The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…
There is a reason why every court drama starts with these words. The search for truth (or the obfuscation of it) has defined all the major events in human history, both good and bad. “So was this or that person in the papers this morning lying or was it their accusers distorting the truth?” We want answers to these questions because it allows us to form a view that we feel is justified and which we can defend. There’s something deep inside every one of us that yearns for this kind of clarity, particularly when it touches our sense of injustice (or political or religious views!).
I would like to start by saying it’s essential that by the end of our journey we get to the Truth, specifically when addressing the topics here on Wisdomhub. It’s no good speculating based on flights of fancy or hearsay when it comes to the large existential questions such as what the truth is or what becomes of us on the other side of death. The consequences of getting it wrong are too dire for us as individuals (at this point I am not expecting you to believe in gods or a GOD, just making the point that if there is life after death, it will pose a serious problem to us at a point when it’s too late to adjust our position). Moreover, no matter how sincere a certain conviction may be, if it is found to be false it poses a great danger not only to the individual holding it but also to all those that fall under that individual’s sphere of influence. To reference two terribly overused examples, Communism and Nazism should give some perspective of how false ideologies have turned out for the world at large historically.
We’ll start right at the beginning with a few questions about truth that will search out this topic, making as few assumptions as possible along the way in order to keep this a level playing field. It’s a crucial topic, but I’ve tried to keep it light and conversational so I’ve broken into down in a way that it might play out over a dinner conversation:
- Facts vs Alt-facts? Rules of game
- Is truth knowable? I don’t know what I don’t know, but I know what I know
- Is the truth relative or absolute? It’s absolutely a relatively big problem
- Who has a claim on the absolute truth? My truth, your truth, who’s got the truth
That said, let’s begin:
1. Rules of the game
Every game needs a set of rules, or else game play becomes anarchic and ultimately meaningless. Since Wisdomhub is all about the search for meaning, I need to start with a handful of small, but important assumptions (we’ll make no further assumptions on this journey, but we do need to at least agree on where the playing field is). We’ll need to agree on the following basic over-arching principles in order to have a reasonable discussion:
- Facts are facts, regardless of which angle you look at them from
- Evidence presented must be factual or at least it must not contradict known facts
- Logical argument based on a thorough evaluation of the evidence is required to make a point
It may seem superfluous to belabour this point, but it’s crucial to the rest of the discussion that we agree on the playing field before kick-off. At its most basic it’s a question of fact or fiction: facts can be know, but fiction is, well, made up. I don’t want to trivialise this site by going on deep philosophical discourses about things that may as well be made up because there’s no evidence or logic to back up the assertions.
Similarly, if we can’t at least agree whether that mug on the table is black or white because we don’t believe the colour spectrum is something that can be defined (despite all evidence supporting the contrary) we’re denying the basic facts and there is no point in further discussion. I’m not trying to silence the contrarians amongst us, but even contrarians are forced the acknowledge the simple facts when taking a position or all rhyme and reason will be lost. If we are starting the argument in the absence of reason or logic, it implies that we’ll never be swayed from any position we hold, because we’re starting from the position that it’s acceptable to be irrational. Normally people only take an irrational position if they are upset or angry and their fight/flight basic instincts have kicked in (I hope I haven’t got you to that point already on the first page!). Of course, it can happen when we are deeply emotional about something, but I would appeal to you to please remain open minded – as I commit to you that I have been and continue to be on this journey – and not to overlook or avoid the evidence and logical arguments only because they clash with your current point of view.
2. I don’t know what I don’t know, but I know what I know
Knowing stuff is important. It gets us through life when we know stuff. ABC’s and 123’s are the foundation of civilisation and while there may be arguments for and against different types of education, I hope that no-one will argue that ignorance is good. The opposite of ignorance is knowledge and knowledge starts with the word “know”. Even the animals know certain things intrinsically and that knowing makes all the difference between death or life.
Knowing not just basic things but deeper things is what makes us human. The ability to think and reason through things is all predicated upon the fact that ultimately we can know something about something. At the most elemental level we know the facts: the mug on the table is white. At a higher level we know why it is white: because the material it is made from reflects most of the visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum back into our eyes. At an even deeper level we understand it’s about the interaction of particles and waves (don’t ask me to start explaining that!). The point I am making is that the same facts are in operation at all levels of what we know, it’s just our understanding of the facts that has deepened (or heightened, take your pick!).
The truth is no different to a fact in this sense. In fairness, the truth is more than just a fact, but for now accept that it is at least equivalent to a simple fact, which means that by definition, it can be assessed and understood and ultimately known. Perhaps this is blatantly obvious, but I want to make the point that the truth is knowable and that it’s discovery is not limited to some elite group that claims to be smarter, richer or more powerful than the rest of us. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that the mug on the table is white. Similarly you don’t need to be a philosopher to know the truth. We may not agree on what form the truth takes or even what the truth is, but I do hope we’ll agree that all of us are at least able to know the truth at a basic level.
Truth is knowable.
3. It’s absolutely a relatively big problem
A big issue that prevents us from finding clarity in our confused world (and if you don’t think it’s confusing, try and explain it to a child!) stems from the fact that for some decades now we’ve been subject to the idea that truth is relative (or alternative facts, as some might say!). It’s important that we address this point early on or opinions start to define truth and these opinions will (obviously) wildly and passionately contradict each other because suddenly truth has been redefined to be relative to the individual’s point of view i.e. “I’ll believe what I want to believe and if it works for me, I’m happy with that”. When we choose to believe that the truth is relative, it conveniently arranges itself around the centre of the universe – which is, of course, the holy trinity of me, myself and I (at this point I must apologise for my facetious streak. Sense of humour does remain a relative thing and I fear mine can be, well, different).
