What is truth?

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    • #28407

        I was reading an intriguing article “Atheopaganism: An Overview” (Thank you, MArk Green) and came across this section:

        “Truth. we believe that what is true is of deep and inherent value. It is the only beacon we have to light our way into the unknown future. And the more significant the topic, the more sacred is the truth about it. It is a deep wrong to lie about matters of deep significance: to deny human-driven climate change, for example, or the genocides of the 20th century from Armenia to Germany to Rwanda. It is a deep wrong to deny what is true when it effects what is sacred. This isn’t about “little white lies”. It’s about the tremendous and humbling power of Truth to right wrongs, to advance liberty, to advance closeness between us.”

        I have given this some thought, and I realize that I really don’t know what truth is at all.

        Goes to show you that I didn’t get around to studying this in my philosophy courses at college.

        Anyhoo, what is truth? Anybody care to enlighten me?

        Tony Van der Mude


      • #28420


          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.


        • #28421

            This is WAY more stringent than I would frame it. It is “obviously true” that when water is frozen it crystallizes as ice and that electric current is mediated by subatomic particles called electrons. I’d even say that it’s absolutely true.


          • #28423

              To say that a truth is relative and not absolute is not the same as saying nothing can be relied upon. Edward deBono*, who did extensive work in lateral thinking, proposed the concept of proto-truths. Proto-truths are true according to what we know at a given point in time. They may, at a later point in time, be replaced by better approximations of the truth if new, more compelling evidence emerges. But for now, if our proto-truths are arrived at through rigorous investigation, they offer a way of making sense of the world given the information available at the time. As such they provide a provisional foundation of understanding upon which to base our thinking and actions.

              I have to agree that some things seem obviously true in the sense that it is hard to imagine them being otherwise but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are absolutely true. As is so often the case this discussion of the nature of truth depends on how those involved define the terms being examined. In my mind to be absolutely true literally means there can be no doubt about the truth claim nor even the possibility of a doubt. Absolute truth, then, requires that there be no omission of any information, otherwise a truth would be incomplete and hence not absolute. Our understandings of the formation of ice and the nature of electric current are based on our present scientific understandings of the way things are. I am not saying these understandings are not absolute because they wrong. I am saying they are not absolute because they are necessarily incomplete. There is plenty that we don’t know about the electrons that form the molecules of water. Are they waves or particles or both? When I use the word “electron” I am not talking about a thing that is actually any particular kind of “real” entity. The word “electron” itself is a proto-truth-based label built on informed assumptions about the mystery at the heart of reality.

              When I assert that when water freezes it becomes ice it is certainly true for all practical purposes. It is a reliable and useful proto-truth. It is true relative to the scientific facts as we currently understand them.  But our knowledge of the fundamental nature of matter is necessarily incomplete and will always be so. An absolute statement of truth would have to be based on a complete comprehension of every facet of reality. Since this is not possible it is not, IMO,  possible to make an absolutely true statement.

              That being said, not all truth claims should be given equal status. Truth claims vary in reliability according to the criteria used to evaluate them. The best tool we have to evaluate the “truthiness” of a statement is science. The more a claim is supported by empirical evidence the more faith we can afford it. But no claim, no matter how well supported by available evidence can be said to be absolutely true.

              *Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono (19 May 1933 – 9 June 2021) was a Maltese physician, psychologist, author, inventor and broadcaster. He originated the term lateral thinking, wrote many books on thinking including Six Thinking Hats, and was a proponent of the teaching of thinking as a subject in schools

              • This reply was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by tfindlay.
              • This reply was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by tfindlay.
              • #28429

                  I much more prefer and find it useful, the concept of proto-truth you’ve so eloquently presented, than the relative truth one. Using the term “relative” alongside with “truth”, necessarily implies the mistaken notion that truth is relative, which I perceive as different from what you are describing, which sounds to be more like some kind of perspective, framing or point of view. Relative truth, begs the association with individual or cultural relativism, the (damaging?) idea that something can be true for one person or culture but not for another.

                  Truth is generally understood to be a factual and accurate representation of reality. That is, a belief or statement is true if it matches up to the way the world is. If two people disagree about something, it can’t be that both their beliefs about it match up to the way the world is. It cannot be the case that what each believes is “true for them.”

                  Maybe we can call The Truth, the set of all true statements.

                  With regards to absolute truth, it’s certainly possible to ascertain absolute truths in statements involving definitions. “All living things will eventually die.”, 2+2=4,  A cannot be not-A, etc.

              • #28430

                  I have long thought that the idea of current truths being understood as proto-truths is an important distinction. What is true is relative to our current understanding.

                  “a belief or statement is true if it matches up to the way the world is”

                  This statement is reasonable in everyday practical terms but it should be noted that the truth here is defined as being relative to “the way the world is”. But do we or can we know that our beliefs about the way the world is are completely accurate. At one time it was “true” that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth. Science is continually revising the currently acceptable truth about the way the world is.

                  The reason that I think it is important to be aware of this is that that often our ideas about the way the world is are taken as absolutely true and that this  can lead to serious problems. Wars are fought over conflicting ideas of the way things are or should be. I think much grief might be avoided if more people understood the uncertain nature of what is taken for granted to be true. deBono’s idea was that what we often hold are not absolute truths but photo-truths and that these proto-truths can only be held to be more or less true according to the degree to which they match up with the current understanding of reality.

                  • This reply was modified 6 months, 2 weeks ago by tfindlay.
                  • This reply was modified 6 months, 2 weeks ago by tfindlay.
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