The Truth About Truth
Chains of Evidence
The following is a short excerpt from my book: The Truth About Truth, Chains of Evidence.
The book seems more pertinent today given President Donald Trump's, and his cohorts', propensity to lie and mislead.
If you like this extract, please feel free to read the entire work and let me know what you think.
The human condition is fraught with ambiguity and plagued by uncertainty. We can't always know ourselves and what we might do in any given circumstance, even though we like to think otherwise. Therefore, we value the concept of truth as it is reassuring to feel that there is some kind of certainty in our world. If only we can find, define, and hold onto this elusive truth then we can soothe our psyches with the balm of truth, and thereby delude ourselves with feelings of certainty. It is not easy to accept that truth may be an outdated concept, or indeed a concept with very little utility, except perhaps in the realm of fairy tales and fantasy.
In our lives we can only see shadows on the wall of the human cave. We need to keep in mind these shadows are only built from our personal experiences, our culture, and our perception.
Defining truth is like trying to hit a moving target. If some idea becomes a so-called truth at some point, can it be an eternal truth? Are some truths immutable, or is this possibility mere wishful thinking? Is there a moment in time when circumstances allow a truth to be possible or to really be true? Then if that moment in time passes does the particular truth lose its relevance or use?
Often traditional truths are the most powerful in our cultures, and they are continually passed down through the generations. These types of truth gain immense hold over our lives and appear to gain extra power over us merely from their ancient lineage, regardless of their sense or nonsense.
Is it possible to have different versions of truth? Is a truth necessarily subjective and relative to situation? How much does truth matter to us, and in what ways does it control our decisions, even our lives. Does the popular concept of truth promote the accumulation of knowledge or hinder it?
This is a smart and insightful book that asks many such questions. It examines “truth” and questions assumptions about the idea of truth. It puts “truth” under close scrutiny and comes up with a useful tool for examining one's own, and society's assumed truths.
Dr. Julia Buss, 2016.
What is the nature of truth?
I'm telling you the truth!
This story is based on a true story.
Truth is stranger than fiction.
I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The infamous Donald Trump, said publicly:
There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down.
Was this true?
There must be some reliable way for us to distinguish truth from fiction, or worse lies. We all toss the word truth around with abandon. I am just as guilty of this as the next person. But what does this enigmatic word really mean?
How should we use it?
When should we use it?
How do we know what we believe to be true is true?
I want to explore the true nature of truth. To learn what the truth really is. It seems to me that the idea of truth is worthy of this effort.
Let's start with the current Oxford Dictionary definition of the word truth:
‣ The quality or state of being true.
‣ That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.
‣ A fact or belief that is accepted as true.
Notice that the definition of the word truth has three main meanings, the first is self-referential and offers little insight into the nature of truth, so we can skip this definition. The second meaning, I would put forward, is the more widely held meaning of the word. The third definition is the less understood version of this enigmatic idea.
Notice that the second and third definitions are in contradiction to each other. The second definition aligns truth with facts and reality and the third associates truth with popularly held (cultural) ideas or beliefs. Can something be true just because many people believe it to be?
The concept of truth drives so many human behaviors (both good and bad) that it seems apt there is room for a clearer definition of this word. After all, we all want to know the truth.
The definition of truth put forward in this text is: Truth is a complex and always changing concept. It is not absolute, binary, nor static. Useful truths should be open to change as new evidence is found. Truth should not be based in popular belief, but rather in facts and reality.
When using this definition of truth, then any truth that is claimed to be static should be suspect. If a truth is claimed to be binary, yes or no, black or white, true or false, absolute, then it is a questionable truth. Because in our new definition of truth it should be able to change and grow.
The only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths. Can this just be a jest?
Truth based on absolutes cannot change, this is the first position of systems that depend on absolute truth. If a truth cannot be challenged and cannot be changed, then it is inflexible and dogmatic. This has the effect of paralyzing thought and reason.
Consider this example taken from the “New Living Translation” of the New Testament, Mark 16:9:
After Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning, the first person who saw him was Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom he had cast out seven demons.
That Jesus existed, was God, and transcended death is one of the most popularly held absolute truths. Other than this story there has never been another example in our collective human experience of such an event. Yet this is one of the most popularly held absolute truths.
If something cannot change, it cannot grow, adapt, or evolve then it becomes frozen. Nothing else in life is like this. Everything about us and around us changes over time, nothing is static or absolute.
The most destructive dimension of systems of absolute truths is their ability to lockup or imprison human thought and reason. For example, if we hold transcendence of death as an absolute truth against all contradictory experience, facts, and data we find ourselves locked-up in a prison of unsubstantiated beliefs. Even with much evidence to the contrary we are imprisoned in this world, unable to escape it because the unbreakable bars of absolute truth keep us constrained. Believers in absolute truths must develop closed minds. However, these seemingly unbreakable bars of absolute truth are restraints of our own creation. They are not physical constraints, only imaginary ones. We each of us hold the power to release ourselves from this prison of absolute truth. All we need do is reject these truths and seek truths based on chains of evidence.
