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The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - part 2

Since writing my last post on the nature of truth, I have reflected further on this. If you have not read it, I suggest that you do so before proceeding further: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Why do I have this obsession with the concept of truth? As I indicated in the first post on this topic, my thoughts on truth were triggered by a particular book that I have recently read. The subject of the book is not actually truth; however, it did evoke a tangential line of enquiry in my mind that I have been pursuing since then. I also intend to do more research on the philosophy of truth on which I shall share my views in due course. So it's not really an obsession but is something that I need to clarify to myself with a combination of my own perceptions and the views of philosophers who have dwelt on this subject.

An aside on information storage

I believe that ideas, facts and, in general, data of any kind needs to be neatly structured in your brain. Much like computer memory, there needs to be an ability for us to rapidly call up data when we require it. On our hard drives, we create folders and sub-folders in order to store files in a manner that make it easy for us to navigate to the right information when we require it. It is a way of compartmentalizing and classifying information in order to make it useful and accessible.

Doing something like this in our heads is a lot more complex and opaque to us humans. We gather a multitude of impressions, ideas, thoughts, facts, and data from our sensory inputs and make it a part of what we term our knowledge. People who have acquired (and importantly, retained) more information are therefore more knowledgeable. Taking the computer analogy further, it would be of immense benefit for us to tag this information to reflect its validity. This is where I come back to the computer analogy. When acquiring information, I imagine that people unconsciously place a value on it in terms of its veracity. If we could consciously tag pieces of data based on the type of truth it represents, it may result in better decision-making capabilities.

Types of truth

The two definitions of truth that I discussed in the last post can be summarised as follows:

  • reality-based truth: independently verifiable and based on actual existence or reality

  • belief-based truth: accepted without evidence but with no evidence to refute it either

Belief-based truth

Truths based on beliefs are an infinitely more interesting subject than reality-based truths. Reality-based truths are simple, black-and-white and well-nigh irrefutable. Nothing to see here, move on... On the other hand, belief-based truths are a lot more intriguing, at least from the perspective of intellectual enquiry. That is why I turn to these again.

You may recall that the definition of what I call belief-based truth is a fact or belief that is accepted as true.

I have been grappling with this definition. Exactly how many people need to believe something for it to be accepted as true? Does this number depend on the particular truth? It makes sense that it does. In fact, I am coming to the conclusion that the number of people who need to believe something to be true in order to make it a truth for them may be as few as just one - the individual themself. That is, for something to be true for an individual it is sufficient that they themselves believe it, regardless of whether anyone else does or not. I am starting to think that this would explain a lot of things.

Take the example of a dispute or disagreement between two parties. In a lot of such scenarios, if you interrogate either side by themselves you will come away with the impression that they are in the right and the fault lies entirely on the other side. That is because the truths they cling to it are belief-based truths. In their minds, they are perfectly convinced that they are the aggrieved party as they implicitly believe in the validity of their position. Such disagreements could be resolved by arbitrators who search for reality-based truths and rule based on them because that is all they can do. However, by ignoring the belief-based truths of each party, we run the risk of making adjudications that end up disappointing both parties. Maybe this is something that we just have to live with.

Acquiring truths

Whether we are dealing with fact-based truths or belief-based truths, we need to acquire knowledge of that truth via some means. It could be conveyed by a person, published in print, broadcast on radio/television or obtained via online multi-media. For one to ascribe any level of veracity to the information, the source of the information has to be trusted. This trust relationship is absolutely essential to our human method of knowledge transfer and acquisition. It is clearly prohibitive for us to independently verify every claim or piece of information via first principles. For example, when taught about sub-atomic particles, one could hardly expect a student to crack open an oxygen atom and verify that it indeed has eight neutrons.

One way to describe the flow of information is depicted in the figure below. Truths, which are either fact-based or belief-based, are acquired by us via one or more sources. These sources, unless they are primary sources, could have themselves acquired that information from other sources. The chain of flow of information from the primary source (the origin) to the source from which we have acquired them may span a number of other intermediate sources (or relays, to be more accurate). The challenge for us is to assess the trustworthiness of our source, the last source in the chain of flow. The element of trust also has to be coupled with a degree of healthy skepticism so that we ourselves corroborate information from multiple sources and not just accept the first proponent of the information that comes along.

If something is communicated to us by someone we see as a figure of authority (see also my post on this), we tend to implicitly believe it. This does make sense. We reason, in quite an unconscious manner, that the authority of the conveyor of the message, by virtue of their position, is sufficient to authenticate the contents of the message. That is, they are trustworthy. For instance, when a doctor prescribes some medication for an ailment that we are suffering from, we tend to accept that without undue questioning. The doctor is in a position of authority when it comes to prescribing medication; hence they are worthy of our trust. However, it is also not unusual for us to sometimes get a second opinion, a case of corroboration that I alluded to earlier.

Concluding remarks

Since my last post, I have deliberated further on this concept of truth, what it means to us and how we acquire it. I must admit that I have a problem with belief-based truths. I feel that these should not be classified as truths; we should just consider them to be beliefs. Then again, maybe I am wrong about this. It may be that truth is quantum in nature; we may not be able to observe it in all cases and so, all alternatives remain just as valid. I am not sure I want to take this hypothesis any further, though.

I may return to this topic in the future but for now, this is it as far as truth goes. Till the next post, keep wondering and questioning.

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