I am on a journey of sorts. A falling down and falling up. A re-sorting. A crisis and catharsis.
I have not arrived yet, and may never entirely do so. But I believe I have found some morsels of wisdom and hope.
I wish I could simply proclaim, “This is the meaning of life! …” and be done! If only it were that easy. We will turn to such questions in time. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. If everything is in question, then first we must establish how to interpret things themselves.
I have been blogging about this journey of looking at some of those building blocks of reality. In my last post, I basically concluded that this world is real (basic, yes, but an important first step). Today, I want to consider what truth really is — to help identify what we are seeking. My next post will be exploring the processes we use to arrive at truth — in other words, trying to answer the question of how do we know things to be true.
So, what is truth?
My goal is to arrive at a better understanding of what reality really is, to get to the bottom of things so to speak, see through the smoke, discover what is foundational and what is peripheral, and be able to live accordingly. As far as I’m concerned, this is no more or less than seeking to understand “reality,” and “truth” is no more or less than a correct understanding of reality. Reality is “what is”, and truth is a property of a statement that correctly describes reality. Linguists and philosophers can argue over semantics, but those will have to be good enough definitions for our purposes at least.
Now, if truth is a correct understanding of reality, what do people mean by saying things such as “that’s just your truth,” “truth is relative,” “everyone is right,” or “this whole right and wrong thing is really crappy” [to quote an online discussion I once stumbled upon]? Let’s use these statements as a starting point for this discussion. Collectively, we might term these sorts of statements as a “deconstruction of truth.”
I have a lot of sympathy with the deconstructionists. To an extent, I am one of them myself. I think many well-intentioned people have good reasons to have got a bad flavor left over in their mouths by the ways truth is often presented.
But I also have a lot of reservations with the deconstruction statements. I think, given the context, there can be a difference between the heart behind such statements — or what the statements are supposed to mean (which I often would fully support), and what the statements actually are saying (which I often would find impossible to support). I would argue that even the few who fully mean exactly what they are saying, do not in practice live as if it were true. The complete deconstruction of truth is too self-destructive to humanity to be fully believed and applied.
Let’s look at some examples of the intended meanings that could underlie such a statement in any given context:
- It might mean that some matters are simply ones of opinion. An example might be that Bob says that Heinz has the best ketchup, while Jim insists that the house-made ketchup at Local Jo’s down the street is a hundred times better. It would be no use for anyone to try to argue this as a matter of fact or truth, for neither is really making a claim of truth, but simply a claim of opinion. Which ketchup tastes better is a subjective matter — one is not more “true” than the other. Let us remember that truth involves a statement that correctly describes reality. When Bob says he likes one ketchup best, he is not (really) making a claim about reality, but only about his perception of reality. The question of truth does not really apply. In this case, I think it would be better for Jim to say, “that’s just your opinion” rather than “that’s just your truth,” because the latter just leads to confusion of terminology.
However, if Bob claims that Local Jo’s ketchup is made with porcupine blood, it would be a different matter. Then it would be a claim of truth, which may or may not actually be true. It would be Bob’s view, but not “his truth” — the actual truth of the matter would depend on porcupine blood and ketchup, not Bob’s view. Mistakes are also made the other way around — people commonly state their opinions as matters of absolute truth, with very detrimental results. Let’s recognize what are opinions (both our own and others’), and treat them as such, and recognize what are claims of reality, and treat them as such.
- It might mean that we should be respectful of others’ views. I admire a desire to affirm the person who holds a view, and not be dismissive or offensive towards an individual or group. Here a distinction must be made between the person and the view. I think sometimes when people say “all views are true,” it is a reflection of a desire to affirm and not offend all people. All people may believe sincerely their views, all people are entitled to their own view, all people should be respected and not belittled for their views, etc. But that does not mean all views are equally true.
The trickiness lies in the fact that people often find their identity in their views (which are often deeply tied with one’s culture, family, values, personal history and experiences, etc.), so when someone disagrees with a view they hold it can quickly be misinterpreted as a personal attack. Conversely, it could indeed be a personal attack because the other party didn’t distinguish between the view and the person. But we need to make that distinguishment when discussing ideas, and recognize that making an observation about how certain views are incompatible with others, or making a claim as to the truth of something, as long as done respectfully, does not necessarily disparage any individual or culture, as long as the claim is being made simply in an effort to better reflect reality. We should be very careful and respectful of others’ differences, and be filled with kindness and courtesy and love when discussing them. But the claims themselves will stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of who believes them or how we feel about them. The who and the feelings are important, but (at least in the vast majority of cases) they are different matters altogether than the claim itself.
- It might mean that we should be open-minded to views besides our own. I appreciate the following thought experiment. Imagine a pie chart. If we were to take the entire knowledge of everything in the universe, what percentage of it do you already know? One millionth? Trillionth? Let’s be very generous and assume you know 1% of all knowledge. Do you think it’s possible that there are things in the other 99% that you don’t know that could affect the views you have?
