“You can’t handle the truth” is more than just a famous line from a movie. It is a recognition of the fact that most people live in their feelings and opinions to the extent that any sort of serious criticism results in an immediate reaction to protect their own personal view of reality. In short, people tend to live in their subjectivity. They look at the world through “rose colored glasses” and only deal with as much of objective reality as is convenient or necessary.
Of course this is not particularly surprising. Every living creature engages in a variety of self-protective behaviors. What is different about human beings is that we will often claim to want the truth, while at the same time throwing up all sorts of barriers to actually grasping it.
This raises a number of questions. First, is it even possible to know the truth; or, are we trapped in our subjectivity with no escape? Secondly, if it is possible to distinguish objective reality from our feelings and opinions, what is the process by which one can actually gain such knowledge? Finally, once one knows the truth, is it possible to know that you know the truth, or must all our beliefs remain open to possible correction?
To help answer these questions, consider the following sentences:
1. Sugar is sweet.
2. Sugar tastes sweet.
What is the difference between these two statements?
The first claims that sweetness is an objective quality that sugar has. The second states that almost everyone experiences the sensation of sweetness when we eat sugar.
Are both sentences true?
No, the first is false. Sugar or sucrose is just another organic molecule. There is no special feature that sucrose has that other similar compounds lack. The reason why sugar tastes sweet is that it is present in a wide variety of foods that are good to eat. Our sense of taste detects the sugar and we experience the pleasurable sensation of sweetness. Sweetness is the experience of the firing of specific neurons in our brains. Hence, sweetness is subjective and not an objective quality of sugar.
Based on this example, it is possible to answer the questions raised above.
First, we can tell the difference between our subjective experiences and what exists objectively and is the cause of a particular experience. So, we are not trapped in our subjectivity as some have claimed.
Secondly, the way in which we escape from the trap of confusing experiences, opinions, and feelings is by using our intelligence to investigate and analyze any truth claims. It is only when one understands the sources and causes of an experience, that is able to judge accurately the objective reality which grounds that experience.
Finally, you may have noticed that I have frequently used the plural ‘we’ above. That is because the pursuit of truth is not an individualistic enterprise. We are finite and fallible knowers. We need the experiences and wisdom of others to refine and clarify all that we think we know. Only God is free from error and self-deception. We are a work in progress and must never forget that.