the way things actually are – to the facts.

The coherence theory:

  • A belief is true if and only if it is part of a coherent system of beliefs.

I don’t know about you, but this hasn’t gotten me much closer to the meaning of “truth.”

It is, as the Oxford Dictionary points out, easier to say what truth isn’t.

And that’s the truth.

*

My Laundry Love

For years, I never had a washing machine. From the time I left home for college, I spent hours in laundramats, fussing with the quarters and jockeying for dryer time.

person looking searching clean

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Marriage brought me to a Victorian house in Iowa, equipped with a Maytag washer and dryer. I was in love. But the town was predominantly Dutch, and the Dutch don’t waste money and power on dryers. I caved under social pressure and pegged out the wash. That proved to be a dicey proposition, because rain blows into central Iowa quickly. I’d have just left the flapping clothesline when the sky would open and I’d be back out in the yard, tossing wet laundry into the basket.

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We moved from Iowa to the New York farm. The washer came with us. I don’t know what happened to the dryer. Perhaps it is rusting away in the barn. The problem at the old farmhouse was the well. It was shallow and the water supply couldn’t handle my beloved Maytag washer’s demands.

At first, my sister-in-law generously let me do the diapers at her house. That soon got to be an imposition. When my son started preschool, I’d take the laundry to the laundramat near his school. With two kids and a house, I grumbled at having to return to my college laundry life.

As a newly single mom, I got the washing machine in the divorce agreement. It sat in the tiny kitchen of the apartment where my kids and I landed. Trusty as ever, the washer washed, but I did have to peg out the clothes on the back porch. After that apartment, we moved to a complex with a laundry room. I don’t remember where the washer stayed while we lived there. I do remember the panic over weekend laundry days, when I’d rush to the laundry room at first light in order to beat the other residents to the machines.

I bought a house. The washer came with us. I bought a dryer to be her lawful wedded machine. The main complaint at the house was the effort and danger of carrying baskets of laundry from the top floor to the washer in the basement. Every time I lugged a heavy basket of clothes, I thought of the nurse at my school who fell down the steps while carrying a laundry basket, and broke her collarbone. When, after at least thirty-five years, we had to put the Maytag down, it was a sad day. The new machine simply wasn’t as good.

Not long after, we downsized and sold the house with all appliances.  I bought a stacked washer/dryer from the previous residents of our new apartment. The glory of this arrangement is that the laundry center is on the same floor as the bedrooms. Hallelujah! I love the ease of it. I love my washer/dryer. I love how the scent of clean laundry fills the upstairs. I even love that the washer’s agitation cycle sounds like a dog about to throw up.

It’s a wonderful thing to have a washer and dryer. I am blessed and I know it.

 

Rearview

 

car side mirror

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Hurry them out of the car,

one grumpy, the other sleepy,

both smelling of toothpaste.

Try to ignore the wistful eyes

of the little one.

She hates being stuck

at the sitter’s house

with three boys.

 

The prickling guilt

lasts until the ignition turns.

Already other children

sweep onstage.

Twenty-four shoving,

claiming the spotlight.

Who needs more phonics?

Whose parent called?

How to fit in fire safety

when we’re behind in math?

Mark workbooks at lunch.

A meeting takes up prep time.

 

Rush to collect the kids.

Dinner.

He doesn’t like eggs.

She hates tomatoes.

Nobody wants pasta.

Yelling.

 

Wait for the neighbor girl.

Should have left ten minutes ago.

The grad class prof takes attendance.

In the rearview mirror

see the three standing on the lawn.

He looks mournful.

She flips the finger.

 

Parenting at the speed of light.

Did we ever just rest in each other?

Listen?

 

Now I hold a photograph.

Two young children,

long grown.

Wishing I could step inside.

 

Prodigal Summer and Prothalamium

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The poet Aaron Kramer first passed across my radar in the lyrics to a song, Prothalamium, sung by Judy Collins on her Whales and Nightingales album. I played  the record over and over while lying by the forced air register in a house on Balboa Island. It was 1971.

Decades later, the poem showed up as the epigraph in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer.

prodigal summer cover

Prothalamium by Aaron Kramer

Come, all you who are not satisfied
as ruler in a lone, wallpapered room
full of mute birds, and flowers that falsely bloom,
and closets choked with dreams that long ago died!

Come, let us sweep out the old streets – like a bride:
sweep out dead leaves with a relentless broom;
prepare for Spring, as though he were our groom
for whose light footstep eagerly we bide.

We’ll sweep out shadows, where the rats long fed;
sweep out our shame – and in its place we’ll make
a bower for love, a splendid marriage-bed
fragrant with flowers aquiver for the Spring.
And when he comes, our murdered dreams shall wake;
and when he comes, all the mute birds shall sing.

 

Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer is a favorite of mine. I used to reread it every spring. I picked it up again just a day ago, and when I read the epigraph, I heard again the song in my head. This reading prompted me to investigate the poem.

 

My curiosity led me first to the poet Aaron Kramer, about whom I knew nothing. Kramer (1921-1997) was a busy guy. Besides producing several books of poetry, he translated works by Rilke and others, and he pioneered the use of poetry as therapy. For more information, check out his page at www.aaronkramer.com.

 

A “prothalamium” or “prothalamion” is a poem or song written to celebrate a betrothal. One of the oldest ,or possibly the oldest, example is the poem by Edmund Spenser, written in 1596 to celebrate the betrothals of two sisters. Spenser invented the name for the form, based on the “epithalamium,” a wedding song or poem.

Here are the first lines of Spenser’s poem:

Prothalamion

CALM was the day, and through the trembling air 

Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play, 

A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay 

Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair; 

When I whose sullen care, 

Through discontent of my long fruitless stay 

In prince’s court, and expectation vain 

Of idle hopes, which still do fly away 

Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain, 

Walked forth to ease my pain 

Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems, 

Was painted all with variable flowers, 

And all the meads adorned with dainty gems, 

Fit to deck maidens’ bowers, 

And crown their paramours, 

Against the bridal day, which is not long: 

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

Returning to Kramer’s poem, I find its words relevant for our current times. We in the U.S. and much of the world, seem to be experiencing a reordering and growth. The pandemic forces us to acknowledge our interdependency and connectedness. The upheaval over systemic racism pushes forth a truth that demands recognition and change.

Here is the Judy Collins version of Kramer’s Prothalamium, music by Michael Sahl.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dBaMCGsKWg

 

 

Listen

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Listen.

When the scalp prickles.

When the child speaks.

When the gut tightens.

Listen to the heart’s whisper.

 

Listen.

To the hiss, the words, the warning,

Of the wrong step, person, choice.

When the lonely days make you desperate,

When you long for a caress,

When the body shouts loud,

Listen to the heart’s whisper.

 

Listen.

It’s so easy to get caught,

Trapped by legal fishnets,

By a house, by a promise.

Listen to that whisper,

the soft, the soul,

the voice that knows.

 

And follow.

 

 

7-31-20

Seeds

 

person holding a green plant

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– a tribute to John Lewis and teachers who lead

 

The blessing is in the seed.

 

I have known the planting of seeds—

seeds of song, seeds of poems, seeds of the work of words.

 

The blessing is let me show you.

The seed is now you do it.

 

The blessing is you have learned.

The seed is now teach another.

 

I have known the planting of seeds—

seeds of love, seeds of kindness, seeds of the comfort of words.

 

The blessing is let me hold you.

The seed is now hold another.

 

The blessing is I see you.

The seed is to listen.

 

The blessing is in the truth.

The seed is yours to tell.

 

 

7-30-20

*first line from Elegy in Joy by Muriel Rukeyser