As an historian, I am naturally, professionally, interested in truths - thousands of them - and this interest brings with it several kinds of puzzle. The first is the disentangling of the muddled reports of the past. Another is how to describe faithfully what bygone ages took to be absolute truths, now disbelieved or forgotten. A third is what test of truth to apply in each case. The last and most baffling is to frame a clear idea of what truth actually is.
In any definition of truth, reality is mentioned or implied. What is said to be true must relate to something experienced and must state that experience accurately. Moreover, the whole vast store of recorded truths is supposed to hang together, and every new one must jibe with the rest of them as well. These demands make up a tough assignment, and when one looks at any sizable portion of these claims to truth, one keeps finding a good many more to challenge than to adopt. An obvious sign of this is the amount of nonstop arguing and fighting in the world. Human beings, individually and in groups, are sure that they possess the truth about things here and hereafter, and when they see it doubted or attacked by their neighbors, they find such dissent intolerable and feel that it must be put down.
There is, of course, an obvious exception to this chaos of thought and action. If one measures by the yardstick, then this piece of string is 28 1/2 inches long. One can measure carelessly and make an error, but as soon as it is pointed out, one agrees with the correct answer. Other measures - the meter, the calendar, the clock, the number series, or any other system that rests on common agreement and fixed standards - yield statements that are not denied by anyone in his senses who is familiar with the terms.
These conventions are endlessly useful, both in science and in practical life. But there is a host of equally immediate and important concerns for which no system and no terms have been agreed upon. It is about these interests that the battle of ideas and the bloodshed took place. This in turn tempts one to think that these contested truths are the most important of all. They have to do with religion, art, morals, education, government, and the very definition of man and his nature and his role in the universe.
A cultural historian's work brings him face to face with those passionately held ideas. At a certain time and place, millions of human beings felt sure that a divine revelation proved the existence of God, who dictated all men's beliefs and actions. The uniformity of that faith stamped it as unshakeable truth. After more than a thousand years, some of the descendants of those millions began to question the revelation and all it meant. Since then, there have been many different "truths" about it, each clung to with the same fervor and confidence as before. A like diversity runs through the rest of the culture - in morals, government, and the arts.
The only sure thing is that mankind is eager for truth, lives by it, will not let it go, and turns desperate in the teeth of contradiciton. That may be a noble spectacle, but it is tragic too - and depressing. If, as required, all truths must hang together consistently, it would seem that in religion, art, and the rest, truth has never reigned. Human beings begin to look like incurably misguided seekers for something that never was.
At this point, a small but remarkable group of people put on a superior grin and say: "You forget the method that clears up all doubts and delivers truth on a platter. We scientists are busy taking care of your troubles. Look at what we have done: We have gotten rid of all the follies and superstitions dreamed up about the real world in the first five thousand years of man's existence. Give us a little more time and we will mop up all the other nonsense still in your heads and give you cast-iron truth."
This sounds delightful, but even in those disciplines where exactness and agreement appear at their highest, there is a startling mobility of views. Every day the truths of geology, cosmology, astrophysics, biology, and their sister sciences are upset. The earth is older than was thought; the dinosaurs are younger; the stars in huge galaxies have so much space they can't collide, yet they collide just the same; Mars, after being dry as dust, has liquid water; the human bones in Central Africa do not mean what they were said to mean; a new fossil shows the origin of birds to be different from the origin posited yesterday; as for the speed of light, it can be exceeded. If only the latest is true, then all earlier ideas were hardly better than superstitions.
The condition is still worse in the semi-sciences or psychology and medicine, and confusion grows as we get to the social sciences, ethics, and theology. There are "schools" in each - the telltale sign of uncertainty. The boasts of an earlier day about finding laws governing society and predicting its future have been muted for some time. In history and philosophy, some wise heads have admitted that these laws are not exact transcripts but simply documented visions, respectively, of the past and of Being as a whole. None excludes other accounts of the same particular subject.
A number of scientists have taken time to ponder these puzzles of their own making and have offered two suggestions. One is that science is not description but metaphor. It seems a poor term. A metaphor needs four parts: in "the ship plows the ocean," the ship is likened to a plow and the ocean to a field. The facts and the language of science add up to two parts, not four. Perhaps the meaning is that science is not literal but poetic, its phrasings inspired by observation and calculation. That must be why we now come across the word "charm" and others like it in theoretical physics, a tacit recognition of its suggestive, poetical character.
If so, it also means that reality is beyond our grasp, and truth along with it. Such is, in fact, the other suggested answer to the riddle, which is that there is no need for the idea of reality. From this negative it follows that we should stop being so solemnly intent on truth. Above all, we should stop fighting over tentative notions we believe in. Imagine instead that we are at a picnic, making up disposable fictions about what we see and feel. We then play with the jigsaw, but pieces are missing and others don't fit.
Where does that leave me as an historian who struggles to discover what happened in the past and to make of events and persons some intelligible patterns? First, I am not ready to throw reality into the trash can. I feel it ever present and call it by the more vivd term experience. It includes all my thoughts and feelings, the tabletop and the electrons, light as waves and as particles, the current truths and the past superstitions. The common task, I conclude, is to place each of these within its sphere and on its level; they are incompatible only under a single-track system. One must, moreover, be ready to deal with new paradoxes and contradictions, because experience is neither fixed nor finished; it grows as we make it by our restless search for truth. Truth is a goal and a guide that cannot be dispensed with. The all-doubting skeptics only pretend to do without it.
But we must recognize that our work to attain truth succeeds only piecemeal. Where our hope of truth breaks down is at the stage of making great inferences from well-tested lesser truths. Still, we cannot help inferring. Our love of order impels us to make theories, systems, sets of principles. We need them both for comfort and for action. A society, however pluralist, needs some beliefs in common and will not trust them unless they are labeled truths. It is there that our efforts betray us. Sooner or later, experience jabs us with an event, a feeling, or a perception that shatters the truth-value of the great inferred idea. It is like actually going to the moon or prospecting the planets with a sensor and finding that the entirely logical and satisfying inference is dead wrong. As the historian knows, the breakup of old truths is painful, often bloody, but it does not condemn the search for truth and its recurrent bafflement, which are part of man's fate. It should only strengthen tolerance and make us lessen our pretensions. Just as in the past man was defined as the rational animal and later comers said, "No - only capable of reason," so man should not be called seeker and finder of truth but fallible maker and reviser of truths.