The great bard himself (William Shakespeare) in his play Hamlet, famously said:
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Let us consider the following story as an example of the prison of absolute truths. Note religious thinking is not the only thinking that can be trapped in absolutes.
A man holds the absolute truth that obesity is due to people's freewill choices and nothing else. This man sees all overweight and obese people as weak willed. His unwavering position begins to encourage hatred and rudeness towards overweight and obese people. He believes it is their lack of willpower alone that has caused their situation. His absolute truth ultimately precludes him from empathy, understanding, kindness, and more importantly rational thought towards the problems of overweight and obese people.
When this man is presented with chains of evidence that show obesity is also due to environmental, genetic, corporate, and other external influences he resists the new evidence in favor of his absolute truth.
Under the spell of absolute truth, this man is firmly locked up in a private prison of dogma. His reason is paralyzed and his thoughts are frozen. It seems, nothing can change his mind not even new evidence. Unwavering belief in the freewill of the individual made acceptance of new information impossible to incorporate into this man's world.
Surely, this man is incorrect to reject new evidence? Does it not seem reasonable to reconsider his truth when new evidence is presented to him?
Are there any absolute truths at all? The only one that I can think of is that you and I, all of us will die at some point. Is this the only absolute truth? Consider, just for a moment, even this seemingly absolute truth may one day not be true. If science fiction imaginings of transferring human consciousness into machines comes to pass, then perhaps some might live forever. Could this be true?
If truth is not absolute, then what is it? Truth might be more like a scale. At one end of the scale truth is insubstantial or foggy and at the other end of the scale truth is substantial and perhaps even predictive, but never absolute.
Here is a scale defining this idea, our new concept of truth. I call it the truth-scale and offer it here for your consideration:
Notice that at the left side of the truth-scale claimed truths are improbable, foggy, or insubstantial. At the right side of the truth-scale claimed truths are highly probable, substantial, and predictive.
This is a more specific and useful definition of truth. Why? Because our newly defined truth-scale includes the notion of probability. What is the likelihood that a truth is true? Or what is the probability of a truth being true?
Probability is the measure of the likelihood that an event will occur. At the foggy end of our truth-scale the probability of a claimed truth of in fact being true is very, very unlikely. At the probable end of our truth-scale the probability of a claimed truth of being true is highly probable.
In our new definition of truth, absolute truths are a clear sign there is an error in our thinking. However, keep in mind that when a claimed truth is placed at the foggy end of our truth-scale it is not completely untrue, rather it is highly improbable of being true. This dimension of our definition of truth is just as important as the idea that there are no absolute truths. Absolutely false ideas are just as useless as absolutely true ones.
This truth-scale based system of categorizing truths ensures that absolutizing does not become part of our concept for establishing truths, because we can never say something is absolutely true nor can we say something is absolutely false. This scheme of defining truth gives us the ability to place claimed truths on our scale of truth and assign a probability or likelihood a truth is true.
This idea of measuring truth via probabilities is not unprecedented. Probability is the concept behind one of the most powerful and impactful truths of the twentieth century: Quantum Theory.
Quantum theory is a branch of theoretical physics that strives to understand and predict the properties and behavior of atoms and subatomic particles. Without it, and the probability mathematics that drives it, we would not be able to build transistors, integrated circuits, or computers.
Erwin Schrodinger (Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist) came up with a famous thought experiment that extends the probability idea behind Quantum Theory from the very small scale, where it was first observed, to our normal human scale. His thought experiment gives us an insight into this bizarre idea, here is a summary of his thinking:
A cat is trapped in a box with a vial of poison that is released when a radioactive atom randomly decays. You cannot tell if the cat is alive or dead without opening the box. Schrodinger argued that until you open the box and look inside, the cat is neither alive nor dead but in an indeterminate state. This is because of the probability involved in the radioactive decay of the atom driving the experiment. The death or life of the cat is determined by randomness.
Hang on! How can a cat be both dead and alive at the same time? Surely this cannot be true? And yet, this is precisely the principles behind your cellular phone, computer, car, and just about everything we are reliant on in the twenty first century.
But if all truths are based on a probability of being true and not on absolutes, how do we place a truth on our truth-scale?
As it turns out humanity has developed, over many thousands of years, a very reliable way of establishing, identifying, and understanding truths. It is known as the scientific method and it's our best technique to distill truth. Why? Because it's first position is that any fact or truth is subject to change and modification based on new evidence. This ensures truths are able to grow, change, or be thrown out over time. All other systems of establishing truth are based on absolutes or binaries. They are static, inflexible, and dogmatic. Religions for example use an absolute premise to establish truth. All religions espouse a position such as: there is a god or gods. And all religions will not allow the nonexistence of their god or gods no matter how much evidence is presented to the contrary. These claimed truths are therefore static or absolute. But life is not static. From the day we are born we are changing. We grow in stature and sometimes wisdom. So why would truth be a static thing?
If new chains of evidence are so important to continually define, distill, and discover our truths, how can we ascertain reliable chains of evidence?