The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

What is Truth, Anyway?

published April 2017

How to think about claims, even the Resurrection

Scientific American (cover)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary’ s first definition, a “skeptic” is “one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever.” This is too nihilistic. There are many propositions for which we have adequate grounds for certainty as to their truth:

There are 84 pages in this issue of Scientific American. True by observation.

Dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. True by verification and replication of radiometric dating techniques for volcanic eruptions above and below dinosaur fossils.

The universe began with a big bang. True by a convergence of evidence from a wide range of phenomena, such as the cosmic microwave background, the abundance of light elements (such as hydrogen and helium), the distribution of galaxies, the large-scale structure of the cosmos, the redshift of most galaxies and the expansion of space.

These propositions are “true” in the sense that the evidence is so substantial that it would be unreasonable to withhold one’s provisional assent. It is not impossible that the dinosaurs died a few thousand years ago (with the universe itself having been created 10,000 years ago), as Young Earth creationists believe, but it is so unlikely we need not waste our time considering it.

Then there are negative truths, such as the null hypothesis in science, which asserts that particular associations do not exist unless proved otherwise. For example, it is telling that among the tens of thousands of government e-mails, documents and files leaked in recent years, there is not one indication of a UFO cover-up or faked moon landing or allegation that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Here the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Other propositions are true by internal validation only: dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate; Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is the greatest rock song; the meaning of life hinges on the number 42. These types of truth are purely personal and thus unverifiable by others. In science, we need external validation.

What about religious truths? The proposition that Jesus was crucified may be true by historical validation, inasmuch as a man whom we refer to as Jesus of Nazareth probably existed, the Romans routinely crucified people for even petty crimes, and most biblical scholars—even those who are atheists or agnostics, such as renowned religious studies professor Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—assent to this fact. The proposition that Jesus died for our sins, in contrast, is a faithbased claim with no purchase on valid knowledge. In between these is Jesus’s Resurrection, which is not impossible but would be a miracle if it were true. Is it?

The absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

The principle of proportionality demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find. Is the evidence commensurate with the conviction? According to philosopher Larry Shapiro of the University of Wisconsin–Madison in his 2016 book The Miracle Myth (Columbia University Press), “evidence for the resurrection is nowhere near as complete or convincing as the evidence on which historians rely to justify belief in other historical events such as the destruction of Pompeii.” Because miracles are far less probable than ordinary historical occurrences, such as volcanic eruptions, “the evidence necessary to justify beliefs about them must be many times better than that which would justify our beliefs in run-of-the-mill historical events. But it isn’t.

What about the eyewitnesses? Maybe they “were superstitious or credulous” and saw what they wanted to see, Shapiro suggests. “Maybe they reported only feeling Jesus ‘in spirit,’ and over the decades their testimony was altered to suggest that they saw Jesus in the flesh. Maybe accounts of the resurrection never appeared in the original gospels and were added in later centuries. Any of these explanations for the gospel descriptions of Jesus’s resurrection are far more likely than the possibility that Jesus actually returned to life after being dead for three days.” The principle of proportionality also means we should prefer the more probable explanation over less probable ones, which these alternatives surely are.

Perhaps this is why Jesus was silent when Pontius Pilate asked him (John 18:38), “What is truth?”

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27 Comments to “What is Truth, Anyway?”

  1. Martin Kentish Says:

    Interesting, but many of the claims to truth (many often deemed as scientific truths) are based on untestable, unprovable and easily falsified assumptions. Even radiometric dating: it is a rigorous method that is easily understood but based on many untestable assumptions that is often used to confirm a previously believed result.

    Change your formative assumptions of past events, and the conclusions using the same scientific methods arrive at different results. What is then ‘true’? You then arrive at something fundamental: how do you know those assumptions are true in the first place and why do you adhere to them being true?

  2. John Richards Says:

    Excellent column, cogently argued! Is it nonetheless cheeky to ask whether in certain cases of substantial evidence, it is possible to admit ‘doubt’?

  3. Mathew Goldstein Says:

    Radiometric dating can be performed on multiple samples from different locations measuring several different isotopes. For most radioactive nuclides, the half-life depends solely on nuclear properties and is essentially a constant. It is not affected by external factors such as temperature, pressure, chemical environment, or presence of a magnetic or electric field. So anyone who respects empirical evidence, and in practice everyone follows the empirical evidence in their day to day lives, should respect radiometric dating results. The demand for absolutely perfect knowledge and the argument that without such perfection we know nothing so therefore empirically derived conclusions are no better than any other conclusions is bogus.

