There can be several truths

Dr. Michael Schmidt-Salomon (Trier)

What is truth

The truth concept of the Enlightenment in ideological conflict

It is perhaps significant that the most fundamental question in philosophy - namely the question of "truth" - is not linked to the name of an important philosopher, but to the name of a political functionary: Pontius Pilate. The governor of the Roman Empire had - if one follows the text of the New Testament - considerable difficulties in understanding the explanations of his posthumously famous prisoner Jesus of Nazareth. He claimed in all seriousness that he had come into the world as king of a kingdom on the other side in order to bear witness to "the truth". In the probably rhetorical question of Pilate "What is truth?" Is reflected a good measure of skepticism - not only about the concrete statements of the prisoner who appeared before him, but also (at least the Pilate question is now mostly understood in this broader sense) compared to the Concept of truth in general. Let's take a closer look at the corresponding passage in John's Gospel (Jn 18: 33-40):

Pilate […] called for Jesus and asked him: Are you the King of the Jews? [...]
Jesus replied: My kingship is not of this world. If it were of this world, my people would fight so that I would not be handed over to the Jews [sic!]. But my kingship is not from here.
Pilate said to him: So you are a king after all?
Jesus replied: You say I am a king. I was born and came into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is from the truth listens to my voice.
Pilate said to him: What is truth?
After saying this, he went back out to the Jews and said to them: I can find no reason to condemn him. You are used to me releasing a prisoner for you on the Passover. So do you want me to release the King of the Jews for you?
Then they shouted again: Not this one, but Barabbas! But Barabbas was a mugger.

If one examines the conceptions of truth contained in this narrative, one must find that Jesus appears here in the role of the metaphysical truth dogmatician, as one who is convinced that everything he says corresponds to a "higher truth" and who emphasizes, that everyone who is serious about "the truth" has to listen to his voice. Pilate, on the other hand, appears to be a tolerant pragmatist of truth, who doesn't care about truth claims based on the other side as long as they do not endanger the order and constitution of the Roman Empire. It is enough for him to hear that the Kingdom of Jesus is out of this world. With that, the case is actually over for him. There are purely pragmatic reasons why he finally lets himself be persuaded to condemn the alleged “King of the Jews” to death on the cross. He reassuringly follows the will of the angry Jewish community, which supposedly wants to see the prisoner on the cross.

Now the Bible is known to be a man made "God's Word". To a large extent it does not reflect actual historical events, but rather reinterprets history in the interests of faith. So also in this case. As we can see from historical-critical research [1], the Jews never had the privilege of freeing prisoners on the Passover festival. The entire Jesus-Barabas-Pilate episode must be understood as a historical forgery, and moreover as a forgery that takes precedence one The purpose was: the subsequent cleansing of the Romans, under whom it was hoped to win further followers of Christian doctrine. The role of the scapegoat was transferred to the Jews, few of whom were converted to Christianity, much to the disappointment of early Christians. As we know today, the reinterpretation of historical events did not fail to achieve the desired goal: with its help, Christianity was later able to rise to the status of the Roman state religion, albeit at the expense of a devastating anti-Judaism that led more or less directly from the place of execution of Pilate to Auschwitz. [2]

In reality, the dispute between Pilate and Jesus - if it took place at all - will have been far less friendly. Jesus, who among his disciples had also gathered members of the militant group of the Zealots, may have felt himself to be the liberator of the Jewish people sent by God, after all this was the promised role of the “Messiah”. The total truth claim of the Jewish scholar Jesus of Nazareth, in contrast to the quoted passage, extended not only to the hereafter, but also to this world and therefore necessarily had to collide with the interests of the Roman governor. The occupying power represented by Pilate generally showed tolerance towards the religious customs of the oppressed peoples (which is why they also allowed alleged heretics to be stoned, as the Bible reports), but this tolerance had clear limits: inciters against Rome were condemned to do so on Ending a cross - as a clear warning signal for potential imitators. The emphatically proclaimed “truth” of the Jewish rabbi did not have great chances of survival at that time.

