By Ken Beck
Author’s Note: Too long has philosophy been bogged down by pretentious diction that serves no purpose but to keep valuable information exclusive to the classically trained. Although a diverse vernacular can be appreciated academically, it is but a barrier to the people who need to understand it the most. Not everyone can afford to achieve the level of education common to most great thinkers, and writers can easily resolve this predicament by using language that is comprehendible by the many, not the few. Philosophy should not have to be translated, but direct in its doctrine and clear in explanation. The era of pompous vocabulary is at an end, and I hope that this piece can serve as an example of the way it can and should be.
Part I: The Necessity of Truth
Where is it said that there must be such a thing as truth? Stop. It isn’t as complicated as you may think. For me to halt at a red light means that it is true for red to signify the idea that I must stop for fear of legal penalty. Because I arrive on time for appointments, it is the truth that my wristwatch is set properly. For me to brush with toothpaste instead of hemorrhoid ointment means that the Crest label tells me that it is true I’m choosing the correct tube. The answer is everywhere. It is what we believe and have established to be the great foundation. That is to say it is the basis for what we perceive to be our reality. Something must be true in order to exist.
It is impossible to imagine reality without truth. The only explanation is mental dysfunction. My eyes cannot exist as brown if the truth is that they are blue. If I defy this principle, I have either color blindness or I am mad. For me to have actually kicked a tire on my car out of frustration, it must be the truth that my boot did impact the hard, Michelin rubber. The void of truth is falsity; that which cannot exist, because something that is false does not coincide with reality. We believe it is false that 2 + 2 = 5 because we know the statement is in direct conflict with the reality that 2 + 2 = 4. Like truth, falsity is a prerequisite, not for reality, but the opposite: nothingness, emptiness, nonbeing.
That is not to say this entire concept is indeed legitimate.
Now, perhaps, I am mad. But think about this. If it is the case that I am 22 years old and all my life I have held the belief that I am only 21 years old, then reality, at least for myself, has existed with a falsehood, which should be impossible. Therefore, at least a form of reality is void of truth. Truth is then only an idea (be it a universally accepted idea) that is something we must have in order for facts, our thoughts, our feelings, and our perceptions of the world to make sense. The proposition that 2 + 2 = 5 can exist if my sense of reality dictates such. We are wrong all the time, yet our shared reality did not collapse upon itself when it was discovered that the earth was round instead of flat. If that were the case, then we will have undergone cataclysmic peril before the people at the FDA decide whether or not eggs are good for us.
Our reality is only based on truth because we make such connections, not because they really do exist. People live without truth everywhere. Some people are Buddhists while others are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and atheist. Come on, someone has to be wrong. And yet each of the false realities continues day after day without a colossal rapture of void. Our reality does not entail truth, but merely our perception of it. One cannot even say if truth itself exists, but, again, for us to comprehend the multitudes of information that the mind receives continuously, truth is necessary. Humans must believe in truth to interpret anything, as being or nonbeing. Everything we have ever seen, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled can never be reduced to anything less than Hamlet’s great question of "To be or not to be…"
Hence, it does not matter if truth does actually exist. The mere question of the idea is futile. All that is consequential is that we have unanimously accepted it, creating rules based upon it, other general ideas associated with it, and systems that operate on it. Like it or not, truth is the figurative backbone, perhaps even a crutch we rely upon to appease ourselves. It’s not that we have any choice in the matter, however. The minute we begin to doubt the existence of truth, the mind is then thrown a loop and as confused as Descartes at the beginning of his Meditations. If we can believe nothing, can we even believe that idea?
So does truth exist? Not necessarily. It’s only a concept humans have created. We can’t go around finding truth in nature like we can with rare birds or pretty flowers. It exists only because we’ve labeled it and mass-produced it generation after generation. So can reality exist without truth? Absolutely. People do it everyday. I may even be doing it now with this theory of mine. Can the mind function without the idea of truth? No. The necessity of truth is only the mind’s necessity. And since we cannot comprehend that which is beyond the limits of our own minds, we have no other option but to accept it.
