Yes, We Can Know Truth Today

How astonishing it is to be a human person! Like vegetables, it is wonderful enough to be able to assimilate inanimate minerals and grow, as well as to reproduce our own kind. Like our dear pets, it is amazing that we have senses to know the physical world, and emotional and instinctual reactions to that ongoing awareness. We can even move on our own from place to place!

But how much more amazing it is that we can also know and react in a very different way—as persons. We can define what our senses present to us, letting us know and name each thing distinct from every other. We can reflect on the meaning of what happens to us and of the emotions and instincts we experience. From understanding, we can invent, and together create, a culture and civilization. We can express knowledge in language and translate one tongue into another. With language we can joke, entertain, and laugh.

And beyond knowing the physical side of experience, we can ponder and come to understand the vast array of non-physical realities—such as friendship, loyalty, betrayal, courage, cowardice, inspiration, honesty, character, heroism, etc. We can become self-aware and build up self-knowledge throughout a lifetime. But best of all, we can know, converse and cooperate with, and love others as persons. These marvelous things we can do, because to be a person is so much more wonderful than to be a plant or animal.

In addition to knowing as a person, we can freely choose so much beyond the automatic responses of our bodies; we exercise personal freedom daily in matters great and small, a second power unknown to even the biggest, strongest, and most developed of animals.

These two highest powers of being human, which afford the greatest experiences of life, are named intellect and free will. Though not physical powers of our bodies, and, so, not as easy to be aware of and to mature, they are, nevertheless, of paramount, defining value to being human.

How unsettling it must be, therefore, for anyone who has come to appreciate these powers to realize that contemporary Western culture depreciates both of them, but especially the intellect. Until fairly recently, it was assumed by everyone that our intellects or minds could be educated to find the truths of life in the world. But today, the best we can hope for is mere opinion about things, and our experience of them, and even of ourselves. We collect people’s opinions by polls and base our behavior and laws on the majority view. It’s come to the point that, if most of us think we have a good reason, we can kill a human being at any stage of life. We can change the essential makeup of marriage, family, and parenting today if most of us think it is OK. Even in our academic establishments of highest esteem, it is often proclaimed that “truth” is an outmoded concept and that the search for it is futile.

It is on this personal power of intellect that I wish to concentrate in this article. I intend to show why the current view, that our minds are only capable of opinion, is false; what most likely causes this view; and how to find truth today, despite the popular, academic, and political belief that there are no universal, perennial truths or principles by which to guide our individual and social lives.

Picture yourself for a few moments as a newly enrolled university student, excited to be finally in the higher realms of education. Your burning desire is to find the truth to the deepest questions of life that are beginning to intrigue you. You long to begin the journey to becoming a wise person.

During the very first semester, however, you are stunned and disillusioned. Time and again, you have heard professors proclaim that in our contemporary times, we have gone beyond the medieval myth of searching for permanent truths that apply to all of us. Their usual explanation for this proclamation is that our advances in science and technology have liberated us from the pointless search for “truth.” The best knowledge humans can acquire about anything, especially about being human and how to live, is ever better educated opinions. Refined guesses, not truth, they say, is the end of the mind’s journey begun in honest questioning. What a blow to the pressing curiosity of youth!

There are generally two arguments with which many of today’s professors try to convince students of this conclusion. And until the simple solutions are voiced, these arguments usually succeed.

The more popularized argument is that “Your truth is not my truth.” This mantra of today’s dominant mindset derives from a philosophy of individualism. Surely, as this stance stresses, it is obvious that the unique features of each person’s background, makeup, personality, achievements, ongoing experiences, and circumstances, etc., are not those of any other person. Hence, there are no truths or values the same for any two or more persons—so the argument goes.

But this view can be dispelled as soon as students are asked if there is anyone in the room who is not human. They see immediately that, while there are many truths exclusive to each individual, there can also be truths about being human that are the same for every member of the race. The full truth about human beings is “both/and,” not “either/or.”

The second argument derives from the claims of a materialistic view of evolution that everything is changing into something more developed. There are no fixed natures, as was formerly assumed, and, so, there can be no fixed, universal truths, even about being human, since humans, too, will become something different.1

Aside from the metaphysical point that there are both particular aspects of reality that are ever-changing (evolving) and universal aspects that are never-changing, an appeal to simple experience is again enough for students to see through this argument. When asked if their distant ancestors were human and if they expect their great grandchildren will be human, they see that the truths about our humanness are quite stable enough to rely on for now and the foreseeable future. They can be trusted as long as we are humans!

