The Inclination to the Truth

TruthIn a recent post (Is There a Way Back to Undeniable Reality and Universally Binding Norms?) I discussed how we today tend to “live in our heads” a lot more so than did the people living in biblical times and even those who lived up to and including the High Middle Ages and the Scholastic Period. Prior to that time, the “real world” was taken to be largely self-evident. But in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a school of thought later called “nominalism” began the intellectual journey away from the concept of the “real world.” As a result, there was less and less confidence in our ability to even posit that there was a “real world” out there to which we could refer and take as a given.

In that post, I suggested that one way back out of this flawed intellectual system was to look back to a time before the dark drape of the Nominalist and Cartesian divide, a time when people were more confident in their ability to seek the truth, find it, and conform to it. In that atmosphere, St. Thomas Aquinas could propose a moral system based on virtue and our common inclination to the good, the true, and the beautiful, rather than rooted in laws and mandates to be obeyed for fear of reprisal. Though sober about human sinfulness, St. Thomas could still confidently appeal (in this pre-nominalist world) to this shared propensity to make progress out of sin through virtue.

So we moderns do well to look to these inclinations that St. Thomas confidently asserts and recognize how universally they still apply today: from the atheist to the most firm believer, from the worst sinner to the most blessed saint. Here is the list:

  1. The natural inclination to what we see as good
  2. The natural inclination to the knowledge of the truth
  3. The natural inclination to self-preservation
  4. The natural inclination to sexual intimacy and the rearing of offspring
  5. The natural inclination to live in society

I have already discussed the first natural inclination in a previous post (The Universal Inclination to the Good). Today let’s consider the second: the natural inclination to seek and know the truth.

Of all the natural inclinations, our inclination to and desire for the truth is the most doubted today. As we shall see, this, too, is a result of nominalism and the doubts engendered by a post-Cartesian worldview. Many today either doubt that there is a truth to be known, or they believe that even if there are truths to be found they are relative and/or subject to change. The acceptance of immutable, universal truth is often derided.

Never mind that scoffing at the idea of truth and declaring that there is no such thing as immutable and universal truth is itself making a claim to an immutable and universal truth! Thus the “rule” is broken in the very act of announcing and insisting upon it. But philosophical soundness and consistency are not common features of our confused, ideological times.

The principle described and experiencedNevertheless, and in spite of current struggles, the strong inclination toward and deep desire for truth is demonstrably present in every person.

Each of us comes hard-wired with a longing that seems almost wholly absent in animals. This longing is expressed by the insistent questions we have, ones that are not easily satisfied, questions such as

  1. Why? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are things the way they are? Why?
  2. What? What is my life ultimately all about? What is the meaning of things and events? What is the purpose of this or that? What is it like on the moon, or Mars, or out in space? What is over the next hill? What will bring me happiness? What?
  3. How? How does this work? How does it relate to other things? How can I get answers? How is this distinct from that? How can I find happiness and completion? How?

Yes, we are insatiably hungry for truth, for answers, for meaning. And we will not be satisfied with pat answers or subterfuge. Indeed, we feel indignant and betrayed if we think or discover that someone is withholding the truth from us, or spinning it somehow, or treating our legitimate quest for real answers as less than deserving of full investigation and solid answers.

It is self-evident that we are wired for truth and seek it, even at great personal cost. We want to know, to discover, to uncover what is new or mysterious. We love to look around, explore, and delight in learning new things. So deep is this longing that we often engage in sinful curiosity, straying into the personal lives of others and insisting on knowing things that we ought not to know or cannot reasonably understand.

As human history shows, this longing for true answers is never fully satisfied. We have never reached the point at which we have even considered saying, “Well, that’s all there is to know; no need to look around anymore or ask any questions. We now know everything and don’t need to look for any more truth.” Indeed, such a scenario is inconceivable. We want to know; each answer generates desire for truth, meaning, and more answers. So we keep looking, deeper, wider, and longer.

The human psyche shouts, “I want to know! I want the complete truth!” And while we might placate ourselves for a while with “technical” truths such as how photosynthesis works, these ultimately will not satisfy us. We want deeper answers and truths that speak to the why of things. Deep truth is what we seek.

Ask an atheist, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why is there anything at all?” While he may not be willing to accept that God is the answer, he cannot escape the validity of the question because he has the same question. Neither can he escape the gnawing realization that the physical sciences cannot answer metaphysical questions or even pose them.

Yes, we are wired for the truth and will not be satisfied until we have found it. Restlessly, we seek it. Even if we want to resist its demands, we cannot resist it.

The principle distinguishedSadly, our quest for the truth easily runs into any number of hazards: apparent truth, partial truth masquerading as comprehensive or deeper truth, and the rise of post-nominalist rationalism.

Nominalism has tended to hinder our quest for the truth. As noted in a previous post in this series, nominalism began a process wherein we stepped back from reality and started increasingly to live in our heads. Too often we seek the truth merely in our own thoughts and not enough through the created world which God has given us. In this post-nominalist era, truth is often relegated to the sphere of intellectual abstraction and ideology. Our quest for truth becomes too self-referential. Our bodies—indeed the whole Book of Creation—seem to have less and less to teach us as we step further and further back from reality and into our heads.