The very nature of this proposition sounds as if I am somehow giving up or that I do not have faith in humankind to reach above this constraint. But it would be the same thing if I would say that I am giving up on my grandmother because I believe she cannot go 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. It’s not going to happen. Even I, the one who conjured the very prospect, cannot possibly imagine how truth could not exist. Yet, that doesn’t mean that it does. It only means that for my system of labeling what reality is, truth becomes, necessarily, a key factor.
Part II: The Nature of Truth
Truth, as stated before, is an idea. Pure and simple. But what kind of idea is it? Truth is actually a creature of multiple forms. Truth can be relative. Language is an excellent case in point. For instance I know that the word "hello" is a basic greeting, yet to someone who has no understanding of English, it means nothing and has no truth. Even if one knows English, but has another native tongue, the word "hello" is only a translation of another word that means the same thing. Take "hola" in Spanish. To me, it is only translation of "hello," but to the Spanish-speaking world, "hello" is the translation. Which is true? Well, there is no true language, so neither of them are, or they both are, depending on which angle you take.
Turning to religion: for Christians, there is only one true God. For the Hindus, there are many different specialized gods. Even within one general religion, there are differences: Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Baptists, Southern Baptists and Traditional Baptists. It goes on and on like this. The bottom line is that these truths are different for everybody. Is abortion right? Some say yes and some say no, but each side believes that their view is the truth. To each their own.
Truth can be what lines up with the facts. That is to say a given statement matches what everyone perceives as reality. Relativity, then, is taken out as a contributable factor except for basic means of perception, like line of sight, proximity, human error, and so on. These are deductive truths or truths of definitions, mathematics, science, logic, and so forth. Here we see the famous example: all bachelors are men that are not married. If it is so that I cheat on my taxes, when I say, "I cheat on my taxes," it is true. Luckily, for me, this is not the case (as far as anyone knows). Likewise, if I say that 2 + 2 = 4, and 2 + 2 does in fact equal 4, then it is the truth. If it is raining outside, when I say it is raining, that is the truth. They are factual truths or propositions that, under our understanding of a common reality and with the knowledge available, cannot be proven otherwise.
Some truths are mere probability. Will the sun really rise tomorrow morning? I, and most of the world, assume that this will happen, even though there is no way to prove it to be a certainty. I have no other evidence except that it has risen every day for the last six billion years and the odds would dictate it will do the same the next day and every other day within my lifetime. These are inductive truths, relying on learned likelihood to dictate what will happen. Take death. I believe that I will one day die, as do most rational human beings. We accept this as truth. But, as with our friend the sun, the only proof of this we can conceivably put forward is that everyone who has ever lived on earth has died. Now, science may have something to do with it too, seeing as there are basic scientific laws that dictate the end result for any living cell is death, but to most people, this is not something they think about, nor really need to. We know it will happen to us because we’ve seen, heard about, or read about everybody dying throughout our own lives.
Other truths are those that come into play only because of some decree, authorization, executive order, democratic vote, or ruling. They are truths of authority. Why is a killer in prison for murder when he or she professes innocence? There is no absolute way to know if the right party is rotting away in jail unless there is a guilty plea or a confession. The jury has, then, decided the truth through deliberation of the evidence. These 12 people came to a conclusion that is accepted as the final judgment. Try to get a job without a social security number. Believe it or not, unless you have those nine digits, you do not exist in the United States of America. On that little paper card is the truth of your identification. Why is your boss your boss? Only because someone has promoted him or her above you in the office hierarchy. The sole reason that George W. Bush is the current president is that our nation’s Electoral College has said so. Their very disposition does not dictate that these conclusions must be correct, but only that they are accepted ubiquitously. The jury could be wrong, I could have lost my social security card, and there could have been some miscounts in Florida! But they are what they are, and, for the most part, they are unwavering, that is only if another, higher authority does not overrule it.