This is followed by a further thought: Can one infer from the Pilate story that the question of truth is ultimately a question of the respective power to define truth? If that were the case, then one would have to understand truth as a purely relative, historical-social quantity - consequently thought. In that case there wouldn't be a Truth that is binding for everyone, but at best truths that are constructed differently from group to group and sometimes even contradict each other. A completely absurd thought? Not necessarily! Indeed, some philosophers are of this kind Truth pluralism occurred. This relativistic approach was particularly evident in the work of Paul Feyerabend, which we would like to deal with briefly below.

Is Truth Relative? Paul Feyerabend's truth pluralism

Paul Feyerabend was the great dissident of modern philosophy of science, a rationalist who questioned rationalism until it evaporated, a Popper student who, after many years of epistemological efforts, made the astonishing demand to replace epistemology with citizens' initiatives. Feyerabend made it clear that it is not possible to make any qualitative assessment of a tradition that is not itself shaped by traditions. According to Feyerabend, whether a tradition or an aspect of a tradition is true or false, good or bad, reasonable or unreasonable, cannot be assessed objectively (i.e. across traditions). In Feyerabend's classic “Knowledge for Free People” it says: “Traditions are neither good nor bad; they just exist. 'Objectively', that is, independent of traditions, there is no choice between a humanitarian attitude and anti-Semitism. ”[3] He continues:“ A tradition only acquires desirable and undesirable traits if it is related to a tradition, that is if one regards them as participants in a tradition and judges them on the basis of the values ​​of this tradition. ”[4] Instead of the rational discourse, in which the interplay of arguments leads to improved insights, there is the ideological“ conflict ”in which the different opinions remain because no solution to the problem that is understandable for all parties is possible. [5]

To illustrate this uncomfortable situation, let us return to the dispute between Jesus and Pilate - this time in its historically more likely variant: Accordingly, Jesus represents the Orthodox Jewish tradition. He understands Judaism as the “chosen people of God” and himself as the long promised “Messiah” who, with God's help, will free the people from the Roman occupation forces. Since Yahweh does not tolerate any other god besides him, Jesus cannot recognize the Roman god emperor cult. That is why he is extremely allergic to the money changers in the Jerusalem temple, as the Roman god emperor is depicted on these "blasphemous" coins. For Jesus there is no other god than Yahweh, for him the Roman emperor is an “idol”, a sign of untruth that needs to be removed.

His rival Pilate, on the other hand, represents the Roman tradition. If there is a chosen people of the gods, then in his opinion it is of course the Roman, after all, its success as an imperial great power is difficult to deny out of hand. Why should he be convinced of the opposite by a Jewish traveling preacher of all people? His God Yahweh is obviously not even able to let his people entrusted to him live in freedom! For Pilate the Jewish faith is thus sufficiently refuted. Even more: The governor knows that the claim to omnipotence of the Jewish faith is extremely dangerous for its own tradition, because it - as the many uprisings in Jerusalem have shown - shakes the claims of Rome, which are justified for Pilate. That is why the governor of the Roman Empire proceeds just as consistently in the case of Jesus as he did in all the other cases in which he faced Jewish “messiahs” (a real fad at the time!): He condemned the delinquent to death on the cross, by the way: one of the cruellest methods of execution that humans have ever devised.

Jesus and Pilate, both argue logically within their own tradition. The criticism of the other's tradition is only understandable if one relates it to one's own tradition. A consensus between the two is impossible, after all, both opponents are firmly convinced that the truth is on their side. Precisely for this reason the conflict between the two cannot be resolved through arguments, but solely through violence, which Pilate then uses without hesitation to enforce the goals of his tradition against the ideological competition.

Let us now assume that we could sit down in a time machine and take part in the dispute as "enlightened people" of the 21st century. Would our arguments that the gods of history were created by humans, that there are no chosen peoples, that we are all members of the genus Homo sapiens with equal rights, etc., meet with Jesus and Pilate's ears? Hardly likely. We would be well advised to return to our time machine as quickly as possible if we didn't want to end up on the cross ourselves or fall victim to being stoned to death by angry Jews or being cast out by the “Savior” personally.

But do we actually have to conclude from this - as Feyerabend would suggest to us - that truth is relative, that it is nothing more than a construction that is determined by changeable historical and social interests? After all - we would think it is hard to deny that we have the better arguments at hand in the discourse, isn't it? Feyerabend would reply that our arguments appear to us to be the better arguments only because they stem from our own tradition. Separated from this tradition, our arguments are just as unconvincing as the arguments of our opponents. To this we could counter that our arguments, in contrast to the outdated opinions of Pilate and Jesus, are based on precise scientific judgments and that the progress of knowledge in the sciences in the last few decades could not be seriously contested by anyone.

