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What Is Truth?

Richard Oxenberg on the need for an old paradigm, especially in ethics.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate: “I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?”

This question has reverberated through the ages, not least because, as Pilate’s question suggests, different religions and cultures have presented us with very different versions of what they’ve called the truth. Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Communists, Fascists, and many others, have fought violent battles to promulgate and defend their particular version of ‘the truth’.

The bloody battles over truth in Europe between Protestants and Catholics played a significant role in motivating the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was the hope of the early scientists and their champions to find a reliable and verifiable method of distinguishing truth from falsehood based on generally available evidence that would yield truths of universal validity – truths that all informed, intelligent, and rational people would be able to agree upon.

The sciences have been hugely successful in their endeavor. Our ability to predict and control events in our physical environment has advanced immeasurably due to the employment of scientific methods. There can be no question about this. What might be questioned, however, is whether the sort of truths the sciences provide are the truths we most fundamentally seek.

Aristotle writes in his Metaphysics: “The science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature.” And when Jesus speaks to Pilate of ‘the truth’ he is not, of course, talking about what we would think of as scientific truth. Like Aristotle, he is speaking of the truth concerning ‘the supreme good’. Indeed, it might be argued that the very success of the physical sciences has led to an obscured understanding of just what we seek when we seek the truth.

My contention in this article is that we need a paradigm shift in our conception of truth that will return us to the philosophical insight that the highest truths are those concerning ‘the good’. Let us call this ‘ethical truth’ (a subset of ‘philosophical truth’). The pursuit of ethical truth employs different methods and procedures than are offered by the sciences. They are methods and procedures that must be, by the very nature of what they pursue, less rigorous and reliable than those of the hard sciences, since data about ethics cannot be collected and manipulated in the same precise way as the data of natural science. Still, to recognize the importance of pursuing this higher-order truth is, I believe, an imperative of our time. We have increasingly become a culture that, as Oscar Wilde might put it, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We know, as never before in human history, how to do what we want. Our problem is that we don’t know what to want.

So how do we begin to think meaningfully about truths pertaining to ‘the good’? First we must endeavor to locate the domain of value – of what is good – within our own experience. Let us, then, turn to a consideration of the domain of value.

Tilting at Truth
Tilting at Truth Venantius J. Pinto, 2022

The Axiological Dimension of Being

Imagine the following scenario: A man and woman sit across a restaurant table from one another. They have been married for many years and are now contemplating divorce. They are engaged in a tense conversation. We have been assigned the task of observing their exchange and expressing, as far as we are able, the truth of what is taking place between them.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that we have been asked to restrict our account, and our understanding, to what may be observed empirically, that is, to an account of their observable physical interactions. We might describe what is taking place thus: The woman’s right arm moves so many inches upward from the table and her fingers spread apart. The man’s eyebrows tilt downward toward his nose and his head pivots on his neck from left to right. Her left hand, resting flat upon the table, begins to quiver; and so on… As for their conversation, we might give this account: His diaphragm contracts, causing air to be expelled from his lungs, pass through his larynx, and escape from his mouth. This causes modulated waves of air to spread from his mouth outward. Some of these waves strike the woman’s eardrums, causing them to vibrate. These vibrations, in turn, causes neurological impulses to be conducted through her brain. Impulses from her brain then pass into her spinal cord and cause the muscles of her right arm to contract, which causes it to move toward her chest. Other impulses lead to a contraction of her own diaphragm and a release of air from her lungs, causing new air waves to arise and vibrate the eardrums of the man. And so forth.

Can such a strictly physical account ever reveal the important truth about what is taking place between this man and woman? I think it is fairly clear that it cannot. No matter how elaborate and detailed a physical account we give, we will never be able to reveal the meaning of their exchange. What’s missing?

This example makes it clear that there’s another dimension of reality besides the physical that must be accessed in order to reveal the meaning of what is occurring. Indeed, it is only because we automatically infer from the physical account what is taking place in this other dimension, that the physical account could strike us as having any meaning whatsoever. What is this other dimension, and how are we to discover its truths?

Unfortunately, even though we are constantly immersed in it, we have no good name for it. Or perhaps it is because we are so constantly immersed in it that we have no good name for it. We take the domain of meaning so much for granted that we only tend to notice it when, as in the above example, we quite deliberately exclude it from our purview. Then we realize something is missing.

But we can get some idea of what’s missing from considering the physical account. One thing such an account fails to provide, is any understanding of the way in which what is taking place between the man and woman matters to them; that is, how they care about what’s happening. The discussion between them has meaning to them as something that they care about, and the words they speak refer to these matters of care. This caring is not, as such, a physical reality – that is, it is not anything available to the five senses: we cannot see, taste, smell, touch, or hear their caring. Still, we will never understand what is going on between the man and the woman until we gain insight into the nature of this caring.

