Truth Cannot Contradict Itself

Joseph Smith once wrote:

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? (Joseph Smith-History 1:10)

When I was sixteen years old, so long ago, I read these words and they had a very deep impact upon me because I had lost my faith in the teachings of my childhood. I had been reared an ecumenical Protestant of primarily a Baptist persuasion. And during my early teen years I started to ask the clergymen of my acquaintence questions about God, the Bible, and what we believe as Baptists. And the more questions I asked, and the more they failed to answer in any way that I found satisfying, the more certain I became that their teachings taught a religious whole within which were numerous self-contradictions. And I instinctively understood that what there were teaching must therefore be false because truth cannot contradict itself. If 2+2=4, it cannot also equal 5. I was more certain of this than I was that there is a God. Even today I am more certain of this than I am of God's existence, or my own existence for that matter. I know that truth, if I ever find it, will be perfectly self-consistent. Because an idea or system of ideas that is self-contradictory is always false.

So in this frame of mind, imagine how thrilled I was to learn of another young man about my own age who had questions about religion who also found the answers a mass of self-contradiction and confusion. Like myself, young Joseph knew that because the various denominations of his day contradicted each other on very basic things, they might all be wrong. But there was no way that they could all be right. Truth cannot contradict itself.

I've pondered this over the years and my understanding of this important truth has grown. For one thing I have come to know and love another thing that Joseph Smith wrote on exactly the same subject. He wrote:

"by proving contraries, truth is made manifest"

Even though I am not a student of philosophy, logic or mathematics, I have always thought this to mean that when two things that are certainly true seem to contradict each other, there must be a resolution of that contradiction on some level which we have not yet considered. And that by finding what that resolution is, we can learn new truth. Why? It is because two things that are true cannot possibly contradict each other. They may superficially seem to contradict each other, but there must be some greater perspective from which a resolution of the apparent contradiction becomes apparent. And if we are really interested in seeking out the truth, then it is our duty to find that greater perspective. And if there is no level or perspective at which the resolution becomes apparent, if they actually do contradict each other, it is absolutely impossible for both of them to be true.

Isn't this what the young Joseph meant when he said that all of the churches might be false, but they could not possibly all be true because they directly contradicted each other on various points of doctrine? Can you see how this thought about proving contraries relates to his statement in JS-H 1:10? Were all of the churches wrong, or was one of them right and all of the others wrong? Obviously they could not all be right because they contradicted one another. This is the way the man's mind worked. And it thrilled me as a 16 year old teenager to hear about this from the Mormon missionaries because it is also the way that my mind works. It was for this reason that I had already rejected the traditional Christian faith of my childhood before I ever met my first Mormon.

Well today on a whim I did some Googling to see if I could find out more about the Joseph Smith quotation about proving contraries. And I also went looking for what Joseph might have meant by "contraries." What are they? We don't talk like this any more. It is not part of our culture to "prove contraries" whatever that is. I didn't even know what a contrary was. So I looked it up in a number of different sources. And this is what I found:

In logic, a contrary is "a proposition related to another in such a way that if the latter is true, the former must be false, but if the latter is false, the former is not necessarily true."

Elsewhere I find it defined as "a logical relation such that two propositions are contraries if both cannot be true but both can be false."

This is what drove Joseph into the woods that glorious morning of the First Vision. He was intelligent enough to understand that all of the churches might be wrong, but if not, only one of them could be right. Because truth cannot contradict itself.  As Latter-day Saints we ought to remember this important truth better than any other people in the world because we remind ourselves nearly every day because of the clothes we wear. Certainly truth is circumscribed into one great, self-consistent whole.

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2 Responses to Truth Cannot Contradict Itself

  1. Ujlapana, how much do you know about the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? You seem to be taking pot shots at the things I write from a position of considerable ignorance. By that I mean your arguments are not those of someone who knows what I am talking about when I discuss the gospel. And if you don’t know what I am talking about, how can you express an intelligent rebuttal? For that matter, why would you have any desire to express any rebuttal at all? What spirit motivates you?

    I ask these things because it is clear from these remarks and others that you have made in the past that you imagine that all opinions are equally valid, almost as if truth had nothing to do with the validity of an opinion. Why should I care about what a student of Mao thinks? For that matter, why should anyone? And how does the fact that some Maoist thinks he is right have any bearing upon whether or not I am?

    Why don’t you just point out to me how the truth can contradict itself. If you cannot, then you really don’t have an argument with me, do you. And if you don’t have an argument with me, why bother to argue? Really, it doesn’t make any sense.

    Point out to me in clear English how truth can be self-contradictory, or stop bothering me with your irrelevant arguments. If you can’t do any better than to point out that some idiots somewhere feel differently than I do, what’s the point? I already knew that. So what? Some people are right, and some people are wrong. That is so unless you believe the preposterous notion that eveyone can be right even though they have wildly diverging and often contradictory opinions.

    It has become part of our culture to suppose that one man’s views are as good as another’s. That only proves that there is something wrong with our culture. Obviously some people have false, incorrect, and even idiotic opinions because they do not have even the slightest resemblence to the real universe. Or are you one of those people who think that the real universe doesn’t really exist outside of a man’s perception of it?

    I just cannot communicate with people who do not believe as I do that there is an ultimately reality that exists independent of every person’s perception of that reality. Not all truth is relative. Some truth is absolute. The challenge of life as an educated and aware person with a particle of intelligence is trying to figure out what that absolute truth is. It is not always easy. But someone has to do it.

  2. Ujlapana says:

    You sure you want to go down this road? Many people from many different faiths (even secular one’s, such as the cult of Mao) have had experiences in which they felt an overwhelming love for their leader/community/worship object and a desire to share it with those less informed. Their descriptions of the experiences and according actions are perfectly consistent with what Mormon’s refer to as a “spiritual experience” or “conversion.” Yet these are often based on completely incompatible beliefs with Mormonism. I’ve even read first-hand accounts of people who are spiritually converted from Mormonism to Catholocism or other faiths.

    Circumscribe *that* into your own reasons for believing. If a rational man gets different answers from a calculator every time he enters 2+2, he doesn’t pick his favorite–he throws the thing away. You will have to admit, as you have in other posts, that logic isn’t what really matters in religion–it’s faith. But in that case, who cares about contraries? Be proud of religion’s great message–“My way is the Right way, no matter how little sense it makes.”

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