Here, too, Feyerabend would vigorously drive us into the parade. Why - he would ask - should science have a greater guarantee of truth than, for example, card reading, number mysticism or the headlines of the tabloids? After all, science is only a Tradition under many Traditions. It has no claim to privileged access to reality and in reality it only impresses those who are already shaped by it. Quote Feyerabend:

“The application to the sciences is clear. We have a special tradition here that stands alongside other traditions on an equal footing [...]. Their results are great, almost divine for certain traditions, hideous for others, hardly worth a yawn for still other traditions. Our well-trained materialistic contemporaries are of course bursting with enthusiasm when we talk about things like the moon journeys, the double helix, Einstein's theory of space-time. But let's look at it from a different point of view, and it becomes a ridiculous exercise in uselessness. Billions of dollars, thousands of well-trained assistants, years of hard work were put in to enable a few not-too-intelligent and fairly limited-time contemporaries to make awkward jumps in a place no sane person would ever want to visit - a dry, airless, hot one Stone. But mystics, without money, without assistants, without a staff of scientists, crossed the universe with the help of their spirit alone, until they finally saw God himself in all his glory, and they brought back not dry stones but consolation for humanity. Of course, today such claims are ridiculed and called superstitious - but that only shows the intellectual immaturity of the general public and their strict teachers, the intellectuals. A free society does not exclude such immaturity, but also does not allow it to influence education, financial resources, research alone. " [6]

Let us ask ourselves what to make of this radical and somewhat confusing position by Feyerabend. Do we really have to accept that truth becomes a relative and thus also an arbitrary concept? Does it make sense in any way to assume that every tradition (yes, possibly every single person!) Has its own definition of truth?

It cannot be denied that Feyerabend's approach has advantages. In this way, he can help us to understand how it is possible that some people, with full seriousness and commitment, consider things to be true that, on the basis of scientific knowledge, must appear to be completely insane to us (for example the determination of fate by the star constellation at the time of Birth or belief in the ascension of the "mother of God" Mary). Another plus point of Feyerabendian relativism is that it sharpens our view that our own idea of ​​truth also arises from a specific tradition, i.e. that it is a specific construction of truth, i.e. a truth for us - not about a truth that is binding in principle for all people per se.

However, even if we want to acknowledge in this way that our conception of truth based on scientific methodology may not represent the only possible version of "truth", but that this conception has only proven to be useful within our tradition, that is still the case It cannot be ruled out for a long time that it might not make sense to export this concept of truth to regions that have so far been shaped primarily by other traditions. Finally, one must not overlook the fact that Feyerabend's pluralism of truth, which at first glance undoubtedly appears sympathetic and tolerant, on closer inspection allows for every imaginable fundamentalist insanity that appears to be truthful - from clitoral circumcision to widow burning to the systematic slaughter of alleged ones "Sinner". [7]

In addition, Feyerabend's relativism, like any other relativism, is logically shaky. Why? Because he has to set himself as absolutely valid in order to be able to justify that no tradition can be set as absolutely valid. But if the statement is that all is truth relative, as absolute If truth has to be understood, then relativism not only takes itself ad absurdum, it also enables the advocate of the Enlightenment concept of truth to equip his own position with universalistic claims in a similar way without a bad conscience. [8th]

Logic, empiricism and humanity: the truth concept of a contemporary Enlightenment

According to Aristotelian logic, two statements that contradict each other in one and the same respect, as is well known, cannot both be true. Scientific clarification aims to resolve such contradictions through logical and empirical testing and to systematically determine the most fruitful and efficient solution method for a given problem.

Beyond this abstract work program, can the theory of truth on which the Enlightenment Project be based (or rather: which should form the basis of the Enlightenment Project on the basis of today's knowledge!) Be more precisely specified? In contrast to some other authors, I think that this is very possible. To put it in a nutshell: The Enlightenment is necessarily based on one pragmatic, hypothetically corresponding coherence theory of truth.

