The Truth About Truth
The intuitive understanding of the word “truth” that most people make use of relies on the existence of objective reality. Truth, this definition implies, is something that is out there and we may or may not be able to discover it. We may or may not be able to get closer to it. Some may possess truth while others may be entirely confused and mistaken about its location. But truth, that pure notion of an ultimate answer, this understanding of truth goes, it must exist. It seems as if humans had an innate teleological need, an instinct to structure the world, the put things into neatly separated boxes labeled “truth” and “falsehood.”
The philosopher Immanuel Kant had a lot to say about why it is that human minds cannot help themselves from incessantly interpreting their sensory perceptions. He famously synthesized empiricism (which holds that knowledge is derived from experience) and rationalism (which holds that knowledge relies primarily on reason) by concluding that both epistemological traditions have made important observations about the human experience and existence by suggesting that spatiality and temporality are not out there in the real world but rather, our minds impose the structure that spatiality and temporality facilitate on the external world. What Kant’s synthesis suggested was that we have an irresistible need, indeed, a function, to structure our interaction with the world. This need is natural for we could not live without it. The world is immensely complicated, so complicated, in fact, that we cannot even fully appreciate the degree to which it is complicated. And so we impose order and structure to make sense of things and get by in our daily lives.
Even though it is often obscured, the word truth is in common parlance used to refer to three different spheres of human experience. First, it is used to refer to external and material reality. Second, it is used with respect to the inner human experience. Spirituality, emotions, and faith belong in this category. Lastly, truth is invoked when we speak of social phenomena and social reality. Let us discuss each of these separately.
The first reason to speak of truth, as Karl Popper succinctly put it, is to identify a situation where a statement corresponds to the facts.(1) Clearly, there is a host of issues we could raise but for our purpose, this definition of the first way in which the word truth is commonly understood will suffice. An example of this understanding is to observe that a dog runs and subsequently remark “the dog runs.” Given that we have clear understanding of what dog is and what the activity of running involves, we can quickly determine that a dog is, indeed, running and we can judge that statement true. Note, however, what this usage of truth relies on. It relies on the human ability to communicate. If we did not need to communicate to other people that there is a dog running, if everyone knew everything they need to know, life would not only be exceedingly boring but we would also not need to concern ourselves with what truth, in the sense in which we have been using it in the last few lines, is. Lies would not exist by definition. It is this social interaction and world of language that requires us to put statements into neat boxes labeled as “lie” and “truth.” Naturally, even Robinson Crusoe would need to distinguish between “reality” and dreams if he were to navigate the external world and survive. However, he would have to rely on his own subjectivity. This would be quite different from the understanding of truth as that which is objectively existing. The understanding of truth as correspondence to facts relies on the human ability to communicate in the sense that individual humans, despite their private emotions, perceptions, and urges, experience most features of the external reality in a similar fashion. This enables us to check our facts with others, to clash our respective subjectivities to arrive at objectivity. This is because in the Kantian sense, we all impose spatiality and temporality and it yields similar pictures. That is why we can in general agree on the color that we see when we look out the window. Imagine however, that we were to talk to a fly (flies have black-and-white vision). It would never be possible to agree on the color of what we see because the perceptive apparatus of flies differs markedly from that of human beings. Color, therefore, is not an instance of external objective reality, it is created in the process of interaction between the external world and our brains. Facts correspond to reality because the facts as most individuals perceive them correspond. Despite the fact that it can be problematized by philosophers and flies alike, the usage of the word “truth” in the sense described above makes plenty of sense and it is a useful way of looking at a world filled with social interaction.
We can also speak of inner truths. In his essay New Words, George Orwell discusses the fact that languages, like all human creations, are imperfect. As we discuss ever more complicated phenomena, we simply lack words that can accurately describe them. To agree that the word “dog” will denote our four-legged friend is pretty straightforward. Similarly, we can agree on meeting at a certain place and time. No confusion there. The beauty of life, however, is that the human experience is far more interesting than that. We have feelings, urges, moods, and crushes. We experience the beauty of the rising sun, the full and reverberating timbre of a favorite instrument, etc. It is perhaps not a controversial statement to suggest, as Orwell did, that our languages, relying on large, yet by definition fixed, number of words, cannot fully express exactly what it is that we want to convey. Anybody who has a fairly good command of a foreign language will attest to this. Various words in different languages may have identical meaning but they can also unevenly overlap. Certain languages have expressions for phenomena other languages do not even recognize. What is left for us is to use words and expressions that get us as close as possible to that which we wish to communicate, sometimes failing less than at other times. This is why the definition of truth as statements that correspond to the facts will not survive here. In order to make a statement about a certain emotion, we would first need to be able to accurately describe it with our words. Because this is often not possible, statement about our inner life are often better described as approximations rather than truths. Yet this observation is mostly significant for the individual, for her inner life will forever remain private.