  4. Antoine Wonders Says:

    It is san interesting philosophical question, but we must not enter the realms of sophism. Some things are just undeniably true within our system of perception, which itself exists because we can discuss it. It is true that I just read Michael Shermer’s column and that I am now commenting on it. External evidence and reason is all we have to establish our truths. Accepting holy scripture as the ultimate source of all truth leads provides no external evidence within our system of perception. It provides evidence within an unfounded belief system. Skeptics reject that procedure as wrong, even if there may be some truth in the scriptures, like the fact that there were Romans in Israel around the year 0. But that is true not because it’s in the scriptures but because it can be proven by overwhelming external evidence.

  5. Mathew Goldstein Says:

    Empirical evidence, when it is consistent, pervasive, diverse, direct, relevant, and uncontradicted, dictates a conclusion. It is irrational to reject the empirically supported conclusions in such contexts. We can always change our conclusion in the future if the direction of the overall available evidence changes.

  6. Daniel Blanco Says:

    One should differentiate what is rational to accept from truth or even from what we think we know is truth. Many wise people for many years accepted for “the right reasons” (empirical success, unifying power, convergence of results, and other epistemic virtues) theories that we now consider to be false.
    Then, the overwhelming evidence for a theory gives us good reasons to accept it (after all, it would be irrational to reject it for that very reason), but history teachs us that there is a genuine possibility of being wrong despite that evidence.

  7. James Snyder Says:

    I note that the author put the word “true” in scare quotes. From roughly 1700 to 1860, Newton’s physical theory of gravitation was widely tested and passed every test. His mathematical equations are still widely used, but his physical theory is no longer accepted. The standard model of particle theory is also widely accepted because no experiment contradicts it. Yet it is vulnerable to being replaced because it does not explain gravity. Scientific theories are not true, they are accepted on a tentative basis pending the next experimental test.

  8. Dr.A.P.Jayaraman Says:

    Fascinating. In the post truth era, public understanding of truth is essential and science communicators have to be in the field in a big way. I am happy that the Theory of Knowledge being taught in International Baccalaureate program lays great emphasis on claims and evidence. To cite a lowly instance I used to pay less attention when the glory of turmeric was extolled by dieticians and food column feeders. When Nature published a report early this year that 130-odd clinical trials failed to demonstrate the medicinal benefits of turmeric, I looked closely at the evidence and discovered a provisional truth. By and large a formal training as a research scientist and teaching scientific method to students empower one to instinctively gravitate to truth and to keep decent distance from fabricated Untruth and coloured pseudotruth. A reading of What is truth by Bertrand Russsell was also helpful in winnowing the wheat from the chaff.

  9. Steven Freedman Says:

    A substantial proportion of people substitute what they would like to be true for what is true. Manufacturing jobs in America have declined. The decline is mostly due to the increased use of automation, rather then the loss of jobs to low wage nations (China). However people prefer to attribute the loss to what can be dislike or opposed (Chinese industry) rather than to what cannot be opposed (increased automation).

  10. Mike Colyar Says:

    To James Snyder:

    Newton had no theory of gravitation. ‘Only’ a mathematical system which did and still does, within certain limits, describe the motions of masses. In fact he specifically did “abjure” any attempts to explain the why of the phenomenon. As Feynman says, “It is a mistake to ask, ‘How can that be?'” in our system of understanding that we call the scientific method.

  11. Daniel Says:

    Empirical evidence from multiple disciplines often establishes a well rounded narrative that refutes categorically what previously was assumed as factual by social or académic demands . Especially so if previous conclusions emanated from efforts to justify metaphysical or individual pet ideas or beliefs. If independent multidisciplinary empirical evidence serves to remove myth from assertiveness of truth, it approximates our understanding to what’s so, even if adjustments in evidence will continue to justify newer perspectives. Evolution of knowledge, just as biological evolution, is a cluggish affair.

  12. Larry Nocella Says:

    Enjoy your writing and thoughts as always, Mr. Shermer.

    Might I humbly suggest you alter the “blow out” quote. It’s currently “The absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” Which is not always true – as you state in the article, you say “Here the absence of evidence is evidence of absence” in reference to a specific case.