Part III: The Properties of Truth
Within the idea of truth we come across several different characteristics that separate it from any common proposition. These basic elements work in conjunction to form the mind’s basic conception of truth through simple conditioning in the human environment. Alone, they may be facets of any number of given ideas, but together they create a principle so steady, it contains the sole possibility of our view of the universe. Truth can transcend time and space, alter in form, be created or destroyed, and is innately good.
Transcending time and space may sound difficult or some notion out of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but it is actually not as difficult to imagine as one might believe. Nevertheless, I do not have this power, nor does any other form of life. Sure, I live from one minute to another, and can place myself in different spatial settings, but I am affected by time. My cells age and I have difficulty walking through walls, as do most other people. But truth does not have these sorts of constraints. Once a truth exists, it is timeless. For instance, the truth that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941 was just as true on that date as it is now in the third millennium. Not only that, but it will continue to be true throughout time and in every conceivable spatial situation. It will always be the truth.
That example is, however, a finite one in another sense. The Pearl Harbor example can only transcend time and space from one point to another. It was not true that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in 500 B.C., 1900, or even December 6, 1941. It was only true from December 7th forward. There are truths that do run in all points along the great timeline, though. Going back to Einstein, we can look at the example of his formula, E=mc². When did this become the truth? When Einstein discovered it? When it became an accepted theory in the scientific community? When it first appeared in a college textbook? No, it was always true, from the very beginning of the universe and from the beginning of time, spanning all points throughout the spectrum. They are limitless.
Truth can also alter in form going from relative to deductive, inductive to authoritative and so on. Let us say we hold a deductive truth that I have $100 in singles. I have counted them and basic math would tell me that this is so. However, when I go to the bank to deposit my $100, the bank teller informs me that I have only $99. This deductive truth suddenly becomes a relative one, seeing as the bank teller and I have two different views of how much there is. It can easily be resolved back to a deductive truth through a speedy recount, but for that instant, the leopard had changed its spots. As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal in Roe v. Wade, the relative truth (of its legality) suddenly became an authoritative one. Probability, too, turns into certainty. When we see a poll on the evening news in any election, we take it as an inductive truth as to whom the winner will be. When the votes are then counted, that probability gives way, and transforms to pure deduction.
Although matter may not be created or destroyed, truth can all too easily. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, that truth was created. When it was proven that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, that truth was also created, and the former truth was destroyed. When it was found that cigarettes were actually bad for you in the late 60’s, the truth that they had no effect on the body died and was replaced by a new truth that now involves little warnings on the side of every pack. Truths are created and destroyed everyday. One minute the President is a role model, and the next we discover he is a womanizer. Suddenly there is such a thing as "good" cholesterol. Bell bottom pants are no longer in style. There are only two rules. For truth to be destroyed, another truth must take its place. We can’t just all of a sudden kill the truth that the earth is flat unless we have the truth that the earth is round taking its place. Likewise, cigarettes can’t all of a sudden be bad, unless they were once good, or neutral. Also, when a truth is destroyed, a falsity is created in the former truth. When it was demonstrated that a vacuum could indeed exist, the truth that it could not was destroyed and labeled as a falsehood.
The most perplexing property of truth, however, is that it is somehow innately good. Being well-dug-in at the empiricist camp, I find this quite troubling, but am unable to find it otherwise. Truth, to humans, is pure. It involves and creates other "good" ideas, like certainty, honesty, reliability, and existence. For us to accept any other idea, it must be true. For us to like something, it has to be genuine. Even if something is bad, but true, it is still better than something that is good, but unfortunately false. A lot of people hate the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK as the lone gunman that day in 1963, even though, if accepted, it would create the feeling of well-being because the nation would know who did it, and he who did it is also dead. But because many believe it to be false, they value the truth that it was probably not Oswald over the falsehood, bringing with it the uncertainty of the assassin and a possible conspiracy that has haunted us for generations. Truth has real value to people. Anything else is basically garbage.