At this point, most students become reassured that their quest for satisfying answers to their wonderings is realistic, and they are ready to search for truths about their common humanity. But still a barrier must be overcome since they are very aware that, among those in history (as well as today) who have pursued universal truths, there have often been serious disagreements.

With this concern, the students are intuitively expressing what philosophers have come to call the principle of non-contradiction. Because this crucial principle operates at the root of all thinking and choosing, it is self-evident to everyone that what is true cannot be false, and what is good cannot be evil. Yes cannot mean no; up cannot be down; harm cannot mean help; death cannot mean life, and so on. Always at work in us, though rarely thought about, this principle lets us avoid utter confusion by separating conflicting claims about things.

So, why, students ask, if this principle always works in all of us, have scholars often disagreed about truths about being human, even to the point of contradiction?

This problem introduces the very important contrast between objective and subjective knowing. It really is the crux of the matter. Surely, various teachers have often enough pointed out subjectivity as a danger to steer clear of, but rarely, if ever, do they clarify its causes and give a strategy to prevent it. Let us attempt that task here.

Objective knowledge makes us aware of the object itself on which we are focused. We grasp the object just as it is, without any distortions. Our human intellect was made to form concepts, or ideas, from sense perception of the objects we experience, concepts that are accurate enough to identify things clearly from one another. This is the definitional level of seeing the truth of reality, and in every language it has given rise to the dictionary. By comparison, subjective knowledge knows the object as distorted by influences coming from the person knowing (who is the “subject”). For example, if someone tells you that he knows a lot about the object, stars, and if his knowledge is accurate, it is objective. But if, instead, he tells you only about his personal reactions to a star spangled sky, his knowledge is subjective.

There are four main influences that have plagued the human mind since time immemorial and which are pervasive throughout the western world today. Two of these influences come from our cognitive powers and two from our affective powers.2

To help understand this, the students like the analogy of a camera. A camera is made to take in an image of an object just as it is, but if a filter is placed over the lens, the image is distorted. The picture of a green tree will be red, orange, blue, or brown if influenced by filters of those colors. It is similar with our intellect. It is made to form ideas of objects as they are, and it will do so unless influenced by a “filter.”

From this analogy it becomes easy enough to understand four main filters that cause our knowledge to be subjectivized.

Ignorance is a cognitive filter. Anyone who speaks about an object more from what they do not know about it, than from understanding, gives a distorted account of that object. We’ve all met people who pontificate about what they know little about—and haven’t we all done this often enough? The cure? To investigate adequately any important topic before we speak about it. Sound education, after all, is meant to change ignorance into objective knowledge.

Bias is a second cognitive filter. Better understood as prejudice—which literally means pre-judging—bias is jumping to conclusions about an object (another person, religion, gender, culture, etc.) before doing the research needed to substantiate those conclusions. Such pre-judging obviously distorts the truth of what one is thinking or talking about. Again, inquiry sufficient to achieve honest understanding will dispel this filter.

Strong emotions are obviously an affective filter to objective knowing. While excited or depressed, angry or frightened, blissful or hateful, anyone’s thinking will be colored by these feelings. We recognize that, at the moment, we cannot “think straight.” Yet, we can accustom ourselves to “cool down” and become “levelheaded” before trying to think or speak objectively.3

And finally, even though it is often the most influential of the filters, many students have difficulty seeing, at first, why fixed willful choices (desired goals or outcomes of action) distort intellectual knowing so strongly. It seems that, especially, Americans value freedom in a way that blinds them to any possible negative effects from it.4 But a person, who wants reality to be other than it is, tries to think as if reality matched their desires. They live in a never-never land of their own making, leaving freedom isolated, without guidance. The result is either good luck or disaster since one’s free choice is now a “shot in the dark.” Such rationalization can only be avoided if we engage in objective reasoning and are willing to change our choices to match it. Though often difficult to do, following instead of ignoring the “principle of non-contradiction” is indispensable here.

Each of these filters keeps us from knowing the real world and, instead, makes us think that a distorted version is the real world. It takes a good part of a semester for many students to experience consciously the distorting influence of these filters, especially about topics (objects) to which they bring strong feelings, biases, or wants. Isn’t this initial “blindness” often true of all of us? And so, wouldn’t it be true even of scholars throughout history?

