In this era of alternative facts and fake news, it can be difficult to differentiate truth from falsehood. Truth is a highly valued concept. I often work with clients who are in great personal distress and civilization has a long history of people misguidedly harming others in their passionate efforts to uphold truth. Did you know we actually have theories about truth? It may seem odd that truth (with a capital T) would need theories. Why is that so?
Like most things, discovering truth can be complicated and messy. It involves observation, thought and reason, so data must be collected, filtered and made meaning of through the fallible senses and minds of human beings. In addition, the measurement of data requires tools, which are limited by current technology and are always changing and improving. Finally, we have to rely on language to define and proliferate truth. Words can be imprecise, their meanings changing with the times. All of these opportunities for error require us to create guidelines for sifting out truth from noise, and there is much controversy about which guidelines are best for this purpose.
Originally, truth meant the revealing of what once was hidden. I like this definition because it means that truth is dynamic and evolving. When we say we know absolute truth, it means we have proof. Currently, our most reliable system of discovery is the scientific method. It helps us collect and make sense of data with less bias and error. However, science can only provide empirical evidence that supports or discredits our theories. It can’t give us proof.
In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and forever the truth of a theory. – Karl Popper
To know absolute truth (outside of mathematics), we would have to be omniscient. Proof is final, but we operate in time and everything is constantly changing. Proof is binary (yes/no, true/false), but many things do not fit a binary system – some things are both/and, or a matter of conditions, or a factor of degrees. There are so many things we don’t yet fully understand – even our own minds. For example, did you know that recent research suggests human emotions are socially constructed and not hard-wired? The things we think we understand have been observed and measured by our limited perspective, tools and technology. New discoveries are happening every day at a faster and faster pace.
I recently listened to a talk where someone described, in the days before we could observe the solar system, the seeming truth that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. With our limited tools and perspective at the time, this appeared incontrovertible. As new tools developed to see beyond the horizon, additional information was revealed and we came to understand a bigger picture – the Earth rotates around the sun.
In ancient times (before we had tools that allowed us make observations beyond the capabilities of our naked senses), we believed there were four or five basic elements that made up all things. Now we know there are well over 100 and that number keeps growing. Yet, uncertainty remains about the recurring trends by which they should be arranged and classified:
The many different forms of periodic table have prompted the question of whether there is an optimal or definitive form of periodic table. The answer to this question is thought to depend on whether the chemical periodicity seen to occur among the elements has an underlying truth, effectively hard-wired into the universe, or if any such periodicity is instead the product of subjective human interpretation, contingent upon the circumstances, beliefs and predilections of human observers… Such an underlying truth, if it exists, is thought to have not yet been discovered. – Wikipedia
In a strange way, given our limited human perspective and abilities, truth requires a belief system. We must believe there is an absolute truth out there in order to be in perpetual search of it. The danger occurs when we call something truth without proof and we rigidly and unquestioningly adhere to it – we become dogmatic.
For now, in any given moment we must admit we can really only be reasonably certain of things. Although this may seem frightening or dissatisfying to some, it gives us much flexibility and freedom to create and test theories and to allow others to do so. There is room to move, we can take a variety of perspectives, and everything becomes workable. The human condition at this time is a state of not knowing and we are all in this together.
With freedom comes risk. It behooves us to use care and caution in our methods in order to avoid harm. We have a responsibility to examine all the data – not just the data we prefer. We must allow ourselves and others to question established truths – to continue to test our theories, acknowledging our fallibility and forgiving our mistakes. We can do this through mindfulness, humility, openness (i.e. listening over speaking), patience, embracing ambiguity, and ultimately accepting that truth may be dynamic, unfolding over time.
I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess. ― Walt Whitman