Far more problematic is the third understanding of the word truth, one that makes assertions about social phenomena and social reality. Let me mention a number of examples to illustrate the point. Generations of philosophers spent thousands of pages proposing various forms of what is called historicism – an attempt to discover the underlying mechanism of history and thus predict the next turn the social world was about to make. The philosophies of Hegel and Marx are the most notorious instances thereof. Notice that Marxism, for starters, is an example of blurring the line between truth as correspondence to facts and truth as a statement about social reality par excellence. The coming of socialism and later communism was not merely a suggestion of how to organize society, it was said to be the social reality that inevitably results from material (objectively existing) conditions.
A recurring example is the notion that a technocratically run state would perform better than a state run by politicians. Necessarily, this could only be true if there were inherently right answers to our problems and challenges. But it is crucial to realize that there is a major difference between effective implementation and setting of political goals. While effective implementation of very diverse goals is possible (though also difficult and imperfect), the choice of preferring a certain goal (social outcome) over another will always be political. The size of the welfare state, for instance, is not merely about figuring out how to ensure that the needy are helped and the hard-working are rewarded. It is about making a value judgment concerning what kind of state we want. Technocratism, in that sense, is an ideology of its own.
Yet even those who are prepared to admit that their positions are driven by ideas are often liable to the kind of self-centeredness that elevates their ideas above all others. For them, their ideas are often the truth. The gay marriage debate, which until recently stirred passionate arguments, suffered from this phenomenon. Even though there were good people on both sides of the issue, marriage was rarely recognized as a social institution (social construct) whose merits and usefulness could be discussed. Rather, many proponents of the traditional definition of marriage saw themselves as defenders of morality and many supporters of gay marriage as advocates of greater liberty. Neither of these groups was prepared to engage in a true critically analytical discourse.
The challenge is to recognize that ideas concerning social (political) reality and phenomena are qualitatively equivalent. It is the content of ideas that can and has to be debated and it is the content of ideas that enables us to judge them on their merit. Ideas are possible suggestions, propositions, and conjectures and should be attacked for what they say and imply, not for what they are. Ideas can be debated and arguments in their favor can be raised or refuted. Because ideas have implications and consequences that we can agree on by examining the facts (using the first definition of truth), they are not the same in their outcomes and, therefore, their worth. They are, however, equal in their qualitative nature. In other words, there is no truth but there is a productive and critically analytical method of assessing the various “truths” that ideas present. The approach to intellectual enquiry that I have articulated here therefore concerns above all the method that our discourse employs. Recognizing that no idea is qualitatively supreme is what true tolerance stands for. I believe that in an ever more complicated world, such tolerance is invaluable. It is often difficult to embrace it because people’s intellectual pursuits are generally driven by two motives. The first is an urge to think, analyze, to find out how things work. The second, and this is particularly true for social reformers, is the conviction that this world can be made a better place and that these reformers are correct in their understanding of what a better place looks like. Make no mistake, this kind of vigor is necessary for any (and certainly for positive) societal change. But the crucial necessity that some activists fail to pay attention to is to find vigor while continuing to critically reflect on one’s own ideals.
The choice of a method necessarily impacts our perception of the phenomenon we wish to study. Furthermore, it affects the results of our analysis by virtue of defining what kinds of arguments are admissible. In this sense, the approach explained above, too, is biased. It invites rational arguments that can be critically analyzed and leaves less room for passions, emotions, epiphanies, intuition, and beliefs based in faith. That is not an objection that can be easily dismissed, for the understanding of social institutions such as marriage is for many based in their faith and thus does not lend itself to simple rationalization. The gap between critical analysis driven by rational arguments on the one hand and faith-based positions on the other is one our method cannot possibly bridge. It can, however, result in a fruitful discussion among those who are prepared to acknowledge the undeniable advantages of the former. First, this method invites (self-)criticism as a useful way of learning about the world and ourselves. Second, it has a preciously humbling effect on those who are willing to employ it, for it exposes our own fallibility. Third, it provides for systematic enquiry which presupposes that people holding diverse views can be partners in the quest for knowledge and that knowledge itself can be cumulative in the sense that we can learn ever more about the world and ourselves. Lastly, and this is no small achievement, it empowers us to understand rather than merely hear the other side’s positions. This, I believe, can very well be the foundation of the kind of tolerance that encourages diverse views and builds a common ground necessary for the sorts of common solutions that today’s rapidly changing world asks of us.
(1) POPPER, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. 5th edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, p. 369