    I’m not typically a quibbler but I couldn’t help but think of non-skeptics looking for any reason to poke holes or misquote you…. so that’s my 2 cents.

    Regardless, keep up the great work!

  13. Dave Rockwell Says:

    Millions of people worldwide do understand this process of acquiring reasonable, replicable scientific truth. I hope that in some way they will become a critical mass, so to speak, so as to be able to modify the trajectory of world civilization out of the standard boom-and-bust cycle – to stabilize it enough so that we at least have a chance for long-term success as a species. We can’t afford the next worldwide bust. But the widespread emotional intransigence of self-deception and irrationality makes my hope rather slim.

    Nevertheless, we have to keep on!

  14. David Keranen Says:

    Some “truths” may never be obtained. Newton’s gravitation was augmented and surpassed by Einstein’s warping of the “fabric” of space. But what is the fabric of space? What is being warped? Perhaps it’s all that dark matter that makes up so much of the universe. Is this dark matter the conduit for gravitational waves the same way water is the conduit for water waves? And what about magnetism? What exactly is causing the pull when a magnet is placed close to a piece of iron? An interaction of quarks or something else? What is the exact nature of this interaction? Saying that there is a magnetic field explains nothing. What in the world is a quark in and of itself? We don’t know and will probably never know.

  15. Richard Morris Says:

    Unfortunately, the article is not related to the title. Nowhere in the article do we find a definition of “truth.”

    Truth, the Oxford Dictionary [1] says, “The quality or state of being true.” This simply moves the question to what is “true.” Which Oxford [2] says is: “In accordance with fact or reality.” Restated, Truth is the correct identification of a fact of reality.

    Consider the common catch phrase: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Since truth is the cognition of reality, the same thing cannot be true and untrue at the same time and in the same respect.

    To accept the validity of the catch phrase means: (1) the Law of Identity is invalid; (2) there is no objectively perceivable reality; and (3) different debaters perceive different universes, in which case no debate is possible because there is no standard by which to judge the outcome.

    1. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/truth
    2. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/true

  16. Dennis Verner Says:

    I agree with Shermer to a point, I “believe” him when he says there are 84 pages in the magazine although I did not verify. But it is easily verifiable if I had the time or thought it was important. But as far as the big bang and extinction of the dinosaurs I would argue that there is “evidence.” It may be good evidence but in the future if new discoveries alter our understanding, then these events as we understand them today, may not be true.

  17. BillG Says:

    What is truth? In the simplest of terms perhaps the best approach is what is invoked in U.S. criminal courts.
    Where the burden of proof is”beyond a reasonable doubt” – doubt is healthy whereas “unreasonable doubt” lead us into the weeds of solipsism.

  18. Bill Isaacs Says:

    “Truth” – What a controversial word! Truth is variable and relative, based on the specific “Time” and “Platform” we exist in and on. For the people of 2000 years ago in the time of the Romans and the platform of the area known as Israel, crucifixion was reality. Everything that occurred was communicated by the spoken word in the languages of the day. No electrical devices to record the news, no TV pictures to document the happenings, etc. So what do we here in the 21st century have of those times? Fragments from writings and artifacts of “what went down” with a man called Jesus. My point is that “claims” are not rigorous evidence, especially when it comes to “extraordinary claims of rising from the dead. Of course we as conscious sentient beings are free to believe anything we wish and pronounce it as “truth” if we wish.

    Great article -Dr. Shermer!

  19. William Cutler Says:

    Interesting the lack of comments on the truth (or not) of alleged miracles in the Bible. I am (in oversimplified terms) a committed Christian. I also hold a PhD in Physics from Stanford. My attitude toward the Biblical miracles: they are HIGHLY unlikely to actually have occurred, but I allow for the possibility, no matter how slight. After all, I was not there. However, I still believe in them in this sense. It is “as if” they occurred. In other words, had the actually occurred, what would be the significance of that for me. The significance is definitely not a proof of the existence of God. In my belief system, God does not stoop to cheap parlor tricks. The importance is what those stories teach in psychological, ethical, moral and spiritual realms. By “spiritual” I mean the deepest significance of my relationship to others, to the cosmos, to myself, and to whatever (if anything) is behind all that. In that sense my belief in the truth of the miracles is like my belief that dark chocolate is best. I confess that it has a high aesthetic component. I just like better the story that has God in it than the one that doesn’t.

