A while back, I wrote about the word “literally” and how it has sadly been stripped of most of its meaning. I think this trend might point to a larger issue relating to the issue of truth.
People today tend to think of science as the surest guide to truth. Some even go so far as to say that anything that can’t be proven by science can’t be proven at all. (To which I say: prove it.) Scientific truths are considered facts, while truths about morality, religion, and even the meaning of language are consigned to the realm of opinion.
Strangely, even professors of the humanities have accepted that science is the only guide to truth. Apparently, they don’t mind spending their lives studying something that isn’t true. They resolve the tension this creates by claiming that their interpretations of texts are true for them, while someone else may have a different truth. Unfortunately for them, this requires distorting the meaning of the word “truth” beyond all recognition. Until recently, truth has always meant something that corresponds to how the world actually is. In fact, in real life, it still has this meaning. When a father says to his child, “Tell me the truth – did you punch your brother?” he wants to know whether the child’s fist actually connected with his brother’s face, not only the child’s thoughts or feelings about the last few minutes.
Science is a very literal discipline. Until you start getting into advanced physics, the data is actually there for everyone to see, and the results of a given experiment are clear. If the experiment shows that mixing baking soda and vinegar causes carbon dioxide to bubble up, that is literally what happens.
But if science is the only guide to truth, then anything that is true must be literally true. I think this is why people began to use the word “literally” whenever they want to show that they really mean something. If someone really turned the world upside down, they must have done it literally because doing it any other way would be meaningless.
The problem with this is that figurative language can express truth. When I say my cellphone “knows” what word I’m trying to type when I’m texting, that’s figurative language. My phone is not literally conscious. But everyone still knows what I mean.
Similarly, other truths can be expressed clearly in figurative language. In fact, some truths might only be able to be expressed figuratively, especially if they deal with things that are beyond human comprehension, like God. These statements require a bit more thought, but they are just as valid as literal truths.