Part IV: The Fallacy of Absolute Truth
We’ve somehow gotten it into our heads that there is such a thing as an underlying absolute truth, a truth that can never be created or destroyed, but is unwavering in every aspect. It somehow co-exists with reality and contains every truth on every subject. Some would attribute it to God or another divine power. It is something that many think humans can never perceive, yet it exists for the sake of existing and our goal is to, by some miracle, find it. To some, it is the meaning of life, void of opinion, uncertainty, and change. It is some sort of greatness we believe to be at the end of self-actualization or life itself. Hooey.
There exists no such thing, nor could there ever be. It’s a fantasy to think there’s this information floating around, which we cannot ever hope to perceive. The fact that we can never know if any truth is absolute gives the theory very little chance of holding water, especially if truth is something that humans have conjured. As I’ve touched on before, truth can’t be found in the world other than in our own minds. So how can it be that there is some universal truth that hangs over reality like the Bat Signal over Gothem City? It can’t. But what of deductive truths? If 2 + 2 = 4, isn’t that mathematical certainty always going to be true no matter what? Well, no. It’s certainly possible that it is not. Deductive truths are only as good as the information that comes with them. 2 + 2 = 4 is only true under our system of math. It could be false in another we have yet to discover. There have, in fact, been many products of mathematics that have later turned out to be false under burgeoning systems, like algebra and calculus. We didn’t even have the number zero until the Myans came up with it a couple of thousand years ago. Once it was thought there could be only one system of numbers, but that was blown out of the water many different times throughout history.
We have to accept that there are no absolute truths, anywhere. They are all subject to change without notice. Truth can only go as far as our very limited understanding of the universe. That which we cannot understand may one day come back to bite us in the hindquarters. There may even exist truths that we will never and can never fully comprehend. Little, green men from outer space could someday land on Earth and inform us of different truths and realities beyond our benevolent understanding. Anything is possible. It’s quite feasible that everything we believe is false, even the certainty of death and taxes. But it is absurd to believe that there is a library of truth waiting somewhere for us to eventually find, chalk full of certainty, when it is we who have devised such an idea in the first place.
Part V: The Ethics of Truth
What has been laid out before you is a clear and concise view of how humanity views, utilizes, and interprets the idea of truth. The mind often accepts the probable as the certain, the relative as the universal, and the authoritative as the final say. We live in a world that relies too heavily on some truths and severely neglects others. Sometimes we have even been put in the position of acknowledging power as truth. But just because that’s the way it is doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be.
The fatal flaw of human beings is that we do not realize that there are different forms of truth, each with their own usefulness, structure, and rules that must be followed in order to perceive what is real, what may be real, and what is possible. Quite simply, the mind is confused when truths overlap into different frames of understanding. The fault regularly arises from the failure to communicate truths appropriately, effectively mislabeling them and passing them off as something that can be riddled with inaccuracy. We play off the inequitable notion of certainty and absolutes. We sometimes rely on too few sources of truth to make critical decisions, and we are too quick to accept judgments, elections, and executive decisions as virtuous, and too often conflict arises because people hold their individual, relative truths as universal truths of fact.
The first step to avoid misusing truth is to understand the nature of it. It is the responsibility of all to learn that there are indeed different forms of the idea that work on very different systems of thought and reason. More importantly, however, it is imperative that we realize there is no crossover and the means by which we attain these truths must coincide with their fundamental composition. It is never possible to reach a deductive truth through inductive means. An authoritative truth can never be something brought to view in a relative process. Each must be thoroughly segregated in order to guard against the high probability of falsehood. That is not to say a truth cannot be reached incorrectly, but it is very unlikely.