A master key, therefore, to knowing the truth, especially about our humanness, and how to live in full respect to it, is to develop both an awareness of when these filters are influencing us and the discipline to consciously exclude them from our thinking and speaking.5

Interestingly, a final consideration is necessary, even after we have trained ourselves to be objective. It might be called “narrow-mindedness versus open-mindedness.” Of course, “open-mindedness” here does not mean that all opinions are of equal value—a prevalent false view today—but, rather, a willingness to learn about an object in every way possible. Conversely, “narrow-mindedness” stops short of accepting one or more of the sources of truth about an object. A narrow-minded person can be characterized as thinking “with blinders on” or “with his or her head in the sand.” We will not come to the best understanding of anything, obviously, until we open our minds to all of the sources of objective knowledge available to us. There are four possible sources of objective knowledge.

Most people have only experience and common sense available to them because they have not had the luxury of in-depth, objective education. Their experiential source can normally be trusted (if non-filtered), but it does not yield a very penetrating or complete understanding of whatever objects, physical or spiritual, life presents. Yet, experience is everyone’s starting point about every object, and in the absence of deeper perceptions, may not be disregarded.

In-depth, objective knowledge of physical realities requires education in modern science. The wondrous development of this second source of knowledge through science and technology deepens one’s understanding of physical objects today more than ever in history.6 Thus, if any topic contains a physical component, the knowledge of modern science about it must be taken into account. Bioethical topics are currently an example of extreme importance. About this source that is science, however, there are two cautions: through new discoveries, science is always changing, and so, scientific knowledge may never be taken to be absolute. One must keep up with the latest. Moreover, there is both sound (objective) and “junk” (incompetent and subjective) science permeating our culture. We each must sharpen our ability to discern which is which. Sound science follows the scientific and statistical methods rigorously, and the results of any true scientist can be reproduced by others using the same procedures.

In-depth, objective knowledge about natural spiritual realities takes education in sound philosophy. So much of our daily experience is not about what is physical, but naturally spiritual. Some examples were referred to above, such as friendship, interpersonal love (not emotional or instinctual love), fidelity, truthfulness, honesty, purity, personal beauty, integrity, dignity, heroism, inspiration, character, justice, courage, etc. Often, we need more than surface penetration into many, if not most, naturally spiritual things since we can suffer severely as a result of a mistaken grasp of them. Understanding such important things beyond experience and common sense falls within the realm of philosophy, not that of modern science. A strong caution here is that many famous philosophers do not think about such objects competently. As we surmised earlier, they are somehow “filtered” or narrow-minded and so subjective. Here we must sharpen our ability to discern junk philosophy from genuine philosophy, that “tells it like it is.” A judicious use of the principle of non-contradiction and a grounding in objective, truthful principles is the best preparation for this deepening of our understanding to the point of comprehension.

Theology, that is, the harmonious blend of authentic, religious faith and natural, objective knowledge is the fourth source of knowing the truth. Genuine theology accepts as true what the divine gift of faith reveals, and then uses the above three ways of natural objective reasoning to penetrate the meaning of what is believed and to apply that meaning to daily life and to contemporary problems. Caution: Here too one must discern true Christian faith from distorted versions.7 Among true believers, goodwilled disputes (which are to be expected among people always struggling to minimize subjectivity and narrowness of outlook) can, thankfully, be resolved by Christ’s authority made available to us through the Bible, Catholic Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church.

The above points have been preliminary, but necessary, to actually knowing the truth that applies to all human beings. If we exclude the influence of any filters, and if we are not narrow-minded, we can trust the intellect to do what it was made to do; that is, to fashion concepts or ideas of objects that let us know them. It was made precisely to do this—to know the truth of things. In this way, we can interact with reality as it is, through free choice well guided, and, only because of the truth, we are enabled to experience the full richness and beauty of reality.

This is especially so in knowing ourselves. The better we understand the truth, both of our uniqueness and of our humanness we share with everyone, the better we can develop our full potential individually and with others, and, so, give to, and receive, the most from life.

When the foregoing has been taken into account, there are two levels on which we can know things objectively. The first level is to know what each object is, different from all others. This knowledge gives us definitions so that we do not confuse objects. It is a simple, but obviously necessary, grasp of reality.

A deeper level is to grasp the reason why each object exists; that is, what it is meant to do or achieve by fulfilling the very purpose built into it. This level of perception gives us a very satisfying experience of understanding. And how crucial this level of truth is. Knowing the objective purposes of things lets us avoid abusing them and experiencing consequent frustration, and instead lets us use them helpfully on our journey of pursuing our own in-built purpose for existing.

