I think truth comes in two flavours; absolute and relative. I my experience these two kinds of truth are often confused. People make relative truth statements thinking they are absolute truths.
An absolute truth would be a statement about the nature of reality that is unadulterated by any subjective evaluation or interpretation. In other words an absolute truth is not just how we think things are, it the way things actually are. Ultimately, I don’t think we will ever unequivocally and completely understand the nature of reality. Thus we can never know without a doubt what is true about the nature of reality. Because of this any statement claiming to be absolutely true should not be believed to be the Truth.
As science continues to reveal more about the nature of reality our approximation of the truth about reality may increase in accuracy but it will never become absolute because we can never know the complete picture. Therefore, there is, and can never be, absolute Truth, only better and better approximations of it.
Relative truth is defined by adopting some standard by which it can be measured. Often the standard by which a truth is justified is not recognized to be non-absolute if it is recognized at all. People often make statements which they take for granted are true without being aware of the relative standard they are basing their statements on. For example, the standards by which competing economic ideologies are evaluated may vary from the accumulation of wealth and power to the quality of life of the majority of the population. According to the former standard the “truth” is that capitalism is the best economic system. On the other hand, by the latter standard the truth is that some form of socialism is the best economic model.
Whenever we ask the quesion, “What is the truth about <some idea>?”, we should recognize that we will not be able to arrive at an ultimate truth. We should also be clear that whatever truth we arrive at will be dependent on the standard or standards by which we judge it to be true. Examples of relative standards include:
– that which is believed by the majority of people you identify with
– that which makes the most sense according to the information you have
– that which seems most likely according to the information you have and the understanding you have about it.
– that which has been claimed by an authority you accept as valid
– that which you have assumed to be true without question
– my gut tells me what to believe is true
Even truth statements about ultimate questions are relative. What is the truth about the origin of the universe? Answers to this question are necessarily relative truths dependent on particular and not all-inclusive chains of reasoning and partial (because we can never know everything about anything) information.
The ultimate and absolute Truth is a mystery and always will be. Although often believed to be ultimate and absolute, relative truths dependent on the criteria by which we measure them. Much harmful mischief can ensue when relative truths are erroneously assumed to be absolute truths. ie. racism, this religion is the true religion, my clan deserves to rule over yours, liberals/conservatives know best how to run the country, etc. Adherence to partisan (relative) truths is responsible for much conflict in the world.
I try to remember that If something seems obviously true I should be very skeptical.