A more serious problem is, however, the practice of confusing the forms of truths themselves. Not only is it weakness of thought, but highly volatile when truths move sharply across a scale of definiteness because of the potential impact to individuals, an entire culture, or our global village as a whole. Acting as the chief antagonist of conflict, it is the source of most schoolyard fights, general upheaval, and our bloodiest wars. We do this often in two ways: by making more out of some truths than they really are, or not giving enough credit to those truths that really do have value. It can be from something as simple as buying one product over another because a celebrity said so, to banning a teacher from instructing evolution in a public school. In the first example the consumer has given more credit to the celebrity’s testimony than it is really worth, and in the second, a school board has mistakenly undervalued the principles and evidence associated with the scientifically solid theory. A group or society that holds a relative truth of religion to be a definitive one may try to decimate another group or society who do not agree with them (i.e. The Crusades). They overvalue their relative truth of their deity and undervalue another. Governments can crumble because citizens sometimes act as sheep, following the authoritative truths of the head administrator without question, simply because he or she is in charge. Truths do have the ability to change form, as suggested before, but only if the appropriate steps are taken given the necessary evidence to warrant it.
Utilizing truth appropriately involves treating each as their properties would allow, not only stopping with their individual limits, but also attaining their utmost facility without exception. Relative truths must be treated as merely a view. They should never signify anything definite because of their inability to be demonstrated and the possibility that alternative truths of the same kind can exist simultaneously. Deductive or factual truths must be treated as the closest thing to absolute certainty, but with a very low likelihood that it could be proven otherwise given new information. For instance, we should accept the idea that light is faster than sound unless it is ever proven vice versa because of new evidence. Probabilities or inductive truths should exist as only extreme likelihood depending on the odds. So if the sun has risen everyday for six billion years, the odds that it won’t rise tomorrow are roughly (six billion years x 365 days per year) 1 to 2,190,000,000,000. Extremely likely, but nevertheless, still a probability. Authoritative truths should be treated as judgments, which are sometimes fallible. Human error should always be taken into account, especially in situations dealing with prediction, where an authority will make a decision based on what he, she, or they believe what may likely happen in the future.
Our greatest weapon against misusing truth is to rid the mind of the notions of absolute truth. It is perfectly acceptable in our society to speak absolutely, leaving little room for error, when error abounds. "I know for a fact that he did it." "There can’t be any other way." "We know what will happen." This should be not acceptable to any society that genuinely values truth. When we think and speak in absolutes, it is inevitable that we will treat all truths as such specimens. Leaving room for different possibilities is not that difficult, and simply realizing that we do not know everything about the universe is the first step.
It would help mankind greatly by looking at knowledge and truth in a homely simile such as a simple card game, like poker. Bear with me here. In poker, there are rules which all players follow without questions, rules that have been in existence from the very invention of the game: a five-card draw, a starting ante, a simple card hierarchy, winning combinations, and so on. But when the game needs to be more interesting, that is to say, when the players discover that poker can be improved to include more ways of winning and betting, the players create new rules based either entirely on the first rules or having absolutely nothing to do with them; one-eyed jacks are now "wild," a seven-card, draw, and so forth. This is the game of truth. We, as thinking beings, are given or discover certain rules of the world. Whilst we exist according to these rules, we must play by them, for we have no other option. It’s as simple as that.
It is only when humans strive for knowledge, discovery, exploration (inwardly and in the world), that we can play by different rules, no matter how much they shake up the foundation of truth we have so ardently built throughout history. It can solve so many questions. Do we really exist? In the game of truth we are currently playing, we have no other recourse but to observe the rule that we do, until we can prove otherwise. Does God exist? In the game, the deity exists in so many different forms that it is impossible to say, so the rule says: maybe. Humans must learn to treat truths within the limits of their collective natures and simply accept the rules they are given for the time being, never ridding the mind of the possibility that the rules could change or the rules were wrong from the very beginning. Absolute truth or certainty is nothing but a fallacy, so weak in its reasoning that no one should be its fool.