Monday, October 26, 2009

Does Might Make Truth?

“The truth is what the jury will believe.” That was the statement made by a federal judge that Keith heard as a young lawyer and cited in his comments made after my previous posting. That statement embraces a serious problem that is related to the question about what is true.

Most people are familiar with the idea that might makes right, an idea especially associated with Machiavelli, a contemporary of Columbus—and, perhaps, implemented to a certain degree by Columbus. But that is a highly problematic idea, and closely related to the judge said. If the truth is what the jury will believe, those lawyers with the mightest arguments and with the greatest wealth of experience—and often the greatest wealth—are able to determine what is “true.” Thus, might makes "truth" as well as right. But even if that is often so, is it right?

“The truth is what the jury will believe” may be correct in its consequences, but do we really want to affirm that concept of truth? Think about an innocent person charged with a serious crime. A powerful prosecuting attorney may get the jury to believe the man to be guilty, resulting in the man being sentenced to a long prison term. But what is true? The decision of the jury might be “true” in its consequence. But surely we want the truth that corresponds to reality to be found and followed, not just the “truth” of a jury persuaded by a powerful attorney.

In spite of cynical judges, the legal system in this country is based on the idea of truth as something that corresponds to reality. Words ascribed to Jesus are incised into the wall of the U.S. Supreme Court Building: “The truth shall make you free.” For the innocent man falsely sentenced, it is objective truth, not the “truth” of a falsely persuaded jury, that is liberating.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence asserted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Their understanding of those “truths” was seriously limited. “All men” must include women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, “illegal” aliens, etc. But the assertion about the basic equality (that is, the inherent worth) of all people is a basic truth, even though it may not always be self-evident. That is, the belief that all people are to be treated justly, as well as lovingly and respectfully, is true whether the jury believes it or not.


  1. The truth, scientifically, is what the jury does in fact believe. It is as correct a statement in science as it is in the law, as my philosophy of science professor in KU's doctoral business program asserted, because each science or research field (and its approved journal(s))assembles certain designated "peers" to assess the merit of scientific claims based on precedent and "approved" research methods. This has been a contentious issue in the social sciences and has been debated by the likes of Paul Feyerabend, Jeffrey Pfeffer and others in the philosophy of science. Social scientists have sought a unified, universal voice in the social sciences, which one social scientist (Jeffrey Pfeffer) referred to as the need for paradigm consensus (when advocating the advancement of one scientific/research paradigm, that of functionalism, over the other generally recognized paradigms ---interpretivism, radical humanism, and radical structuralism (set forth in Gareth Morgan's and Gibson Burrell's work "Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis.")). Location within any paradigm is dependent on certain ontological, epistemological, methodological, and human nature perspectives, according to Morgan and Burrell. Morgan and Burrell describe the relations among the paradigms as "disinterested hostility," and Jeffrey Pfeffer has argued that consensus can be achieved by "vesting authority in elites" who would serve as gatekeepers to select out research not worthy of consideration as an advancement of organizational science knowledge. To support his position in organizational sciences, Pfeffer cites other social sciences that have imposed consensus by appointing individuals with a dense network of connections and unified views who intentionally and systematically take over power positions and "impose their views, at times gradually and at times surreptitiuosly, on the field." I make this connection between science and juries as historians of science have noted the connection between law and social science specifically. James Q. Whitman has noted that "it is a striking fact that when modern social science finally appeared, it appeared not among theologians or philosophers, but among lawyers." So, to your point Leroy, truth has been what the jury determines it to be, however we define that jury.

  2. Borrowing heavily from John Stuart Mill, Paul Feyerabend notes that "rejection of universal standards and of all rigid traditions" (i.e., a rejection of power and institutions) is necessary for true knowledge-building. According to Feyerabend, "knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converge towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via the process of competition, to the development of our consciousness." Aristotle noted that knowledge is a rather complex social product which is improved by "generational collaboration." John Stuart Mill noted in his work On Liberty that a diversity of opinions is essential to any truth-building effort because (i) any opinion "compelled to silence" may be true, (ii) even an erroneous opinion may contain a portion of truth there requiring a "collision of adverse opinions" for comprehension of any "truth", (iii) full comprehension of "truth" requires vigorous and earnest challenges to accepted views, and (iv) failure to "vigorously and earnestly" contest prevailing views will result in the formation of dogma. To my thinking, then, it is the failure of these elements (or any of them) noted by Mill that results in any assertion of ownership or understanding by any person or group of Truth to the exclusion of any other views, ideas, or opinions. It is not necessarily a relativism towards truth that guides this relativist, but rather a belief that varying voices, processes, views, methodologies, and perspectives guide us best in our search for truth as defined in a given context. Once we claim truth (and exclude contrary assertions without full dialogue and openness to the possibility of a different truth), we have limited our understanding of it.

  3. All this lawyer talk is too complicated. The World Series is starting, so keep it simple like it is in baseball.

    "It ain't nuthin' until I call it."
    Bill Klem, Hall of Fame Umpire

  4. Dennis, thanks for posting your comments. I have to work on what to say to Chris, but it is easier to respond to your suggestion. And I like the quote from Bill Klem. I didn't know where that statement came from.

    Many years ago I heard about the three kinds of umpires. Adapted to the recent discussions, one of the umpires was an absolutist, one was a relativist, and the third was what for lack of a better term I will call an existentialist.

    In talking about balls and strikes, the absolutistic umpire said, "I call them as they are."

    The relativistic umpire said, "I just call them as I see them."

    And then the existentialist, like Klem, said, "They are neither balls or strikes until I call them."

