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Where is Truth?

March 14, AD2016

Chelsea - beach cross

In a recent column, I discussed the definition of truth as “what is.” Truth is the equation of thought and thing. It is the conformity of a person’s mind and reality.

But where is truth to be found?

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up the greatest Catholic thinker, Thomas Aquinas, on this question. According to Kreeft, Thomas says truth is found in three places.

Truth in God’s mind

It is not surprising that truth, in fact all truth, exists in God’s mind. However, in this case it is not His mind conforming itself to reality but reality as it conforms to His mind. Truth exists first “in God’s mind as the measure and design of things.”

A designer of kitchen gadgets can draw up a plan for a new potato peeler. He can then make it according to his plan. In addition, he can then judge his creation according to what he had in mind for it.

However, human beings make nothing from scratch. Instead, we select and rearrange existing materials. Michelangelo got the use of a colossal block of marble no one else could do anything with and then removed enough of it to form the statue of David.

Human creativity provides an analogy to how truth exists in God’s mind. In His divine intellect, God conceives a plan to make something and then creates.

As Daniel Sullivan puts it,

because the being itself of natural things, and not only their extrinsic arrangement, is given to them, they must be dependent on God, the first cause of all beings, who alone can give things their very being. Since God is all-powerful, things can not fail to come up to His intention or design—they agree necessarily with their idea in the mind of their Creator.

This is perhaps the deepest way in which truth resides in intellect, or rather, in an intellect. The truth of things exists first and always in the mind of God, who, if He wishes them to exist, gives them their being.

Truth in things made

Second, truth exists “in things measured by and conforming to the divine mind.”

Edward Feser advises us “to think of ‘true’ in the sense of ‘real’ or ‘genuine.’ A thing is true to the extent that it conforms to the ideal defined by the essence of the kind of being it belongs to.”

Feser suggests we compare a triangle drawn on paper with a Rapidograph pen and ruler with one drawn on the cracked plastic seat of a moving school bus. The former will be a more true triangle because it conforms more closely to the nature of a triangle.

Janet Smith sheds further light on things being true, or real, or genuine to the extent that they are in conformity with the ideal in God’s mind. She writes (beginning by quoting St. Thomas),

“natural things are said to be true in so far as they express the likeness of the species that are in the divine mind” (ST, I, q.16, a.1). Every thing that exists in the world is said to be a “word” of God; it is an “expression” of what is in the divine mind.

(The word “species” means essence or what is at the very bottom of a particular kind of thing.) All other things being equal, then, a four-legged donkey is a truer instance of a donkey then one which has lost a leg.

Smith goes on, “Insofar as things fulfill their nature they are ‘true’ speech of God.” So, triangularity and donkey-nature are examples of essences whose perfect expression exist in an intellect, that is, the divine intellect “as the archetypes according to which God creates the world,” as Feser puts it.

Truth in our heads

The third place truth can be found is “in the human mind as measured by and conforming to things.” This third kind of truth is the one most familiar to us. It is the conformity of the human intellect with the thing. If you say the flag is red, white, and blue, and I say it is green, white, and blue, we must measure our judgments of the flag’s colors against the actual flag.

So, just as a donkey can fall short of its donkey nature, our minds can be places in which the truth is not, either because we are ignorant or because we are in error or because we lie.

Smith goes on,

When we are thinking about reality we are forming concepts in our minds of the “speech” that God has uttered. We need to conform our concepts as truly as we can to those realities that God has spoken. So when we speak, we are attempting to reproduce the concepts that initiated in God’s mind and were produced in the world. Our speech must be true to God’s “speech”. We should have in our minds the truth that God “spoke” and speak only that truth.

So truth can be lacking in a human being when he judges something is true when it is not or when he thinks something is not the case when it is. But truth can also be lacking when one knows the truth but does not speak it.

Wishful “truth”

There is another and unfortunately quite common way in which truth does not make it into our minds. That is when we deceive ourselves. This happens when we really, really want something to be the case, whether it is or not. We tell ourselves things like this:

  • “Fast Eddie is honest and I can invest my life savings with him” (because I really want the 400% promised return).
  • “I know my boyfriend loves me” (because I cannot bear to think his cheating means he does not).

Glorious truth

We can give glory to God because we have minds that can know the truth about creatures and about God. We can give glory to God because of the glorious things He has made. We can give glory to God because He is the glorious maker of all that is.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Kevin lives with his wife and seven children in Springfield, IL. He is currently doing freelance curriculum and research projects and teaching. In his free time he writes screenplays, TV pilots, novels, and non-fiction books and articles. His homiletic lectionary-based blog is Doctrinal Homily Outlines. He is also pursing a MA in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary via distance learning.

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  • Guy McClung

    Kevin-Yes truth is what is. But for many, especially people in power, around the world today and throughout history, truth is not what is, truth is whatever helps them obtain, keep, maintain, and increase power over those who do not have power. They follow a principle of nonnoncontradiction, it is this: a thing can be and not be at the same time-so long as it contributes to power. Think not? Listen to most Democrat candidates [yes-for them party wide; and also for some individuals of other groups] and review what they say and do re life. Hillary’s classic re the deaths of innocents begging for help- “What difference does it maKe?” – is a great restatement of the power people’s principle of nonnoncontradiction. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I see what you mean. However, we can apply here what St. Thomas said about unjust laws: they are not laws at all but a form of violence.

  • james

    ” If you say the flag is red, white, and blue, and I say it is green, white, and blue, we must measure our judgments of the flag’s colors against the actual flag.”

    Don’t get me wrong, sir, I enjoyed the work you put into this – however, having fun with human definitions is a sport too. Using Roget’s Thesaurus I counted 212 different shades and pigments of red, white and blue. Throw in the fact that colors don’t show in the dark or with a certain background, that a color blind person and conventional types may not see subtlety and you have the makings of profound diversity which constitutes an illusion of truth as it applies to human knowing.