  20. Bill Isaacs Says:

    To William Cutler:

    I also am a scientist with Physics and Math Degrees. I am not an atheist, but tend to be more of an agnostic regarding human ability to get at the “ultimate truths” of reality.

    Your post illustrates the essence of “personal truth”. What is true for you is thereby the personal truth of your time and platform that you reside in and on. Approximately 100 billion human beings have existed over the course of the last few million years. Each of those folks have known their own personal truths based on their time and platform. Each have held the same desires to understand why they were living in their own time and on their platform. They all have held their own individual beliefs of their creation scenario, to try to satisfy themselves that their life was “for some purpose”. That is the true wonder of our amazing journey, to be able to imagine and investigate with our magnificent brain. Unfortunately we are not perfect creatures and because of that, we have the power to destroy our world and other’s worlds, regardless of the existence or non-existence of a “Creator”.

    So, we all need to try to help others in their need and understand how to preserve our wonderful planet while we still have the ability.

  21. Stephen Cates Says:

    Who wouldn’t like the story with God in it. As Larry Darrow says toward the end of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, “It’s comforting.” (An elegant way to say ignorance is bliss-or perhaps possible ignorance can be bliss if you prefer a little wiggle room.)

  22. Joe Says:

    My personal truth about Michael Shermer is that he tends toward over simplification and broad generalities, generally offered in support of some ideology he adheres to.

    In this article, the example would be “Here the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”, which he uses to support his ideological opposition to conspiracies (citing UFO’s, faked moon landing, and Bush involvement in 9/11). A nice little turn of phrase that ignores the fact that sometimes the absence of evidence is due to the fact that evidence has been scrubbed, or buried, or made to disappear. Countless examples from small town police investigations to world power governmental action exist to support that claim. And Shermer likewise ignores the fact that sometimes “evidence” is manufactured in order to “prove” some “truth” (that same Bush administration and its “proof” of the existence of a viable nuclear weapons program in Iraq, for example).

    It would be nice if, in an open-minded, inquisitive, and truly skeptical fashion, Shermer explored these topics. But, alas, he always appears to have some agenda other than “truth” driving his writing.

  23. Larry Marko Says:

    Socrates observed that “Truth is what everybody believes”. This may explain the relative nature of truth, that is, what is true for you may not be true for me. I’m inclined to agree a note in the previous post which pointed to the fact that sometimes “evidence” is manufactured in order to “prove” some “truth”. Shermer may want to address this point.

  24. Barbara Harwood Says:

    One of the big problems associated with the various religious scriptures is that there have been several translations before they came to us. Even the language into which they were translated is not what we speak today. I was fortunate enough to have met George Lamsa who wrote a number of books in which he translated much of The Bible directly from Aramaic, the language spoken in Syria where he grew up, into modern English. Not only did he explain many of the miracles, but allowed us to gain the true meaning of the phrases and idioms of his language.
    Every time science advances in some spectacular way, it takes some time for the thinking of the scientists to figure out exactly what it is all about. The sequencing of the human genome, for instance, was expected to give us a simple tool to determine everything that there is to know about our genetic makeup. Instead, it has raised a number of other questions, both factual and moral, that will occupy curious minds for generations. We give things names even if we do not understand them, and the bigger the name, the less we understand it.
    Thank you for chumming the water with your ideas for discussion.

  25. Glenn Byers Says:

    One further thought: Personal Truth is fiction. It is what we claim to have when we want our opinions to sound more important.

  26. Loughlin Tatem Says:

    It appears as far as some are concerned it is impossible to know anything we did not actually witness.

  27. Mark Thomas Says:

    Michael Shermer wrote, “a man whom we refer to as Jesus of Nazareth probably existed.” However, there are no reliable data that back this position. All reliable data show that Jesus is just a mythical character created largely in the first and second centuries – out of previous myths and added stories. A key point is that no historian of the first century wrote about him. If he had actually existed and had done any of the “miracles” ascribed to him, somebody outside of Christianity would have written about him. Note that the gospels and epistles were written as stories, not as first- or second-hand accounts. There are many books and online articles that explain this. My article is at http://www.godlessgeeks.com/JesusExist.htm It has many references at the end for more info.

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