This formula, which at first glance might seem monstrous, undoubtedly needs some explanation. Let us begin with the term "coherence theory": Within the coherence theory, a statement is considered true if it is logically conclusive, i.e. if there are no contradictions to the respective assumptions. We are dealing here with a concept of truth that is determined by the laws of logic. With the help of this concept, a mathematician can best distinguish true from false statements, but for the empiricist this coherence theoretical concept of truth is unsatisfactory. Finally, in the context of this theory, obviously nonsensical statements are also considered to be true if they have been inferred from nonsensical assumptions without errors.

Let an example illustrate this: Statement # 1: Philosophers always tell the truth. Statement # 2. Whoever tells the truth will be rewarded with a lifelong, monthly "truth pension" of 10,000 euros. The logical conclusion and thus “true statement” within the coherence theory would be: Philosophers can enjoy a lifelong, monthly “truth pension” of 10,000 euros. As can be seen from this sufficiently absurd example, which hardly corresponds to the author's life, the truth model based on coherence theory urgently needs to be supplemented.

We find this addition in the so-called "correspondence theory". Here a statement is considered true if it agrees with reality. That sounds plausible at first, but here we are faced with the problem of how this "correspondence" with reality can be checked. Since Kant at the latest, we have known that the “thing in itself”, that is, the “reality beyond our perception”, is not recognizable. [9] Yes, we don't even know if such a reality even exists!

Nietzsche was quite right to say that the “law of nature”, of which physicists so proudly spoke, was “interpretation”, not “text”. [10] But since the interpretation of a text presupposes something like a real text (even if this "in itself" cannot be read), it makes sense to use a hypothetical realism[11], i.e. to hypothetically assume a reality that exists apart from our perception. We have to assume such a reality hypothetically because only in this way can we avoid the danger of a metaphysics stuck in "pure thinking".

In the context of a hypothetically corresponding truth theory constructed in this way, statements are considered true if they agree with the hypothetically assumed reality. But how should the correspondence of statements with the in itself (i.e. theory-free) inaccessible reality be checked? Quite simply: using suitable empirical methods. But what is the reason for these proceedings? Answer: By means of theoretically secured sets of rules which - and here you can see the necessary addition to the hypothetical correspondence theory by the coherence theory - must not contain any logical contradictions in their structure.

Now, the logical coherence of the empirical models alone is not enough to legitimize them; they require a further, additional property: namely, they must have proven to be useful tools for problem solving in practice or justify the assumption that they will prove useful in the future can prove. In this way, a pragmatic element is added to the hypothetically corresponding coherence theory, or rather: it is based on it.

For a long time it was overlooked that every form of knowledge (including the scientific knowledge program based on logic and empiricism!) Is determined by the criterion of utility. Our cognitive apparatus is not geared towards a purposeless, “pure cognition” of the “truth”, but primarily towards the survival of the cognitive organism. [12] From an evolutionary point of view, our cognitive ability has no other function in this respect than, for example, our musculoskeletal system. In the course of cultural evolution, the purposes and means of knowledge have differentiated, but of course nothing has changed in the basic facts: Our findings are still intended - and this does not only apply to the selection of the problems that are to be solved with the help of improved knowledge, but also the selection of the appropriate tools for knowledge.

For a clear definition of the enlightening concept of truth, it is therefore necessary to give a clear definition of goals, because only this allows the well-founded selection of relevant problems and solution methods. To put it another way: The scientific knowledge processes logic and empiricism are not based in themselves, but are only legitimized in the context of the Enlightenment program by the fact that they have proven to be the most suitable instruments for achieving the goal set by the Enlightenment.

What is this central aim of the Enlightenment? To make it short: it consists in the normative demand for the humanization of human living conditions, i.e. the abolition of all those conditions that prevent people from realizing the project of the good life in this world. [13] If we were to achieve this noble goal through prayer, card reading, or reading coffee grounds rather than logic and empiricism, there would be no reason to continue to rely on science. As long as we have no more efficient problem-solving methods than logic and empiricism, the enlightener is obliged to use the scientific method to the best of his knowledge and belief.

In order to avoid foreseeable misunderstandings at this point, I would like to add four comments to this brief sketch of the Enlightenment Truth Concept:

1. The concept of benefit is not understood here in the sense of a direct usability aimed at the market. The basic research necessary to improve our knowledge of the world is of course not excluded by the use term used.

