Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Baiting and Switching

J.T. Wynn’s debut column at Stand to Reason certainly doesn’t waste any time getting around to the really big questions; in this case, What is Truth?

Strictly speaking, I suppose Wynn doesn’t answer the question, but that’s not really the point of his post. In any case, his account of two teachers who conflated truth with perception will definitely ring a bell with recent university or college grads, and with anyone who has watched more than a few minutes of Jordan Peterson on YouTube.

Redefining common words is a useful way to skew an argument, muddle an otherwise simple issue, or advance an agenda. Thus Christians need to be able to identify and counter the ol’ bait-and-switch when we run into it.

No True Perspectives

In the case of Wynn’s professor, the agenda appears to be promoting tolerance:
“Since we all have differing perspectives, there are no True perspectives, and hence we shouldn’t force our own perspectives on others but should be tolerant and listen to everyone else’s perspectives.”
By substituting subjective impressions for objective reality, the professor was able to get a roomful of college students nodding in agreement to utter balderdash. Humility is a fine quality, but the fact that perspectives differ does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid, nor does it follow that nobody’s perspective is the correct one.

To Webster and Beyond

The word “truth” has had a clearly defined meaning for centuries, as is evident from a quick trip back to Webster’s Dictionary, 1828 Edition:
TRUTH, noun
1. Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.
That definition is a thing of beauty. As with all dictionary definitions, multiple options are provided, each of which only serves to reinforce the point that the word “true” has traditionally been used to describe conformity to that which is external or objective, not perspectival at all. For example, “Correct opinion.” An opinion may be said to be true by checking it against something else for correctness. Or “Exactness; conformity to rule.” Again, there is an external standard, the “rule”. Yet again, we have “Veracity; purity from falsehood,” where truth is contrasted with its opposite.

Why Look, the Internet Got Something Right!

In fact, this assumption that the meaning of “truth” properly relates to something objective and external rather than being merely subjectively perceived is still preserved at the modern and comparatively sloppy, where most Google searches tend to dump you by default. Here you find definitions like “conformity with fact or reality; verity” and “a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like.”

Thus by definition any perspective may really be said to be “true” ONLY when it accurately reflects reality. To the extent that it fails to do that, it is no longer truth but some degree of error, whether great or small. Nevertheless, we may still speak of attempts at expressing truth comparatively. Some hypotheses are “truer” than others, and in any group of attempts to express verity, one will be “truest”. If truth is a target, then the closer the better. Perhaps the next shot will hit the bullseye.

A Robust Concept

Now, truth is a pretty resilient concept. It will not endure being conveniently defined-away without standing up and making a fuss. In fact, we cannot speak meaningfully about much without the inherent objectivity of truth coloring our vocabulary. Not even Wynn’s sophist of a teacher could avoid speaking of “True perspectives”, despite the fact that his previous substitution of “perspective” for “truth” had already rendered the phrase incoherent. (To use either “perspective-y perspectives” or “true truths” would have given the bait-and-switch game away.)

And it is not the case that the definition of “truth” has been shifted or diluted with popular usage over the past two centuries as often happens in every language. Today’s most popular dictionary and its equivalent from two centuries ago are completely in accord with one another. Rather, what’s going on is that the meaning of “truth” is being subverted by people who should know better.

Bob, Weave, Stumble, Dodge …

Compare the clarity of Webster with Jordan Peterson’s evasions:
I don’t think facts are necessarily true. So I don’t think this … scientific facts, even if they’re correct from within the domain that they were generated, I don’t think that that necessarily makes them true. And I know that I am gerrymandering the definition of truth, but I’m doing that on purpose.”

Your truth is something only you can tell, based as it is on the unique circumstances of your life. Apprehend your personal truth.”

There’s another definition of truth that … I think the best way of defining it is ‘pragmatically true’. What you know always is if something is true enough for a particular function. So, for example, your theory about getting to the door might be that you can stand up and walk there. And God only knows what might happen on the way there. Maybe there’ll be an earthquake and a ceiling tile will fall on you, or who knows, maybe you’ll have a heart attack. So you don’t know that you can get there. You can infer it from past experience. But if you get there, then what you can say is, ‘My statement about truth was sufficient’, so that the outcome was what the theory predicted.”
Ahem. A moment, please.

Three Strikes Yer Out

In the first instance, Peterson hasn’t actually defined truth at all, except to imply that truth does not necessarily entail factuality or correctness, and he finishes by acknowledging that his own concept of truth is not the way the word is normally used. In the second, his non-definition is completely post-modern, despite his professed rejection of post-modernism. In the third, he’s not talking about “truth” at all. Theories about how to get from a desk to the door with the least likelihood of fatality are speculative from the viewpoint at the desk, and history from the viewpoint on the other side of the door, but the best that can be said about them is that such theories are useful or that they sometimes “work”, which is a different thing entirely. In short, Peterson has employed three different kinds of bait-and-switch around the definition of truth.

Now, I note that Peterson (in the same lecture as the last example) acknowledges the standard definition of truth as objective and external. If this is his position, then he is not so much rejecting the traditional definition as he is attempting to expand and dilute it by packing into it concepts like usefulness, wisdom for living and personal convictions. This is not a helpful exercise, in that we already have those other ideas available to us, along with plenty of English words we can use to describe them. Adulterating the concept of truth does not increase our understanding of our subject or aid us in conversing about it in any way … though it may help others with agendas, much as Wynn’s professor diluted the standard definition of truth in order to promote tolerance.

Yet if we go back to the first quote, we see Peterson rejecting “correct” “facts”. It is hard to see how this can be anything but incoherent.

Peterson says many useful things and has been the source of a lot of good advice, but a Christian who accepts his watered-down, confused, distorted concept of truth is going to find himself in a real muddle.

Not the Author of Confusion

“God is not the author of confusion,” says the apostle Paul. The prophets in Corinth were instructed to subject their enthusiastic outpourings of verbiage to the assessment of the other prophets in their local church. Now, if the expression of mere opinion were the objective of gathering together in the name of Jesus Christ, Paul’s instruction would be completely unnecessary: the prophets could happily continue to blurt out their various “perspectives” until the cows came home, just so long as everyone was sweet and tolerant and didn’t “force their own perspectives” on the other prophets.

But this wonderful, modern, tolerant serial expression of perspectives in which the Corinthians engaged was not the desire of the Head of the Church for them. It was time to shut it down and do things differently. Paul stresses that what he is instructing them is “a command of the Lord”. He uses nasty phrases like “let the first be silent” and tells them they are to be “subject”.


True, Truer, Truest

All perspectives are not equal, and the object of Christians gathering is to find real objective truth in the dictionary sense, not to feel good that our opinions have been aired, heard or respected. To that end, the prophets would chew over what had been said, accepting some things and rejecting others, in the hope of moving always closer and closer to what God was attempting to reveal to them through his Spirit. Yes, in such exchanges, sophistry would be squashed and fraudulent utterances exposed. But there was also a risk that egos might be chafed or wives embarrassed by what they might interpret as their husband’s public humiliation.

Would the Corinthians hit the bullseye? Maybe not. It’s pretty clear sometimes that’s the way it goes. But truth was the goal, and putting together the heads and hearts of God’s gifted men in an attempt to discern it was likely to produce something a great deal closer to the truth than the alternative.

To accept the concept of “personal truth” or “subjective truth” is to reject reality in favor of mere self-expression. It doesn’t work in the church, and it doesn’t work anywhere else.

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