Is Truth Self-Evident?
In 1776 Thomas Jefferson wrote those stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ” One of the revered fathers of the American Revolution, Jefferson belonged to the “Enlightenment” tradition. The Enlightenment had developed in Great Britain a hundred years earlier as the result of the discoveries of Isaac Newton and other scientists that the universe obeyed certain fixed laws. This led to the conviction known as “deism,” which saw God as a Divine Mechanic who had created the world to function by fixed and invariable laws and then retired from the universe, leaving it to run on its own. In this Enlightenment view all who were educated in the fundamental laws of the universe had immediate access to all truths. Truths — facts — were therefore “self-evident.” This view excluded self-evidency from the uneducated — the poor, the women and the slaves. For them the only recourse was to give rhetorical and submissive assent to those who possessed self-evidency.
Fortunately, the world has long since moved beyond the so-called “Enlightenment.” We now live in a post-Enlightenment, postmodern age. Further developments in science and philosophy have shown that the universe is not “self-determined” and therefore is not “self-evident.” God is not a Divine Mechanic. He has not abandoned the universe to operate on its own. The universe is open and therefore not yet determined. If not determined, it is not yet fully evident. “ . . . [W]e know in part . . . [We] see through a glass, darkly . . . ” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). “ . . . [I]t doth not yet appear . . . ” (1 John 3:2).
Furthermore, scientific and philosophic developments in the 20th century have disclosed that none of our human presuppositions or assumptions are fully provable, and hence none of them are self-evident. For example, the great German mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel showed that mathematics — the ultimate philosophy — has been developed on unprovable assumptions. While we generally agree that 2 + 2 = 4 and we find that relationship useful, we cannot prove that 2 + 2 = 4 except by assuming a particular end-to-end arrangement of the parts (2 and 2) in a flat or Euclidean plane. In a myriad other arrangements and in curved space, 2 and 2 do not make 4.
As someone has succinctly stated, all human observations are made with spectacles. That is, we all wear a set of hermeneutical eyeglasses. All human observations are made with an interpretive bias. In scientific matters the interpretive bias is called a “theory” or “hypothesis” against which observations are made. The theory or hypothesis is falsifiable if consistent observations contradict the theory. Likewise, a hermeneutical theory is verifiable only if all observations are consistent with the theory. Therefore, total verifiability is not possible, so that all of our observations and interpretive assumptions are subject to change.
To Enlightenment scientists it was self-evident that the speed of light was variable, depending on the movement of the light source or the movement of the observer of the light. It was not until the 20th century that Einstein showed that the speed of light is invariable — radically contrary to all human self-evidency. The well-known Canadian biophysicist Kenneth Norwich has shown that even human sensations — such as touch, pressure, heat, pain, sight and sound — are perceived only against a biologically constructed reference standard. Thus, what may be warm and comfortable for one person may be either cold or hot for another. Sounds that may be inaudible to one person may be discerned and even painful for another.
If, in view of post-Enlightenment developments, no truths, no facts, no reasons are self-evident, then how do we arrive at truths, facts and reasons? This involves an element of mystery, but we do have some evidence.
Freedom from Self-Evidency
The evidence strongly suggests that God himself has given us certain truths. First, he has Creatorly given us a consciousness of himself. This “god-consciousness” has been thoroughly explored by neurophysiologists, neuropsychologists, and by philosopher-historians such as Julian Jaynes.1 Second, God has Creatorly given us a consciousness of ourselves and of others. Therefore, the existence of God, of ourselves, and of others is not self-evident. Rather, it is Creatorly evident.
On other matters relating to our existential worlds — to symbols and to reality — “knowing” involves elements of education and learning, of rationalization and intuition, of trial and error, of simplicity, elegance and esthetics, of historical and communal human consensus. Animals may “know” by instinct, by self-evidency (which also has been Creatorly given); but man (male and female) has been given the privilege of “knowing” by learning, by observing, by communicating, by sharing, by listening, by reasoning, and by all the other means available to and in an open human universe.2,3 God does not expect us to reach automatic, knee-jerk, rhetorical, self-evident unanimity on any matter. This would eliminate the “necessity” of contingency, of openness, of community, of history, of learning, and of the future. Freedom is therefore grounded on the absence of self-evidency.