2. The normative aspect of utility must - when it comes to the construction of true knowledge - within the Enlightenment tradition not impair the application of the procedures of logic and empiricism. An idea that is or appears useful, but does not stand up to logical and / or empirical examination, cannot of course be called “true” in the context of the Enlightenment tradition.

3. The introduced pragmatic aspect does not relate directly to the usefulness of a concrete truth (in the sense of: "What is useful is true"), but to the usefulness of the truth-constructing procedure ("What can be considered (provisionally) true as the verification with the methods of logic and empiricism that have been proven to be useful! ") In other words: The tools of truth-finding or construction must prove to be useful, not necessarily the concrete results of this process. While knowing the truth can usually be considered useful, it is not always the case. (For conspiratorial groups, for example, it is helpful if the individual does not have a full overview, so that potential "embarrassing interrogations" cannot persuade them to pull the entire organization to the knife.)

4. Even if we can clearly prove that the methods of logic and empiricism have proven useful for the project of humanizing living conditions, this does not mean that they can only serve such a humane purpose. Rather, it should be pointed out that logic and empiricism, as the most efficient methods of knowledge and control of nature / culture, can serve any inhuman worldview, however inhumane. A phenomenon that we unfortunately encounter again and again when we enter the stubbornly contested terrain of ideological conflict.


4. The truth concept of the Enlightenment in ideological conflict

First of all, let us state: We have seen that enlighteners (on the basis of a pragmatic, hypothetically corresponding theory of coherence) use the tried and tested methods of logic and empiricism to contribute to a humanization of human living conditions through efficient problem-solving. In this hopeful company, however, the scouts encounter stubborn opponents:

The first to be mentioned here are all those who consistently use logic and empiricism - similar to the enlighteners - but - and this makes the difference - not for the purpose of humanizing living conditions, but, for example, in favor of a cold profit maximization, which also in an emergency goes over corpses. (In this context, for example, we would like to remind you of the illustrious group of Western scientists who made it possible for Saddam Hussein to use poison gas against Kurds.) Such scientists, who are always ready to serve, must be opposed to the fact that truth must never degenerate into a mere commodity and that always with great force great responsibility.

A second group of anti-enlighteners seems to be at least as dangerous, namely the group of those who on the one hand rigorously ban logic and empiricism from the realm of their worldview, but who on the other hand like to use the fruits of the scientific research process to achieve their purposes again and again. I am speaking of the group of religious fundamentalists to which all those belong who - like Jesus in the Bible - are convinced that it is possible to come into possession of "eternal truths" by revelation that apply to everyone .

In the case of the religious fundamentalists, I put the term “truths” explicitly in quotation marks because their “revealed truths” from the understanding of the Enlightenment are not “truths”, but dangerous illusions, clouding of consciousness, false doctrines. Undoubtedly, these “false doctrines”, which sometimes seem insane from the outside, represent unambiguous and well-founded “truths” for the followers of the respective religious systems - here you have to agree with Feyerabend. Tragically, this intraditional “truth” status can only come from outside the respective religious system Tradition to be disenchanted. And because that is so, it is hardly possible to convince a traditional fundamentalist of the logical or empirical inconsistencies of his system of thought. (Before one gets into the predicament of losing one's mind in a discussion with incorrigible fundamentalists, one should better address the causes that make the various fundamentalist salvation narratives attractive in the first place. To be mentioned here are above all: poverty, social Injustice and poor education.)

But there is also a third group that hinders the success of the Enlightenment. In our latitudes it is probably the most numerically strong group, the group of indifferent and indifferent people who enjoy the fruits of the Enlightenment with some carelessness and do not understand at all that it is necessary to make a decisive contribution to the Enlightenment project. Within this group, the arbitrariness theorem is extremely popular, as it releases them from the arduous task of taking a clear position in the ideological conflict.