To any reader schooled in the realistic philosophy of Aristotle or of St. Thomas Aquinas, it will be of high interest to recognize that we have arrived at three of the famous “Four Causes” of things and of truthful knowledge of things. Above all else, all of us are naturally curious about these four questions. In addition to the creative cause of everything (the Efficient First Cause), which we have not discussed, Aristotle considered knowing the above two levels of things, namely, what things are (the conjoined Material and Formal Causes)8 and why they exist (the Final Cause), to be the basic truths of knowing reality.9 These four perceptions give us secure personal contact with the worlds around us and within us.

And so, after seeing likely causes of untrustworthy knowing and useful strategies for eliminating those causes, the reader, or any intently curious, but frustrated, university student, can relax! Despite the widespread assumption of our times that the very experience our minds long for is a medieval myth, it is very cheering to see that we can still know the truth and so pursue a genuinely intellectual and moral life, dealing with reality, instead of fiction, all along the way. Any of us can happily continue questioning and searching—with the assurance that wisdom is not a chimera, but the reward awaiting an earnest seeker.

  1. Of course, there are behavioral rules and regulations that apply to all of us, directing our free choices, like the driving and penal codes. Such rules, however, do not derive from unchanging truths because they are arbitrary and could be changed by the human authority that imposed them. These regulations bind our freedom in regard to observable actions under penalty instead of guiding them by truths about being human, and so they cannot give the guarantee of individual and social well-being that truth confers.

    A serious, unsubstantiated but widely accepted example of this second argument is that sexuality, marriage, and family have evolved today from what “human nature” had always determined them to be to what it “feels like” they are to each person or what each person wants them to be.

  2. Catholic faith informs us that both our minds and wills have been weakened by sin, ultimately by original sin but also in an increased way by personal sin.  Since sin is the principle of obscurity in the intellect and corruption of freedom in the will, it accounts, finally, for the cognitive and affective distortions to be discussed. 
  3. Of course, our feelings (emotions) can be, and usually are, in harmony with reality and so can guide our thinking about an experience correctly.  Yet, each of us knows times when our feelings are either excessive or deficient responses to what is happening and can twist our thinking, and especially judging, to excess or defect. 
  4. It can happen nevertheless that the forces of instinct, especially when self-preservation or reproduction is involved, join the forces of related emotions and those of free choice so that the intellect is kept from seeing clearly enough to guide freedom objectively. 
  5. Freeing ourselves from subjectivity is a progressive campaign.  Yet, it is not a discouraging experience because to each degree we succeed, we sense our self-mastery increasing as well as our encounter with reality deepening and solidifying. 
  6. The advances through the scientific and statistical methods of enquiry have been so remarkable during the past century or so that many educated people today assume that the only reliable way to think is through these methods.  Such a narrowing of our intellectual prowess excludes the deeper sources of comprehending the truth, namely realistic philosophy and authentic theology. 
  7. Many who have written in the past and who write today about religious topics show no signs of divinely given faith; that is, a free and grateful acceptance of God’s Word as truth in relation to the topics they discuss.  They may exhibit brilliant human thinking, but it does not show respect for or admiration of a thinking (God’s) superior to what is human. Despite offering possibly helpful insights, these authors do not write as authentic theologians. 
  8. See Aquinas, St. Thomas, ST, Q. 87, a. 3. 
  9. See Aquinas, St. Thomas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Dumb Ox Books, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1995, especially Book II “The Search for Truth and Causes,” pp. 106-122. 
Fr. Paul Conner, OP About Fr. Paul Conner, OP

Fr. Paul Conner, OP, received his STD from the Teresianum in Rome, Italy, in 1972. He presently teaches moral and spiritual theology. In addition to teaching at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, Fr. Conner has taught at St. Albert's College, Oakland, CA; Our Lady of the Rosary College, Mission San Jose, CA; The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, CA; The University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome; University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA; Silver Lake College, Manitowoc, WI; and New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY.


  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Father Conner, thank you for this logical article on truth . There is from St. Thomas Aquinas shown in Moral theology called the fundamental option where humans with their will choose an act of sin or virtue . The will is connected to the act for that is where the choice is made. Yes university students and all persons must seek where the truth about God can be found. such as the Tradition of the Catholic Church and books on Theology and Scripture.