Can Truth Be Known?

How do you know what you think you know? Can you have 100% certainty about anything in life? Are you sure that the world around you exists as you perceive it?

Skepticism and The Matrix

These are all questions that come to mind as a result of watching the 1999 film The Matrix. If you are one of the three people left who hasn’t watched this by now, let me sum up for you the plot relevant to this post. A young man who goes by the online pseudonym “Neo” begins to see clues that the life he lives and the things he sees and experiences may not be what he thinks: that there is a world beneath the world. A group who seeks out those with this dawning perception contacts him and offers him a way out into the “real” reality. Neo discovers that he and the majority of humanity has been enslaved by machine overlords and plugged into the power grid to keep the robots charged up. In order to keep humanity docile, the machines plug into the brains of the human batteries and feed a “virtual reality” scenario in their consciousness in which they think they are living their lives in turn-of-the-millennium earth. Adventure and hijinks ensue.

This concept, brought engagingly to the screen in 1999, is credited to René Descartes in the 17th century. He conceived it as a thought experiment to probe the depths of skepticism, to figure out just what sort of things one could be certain about. In Descartes’ model, it is not robots and a sophisticated virtual reality program, but an evil genie casting a spell of deception on the skeptic, producing for the subject an experience of false reality. Descartes realized that there was no way to know for sure that this wasn’t the case. This led to a regress of skepticism in which he landed on the one thing he could be certain about: “Cogito ergo sum,” or, “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, I may not have certainty that I am not being deceived in what I perceive, but I can be sure of one thing – that there is a “me” that may be deceived. “I doubt, therefore I know there is at least a doubter.” 

Living Life

So what do we do with this skepticism? It doesn’t seem to leave us much room to maneuver with confidence, does it? It turns out that this angst, while interesting to recognize and a good exercise for ordering one’s beliefs and epistemology, isn’t as crippling as it may seem on first understanding. Granted that we don’t have complete certainty about everything we think we know in life, we still make life-altering decisions on a regular basis. How can we responsibly do this without 100% certainty about the particular issue? Well, because of Descartes’ skepticism exercise, we understand that there is only one thing we can be sure about, that “I” exist. Yet we are forced in life to make decisions, and so we do so with confidence by presuming our sense impressions are more or less reliable. This presumption is justified in the absence of a valid defeater. In other words, unless I have good reason to doubt my sense impressions, I am rational in believing the evidence of my senses and drawing conclusions with reason and philosophy. So we gather data, process potential defeaters, and assign probabilities (not necessarily explicitly) to truth claims relating to our decisions (“Biblical Christianity properly reflects reality,” or “Nissans are generally more reliable that Fords,” or “I should eat at Moe’s today instead of Krystal,” etc.), and act on those decisions. Does objective truth exist? Yes! [1] Can we be completely certain that we know truth in these or any decisions? No, but we can know it well enough to live life with confidence.

That’s Just Your Opinion!

So we all have to make our own decisions, appraising the situations and associated truth claims. Does that mean anything goes? After all, at the end of the day, isn’t it just your opinion? Who can say that you have knowledge of the truth in the matter? As we saw in an earlier post, knowledge requires belief. Belief requires opinions, but not all opinions are equal. “Who can say” is the one with the best reasoning for their opinions. (There is a great deal more that should be said about the effects of sin on mankind’s ability to reason and form knowledge, but as I am laying a foundation of justification for reason and argumentation for the Christian case-maker, I’m going to move right on by this point.)

“But wait,” you may say. “What’s the role of faith, then, and its interaction with reason? Aren’t they opposed to one another?” I’ll take that up in my next post!

Comments, questions? Email me through the form on my “about” page, we’ll discuss, and your comments may inspire a follow-up post!

[1] If you doubt the existence of objective truth, consider that the negation “Objective truths do not exist,” is itself a statement purporting to declare an objective truth, and so refutes itself. Thus, objective truths do exist.