Is there One Truth or Are There Many?

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” Andre Gide (1869 – 1951)

I remember that I began to question if there really was such a thing as the “one truth” at an early age.  As a young child born of two cultures, I went to protestant Sunday school, the faith of my Anglo-American father, and catholic catechism, the religion forced on my Ojibwe mother in an Indian boarding school.

2000px-Zoso_Robert_Plant_feather_symbol_svg
Image: Feather Symbol of Truth

 

I was curious and inquisitive, and a bit of a rebel even then.  Each teacher had repeatedly assured us that only their religion was based on the one and only truth.  When they asked us to repeat the “facts” we were supposed to memorize from the lessons of the previous week, I decided to test the “truth.”  In Sunday school, I would repeat what I had memorized for catechism class.  And in catechism class, I would eagerly raise my hand to share what I had learned in Sunday school. Needless to say, neither one was pleased with my answers – perhaps they merely thought I was a little slow.

“Truth persuades by teaching, but does not teach by persuading.” Quintus Septimius Tertullianus (160 AD – 230 AD), Adversus Valentinianos

By the age of eight, I realized that I needed to learn more before I decided what truth was for myself.  I’m still exploring this question more than sixty years later.

What is truth?  According to Webster’s dictionary (1989), truth is “conformity with fact or reality…; a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like” (p. 1521).  This definition only leads me to ask more questions.  What are “facts” and “reality?”  These are foundational questions I needed to deal with as a researcher. Interestingly, the answers differ depending on who you ask.

Research paradigms in academia have become a different type of religion.  Adherents of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies believe their approach is the only legitimate way to discover what is true.

“On the ontological issue of what is real, the quantitative researcher views reality as “objective,” “out there” independent of the researcher. Something can be measured objectively by using a questionnaire or an instrument. For the qualitative researcher, the only reality is that constructed by the individuals involved in the research situation. Thus multiple realities exist in any given situation: the researcher, those individuals being investigated, and the reader or audience interpreting a study. The qualitative researcher needs to report faithfully these realities and to rely on voices and interpretation of informants.” (Creswell, 1994, pp. 4, 6, emphasis in original)

Is truth knowable?  One of the examples that struck me in graduate school was a metaphor that Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972) used to describe the importance of one’s position when trying to discover reality.  Imagine we are all seated in a large circle.  If we place a multifaceted object in the center, say an elephant (drawing on another example), each of us would only be able to see what was in our frame of sight.  What we see is tangible and “real,” but it’s only a small part of the whole. Now, take a concept like mental health and place it in the circle.  Each of us would interpret what it is differently based on our culture, experiences and education.  The version of reality that is accepted as true is almost always that which is held by those in positions of power in any given society and era.

“Say not, ‘I have found the truth,’ but rather, ‘I have found a truth.’” Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931)

Why is it so difficult to accept that many truths are possible?  So many lives have been lost or destroyed throughout history because people needed others to accept their deeply held notions of truth.  I end with the quote by Rumi that inspired this reflection.  I believe the world would be a different place today if people had heeded his wise counsel.

“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.” (Rumi)

In Storm’s example of the circle and Rumi’s metaphor of the broken mirror, all perspectives and fragments are necessary if we are to understand reality, the first step in discovering truth. It’s also the first step in building peace.

Works Cited:

John W. Creswell (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972). Seven arrows. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Webster’s encyclopedic unabridged dictionary of the English language (1989). New York, NY: Gramercy Books.

TOP PHOTO: Carol A. Hand is an Ojibwe elder and retired professor and academic. Visit her blog HERE.

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