‘Quid est veritas?’
This striking scene between Jesus and Pilate is retold in the Gospel of John:
“I bring truth,” said Jesus.
“Quid est veritas?” responded Pilate. “What is truth?”
Perhaps Pilate did not mean to mock. He was skeptical of the crowd’s accusations against Jesus. He was skeptical, too, of Jesus’ claims about Himself. Critically, Pilate seemed skeptical of the very possibility of ever recognizing what was true.
Pilate’s question is not confined to articles of faith. It
pervades any field of truth-seeking or knowledge generation—“objective” or “scientific” or otherwise. Indeed, what constitutes Truth (with a capital “T”) is constantly changing.
We see this in the protean reinterpretations and revisionisms of history, which also claim to “bring truth.”
Take our remembrance of Marcos and People Power, for example. Although some see his leadership as one worthy of interment in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, many others view his dictatorship as one of social injustice and brutality.
Thinkers like Bryan Tiojanco posit that “the 1987 Constitution is an anti-Marcos Constitution” (“Honoring a dictator is not who we are,” 11/1/16), demonstrating a collective interpretation of the Marcos regime as one that needed to be done away with. It is as if people at either end of this debate learned or experienced a completely different version of history.
The elusiveness of truth is epitomized in President Duterte’s response to the Marcos burial: “His being a hero? Well it depends on the beholder.”
More “objective” fields like biomedicine also make clear that right and wrong are much harder to define. Medical training is replete with hints at our volatile truths.
We were told at orientation that half the material that we would learn in medical school will be false by the time we enter full practice; the problem is that we don’t know which half.
A surgeon mentor of mine told me to learn the classic Netter’s Anatomy text by heart. “It’s the only thing that’ll still be true in 200 years,” he said.
Earlier in the 1900s, cigarette posters everywhere boasted endorsements from doctors. Today we consider cigarettes “bad” because of their causal link to lung cancer and other diseases.
The scientific method is founded upon this need to continually reinvent truth: De omnibus dubitandum, wrote Descartes: “Doubt everything.”
In other words, no fact should be immune to questioning, and any which fail must be cast away. Indeed, we see the scientific method’s undoing in campaigns against vaccines: Questionable correlations with adverse medical effects are blamed on vaccines, often without critical appraisal of the scientific evidence for and against.
Even seemingly more objective fields like math and physics are replete with changes in understanding.
There are cultures today that exist without math as we know it: Brazil’s Pirahã people only have words for “small quantity” and “larger quantity,” and none for other numbers, exemplifying human thought that could flourish without having to find the proverbial x.
In physics, the ancient Greek conception of the world consisting of five elements was supplanted by Dalton’s atomic theory, which was later modified by Rutherford, Bohr, Schrödinger, etc., each updating truth as more information became available.
Truth, therefore, can in its various forms be changed in time and space—calling to question the permanence of our current understanding of the world.
A fascinating article by the Farnam Street Blog, a metacognition website that invites readers to think about thinking, argues that “information has a predictable half-life.”
There is, purportedly, a finite amount of time it takes for half of a body of information to be invalidated or superseded. In short, knowledge decays just like radioactivity or the substrates of a chemical reaction. The article points out that there is a body of knowledge that supports the fleetingness of knowledge itself.
This is not meant to be a nihilistic denouncement of the progress of knowledge: We can now edit the genetic code, prove the historicity of Jesus, and store selfies in the cloud.
The collective body of human knowledge is ever growing.
However, as that body of knowledge grows, so much is also made obsolete. Ideas swing from truth to nontruth (and often the other way around).
The difficulty lies in not knowing which truths will stand the test of time.
The dynamism of truth and the turnover of facts constitute a call to engage in the honest generation of knowledge, and to question widely held “facts,” shaking the foundations of our daily assumptions. After all, the world was once thought to be flat.
Call it intellectual humility. It can clearly be applied to the academe. Scientists often have to doubt their own data to see if their hypotheses stand the flame test; historians do so, too, as they modify narratives whenever pertinent new pieces of a historical puzzle are brought to light.
The humble intellect is willing to correct itself, and can grapple with ever-changing truth.
But the act of questioning truth can inform daily life as well. Take, for example, our judgments of others as “good” or “bad.” Growing up, many of us were inculcated into the Tom-and-Jerry caricature of morality as having a clear good and a clear evil.
Calling this into question highlights the infinite shades of gray in between. Perhaps in seeking a more nuanced picture, one sees that neither are all prisoners evil, nor are all politicians corrupt.
The humble intellect is willing to doubt whether a widely held idea — the often-presumed moral corruption of drug users in today’s society, for example, or the correctness of particular world views as touted by popular politicians or celebrities—constitutes truth.
Indeed, as what is true in math and science changes over time, so does what is true in moral and political thought.
Perhaps the corollary of this in daily living is to pause before passing judgment, to first gather more information, to choose the kinder course of action toward another. Had Pilate done this, and had he stood his ground against the crowd, Jesus might not have died on the cross.
The first person to question cigarettes’ health benefits must have been of this mindset. As are those who challenge widely held historical, political, and scientific views.
Perhaps so, too, was Pilate in doubting the crowd’s conviction of Jesus’ guilt, and in calling into question the very act of knowing.
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Edward Christopher Dee, 25, a product of Xavier School and Yale University, is a second year med student at Harvard Medical School.
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