Of course, this could prove fatal in the foreseeable future. Because if the diverse problems of humanity are not approached systematically and in a humane sense as soon as possible - and that requires a lot of will to fight in addition to logic and empiricism - it is very likely that fundamentalists in particular will be able to set the tone the circumstances have to dance. Since the risks and side effects of fundamentalist medicine should be well known by now, I can forego going into the fatal consequences at this point. [14]

I come to the conclusion: The enlightener must - as difficult as it may be - consistently come to an end the fine line between dogmatism and arbitrariness. He must firmly contradict the fundamentalists if they believe they are in possession of the eternal truth. For the Enlightenment there is by definition no revealed truth, no scripture, no taboo sanctioned by religious leaders. But the enlightener must also oppose the proponents of arbitrariness with the same determination. For him, 2 + 2 is and remains 4 - even if the overwhelming majority of people believe that the formula 2 + 2 = 22 is a fair and aesthetically neat compromise solution for the ideological conflict between the followers of the 10 commandments (2+ 2 = 10) and the friends of the 36-hour week (2 + 2 = 36). Even if the uncompromising, enlightening attitude of postmodern arbitrariness apostles may appear dogmatic: For logical as well as empirical reasons, the enlightenment has to contradict such an oh-so-“democratic” consensus, after all, he knows that houses, bridges, health or pension systems, which after the Formula 2 + 2 = 22 will sooner or later collapse.

Conclusion: The struggle for a concept of truth that corresponds to empirical and logical criteria is by no means an ivory academy event, but on closer inspection a struggle for more humane living conditions. In this necessary struggle, those who feel committed to the tradition of the Enlightenment should not let themselves be swayed - neither by backward-looking dogmatists who believe they recognize "eternal truth" in the ancient speeches of Jesus or Mohammed etc. in all seriousness believe that when it comes to "truth", I have to wander relentlessly from pillar to post ...


[1] see for example Lapide, Pinchas ((1987): Who was to blame for Jesus' death? Gütersloh; Maccoby, Hyam (1982): King Jesus. The story of a Jewish rebel. Tübingen.

[2] see Czermak, Gerhard (1997): Christians against Jews. Story of a persecution. Reinbek; Riggenmann, Konrad (2002): Crucifix and Holocaust. About the most successful depiction of violence in world history. Berlin.

[3] Feyerabend, Paul (1979): Knowledge for free people. Frankfurt / M., P. 54

[5] It is no coincidence that the concept of “conflict” is one of the central concepts of Lyotard's “postmodern” philosophy, which - albeit less drastically than is the case with Feyerabend - makes pluralism / relativism the focal point of thought, cf. Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1987): The Controversy. Munich.

[6] Feyerabend 1979, pp. 60f.

[7] Of course, Feyerabend wants to prevent violent inter-traditional attacks. For this he envisages a “police from outside” who “restricts physical freedom of movement, but not the flight of thoughts”. Apart from the fact that he does not disclose the guiding principles of such a “police”, his argumentation has the flaw of being powerless in principle against the various forms of intratraditional violence.

[8] Cf. Schmidt-Salomon, Michael (1999): Knowledge from engagement. Foundations of a theory of neo-modernism. Aschaffenburg, p.68ff.

[9] see Kant, Immanuel (1983): Critique of pure reason. In: Kant, Immanuel: Works in ten volumes. Vol. 3 and 4. Darmstadt.

[10] Cf. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1954): Beyond Good and Evil. In: Nietzsche, Friedrich: Works in three volumes. Published by Karl Schlechta. Vol. 2. Munich, page 586

[11] A concept by Konrad Lorenz, see Lorenz, Konrad (1977): The back of the mirror. Attempt at a natural history of human knowledge. Munich.

[12] As is well known, this is the starting point of evolutionary epistemology, cf. i.a. Vollmer, Gerhard (1975): Evolutionäre epistemology. Stuttgart.

[13] Like any normative core statement, this one is also not truthful.It is an arbitrary determination that ultimately eludes logical and empirical verification. As embarrassing as this is, no system of thought that faces reality can do without such normative foundations. This even applies to Feyerabend's anti-fundamentalism, as explained above (cf. also: Schmidt-Salomon, Michael (2001): The “Münchhausen Trilemma” or: Is it possible to pull oneself out of the swamp by one's own head? In: Enlightenment and Criticism: Hans Alberts Critical Rationalism. Special issue 5/2001).

[14] Numerous books have appeared on the subject of “fundamentalism” in recent years. A good overview of the range of fundamentalist activities is also provided by reading the “Internationale Rundschau” of the MIZ magazine, which has been critically commenting on religious developments around the world for around thirty years.