What shall we call this ‘dimension of care’? We care about things in relation to the worth they have for us. Something that has no worth to us we do not care about at all. The Greek word axios means ‘worth’. So, to give the dimension of care a name, let us call it the axiological dimension. When Jesus says that he has come to testify to ‘the truth’, it is to truths pertaining to the axiological that he refers. When Aristotle writes that the most authoritative science is the one that seeks to understand ‘the supreme good’, it is, again, to the axiological that he points.

What is the nature of the axiological dimension, the world of values? What is its origin or source? What, if you like, is its ontological status?

This, I must admit, is a mystery. A neurologist might suggest that care or value arises whenever matter configures itself into certain dynamic spatio-temporal patterns which we call ‘a caring brain state’, but we have no conception of how this occurs. How does inert matter, through some rearrangement of its form, suddenly begin to care ? There seems to be nothing about matter – as we currently understand it anyway – that could give rise to valuing anything. This is the reason we must speak of caring as pertaining to another dimension of being than the physical: although there can be innumerable arrangements and rearrangements of spatio-temporal forms, no such spatio-temporal arrangement per se amounts to caring. Caring cannot be reduced to one or another physical state. It is something else; a state of mind. Further, if we assume that something cannot emerge from something else that does not at least contain the seeds of the emergent something within it, then we must conclude that caring, or the dimension from which value springs, is somehow fundamental to being itself, since nothing physical is anything like the experience of caring.

The axiological dimension has features that distinguish it sharply from the physical dimensions accessible to empirical research. In particular, although we all participate in this axiological dimension insofar as we all care, the quality of our participation (how we care), and indeed the very fact of our participation (that we care), is shielded from the view of others. We must infer, or intuit, the nature of others’ caring from the ways they behave; and frequently – more often than not – we understand others not in terms of how they care, but in terms of how they affect our caring. To the extent that we do this, we may misconstrue them.

Beyond this, whereas physical events seem to operate on mechanistic principles, such that each event occurs in response to prior events, caring seems to operate primarily on teleological principles: we value something because of the way it affects some goal (Greek, telos) we seek. Thus, if we ask why the woman cries we would not consider a mere physiological account of how moisture comes from her eyes a sufficient answer. We would instead need to know how events are causing her to feel the loss of something she cares about, something she wants or values.

Values – political, moral, spiritual, and otherwise – have their basis in an axiological dimension of being. This is why the physical sciences, restricted to the investigation of physical objects, can tell us nothing about values, and why the physical sciences can describe, in elaborate detail, what is occurring in the bodies of the man and the woman at the table, but cannot tell us the meaning of their interactions. The axiological dimension of being is not accessible to empirical observation, it is accessible only to inner reflection. In our scientific age, this has led some to simply dismiss the dimension of values as if it’s not real. But such a dismissal is a huge blunder.

Ethical Truth

Historically, it is through philosophy that the axiological has been rationally examined. The word ‘philosophy’ itself is derived from two Greek words, philia and sophia. Philia means ‘love’, sophia, ‘wisdom’, hence philosophy can be defined as ‘love of wisdom’. But what do we mean by ‘wisdom’? Following Socrates, we can say the wise person, the true philosopher, is one who understands the good of life and how to achieve it. Or, to put this in the terms I have been developing, the wise person is the one who understands the axiological dimension of being and knows how best to apply its truths to our dealings with one another and with the physical world. This is to understand ethical truth.

Aristotle, just like Socrates and Plato before him, recognized the attainment of such wisdom to be the ultimate goal of the intellect. From this perspective it might be said that ‘ethical truth’ – truth that yields wisdom about how to live – is truth in its fullness. The sort of truths provided by the natural sciences – truths pertaining to the operations of the physical world – would then have meaning only as supplementary truths: truths that have their full significance only by reference to ethical truth. Thus, to use Aristotle’s term, modern sciences are ‘ancillary sciences’. Our ability to wisely use the truths science provides will depend entirely upon our progress in attaining ethical truth.

This is not in any way to denigrate the value of the physical sciences. It is, rather, to place their value in its proper context. Our knowledge of the physical world has meaning and worth for us only as it pertains to the axiological, that is only as it pertains to our caring and values. This is simply a tautology. To lose sight of this, quite simply, is to lose sight of what we are all about.

Again, this centrality of ethics to knowledge is an old insight. We see a remnant of it in the fact that we still call those who have attained the highest level in any academic discipline ‘doctors of philosophy’. The implication of this phrase is that the highest attainment in any discipline is not just the attainment of knowledge but of wisdom in that particular field. Unfortunately, this understanding of the meaning of ‘Ph.D.’ has long been lost, just as philosophy itself has long been sidelined in academia. If we are to intelligently explore the axiological dimension of being, the values and meanings by which we live, we must recover our respect for the place and role of philosophy in our intellectual pursuits.

