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On telling the truth

Once truth, always true

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

Seventy-two years ago in January the newly formed American Catholic Philosophical Association held its first annual meeting at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Some of the initial addresses still make worthwhile reading, even if others have long since had their half-day. One by Joseph T. Barron of Saint Paul Seminary struck some notes that contemporary academics might profitably review, particularly on the subject of objective truth, and as well on evolution-a theme recent Catholic thought has often addressed ambiguously. These topics are not in fact unrelated in their implications. Barron saw this more clearly than intellectual successors, both Protestant and Catholic, who flirt with an evolutionary theory of truth. A society that believes itself to be in transition and becomes subject to a utilitarian and futuristic spirit, Barron said, readily applies the themes of change, growth, and progress not alone to physical realities but also to the mental sphere. Such a society regards traditional answers to all problems-truth included-as artificial and meaningless. Barron emphasized "the absoluteness of truth" and declared that modern alternatives are logically indefensible. "Truth is not the sport of circumstances, neither is it the victim of persons nor times nor localities. Truth for one, truth for all-once truth, always true," he insisted. And Barron continued with other wise words: "Change, evolution, progress, has no meaning unless the terms of the process retain their significance.... What is true of terms is true of the propositions into which they enter. If it is true that the earth was round up to the year 1925, that proposition will always be true even if its shape were altered today." Between changes in the physical world and "the field of logical relations there is a gap which the concept of change cannot cross." Barron related his observations to the implications for evolutionary theory, particularly the emphasis that truth depends on, and is relative to peoples' minds-so that if these change, truth changes. Barron noted that the term truth is used equivocally. In the first instance it means whatever is believed; in the second instance the word truth stands for reality or facts, leaving people with the sense "that facts change as peoples' minds change." People sometimes write that such relativism is a recent phenomenon brought in with postmodernism, but it should surprise nobody that in Barron's time the problem of knowledge already had a dominant place in philosophical studies. Many scholars, moreover, valued independence of thought as a commendable achievement. Anti-intellectualism was also on the rise, and its outcome was skepticism. But the problem of limited knowledge cannot be solved by making intelligent beings unintelligent. The coming generation may identify the attempt "to spin a world out of its own consciousness" as the presumption that it is. An evolutionary theory of truth vulnerably exposes truth to ongoing instability, and strips even evolution of the finalities contemporary theory would ascribe to it. Deconstructionists open themselves up to deconstruction. In our day we have full-fledged postmodernism, which makes the leap to the denial of objective truth and of an objective world. Curiously, developmental naturalists still seem to assume the final truth of evolutionary theory. The Neo-Scholasticism of Barron's day was not a fully persuasive reply to the growing revolt against reason, but his vision was 20/20 regarding the fatal weaknesses that characterize the modern disavowal of objective truth. Editor's note: Joseph Barron's work is relevant today and so is another more readily available analysis also published in the Roaring Twenties, J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism. Mr. Machen's book, still in print today (Eerdmans, ISBN 0-802-81121-3) lucidly contrasts the relativism of liberal thought concerning God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church with the strength of orthodox Christian doctrine. Professors Barron and Machen both emphasized "once truth, always true."

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