And this has brought us to the environment today in which one can look at a person with an obviously male body and think it perfectly “reasonable” for him to say he is actually a female (“trapped” in a male body). This is nothing to “celebrate.” It is not truth. It is a lie. It is a disconnect from reality, as is calling homosexual acts “natural,” or abortion “healthcare.” This sort of thinking amounts to saying that our bodies—indeed all of creation—has nothing to teach us. This is what happens when we step away from reality and look for the truth in our own minds rather than in the creation that is before us and in the revelation of God. Our quest for the truth is shipwrecked in self-referential mind games. St. Paul called the suppression of such obvious truths inexcusable; he said that it leads to our senseless minds becoming darkened and to us being handed over to degradation and base, unnatural behaviors (cf. Rom 1:18-32).

Yes, though wired for the truth, we go dreadfully wrong when we seek to substitute apparent truth and ideology for actual truth; it is like putting water into a gasoline engine. Truth must be found in what really is, not in our thoughts about what is.

The principle reiteratedBut this tragic shipwreck of the truth should not be taken to mean that we are not wired for the truth. The confusion caused by sin cannot eclipse our dignity nor the fact that we are summoned to the truth, inclined to it, and will not be happy with anything less than the complete and clear truth.

Our quest for knowledge and the truth exists in spite of our sinful tendencies to ignore it or evade its demands. We instinctively know that it is “out there” to be found. It calls to us, summons us. We are looking for it even when we don’t think that we are. At almost no point during our wakeful hours are we not curious and longing for answers. Evil and error have their days, but the truth will out.

Deep down, people know what they are doing. This is because we are wired for the truth and because God has written His law in our hearts. In our consciences, the voice of God is echoing. God speaks to us there and His voice in creation and revelation resonate at the same pitch. Despite our sinful tendencies to “prefer the darkness to light,” do not ever write a person off as “lost” as long as they are still alive. We should trust the human inclination to truth and remember the active presence of conscience and the help of the Holy Spirit. We should announce the truth to others confidently, realizing that often the loudest protests are merely evidence that we have touched something in their depths and startled them. When you’re getting a lot of flak, you know you’re near the target.

The principle applied Thus one important path out of nominalism and back to reality is to celebrate the quest for truth and have confidence that because human beings are inclined to the truth—indeed hungry for it—our declaration of it as seen in creation, our bodies, and revelation will have effect. This is so even when the ground seems fallow and sparse of growth (as it does today). The truth will win. It must! We are wired for it.

Even if we traverse down some dark, dead ends, humanity will not be long satisfied with any lie. The inexorable growth and perdurance of the Christian faith (despite attacks, martyrdom, and local and temporal setbacks) testifies to humanity’s inclination toward the truth. Errors come and go, but the truth remains. Error can cause great damage, as we are seeing today in the decaying West. But the truth lives to fight another day, whether or not the West survives. Truth exists because it is built into what God has created; error does not exist because it is the privation of truth. Having no existence of its own, error is doomed to fail. It is like a clear-cut forest; other growth and even trees themselves soon enough return.

Because human nature, wired for the truth, has not changed, neither has our commission to proclaim the truth. I will let St. Paul, who lived in similarly dark times (before the Christian spring), have the last word:

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry….O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith (1 Tim 4:2-5; 6:20-21).

Mankind in 2016: still wired for truth, still inclined to it!

2 Replies to “The Inclination to the Truth”

  1. ‘Never mind that scoffing at the idea of truth and declaring that there is no such thing as immutable and universal truth is itself making a claim to an immutable and universal truth!’ Yes, with this claim they, themselves, break their proclamation and declare their own self-made truths which are just relatives and not absolutes. What may be true to you may not be true to me because I alone can judge what is the true, the just, the good and the beautiful, the modern man says. Yet, I will impose to you what I think will be applicable to you, he says further. This is the dictatorship of relativism.
    LORD, I have allowed myself to wonder, let me just settle down into YOUR comforts, for in THEE I find The Truth, for my soul is restless until it rests in THEE. Solo DIOS Basta.

  2. Thank you, Msgr. Pope. It seems that the word “wired”, though, can be construed as ‘programmed”, the escape hatch to that being free will.
    To want the whole truth can catch us up in pride. My mother said it is not polite to hear or see too sharply. We will never have all the truth, even about God (until we hopefully see Him face to face).
    I know little about Nominalism but I gather from what you say, that it was a reaction to the the general awfulness of existence, when life was brutal and short. Merely getting through the day required enormous drive. Issues of truth were left to the Church.
    Today, even with all our apparent access to it, the whole truth is still unattainable, but we try. Seeing the world through the prism of Christianity is, to me, the sanest way of seeing the world. It gives my existence meaning even though it is but a shadow of what is to come. It helps me see the world in a way that is more meaningful than what it appears to be.
    The Church no longer seen as the seat of truth because it tries to compete with the truth of secularism. But that’s another story.

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