You may have heard the expression “that’s your truth” or some variant of it. Perhaps you were told that phrase by a hippie from the 1960’s. You may have heard it from a Millennial college student. The idea is associated with post-modernism, but it’s been around longer than either the hippie from the summer of love or the modern hipster. The idea that something can be true for one person, while simultaneously not being true for another person is well-rooted in New Ageism and can be found in some eastern philosophies as well. This way of thinking claims that something can be, or might not be, but it never is. Well, it is…but not really. It only “is” for whom it’s true. Truth might not exist, or may exist, or change for various people. It depends on who is holding judgement of that truth at that moment, and if they accept it.
In other words, truth is relative.
Confused? I might have lost you here, but stay with me. You either understand this concept instantly, or you struggle to conceptualize it. (It might help to read up on Scott Adam’s “movie in your head” theory, which I think has credence when explaining how people perceive reality. People want to see things a certain way – regardless of how things really are.)
To “relative truthers”, the other way of thinking is extremely simplistic. And it is: it claims that something is “true” if it’s true. A fact simply “is” or “isn’t”. The bit is on or off – a one or a zero. This state of a claimed “truth” is wholly independent of anyone who happens to hear about it. Whether a person accepts it or not, truth is still truth. It stands on its own.
In other words, truth is absolute.
If you’re relatively “forward”-thinking, you probably accept the view that truth is relative. If you’re from the year 1850, you most likely relate to the view that truth is absolute. That’s your choice. And who am I to judge? What’s true for me might not be true for someone else. (Yes, I’m being a bit snarky to make a point.)
In light of all that, in order to help people find the truth for their own selves, I’d like to propose a few tests of truth that will allow any person to clearly see if something is true for them or not. Whether the supposed truth is rudimentary (“2+2=4”) or vastly important (“Jesus is God”), these are tests an individual can apply to anything, in the privacy of their own mind. You can even close the curtains and read this privately. You don’t have to tell anyone your conclusions, in case you might offend them.
- Would this be true regardless of me? This is a test of a truth’s independence of people, or put another way, it’s universality. If you were the only person alive, it would be true. If the only person on earth was your polar opposite, it would still be true. If CNN did a poll, and 99% of respondents disagreed with it, it would still be true. If you were put in jail for believing it, it would still be true.Here is an example of this type of claim: “Exposure to fire will burn a person’s hand.” I don’t know about you, but my truth is that this is a fact. I will boldly venture to say that all sane people agree with me, and wouldn’t dispute this as absolute truth. If anyone would make the smug claim that this is true for me but not for them, we could test whether the claim is true by asking them to place their hand into the midst of a wood-burning stove. I’m sure it would become true to them as well. It’s a universal truth.
- The last example leads right into the next question: can it be measured, demonstrated, or tested independently? If a claim can be shown to product the same measurement results by standard measurements anywhere on earth, or demonstrated the same way under equal conditions by anyone, or can in some other manner be independently tested – and pass that test each time – you can take the leap of faith and say, “that is a fact” or “that is true”.Here’s an example. If I count four coins, place them into a bag, and hand them to a shopkeeper in Italy, and he pours the coins onto his counter top, there will still be four coins. I can then take those same four coins, put them back into the bag, and bring it to a first-grader in Florida, USA. If he counts them, there will be four. No matter who applies the counting test, the result will be four – because the number of coins is four. That fact is true no matter what the conditions are, who is counting, or where the coins are located.
- Does it show consistency? This goes along with the previous question, but also applies to things that are non-measurable or aren’t measurable by normal standards. If someone shows consistent behavior or gives a consistent account of an incident, for instance, this is evidence that their story is factual.But consistency also applies to things – not just people. A technical example of this would be data normalization. Another example applying this concept (albeit a bit abstractly) would be consistency of the pistons in an engine – the engine doesn’t work with varying pistons and cylinder widths. Consistency (in measurement, or behavior) shows something to be “true”.
- Does it make sense when examined from all angles? A philosopher might call this a test of coherence, and that’s a great way to put it. If a person can coherently explain something, they can make it make sense. If a claim can be subjected to examination from different angles, it still make sense, then it is probably true. But if it falls apart when viewed from certain angles, it might be false. This does not mean it’s true for some people and not for others; it means it’s false – because it violates the first test we gave it.An example of this is when a scholar examines an old historical document for veracity, and not only dates the document’s paper by something like carbon-14 dating, but by examining handwriting examples, citing quotes from the writing in other documents for which the data has been established, and perhaps even scrutinizing what the document says (whether historical or scientific).
- Does it stand up to criticism? When the claim is attacked outright, and it remains, then it can’t be simply false. And it can’t simply be true for some people and not others. This is because facts are stubborn, and tend to be immovable.This unfortunately doesn’t always work in a timely manner (ask Galileo, Mendel, or poor old Ignaz Semmelweis – the doctor no one listened to, but should have).The stubbornness of facts, and their tendency to remain in the face of criticism doesn’t stop the critics from lashing out.Keep this in mind next time you argue a point of political philosophy with someone, and ask yourself if it’s worth it.
The above questions are simply variations on some classic criteria of truth. They’re nothing new, and in fact my understanding of some of them might be a bit sloppy.
But we all should come to terms with truth. We should each search for it, approach it, and grab hold of it when we find it. I do not believe we should regard the concept of truth with a cynical attitude. Pontius Pilate did that when he asked “What is truth?” – while the very embodiment of Truth was before him! I believe we should each seek truth with seriousness, sincerity, and do it purposefully.
In today’s world, truth is becoming harder to discern. A big reason for this is that we more frequently insulate ourselves in small communities in which only our point of view is expressed. By doing this, place ourselves in an environment that constantly gives us positive feedback of only our belief system and negative feedback of other belief systems, which causes us to have an artificially reinforced worldview. This Facebook-Twitter-Google-Social Media bubble-environment we find ourselves in is comfortable, familiar, and seems to be so right – because we’re never challenged with any other way of thinking. Does any of this ring “true” to you?
It’s happening, and the system was intentionally designed to be this way. [Read Sean Parker’s assessment on his regrets about his involvement with Facebook, the video clip of former FB exec Chamath Palihapitiya in this article starting at 7:15, and my previous article on AI.] This is why civil discourse is an old-fashioned “thing of the past” – a lost art form. Instead of people merely “agreeing to disagree”, a difference of opinion between two people may result in one of them being assaulted. (It’s sad, but we’ve all read the stories.)
In one way, I agree with the sentiment “what’s true for me isn’t true for others”, in this way: I don’t decide what other people believe. Everyone can believe what they wish to believe; we each decide what we wish to accept. Each individual decides where they place their faith. No one can believe something on behalf of another.
What I do not agree with is the idea that truth actually changes depending on what someone likes (or doesn’t like). Not only is that idea unscientific, it’s juvenile and selfish. It doesn’t make sense by any measure of sense. And it robs people of an important impetus to seek what is true and right. It gives people an excuse to believe anything.
And often if someone is willing to believe anything, they believe in nothing.
How true is your truth – is it for everyone, or is it only to your liking? Do you know what is true? Do you care to possess actual, real truth for yourself? Do you ever even seek the truth?
Please share your thoughts with me below.