Back to my point: there is a small problem with this relativist reasoning: If the truth is relative then – by definition – it can no longer be the truth. Let’s use a mathematical analogy to elaborate: as long as zero is zero i.e. a fixed point slap-bang in the middle of our famed number line, everything works out great. You can fill up your car consistently at the petrol station, balance the family budget and you can pay your taxes correctly (OK, that last point might not be great news but at least you can avoid overpaying your taxes, legally, of course). However, if your “zero” is my “one” and Johnny-down-the-road’s “minus two” – and we all passionately believe we have the right answer – we’re all screwed (excuse my French, but that’s a fact). Let’s not get too philosophical about the potential for relative truth unless we are prepared to accept the consequences of applying the same relative measure to every other absolute that exists in this world. There are, of course, always special exceptions, such as when you are a “gifted” accountant that can magically bend those GAAP rules and still call it the truth (relative to what might be an outright lie). To put it another way, some things in life are indeed relative, such as how long a piece of string is (it’s relative to where you cut it), or the theory of relativity (time is relative to the speed you are moving at – we’ll get to that later).
On the other hand, there are things that simply are not relative, like zero and the truth and every other physical constant upon which life and science depends. It’s important to put these concepts in the right bucket. In remaining consistent with our previous assertion that truth must at least be equivalent to a fact and since all facts are absolute assertions, so the truth must also be absolute.
Truth, by definition, must be absolute or it loses any meaning.
4. My truth, your truth, who’s got the truth?
It’s one thing to agree that truth is knowable and absolute, but how do we determine what the truth actually is? There was a time – when I was younger and more naive – that I believed that one day we’d evolve to a point where we’d collectively finally stop fighting and start loving and working harmoniously together to fix all the world’s problems, achieving nirvana on earth (which, ironically, if you actually look into it is headache-inducing in it’s complexity so I do wonder how anyone can imagine it to be the ideal state, excuse the pun). But then I grew up and read my history books again and recalled those times when people tried to create a truly utopian, humanistic society. As mentioned earlier already, the clearest manifestations of these attempts were communism and fascism and the results were two world wars, mass genocide, humanitarian disasters, environmental destruction and economic devastation (very dramatically put, I know, but sadly it’s also very true).
Unfortunately, it seems that we have not learnt from this at all and today we are seeing a similar thing happening in the Western world, except this time it’s driven by the American dream to get more than thy neighbour. Nations have proudly secularised themselves and embraced a capitalist tradition that focuses on climbing a corporate ladder and gathering material possessions. Furthermore, an “anything is permissible as long as it doesn’t harm me” attitude has permeated Western society and we are only beginning to reap the consequences of this selfish worldview: collapsing social systems; uncontrollable debt; spiralling crime; a delinquent youth and an egocentric, consumer-driven society.
The problem in either case has little to do with whether we embrace socialism or capitalism, but it has everything to do with our human nature, which is inherently selfish. As long as each of us is committed to “#1” (the only thing that die hard socialists and capitalists seem to have in common!) the thought of coming to a collective agreement on anything, let alone truth, is just plain unrealistic. Like the number zero is the anchor for our number line, the truth also needs an anchor, a fixed reference point, and that point simply cannot be human in nature because we are forever in flux and just can’t seem to get our stuff together.
As much as I can’t trust you to always be truthful all of the time, you shouldn’t trust in my ability to do the same either. This isn’t even down to our desire to be truthful (which may well be sincere, even if only on occasion!) but it’s down to the fallibility and limitations of our selfish nature, which means we’ll compromise truth if it means we’ll survive or get the upper hand. We’re only human after all i.e. don’t put the blame on me. Some people would say that science offers us such an objective anchor. The problem with this argument is that science by definition is deterministic about the physical world and not the moral universe. Science cannot prove or disprove morality or right or wrong. It can prove what is true and what is false in the world of physics and chemistry i.e. it can prove whether two people are physically attracted to each other based on changes in blood pressure or hormone levels, but it cannot determine whether love is absent or present. Science’s “truths” are restricted to a limited domain of knowledge.
Others will argue that history offers us an anchor for moral truth. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the winners were right. Worse still, it assumes the winners will write the truth about what happened, when in reality they just write the history (read into that what you may). History has been shaped by the same selfish humans that gave us communism, fascism, capitalism and Islamism. How can we assume that humans that are dishonest on an individual level with suddenly provide truthful clarity on a collective level? I think that is a naive assumption at best. Perhaps if any of the social or political ideologies I have mentioned provided us with a lasting, prosperous, peaceful and moral state there would be an argument. But each one of those ideologies have fed on the oppression or exploitation of one group over another so how can any one of them be heralded as the truth for mankind?
I would like to venture that the only reasonable anchor for truth needs to be external to mankind. Going back to the point that truth must be absolute, there is no such fixed anchor point on this world or in our societies. We are careening through space, time and history at a dizzying pace and nothing is “fixed” in our world (as a reference point or simply as a matter of everyday life). The world is broken and mankind has spent thousands of years trying to fix it with our “truths” and it’s arguably not gotten us very far. People are just as cruel and exploitative today as they were in Roman times.
What we need as an anchor for truth is a truly unbiased, objective, eternal (unchanging) and moral “external” reference point in order to deliver us the Truth. Anything short of this fails to satisfy the high standards that truth sets. And nothing in our physical world can conform to these demanding criteria, so we need to look further.
In order for truth to become the Truth, it needs an objective anchor, external to the human frame of reference.
In our next section, we’ll explore this point further.