In this freedom we now await the Parousia4 — the imminent Second Coming of the incarnational “human” God.5 This event will not be the fulfillment of self-evidency but rather the visible revelatory disclosure of the Person of the human God to the entire community of mankind. Self-evidency excludes revelation. Yet all revelation to man is human revelation. That is, for revelation to be revelation, it must be perceived as such by mankind. Therefore, the revelation of God at the Parousia involves a transformation of human consciousness that will enable mankind to fully apprehend him. Revelation and transformation are indivisibly united. “ . . . [W]hen he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). “ . . . [T]hen shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13: 12). Thus, in the final analysis all evidency is not self-evidency but God’s-evidency.
- See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976). (go back)
- For all creatures to be under the administration of law means that all creatures — including mankind — are under an instinctual, intuitive, “self-evident” order (see Galatians 4:1-6). In such an order everything/everyone does “what comes naturally.” For example, we naturally assume that entities develop relationality rather than relationality developing entities (material objects and substances). However, as now disclosed by science, the nature of the universe itself is profoundly counterintuitive. Scientific understanding now recognizes that relationality develops entities rather than entities developing relationality. The ground of all reality in the universe is causal relationality — not causal entities. Likewise, in the resurrection/Parousia (Second Coming) the animal nature of mankind, which is intuitive, instinctual and “self-evident,” will be transformed into a human reality now regarded as counterintuitive. Selfhood, which is fundamentally relational, then will be fully disclosed as human entities (persons). See “‘You Will Be Free Indeed,’” Outlook (Prolepsis 1992.1). (go back)
- Addendum Note: See “Revolutionary Implications of Relationality and ‘Otherness,’” Outlook (Addendum 2016.1), endnote 20:
Today we are in the process of understanding the primacy of relationality — for example, Einstein’s “theory of relativity” (relationality) and, later, the dawning of quantum physics with its revolutionary understanding of the primacy of relationality rather than substance and essence. We now understand that observable or “particulate” entities emerge from relationality rather than observable entities creating relationality. To use a metaphor, this is like two tennis players (observable entities) who cease to exist if the exchange of the tennis ball (relationality) ceases. In this, quantum or relational reality (truth) is not self-evident but is, in fact, counterintuitive; yet it is still fundamental reality (truth). Here the American founding fathers, with their “self-evident” truth, needed a future update. Interestingly, “Some epistemologists deny that any proposition can be self-evident. For most others, the [non-relational] belief that oneself is conscious is offered as an example of self-evidence. However, one’s belief that someone else is conscious [relationality] is not epistemically self-evident” (Art. “Self-evidence,” in Wikipedia, at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-evidence). In light of relationality as evidenced by quantum physics and relational or human “otherness,” “relationally evident” or “humanly evident” rather than “self-evident” is an appropriate update for ultimate reality (truth).
- The Greek word parousia, translated, means both “presence” and “coming.” See Wikipedia — The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Parousia,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parousia: “Parousia . . . is an ancient Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or official visit.” (go back)
- Addendum Note: See “Incarnation and Parousia — Ultimate ‘I,’ Ultimate ‘Thou,’” Outlook (Prolepsis 1991.6); “Understanding the Christ Event,” Outlook (Prolepsis 1991.7). Subsequent to his incarnational entry, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection involved confronting, overcoming and ultimately terminating and transcending the hierarchical (vertical) attributes of command, possession and power necessarily used by uncreated, self-existent divinity to initiate, advance and administer the proleptic (anticipatory) first or old Creation and old covenant. The new Creation and new covenant of the incarnational God of created, co-existent, free and equitable “human” (horizontal) relationality (John 15:15) is developed in later Outlook publications. See especially “The Most Painful Difficulty,” Outlook (September/October 2004); “The Divine Predicament,” Outlook (January/February 2005); “The Divine Resolution V: Creation and Apocalyptic,” Outlook (November/December 2005); “The Divine Resolution VII: Parousias,” Outlook (February 2006); “Atonement VII: Transformation,” Outlook (September 2006); “The Gospel for the Postmodern World III: The ‘Other Side’ of God,” Outlook (January 2008). (go back)
This article was originally published March 1993 under the Quest imprint.