What Is Truth?

Like Andrew, I'm withholding comment on Christopher Hitchens' anti-God broadside, since I have a review of it forthcoming in the next Claremont Review of Books. One thing I didn't get a chance to take up in the review, though, is the famous quote from Gotthold Lessing that Hitchens uses as an epigraph for one of his chapters, a quote that also serves as the epigraph for Andrew's entire book. It follows below:

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectability is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent and proud. If God were to hold all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this - the pure Truth is for You alone.



Now this sounds very high-minded and impressive, but it seems to me absolute hogwash. Of course one should not wish to possess a "supposed" truth that is not in fact the truth at all, and nor should one confuse the possession of a partial truth with a complete one, and thereby close off all paths of exploration and inquiry. But the idea that honest error might be preferable to Truth itself could only appeal to someone who doesn't believe that any such Truth exists to begin with. It's a windier way of saying "it's the journey, not the destination," which is likewise a cliche that crumbles upon close inspection. The journey is only better than the destination if the destination turns out to be a disappointment, and not the place you hoped to arrive at after all. Hunger may be preferable to a disappointing meal, but not to a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, and pursuing a beautiful woman is only better than marrying her if you discover, after the wedding, that she is not the woman that you believed her to be. Questing, hoping, searching, anticipating - all of these experiences have their virtues, but their virtues are dependent upon the thing that you're questing for turning out to be worthwhile, and if it does then only a fool would choose to keep it forever out of reach. The quest for the Double Helix was exciting and fun, by all accounts, but I sincerely doubt that James Watson and Francis Crick would have preferred to have had it continue on for their entire lives, with the truth about DNA permanently concealed in God's right hand.

Indeed, if you state at the outset of a journey that you don't want the destination, then you've essentially ruined your travels before taking a single step. Though if you're midway through the journey, uncertain where you're going and worried that you've been taking the wrong path, I suppose the Lessing line is as good a way as any to justify your wanderings, while looking down on those poor fools who claim to have reached a destination of some sort, and whom you might otherwise be tempted to envy. Better to accuse them of indolence and passivity, just as a bachelor who has been thwarted in love might persuade himself that his happily married friends are locked in prison, and he alone is free.

In Hitchens' case, of course, it's pure posturing, since his own much-trumpeted skepticism starts and ends with the truth claims of religion - and there, he's less a Lessingesque searcher than an old-fashioned dogmatic materialist - while his writings about science evince an almost (but not quite) charming naivete about the impossibly bright future that awaits humanity once we've slipped the shackles of superstition. It's not surprising, I suppose, but it was rather dispiriting, while reading God Is Not Great, to see the great contrarian and gimlet-eyed debunker turn out to be a just another techno-utopian after all.