The postmodern age, we are being told, is characterized by “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Some take this to mean that those who made their living by looking for “the Truth” are now jobless, and that they will never be hired again. Sages and philosophers and prophets have no place in the postmodern economy, even if they wish for no compensation. Those jobs simply do not exist anymore; not even in India. Sorry.
What does exist in the postmodern age, however, is a whole range of multiple “truths” that are relative to one’s culture and history and biography and political interests. Even more debilitating is the news that even such relative truths will now be allowed to exist “within the limits of language alone.”
That is the new metanarrative, the grand story toward which we are not allowed to show any incredulity. We must eschew old faiths because they have collapsed in the face of modernity and then critiques of modernity, but this one is undoubtedly true. Really. Believe me.
What are we supposed to do when faced with this assault on truth? First, we must affirm that it does have some foundation. It is hardly deniable that a considerable part of what goes by the name of truth is socially constructed and imagined; that it is shaped within history and is molded by the mundane forces of society; that we think and speak in metaphors; and that, in effect, what we call truth is frequently made, not begotten.
And yet, to discount the value of even this truth is to assume an inherent discontinuity between the human mind and the rest of reality.
There is no reason to believe that the human mind is somehow separate and distinct from the rest of reality, and there is every reason to assume that it is as much part of the reality that surrounds it as any other part of that reality. This means that while we can imagine any kind of absurdities, and that we can fantasize ourselves into the absolutely impossible if we so wish, there must be very real and insurmountable limits to our mistakes and misapprehensions. We cannot be all completely deluded all the time. Even politicians and advertisers cannot fool all the people all the time. Our mistakes and misapprehensions, at least those that have any practical consequences, are bound to run into reality sooner or later.
It is one thing to be incredulous toward this or that metanarrative, and even toward this or that element in all metanarratives, but to exist as human and not have at least an implicit metanarrative is impossible, with the possible exception of the hopelessly schizophrenic psychotics. The rest of us are meaning-seeking, meaning-making, story-telling, and story-living beings. We can live without food and water and shelter, but not without some metanarrative; we aren’t even humans without it.
Doesn’t this fact, in and of itself, indicate something important about the nature of truth? If the human mind is part of reality, and if the human mind feels compelled to seek and/or create a metanarrative to live by, however imperfectly, doesn’t this say something important about how reality itself is structured?
Truth and certainty ought to be distinguished. To say that I am not certain does not mean that there is nothing to be certain about. It is an admission of my own current state of doubt or indecisiveness; it is not a proclamation of the nature of objective reality. My state of certainty can vary within a broad range, depending upon a myriad of factors, but the variation or vacillation in my state of certainty is hardly an indicator of the state of truth/reality.
In Arabic, the word “haqq” stands for both truth and reality. Similarly, the word “batil” stands for both falsehood and unreality. Something is true insofar as it is an accurate representation of what is real; something is false insofar as it is not an accurate representation of what is real. There is, then, no higher clue to what is true than its correspondence, in one way or another, to what is real. In this view, truth comes to us in degrees; so does falsehood. What’s more, they are likely to come to us in some combination, and the only way for us to distinguish one from the other would be to test them against reality. There is no other criterion.
He sends water from the sky that fills riverbeds to overflowing, each according to its measure. The stream carries on its surface a growing layer of froth, like the froth that appears when people melt metals in the fire to make ornaments and tools: in this way God illustrates truth and falsehood—the froth disappears, but what is of benefit to people stays behind—this is how God makes illustrations. (Qur’an 13:17)
The key characteristic of truth is that it resists all attempts at falsification. Similarly, the key characteristic of reality is that we cannot wish it away. When a piece of rock is believed to contain a valuable metal, it has to be melted for the separation between the desirable and the undesirable to take place. This parallels the way in which truth and falsehood come to the human mind, intimately intertwined and therefore in need of the exercise of appropriate effort and technique. The effort and technique we use to separate falsehood from truth is called reasoning. The human mind is capable of reasoning because the separation of truth from falsehood is deemed by reality to be a worthwhile undertaking.
To say that we cannot wish reality away is not to claim that falsehood cannot succeed in the short-term. It only means that falsehood has no existence, no reality, and hence its “appearance” is inherently unstable. This is another way of saying that truth always triumphs. Such a statement may appear too sentimental from a “worldly” perspective, but that itself is part of the illusion.
No! We hurl the truth against falsehood, and the truth obliterates it—see how falsehood vanishes away! (Qur’an 21:18)
Within living memory, powerful individuals have tried to hide the truth. The Gulf of Tonkin. Watergate. The Evil Empire. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Abu Ghraib. They will do so again, banging their heads against reality. But reality always wins over unreality, which is another way of saying that truth always triumphs over falsehood.
And say, “The truth has arrived, and falsehood has vanished away; surely falsehood is ever certain to vanish.” (Qur’an 17:81)
Indeed, reality has a way of punishing those who deny it and rewarding those who accept it. This feature of reality is sometimes called “God’s Judgment,” and as the Qur’an repeatedly reminds us, God is swift in judgment.