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The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

A few weeks ago a friend recommended a book to me. The book was on a subject that I am not really interested in and one which I would not normally deign to entertain. However, in this instance, I decided to read it in the interest of expanding my horizons. I also resolved to read it with an open mind, something that is easier said than done; our perceptions are always formed via the lens of our biases. While I will analyse and critique that particular book in subsequent posts, there is one particular line of thought that the book triggered in me: the notion of truth.


How do we define truth? How do we ascertain the truth of something? Is truth absolute or relative to the observer?


Maybe the answers to these questions are self-evident to most people. For me, they are certainly not obvious but are worthy of being investigated.


A philosophical digression

Philosophers have grappled with the nature of truth over the ages and offered some varied views.


Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, wrote that:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”


This is not an entirely satisfactory definition as it relies on an ambigious and undefined way to determine what is and what is not.


Among certain philosophers, there is a belief that truth can not be defined. That it is a fundamental assumption, atomic in nature and unable to be broken down further.



There are also logic-based and mathematical definitions of truth. At this point, however, I am more interested in pragmatic and practical definitions.


Getting practical ... defining truth


Let's start with the definition of truth. According to lexico.co, which is powered by Oxford, truth is defined as follows:


The dictionary entry lists a number of different definitions of truth. The first definition equates truth with fact or reality. This raises more questions than it answers: how do we define facts? How do we define reality?


The second definition is even more intriguing: a fact or belief that is accepted as true.


Both of these definitions bear some reflection.

 

Facts and reality


As we see from the definitions above, truth is equated to fact or reality. What then, is a fact? I again turn to our trusty dictionary (https://www.lexico.com/definition/fact):

We seem to have hit a cul-de-sac on the road to truth. Truth is defined as fact and fact is defined as truth. This is a classic example of a circular definition. Clearly, this definition does not get us any further in terms of coming up with a practical definition of truth.


What about the concept of reality then? Lexico.co defines it as follows:

Now we are getting somewhere...truth is related to fact which is related to reality which is related to existence. Based on the above, one could derive a simplistic definition of truth as a reflection of the existence of something. This may not be an airtight definition but will serve our purpose for now.


Consider some examples:

  • Stones have the property of being hard. This property of stones is a fact. The existence of this property of hardness makes this real and, therefore, a fact. Hence, it is true that stones are hard.

  • The number 100 is greater than the number 99, This property of the number 100 is a fact. This is an intrinsic property of the number 100 and can be mathematically proven. The existence of this mathematical proof makes this a fact. Hence, it is true that the number 100 is greater than the number 99.

One may present many other examples in the same form, relating existence to facts and ultimately, to truth. We now turn out attention to the second definition, which I find a little more interesting.

 

Accepted beliefs and facts


The second defintion of truth, as per its dictionary entry is: a fact or belief that is accepted as true. Does the simple acceptance of a so-called fact or belief make it true? Who needs to accept it? Do we have a process of achieving consensus to label a claim as true? If a sufficient number of people accept something, does it make it true? This definition is problematic.


The first definition represents truth as a reflection of reality, something that can not be debated as it is an innate or instrinsic property of the subject under discussion. The second definition, however, relies on general acceptance (possibly without any proof or evidence) that something is what it is. This could mean that the nature of truth could change over time if the prevailing views changed. For thousands of years, humans believed the Earth was flat. It was an accepted truth based on the second definition of truth. However, we now know that reality does not support that particular version of truth. That means that the ancient "truth" has now been replaced with a new truth that is based on the Earth being spherical. How can this be? How can truths change over time? Isn't truth immutable?

 

Truth = reality?


If it had been easy to define truth, we would have done that years ago. All I am after is something practical in order to provide a reasonably objective way of distinguishing fact from fiction; where to draw the line between reality and unproven claims.


I therefore come back to the two definitions that I started with:

  • Definition 1: That which is in accordance with truth or reality

  • Definition 2: A fact or belief that is accepted as true


A truth defined using definition 1 is almost incontrovertible. However, a truth defined using definition 2 may turn out to be false after all as illustrated by the example of the "truth" of a flat earth. . How, then, do we reconcile these?


One way is the following:

  • Truths defined using definition 1 are immutable

  • Truths defined using definition 2 are acceptable until proven false using evidence based on definition 1

I think I can live with that.


I hope this post has evinced as many questions in your mind as it has in mind.


Till the next post, keep questioning.

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