    But maybe the last point does "prove" that "might" (the power and authority of the umpire) makes "truth." Even though the instant replay shows that the ball was outside the strike zone, if the umpire called it a strike, it is a strike and that is the way it stays.

    But who can fault the batter or the manager, if they want it called what the pitch actually was--a ball if it was outside the strike zone. So here is another case of wanting truth to be understood as that which correspond to reality.

  5. Truth can stand by itself as a fact of something that actually happened. But what if no one saw the act happen to substantiate the fact? Truth, most often must be filtered through our intellectual and emotional capacities. And that's where truth gets tricky.

    Why is my version of truth any better or more absolute than anyone else's? The news is filled with people who act based on their understanding of truth...jihadists, the assasins of doctors who perform abortions, etc.

    If we act upon truth, we are closer to the truth if we factor in "equality" or the "inherent worth" of individuals. If everyone who claims to know the truth did this then perhaps fewer people would feel fustified to kill, steal, frame, defame, hurt others.

  6. David, thanks for your comments also. They were posted at the very time I was responding to Dennis.

    I think what you say is quite important. Part of what I have been trying to say is that there are problems with the idea of "my version of truth." There needs to be a constant search for Truth. And through the years I have thought of the primary purpose of higher education to be the search for a better and better understanding of Truth. But if all truth is relative, there is nothing really to search for.

    Discussion and dialogue are essential parts of the search for Truth, and one of the main reasons for my starting this blog was to encourage and engender serious thought and dialogue. So thanks, again, for your contribution.

  7. Craig Dempsey sent the following statement for me to post--and what a nicely written piece!

    "I tried a search for a competing quote on baseball truth, something along the lines of 'The crowd will allow me two blown calls per game. If I get to three I know I'm in trouble.' I guess my memory is off because I did not get a match. But I did get a lot of related hits, including from the current baseball playoffs. This is the irony hidden in Bill Klem's quote. Within the context of the game, it really is not something until it is called, but there still is a truth out there to which even the umpire is accountable. In a game, as long as no fraud is involved, blown calls are simply part of the game. Indeed, some purists do not want electronic second-guessing because it undermines the glorious authority of the call.

    "When this gaming metaphor moves over into the law, the stakes are higher, and the tension more severe. Some argue against allowing extra appeals to death row inmates, citing the fair trial principle. For these people, ontological guilt or innocence means no more than a 'real' ball or strike. Others see the game metaphor as totally inappropriate, and the 'real' guilt or innocence as always more important than any trial verdict. Indeed, it might be argued that all of Christian theology rests on the distinction between conviction and execution on the one hand, and true innocence on the other.

    "However, balls and strikes, and even guilt and innocence, are relatively simple binary questions, where there is some hope of actually finding a 'real' answer. A lot of life's questions are so tangled that we cannot even imagine what a "real" answer would look like, let alone hope to find one. Here post-modernism stands the strongest, recognizing the deep mysteries of the heart and soul. Here Paul warns us, we all see through a glass darkly. Here, even sports can dissolve into the complexities of steroids and money, sex and brutality, stupidity and shame. Yet even then, especially then, we repaint the bright foul line, we call the balls and strikes, we dream the dream that the world can be linear and logical. When all else fails, we put an asterisk in the records book, trying to keep the nonlinear out. Much like we do at church. Must keep evolution out of Genesis. Must keep rock and roll out of worship. Must keep mortality out of mind. Must keep sex out of everything.

    "Theatre is the willing suspension of disbelief. Sports is the active suspension of disbelief. Worship is the subliminal suspension of disbelief. We humans spend a tremendous amount of time and energy chasing what we do not believe. Is it any wonder we are more likely to find a nominal substitute for truth, rather than truth? The weakness of post-modernism is that it simply gives up the search for truth. Truth is out there, calling in a still small voice, 'Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.' Sometimes that truth stands with the solitary splendor of a mathematical proof. Sometimes it is in the chaotic clamor of conflicting opinions, such as Chris suggests in his delightful analysis of Mill and Aristotle. Sometimes it has the empirical power of the periodic table. Yet usually, it is hiding in the shadows, out of reach; echoing the painfully foul ball that cost the Twins so against the Yankees in the playoffs. The ump called it. So it had to be foul!"

  8. A favorite line of mine from the play "Defending the Caveman" is that men are limited by reason and to reason. In other words our one tool for thought is logic in a linear (albeit tortuous at times) process-only framework. Whenever one has a hammer everything looks like a nail.

    I enjoy reading these posts and the related comments, but the challenge is that the responses are heavily masculine without the perspectives that feminine responses can add to the understanding of these issues. When trying to understand complex issues and then come to a reasonable solution, the most straightforward way of viewing these issues is in an either/or format. Is the truth objective or relevant? Is the view of Revelations premillenial or postmillenial? Is life determined or does free will exist? Is there a God or not? All these questions and multiple others stated in similar ways are fodder for the masculine mindset of process oriented thinking leading to problem solving.
    I think Milton was onto something and would be interested in further elucidation of the thought when he mentioned that moving away from foundational thinking and moving toward relational thinking may be the key finding the third way.

    No offense intended to Soren Kierkegaard, but whenever thought processes are confined by either/or thinking, then sides are usually chosen with each thinking that they have the monopoly on truth which then logically leads to actions to force the "truth" onto others at whatever the cost whether it religious truth, political truth, ethical truth, economic truth, etc. Most of the conflicts that humanity has experienced and continues to experience are due to exteme positions being taken on the various questions of life. I am grateful for folks like Leroy who are willing to wade into these discussions with the humility of knowing that he and all the others do not have the absolute truth. It is this humility that keeps some humanity involved at times instead of the mantra "might makes right" the only point of view.