If you were born in a slum in India would you have the same worldview you have today? Would your definition of “right”, “wrong”, “truth”, and “beauty” be different? Would your religious beliefs be different? Most likely.
But does this mean that all our beliefs about the most important things in life are merely a product of the society we grew up in? Is it impossible to find an objective Truth that stands no matter what culture, heritage, or religion you are raised in? If our societies are like rivers, always moving and shifting, is there a pillar of Truth that stands immovable, like an anchor dropped from above?
Socrates thinks so.
The philosopher Peter Kreeft, who has spent his entire life studying and teaching Socratic philosophy, has written a series of books where he imagines Socrates meeting the most important philosophers of history, and then proceeds to let Socrates do what Socrates does: ask questions. Below is an excerpt from one of these books where Kreeft imagines Socrates visiting Harvard Divinity School in modern times. There Socrates encounters post-modern thought in the teachers and the students, both in their view of Jesus and in their view of Truth.
In this scene Socrates has just read the Old Testament for the first time to try and understand what the Bible’s concept of “God” truly is. Thomas, a skeptic who views all claims to Truth as naive, tries to prove to Socrates that there is no such thing as objective Truth, only subjective social constructs.
Socrates: I read the whole thing – all the history and all the prophecies and all the stories – with a philosopher’s end in mind – the concept of God. And I learned a number of astonishing things which my previous concepts of the God had not prepared me for.
Thomas: That’s because we always look at things through the prejudices of our past, our own categories, conditioned by our society. You can’t escape the color of your own eyeglasses.
S: Surely you can, Thomas, when you take them off and look at them rather than through them?
T: You can’t do that. You can’t really be objective.
S: Why not?
T: Because your thoughts are determined by your society.
S: Oh, but Thomas, that opinion seems like a man sawing off the tree limb he is sitting on; it contradicts itself.
S: If every thought is totally determined by your social conditioning and not by the way things really are, independent of your social conditioning, then that thought too is determined only by social opinion and not by the way things really are. So it is no more likely to be true than its opposite – which you say it is. You see, it leaves no ground at all to stand on to do the very thing I think you want very much to do, Thomas, the thing I want to do too – to criticize and evaluate and understand our society. If we can never know how things really are, outside our society’s conditioning process, then does it not follow that we can never criticize that conditioning and that society, and thus we become purely the status quo?
– Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Jesus, Inter-Varsity Press, 1987. pg. 122-23
Ironically, the claim that all “Truth” is merely a product of our society/familial upbringing, contradicts itself; that very claim becomes simply another product of our cultural baggage, and therefore isn’t universally true, and thus is invalid. This doesn’t tell us what is True, but it hints that Truth itself exists.