- It might mean that different views can be compatible with each other. For example, Jake says that there is a planet closer to the sun than earth, and Jane says there is one further than earth. Here it is helpful to distinguish between things that are compatible and things that are mutually exclusive. Some things can’t both be true, and it would be meaningless to claim otherwise (for example, the claims “the cat is in the house” and “the cat is not in the house” cannot both be true; by definition, if the first is not true, the second is). On the other hand, many things can both be true, and it would be a false dichotomy to claim otherwise.
- It might mean that there can be truth IN each view. You could take two opposing views, and find wisdom and truth within each view, and perhaps even arrive at a compromise view that takes the best of both worlds. But this is very different than saying that the opposing views themselves are both completely true. They might both be parts of a journey towards discovering the truth, but the truth is not synonymous with the journey. Phil might think it was Colonel Mustard in the kitchen, and Abby might think it was Mrs. White in the conservatory; perhaps it was actually Mrs. White in the kitchen, but this would not mean that both competing views are fully and equally validated, or that no murder occurred at all.
- It might mean, in a related sense, that the fundamental truth in each view may be the same, and they differ only in peripherals. Of course, this will depend on who gets to define what is or is not peripheral, but it is often a helpful approach. Two city council members may argue all day about different ways to fight disease in the community; perhaps someone needs to point out that they both share the same end goal — to improve public health — and then draft a policy that encompasses the clear-cut ways that both agree would help towards that goal, while leaving out the bells and whistles that one or the other wanted.
It seems this is a common attitude toward religions. It is often true in this arena, and a recognition of it could have averted many wars. However, some differences are there for a reason.
Some see nature as fundamentally good, some evil.
Some teach everything is part of a deity, others that nothing is.
Some teach we are deity’s creatures, others that we create the deity ourselves.
Some believe deities are worshipped by getting drunk and having sex in their temples; others that the greatest thing to do is to abstain from those desires entirely (and it’s important to know which it is before going to the temple).
Some teach we are to always love and forgive our enemies; others that we are to coerce or kill them (and it’s important to know which before meeting an enemy).
Some teach we are supposed to turn this world into paradise, others that we are to abandon this world in pursuit of paradise.
Some teach we are equal before deity; others that the established order of things is domination, enslavement, and selectiveness.
For countless centuries most people were taught that Caesars and kings and queens ruled by divine right, as the gods’ representatives on earth to punish evil and reward good with absolute power. Should we return to that belief? I am confident that any attempt to do so would be vehemently opposed by those who advocate for the equality of all beliefs.
Regardless of what we say, almost no one lives as if all beliefs or religions or philosophies are equally true. Everything in culture is ultimately created by or viewed through the lens of religion or philosophy. Our root beliefs will affect how we view the environment, authority, diversity, education, government, war, science, work, play, relationships, etc. You can’t say that all religions are the same on Monday, and then be campaigning for education reform or women’s rights or environmental protection on Tuesday.
- It might mean that we experience things differently. Such as how we can’t be sure whether what I see as “blue,” you might perceive in the way I see the color red (though you would also describe it as “blue”). Or such as the analogy of the blindfolded people feeling different parts of the elephant and coming to different conclusions about the identity of the elephant (tree, snake, wall, etc.).
These are valuable thought experiments, but the thing is, they are about how we perceive reality; they do not necessarily tell us anything radical about the identity of the object being perceived. Feeling a different part of an elephant doesn’t change the elephant itself (it’s still an elephant), only your perception of it, though it is still doubtless beneficial to broaden your view of it and understand better other people who experience different parts of it. We may perceive colors differently, but the object still reflects certain wavelengths of light, regardless of the color we assign it.
In short, differences in perception do not necessarily imply that reality itself is either dependent on the observer, or non-existent. If anything, it indicates the opposite — that the reality is greater than any one observer, as it both enables and transcends the individual experience.
- However, that being said, there are cases when…
It might mean that truth is sometimes interactive, and in this sense can be subjective (that is, dependent on the observer). For example, quantum physics seems to tell us that particles behave differently depending on whether and how we observe them, such that our observation actually helps create the very thing we observe. There is the old question of if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, whether it made any sound. Another type of analogy might be if you went into a forest to find where a grouse was. Suddenly — WHOOSH — there is a noise like a bomb and flurry of feathers and then — oh look, there’s the grouse, it’s up there in that branch! Well yes, it is in that branch, but it wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for you looking for it.
I think it is a matter of both-and, not either-or. For there to be any sort of interaction, there must of course be something for you to interact with — a reality outside of you (objective truth), and then there is you (the subject), which when combined may produce a different sort of reality (subjective truth).
- It might mean that we can’t or don’t always know the truth. This is often the case. We need to leave room for mystery. For uncertainty. For growth. For limitations. This doesn’t mean there isn’t truth, only that it is hard to decipher.
