Whole libraries of books and articles have been written about this topic, but not many people care to follow the meanderings of philosophers. The popular chorus is, “Just give me the facts; don’t bother me with theories.”
Others who don’t want to face up to THE TRUTH pretend to ask, “Whose truth?”
Some make the statement, “Truth is relative; there is your truth and there is my truth.”
Many then compound this error by shouting, “Its true I tell you !”
What follows here are some brief thoughts about truth. I make no claim to covering the ground.
It is common these days to hear someone say that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but only what can be called, relative truth. They mean by this that what we mean by “truth” depends on what we agree about. Many go so far as to claim that our collective agreements, embodied in our language, actually create our reality. Then by continuing to apply this sophistry to each pivotal word, they eventually drown in a fog of illusion and end up more confused than they were to begin with. It seems to escape their notice, that when most people thought the earth was flat it went right on being rather ball shaped; spheroidal in fact.
Let us begin by agreeing that whatever is true , is so regardless of who knows or does not know about it. No matter how many billions of people believe a thing to be true, it will not be unless it already is so without any believers. What is true , is true independently of knowers. And if it is true it cannot be changed by liars.
Common knowledge is a very different matter. A great deal of common knowledge, when closely examined, turns out to be common opinion. We call this common knowledge when agreement about it is almost universal. Such opinion can be swayed by clever manipulation of information and misinformation. Thus we have propagander and advertising. Without getting bogged down in a discussion of these two sisters, let me just observe that it takes a well informed, active and penetrating mind to glean any small elements of truth which may be contained in their outpourings. Like all successful lies they do contain elements of truth. They rely on people noticing these gems, and being thus lulled into a sense of acceptance of the message which contains them.
The same thing applies to many religions and cults which claim that their particular set of doctrines are infallibly true. Look closely to see who or what is benefitting, and you will begin to see their real agenda. It makes no difference whether they call themselves Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew or whatever; if they are prepared to distort the truth, to hide the facts or misrepresent the facts, or to promote outright lies, then we must reject all they say as unreliable.
In my search for enlightenment, for personal growth, for answers to all the ultimate questions of who, what and why, I flirted with many philosophies. After having encounters with many individuals and groups, including priests, politicians, philosophers and scientists I eventually realized that confusion reigned supreme among the lot of them. Even those who had a handle on some things seemed totally lost or at odds with reality in other things. Each person or group seemed to want to push their own creed to the total exclusion of any other, and to ignore any truth or fact which might be inconvenient from their point of view. How, I wondered, can anyone expect to learn wisdom while wearing the blinkers of a closed mind?
One can choose between this or that philosophy or creed on the basis of a variety of criteria. For some people it might be of great importance that a particular creed makes them feel good. They are judging value or worth on the basis of their emotions. Not good! Emotions are of course transient. To base the central themes of one’s life on how one feels must be the antithesis of reason.
For another person logic might be most important. This is even more dangerous, because even perfect logic can only end with the same degree of certainty that it began with. Any logical thought or argument Begins somewhere with a ‘given’ or basic assumption. If the basic assumption is false, so too will be the conclusion. At this point many will leave us saying that to them it doesn’t matter whether it is true or false in any fundamental way. All that matters in their opinion is how effective a thing is in getting them what they want. Others will want to shout at us for denigrating emotion or reason, or both. They, of course, have missed the point altogether.
More thoughtful types might point out that I might not be able to recognize the truth when I find it. Or that I might have a belief that I mistakenly take to be truth, only to discover later that it is not. Quite so ! What is important here is to come to the conclusion, as I did, that truth is of the utmost value; that pursuit of truth must be an occupation of the highest worth; that the truth you discover and learn(know) will set you free from illusion, emotion, humanism, rationalism,religious hypocracy and many forms of bondage.
Having decided this, I began to search for a means of recognising truth.
Science helps here insofar as it applies empirical testing. Science constructs a theory to explain the known facts. It then predicts consequences which arise from that theory. ie. We know from observation that ‘A’ is the case; logic tells us that if ‘A’ is the case, then according to our theory ‘B’ must also be the case. The next step is to construct an experiment to discover if ‘B’ is indeed the case. If the experimental evidence shows that ‘B’ is the case, then we agree that the theory is supported by the evidence.
Notice that we do not say the theory is proven. There must always be the possibility of turning up further evidence that conflicts with the theory. Notice too, that if even one piece of evidence can be found which conflicts with the theory, then we suspect that the theory is faulty. We may still use the theory as a useful tool, but when there is a growing body of such contrary evidence against, it we say it is disproven. The process then begins all over again with scientists and mathematicians attempting to construct a theory which explains all the known facts.
We have seen that all our scientific knowledge is provisional.We can know the theory and understand the math, but we are no nearer to knowing ultimate truth. Well what about ‘a priori’ knowledge? This is knowledge of facts which can’t be otherwise. For instance, in a decimal system of mathematics 2+2=4, the number 1 is identity, and all numbers are both cardinal and ordinal. Yes, but this sort of knowledge while very useful to punters and chess masters is not much use when it comes to teleological questions. About now we come to the realization that to really know a thing we must know its purpose or reason for being. And that of course raises the question of whose purpose?
Having raised the question of purpose, let me say that many, perhaps most researchers focus on function rather than purpose. In doing this they handicap themselves unnecessarily. Consider the cases you know of from your own experience where hindsight clearly illuminates phenomena or circumstances which were puzzling or unexpected when first encountered. The trick then is to have the benefit of something like hindsight prior to the encounter. This is just what focussing on purpose does for us, and in the light of this we can at last distinguish between truth and falsity.
Forewarned about a liar’s motivations and personal history we can see through his lies. Knowing what he is up to we avoid being deceived. Young people looking for a thrill are more likely to say no to a drug pusher if they understand that his purpose is to enslave them with an addiction to his wares. When they see that he only wants to force them to bring him money even if it totally destroys their lives, they easily reject him.
Again I say, “Look closely to see who or what is benefiting, and you will begin to see their real agenda.”
To find truth, first identify purpose; then by asking, ‘Whose purpose?’ we arrive at truth.