The Nature of Truth

truthIf we look for the  word 'truth' in the dictionary, we will probably find it defined in terms of "a fact that has been verified" and while this seems to be quite straightforward, there can be many problems associated with the verification of facts, due to either complexity or dogma. At different times, in different places, various 'truths' have evolved to meet the requirements of an entrenched worldview, which then only leads to a deepening of indoctrination rather than enlightened education. As a consequence, much of human history is littered with conflicts as two different worldviews collided. However, even today, few people are totally free of any form of cultural indoctrination, which come to underpin our key beliefs and in-turn affects the way we, and to some extent our children, are prepared to view the world. The expression 'Life, The Universe and Everything' is often used in modern western culture as form of shorthand to represent all of the unanswered questions about existence. While it may be in the nature of these questions to defy any absolute answer, it also seems to be in the nature of humanity to search for one:

Life - What is its purpose; is mere survival enough?
Universe - How, when and why was it created?
Everything - Where did it all come from?

So it may be a 'philosophical truth' to say that some of these questions may never be fully answered, humanity has never stop trying to devise some seemingly `rational truth' to fill the void of ignorance. As such, we  might also cite an 'accepted truth' that exists, at any point in time, by virtue of the knowledge available and nature of the power-base of the socio-political system:

Physical - power of arms
Theological - power of beliefs
Philosophical - power of ideas
Scientific - power of facts
Political - power of manipulation

Each of these systems may have a different worldview and each worldview might be accepted as true, at least, by those in power. Of course, from another perspective this worldview might, at best, be seen as a `subjective truth` or 'historic truth' based on  limited knowledge at that time and, in some cases, we might even use the term 'gospel truth'

But does it make any sense to have so many definitions of truth?

In most cases, the adjective that often precedes the word 'truth' is trying to reflect the degree of truth that is being associated to a given idea. For example, we might cite a 'half-truth' or an 'absolute-truth' from which we infer different meanings and so, in this context, no real confusion arises from the qualification. However, the real problem seems to arise when the 'degree of truth' is either mistaken, exaggerated or lied about and so maybe we should take a closer look at the root causes of a  `non-truths`, i.e. a lie or a mistake. Clearly, we can all make mistakes, but if we accept the definition of the word 'truth' based on  the verification of the facts, then maybe the essence of Clifford's argument is not so unreasonable, although the definition of 'sufficient evidence' may still be subjective:

`it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence`

Of course, the issue of the truth being based on an exaggeration or fabrication is more problematic and often rooted within human survival needs because it is often the case that a person's position in society may well depend on the general acceptance and proliferation of a given worldview. So, when considering all the different interpretations of truth, in its many forms, and held with such conviction by such a diversity of cultures, maybe we could reflect on the words of Abraham Lincoln:

"You can fool all the people some of the time,
and some of the people all the time, but
you cannot fool all the people all the time."

If we breakdown Lincoln's quote into 2 key groups, it highlights the belief, and the hope, that a falsehood cannot underpin a collective worldview forever; even though some may never accept the alternative worldview on offer:

  • Some will be fooled always,
  • but some will come to re-evaluate the evidence

For it would seem that we are all born into a given society, which either seeks to educate us, or indoctrinate us, into accepting the mainstream worldview of that society. On initial reflection, history does indeed suggest that some of the people are `fooled all the time` and  never consider anything that challenges the established worldview of their day. In contrast, a few may have to initially accept the established wisdom of their elders, but eventually come to question what were originally thought to be 'established truths'. However, looking towards the future, the most important issue at stake may not always truth itself, which may have been, and may always be, subjective, but how a  society treats those people who challenge an accepted notion of truth. From a historical perspective, the normal reaction is not favourable when considered in the following terms:

  • The accusation of theological heresy            and/or
  • The sarcasm of a philosophical elite             and/or
  • The ostracism of the scientific establishment and/or
  • The persecution of the politically powerful

While we might ultimately have to consider the reasons for this situation, possibly we are only seeing a reflection of natural selection at work. If this is the case, only the `strongest` ideas will survive and whether these ideas are true may not, on any given day, be guaranteed. However, while we have touch on the issue of evolution and natural selection, maybe we should table the following question for further consideration?

What is the value of truth within the totality of human evolution?