The Centrality of Philosophy

As things stand now, philosophy has come to be thought of as something of a ‘boutique’ study for those with extra time on their hands who wish to amuse themselves by dallying in ideas. This is a dangerous misconception of the significance of philosophy – dangerous precisely because it is through philosophy, and in particular, through ethics, that we rationally apprehend and critically examine the basic values by which we live.

Let’s take a simple example. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson writes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” The first thing to note is that this is an ethical statement. The ‘truths’ to which Jefferson refers are truths pertaining to the axiological dimension of being, and the truth-status of his statement can only be assessed philosophically. There is no scientific test by which we can determine whether ‘inalienable rights’ exist. Therefore to the extent that we restrict our understanding of ‘truth’ to the scientific, we must dismiss this statement as meaningless, since it asserts nothing that can be examined in a scientific manner. But this statement is far from meaningless. Rather, it is the primary declaration of one of the basic truth-claims on which the United States is founded. Only a philosophical examination will permit us to understand and assess such claims. As our culture becomes more and more philosophically illiterate, we lose our ability to engage in such an examination. We thereby gradually lose intellectual access to the very values by which we live.

Of course, the nature of philosophical inquiry is such that we cannot hope to achieve the kind of certainty with respect to philosophical claims that the hard sciences provide. But that is not a good reason to abandon philosophical investigation. On the contrary, the limitations of philosophical claims, and the implications of these limitations for how we should dispose ourselves toward them, are themselves important philosophical issues to address.

In a brief article such as this it is not possible to enter upon a detailed examination of how philosophical inquiry should proceed (which is yet another philosophical question). My aim here is simply to argue that it should proceed. We ignore philosophy at our great peril. Philosophical inquiry is essential to our self-understanding, both as individuals and as a society. As such, it is essential to the health of civilization.

A New Old Paradigm

What is most urgently required, is a return to a rather old understanding of what ‘truth’ is. In particular, we require a renewed appreciation for the axiological dimension of being, the dimension of values. Such an appreciation entails recognizing that the axiological is a feature of reality itself.

As I write this, I am struck by how strange it is that I should have to write it. That we have lost sight of the axiological dimension of being (or reality) – from which our values and ethical concerns arise – testifies to the extent to which we have come to see ourselves as alien to the very reality from which we spring. The universe, so the materialist conception suggests, is a great pile of insentient things blowing about hither and thither, with sentience in this view being an accidental and superfluous byproduct of insentience. Where has caring come from in all this? Whence moral values? Materialism doesn’t so much fail to answer the question as fail to ask it – as if the question itself simply does not occur to materialists. The late Stephen Hawking, for instance, spent his brilliant career working on what he called ‘a theory of everything’. The ‘everything’ of which Hawking wrote, however, did not include Hawking himself. But in truth, there can be no comprehensive ‘theory of everything’ that does not take into account the axiological dimension of being. Until we have understood the values aspect of reality, we have, quite simply, not understood reality.

Can we, nevertheless, explore the axiological dimension scientifically ? Sam Harris and others have suggested that we can – see for instance Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011). But much depends here on just what we mean by the word ‘science’. Of course, there are the psychological, political, anthropological, and social sciences, which may honestly be said to explore the axiological in various ways and to a limited extent. But it must be noted that, given that our only immediate access to our values and what we care about and gives us meaning is through inner reflection, our understanding of values cannot be strictly and only empirical – if by ‘empirical’ we refer to that which is observable through the senses. In fact, the ‘human sciences’ are on the border between the strictly empirical and the philosophical, and we are able to understand their findings only by reference to a prior ‘non-scientific’ understanding of human caring that we get from our subjective experience. This means that we couldn’t effectively explore the axiological ‘purely scientifically’ without radically revising what we mean by ‘science’. Rather than do that, we would do better to return to an old paradigm that sees science as only one branch of philosophy. Indeed, the original term for what we now call ‘science’ was ‘natural philosophy’, in recognition of the fact that the physical sciences, in their ways, also reflect human values, insofar as they arise out of our concern to understand, and to live well within, the physical world. What is needed, then, is not to reduce the ethical to the scientific (as Harris et al misguidedly propose), but to bring the scientific back within the philosophical fold, by recognizing science as only one mode of philosophical inquiry. We need a restoration of the Aristotelian insight that the ultimate study is the one that seeks ‘the good’. Every other study only has its value as ancillary to this.

© Richard Oxenberg 2022

Richard Oxenberg teaches philosophy at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts.

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