Book Review of "True to Life"
Despite their ancient pedigree as “lovers of wisdom,” philosophers sometimes muddy the waters more than they clear the air. This is especially true of philosophers who claim that truth is nothing more than collective opinion, that it is not discovered but created. Contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty claimed that truth is simply “what my colleagues let me get away with.”
Philosopher Michael Lynch doesn’t let these philosophers get away with it. Nor does he want to give up a strong and objective sense of truth when it comes to “speaking truth to power” in politics. Both politicians and other citizens must be held accountable to what is true; otherwise politics is reduced to unprincipled power brokering. To that end, Lynch has crafted a thoughtful but approachable work on the meaning and value of truth. Although intellectually stimulating, True to Life is not written in a technical philosophical style. It speaks to anyone who puzzles over the nature of truth and the value of truth in a world so fraught with lies.
Lynch defends four basic and interrelated claims in this brief but meaty book. First, truth is objective; it is not mere belief. Humans are fallible. We often hold beliefs that we later reject because they have been refuted by reality. Believing something does not make it true. Nor can two contradictory beliefs (such as “There is a God” and “There is no God”) both be true. Second, it is good to believe what is true. Therefore, third, truth is worth pursuing intellectually. Fourth, truth has objective and intrinsic value. That is, truth is not a means to an end, but an end itself. If we are thinking clearly, we don’t use truth for something higher than truth itself.
True to Life addresses more deep philosophical issues than a short review can adequately accommodate. Especially noteworthy, though, are his arguments against relativism (“True for me, but not for you”) and pragmatism (“What’s true is what works”). These philosophies dominate popular culture and have infected much of the academy as well. Nevertheless, they fail to survive Lynch’s careful scrutiny. Once rationally dissected, they die. For example, when Martin Luther King, Jr. cried out against institutional racism (speaking truth to power), he based his arguments on objective truth-claims: that African Americans were equal to whites, that African Americans had been exploited, and that they deserved freedom as equal citizens of the United States. King’s power came not merely from his oratorical abilities, but because he was challenging the social consensus and the law itself on the basis of objective truth. Appeals to relativism and pragmatism would have carried no persuasive power. As Lynch notes, “Having a concept of truth allows us to make sense of the thought that a claim, no matter how entrenched in one’s culture [such as racism], no matter how deeply defended by the powers that be, may still be wrong” (p. 41).
Lynch rightly notes that if truth exists, and if we should pursue it, certain dispositions or habits of the mind are appropriate. This “involves being willing to hear both sides of the story, being open-minded and tolerant of other’s opinions, being careful and sensitive to detail, being curious, and paying attention to the evidence. And it also involves being willing to question assumptions, giving and asking for reasons, being impartial, and being intellectual courageous—that is, not believing simply what is convenient to believe.” (130). How much of popular American culture—especially television—encourages these intellectual virtues?
One may question, however, Lynch’s secular worldview at two key points. First, while he affirms objective truths about human rights, Lynch has no explanation for where these rights come from. They are left unexplained, unanchored, and mysterious. The Declaration of Independence, which Martin Luther King often invoked, seems more convincing: “We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Second, philosophers such as C.S. Lewis have argued that our knowledge of truth would be very unlikely if we were merely material beings who were not designed for that purpose in mind. According to Lynch’s worldview, the fact that our thoughts may connect with objective facts is merely a happenstance of nature. Truth happens—for no reason.
Despite these concerns, True To Life is a bracing antidote to the disease of postmodern cynicism that renders truth impossible and leaves us with nothing but wind-blown opinion. It challenges the reader to be “true to life,” because truth matters.
· Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., directs the Philosophy of Religion program at Denver Seminary and is the author of Truth Decay (InterVarsity Press, 2000).