Say that we have no clue what is at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Would that mean that nothing exists there? No. Can we have differing views on what we think is there? Yes. Does that mean all our differing views are equally true? No. It just means we don’t know yet, but are free to speculate and reason as much as we want, but the reason we speculate and reason and have differing views is because we are searching for the truth of what is really there, not because nothing is there or because everything anyone believes in is there (if the later, then there would be no need for any more discovery — rather than visit the trench, simply poll everyone and compile a list of their views, and there you have it, you would know what is in the trench).
Now, in looking at all these rephrasings of what the “deconstruction of truth” statements could mean, as a whole I’m very much in favor of them! And because these concepts are so often ignored or violated or taken advantage of, that is why I say I understand why some may have a bad taste left in their mouths from the idea of truth. But I think the old adage applies of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Truth has been twisted and manipulated and misapplied; let us seek to straighten and mend and use her properly, rather than throw her out.
I said before that these sorts of statements are self-destructive. Why?
Well, first, the claim that there is no truth is a claim being made about “outside” (not subjective) reality — a very sweeping and absolute sort of claim. In fact, it is a truth claim, and so if the claim is true the claim itself cannot be true. The most one could claim (and a much more respectable position) would be to say that you are not sure whether or not there is truth.
Second, if one really believed there was no truth, no objective reality, and no right and wrong, the result would be a life of such meaningless and hopeless nihilism that I would hate to see the result. There are some that are at that point — I have been close myself — and it is no fun place to be, but it is at least intellectually consistent.
But nearly everybody lives their daily life as if there is at least some sort of reality outside and greater than themselves, despite what they may say. We go to sleep expecting to wake up later and find the world still there, waiting for us so to speak. We turn the key in the ignition and expect there to be a real-life engine that will turn. We hear on the news of an innocent person being shot and get indignant.
Now can I say definitively that there is objective truth? If a proof that there are no proofs is meaningless, so would be a proof that proofs are possible. If Truth itself is on trial, it cannot be used to prove itself.
I think we are here at a point of needing to recognize the importance of axiom. You either accept objective reality or you don’t. It is self-evident, seen that it cannot help but be the case — or else, perhaps, it isn’t.
I do happen to believe that our experience is consistent with just such a phenomenon as objective reality, or “truth” (albeit with a lot of flux, paradox, errors of perception, and emotional agents thrown in), but that doesn’t absolutely prove it. You are free to reject it if you like, but if so you can’t claim that such a rejection is true, and for your own sake I would hope you don’t live like it is.
I heard someone say “this whole right and wrong thing is really crappy” in the context of a discussion on right or wrong views on reality (not necessarily the idea of morally right or wrong actions, though, incidentally, I would argue that the latter is just a special case of the former — ultimately, those who say we should love our neighbor are simply asserting an axiom of reality, something they see woven into the fabric of life itself and just as “real” as planet Earth). Now, I agree with that statement in a way. The way right and wrong is used in religion, or politics, or pretty much any hot button issue is often pretty crappy.
People, on all sides, present their opinion as absolute truth.
People turn to personal attacks.
People are way too firmly convinced they know the truth to everything and won’t seriously consider the very likely possibility they are wrong.
People use every logical fallacy in the books, in every last paragraph.
People twist right and wrong to fit their views and justify their actions and bash others.
And so on and so on…
I get it. But the problem doesn’t lie in the existence of right and wrong. The problem lies with people and how they approach it.
Someone smart once said something like “Why do we always miss the middle?” It’s easy to swing to one extreme or the other. Some essentially say, “I know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and now I’m going to bash you over the head with it.” Others say, “That’s BS, therefore I’m going to reject the whole idea of truth.” It’s naive to see the world in all black and white; it is also naive to make meaningless statements that imply all views and claims are equally valid or equally subjective. Life is nuanced.
If someone claims something to be true, you don’t need to agree with them, but treat the claim as such. Respect things for what they are. If you mean to say that someone should be more respectful, or more open-minded, then say so.
Taking this one small step — to take a split second to consider what is really being said and what type of claim, before responding appropriately — would go a long way in improving the ubiquitous discussions that usually deteriorate very quickly into hasty, senseless, angry battles.
My current journey has been and is to find truth — not to deny its existence.
Now in that journey there is a lot of uncertainty, nuance, room for error, and even paradox. That’s what a lot of people either forget or don’t realize, and what has brought me to this journey in the first place. There are some that could use a good deconstruction (or two) of the way they view and use the idea of truth.
But I have never quite been able to throw out the idea of truth altogether. To do so would be to throw out the idea of reality itself, shooting ourselves in the figurative foot, and putting ourselves in a worse position than where we started.
Now in that journey there is a lot of uncertainty, nuance, room for error, and even paradox. But I have never quite been able to throw out the idea of truth altogether.
I greatly sympathize with those who state things such as “that’s just your truth” or “all religions are saying the same things, can’t we just get along.” In fact, in most cases I probably agree with what they are actually trying to say. But I doubt many realize the full implications of what they are saying, despite the popularity of making such sweeping statements. My suggestion is to simply choose better words, and clarify both to ourselves and to others what we really want to say, in order to get to the bottom of things together.