Why it Matters
To look at a subject as big as “truth” would seem to be only a philosophical exercise without practical value, right? That’s a reasonable assumption but, actually, this is an extremely practical topic.
Digging into it, truth shows itself as more complex than we would hope. Here you’ll get a much deeper understanding of what truth really is, how it shows up, and how different people relate to it.
But why take the time? Because you’ll be more equipped to spot misleading truths that are all around us, to communicate more effectively, and to find common ground with others.
Most people don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about what truth is… Even so, we all contend with truth claims on a daily basis. We have to make decisions about what matters. Maybe you’re deeply concerned about politics and what politicians are claiming or what policy should be supported or overturned. Perhaps you care about which athlete should be traded or whether you should eat meat or support the goods produced by a large corporation. You may want to know if God exists and if so, which one. You probably care what your friends or loved ones are saying and whether you can count on them or invest in their relationship. In each of these cases, you will apply a theory of truth whether you realize it or not and so a little reflection on what you think about truth will [serve you well].–Philosophy News
Truth & Facts
Some people view truth as a pretty straight-forward concept: “truth is truth.” And some find themselves in a philosophical maze that leads them to solipsism: “knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is unsure.” Thoughtful investigation can land us somewhere in the middle.
Throughout Bird’s Eye View content, you’ll see the following foundational assumption (and you can use it, too): In order to discuss something productively, we need to begin with a common vocabulary. So let’s begin at the beginning:
Truth = “to be in accord with fact or reality”
That sounds so clear, doesn’t it? Well, consider this: “There is usually more than one truth to be drawn from any set of facts.” (source) If you were thinking that truth is the same as a fact, then that statement is confusing.
But to be “in accord with” fact is not the same thing as being a fact. So our first helpful distinction is:
“Truth” and “fact” are not synonyms.
That can help us move forward in clarifying our understanding:
- Another word for factual is objective.
- Another word for opinion is subjective.
- Truth is based on objective facts, not on subjective opinions.
But then we’ve got to take note of something about facts:
For the most part, factual statements are uncontroversial. The date of an election or the boiling point of water are examples. However, history teaches that, especially in such subjects as science and medicine, a fact is simply the best theory or argument at the time. For example, past “facts” have included that the earth is flat, Pluto is a planet, the 1992 USDA food pyramid describes a nutritious eating plan, and the Earth is the only planetary body in the solar system that has water on it. (All of these are no longer facts.) Therefore:
While facts are what we “know for certain,” they’re not indisputable.
All too often, science is presented as trafficking in absolute truths. On the contrary, science is a framework for interpreting, systematizing, and predicting nature based on empirical observations. That is to say, a well accepted “theory” (framework for understanding/predicting nature) can always be upended with sufficiently compelling contrary evidence.– Forbes
Credible Non-Factual Statements
Hector Macdonald makes a smart observation about truth. He notes that in addition to factual truths, there are many statements that “we act on as if they are true” because they’re not known to be untrue and we believe them.
He gives the example:
If an experienced civil engineer shouts, ‘This building is going to collapse!’ I will take her prediction as a true statement and start running for my life.
Thus, it makes sense to refer to “facts and credible statements” or at least to think about it that way.
Truth, Knowledge, Meaning & Story
By looking at related concepts, you can more precisely define for yourself what you value and what you’re looking for in your truth-seeking (and thus be more likely to find it).
Knowledge = facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject
When we’re talking about the many complex subjects in the world, rarely do we express a thought as a long list of facts and credible statements. We put the facts (and probably some beliefs) into a story that could be called knowledge.
We might say that knowledge is our current understanding of that which is true.
The following is a very insightful way to differentiate these concepts:
Truth is simply what is, whether I am aware of it, or whether I feel it is true or not.
Belief is what I feel is true.
Knowledge is that which I am aware of.– Tomo Albanese, Knowing the Difference Between Truth and Belief
And here’s a wonderful reminder of why this subject matters, summing up what it is that we’re trying to do in our truth-seeking and knowledge-gathering:
True knowledge is the master key to unlocking all our potentials—the ultimate problem solver is a mind guided by the truth. We need true knowledge to do things correctly in the world. To play music properly, you need wisdom, the accumulation of true musical knowledge. To run a successful business, you need true knowledge of the business. The more true knowledge you accumulate, the more you can understand the past, master the present, and work to realize a self-directed satisfying future.– Justin Deschamps, 4 Key Steps of Discernment: Advanced Truth-Seeking Tools
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.– Hannah Arendt
Truth with a Capital “T”
The subject of Truth as in “all that is” or the “unchanging” or the “Truth of all Creation” is a wonderful and powerful subject, but it’s outside the scope of the focus here. To discuss truth with a capital “T” requires a philosophical, spiritual or religious perspective. For example:
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know truth, and the truth will set you free.– Bible, Book of John
While Truth on that level is not the topic at hand, it’s certainly something that you may find vitally important, as do many other truth-tellers. However, the focus here is on truth in the everyday world. Still, you’ll find some philosophical considerations when they support practicality in everyday communications. For example, consider this definition of truth from Philosophy News. It’s a philosophical statement, but it offers a practical guidepost:
Truth = “a statement about the way the world actually is”
Partial & Competing Truths
On a practical level in everyday communications, truths are not the whole truth or “The Truth.” You’ve heard the saying, “There are two (or three or many) sides to every story.” This means, of course, that people will naturally tend to see a topic from different points of view. When humans are communicating with each other, it simply isn’t possible to express the “whole truth.” Instead, there will naturally be a number of partial truths, some of which may even compete. For example:
- The Internet makes the world’s knowledge widely available.
- The Internet accelerates the speed of misinformation and hatred.
Both statements are true because, as Macdonald describes:
There is usually more than one truth to be drawn from any set of facts. We learn this from an early age: every junior debater and errant schoolchild knows how to pick the truths that best support their case. But we may not appreciate how much flexibility these different truths offer communicators. In many cases, there are a variety of genuinely — perhaps even equally — legitimate ways of describing a person, event, thing or policy. I call them “competing truths.”– Hector Macdonald, Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality
It’s simply the nature of the world that we’re all like blind men in the Indian fable who are feeling different parts of the elephant. We each have a point of view (meaning “the position from which something is observed”). In the fable, the man who touches the elephant’s trunk says, “The elephant is very like a snake.” He has offered a partial truth. The man who touches the ear and exclaims that the elephant is like a fan is also offering a truth. The nature of reality is grander than any of us can touch, and thus we are like the blind men, reporting what we learn and calling it truth.
Everyone’s experience of the world is a bit different–we all have different life experiences, background beliefs, personalities and dispositions, and even genetics that shape our view of the world. This makes it impossible, say the postmodernists, to declare an “absolute truth” about much of anything since our view of the world is a product of our individual perspective. Some say that our worldview makes up a set of lenses or a veil through which we interpret everything and we can’t remove those lenses.– Philosophy News
Said another way: no person or organization is omniscient (all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise). Thus, by definition, everyone has a limited and particular perspective — what might be called “inherent bias.”
We may feel better believing there is one single truth, and thinking everyone who doesn’t see things the way we do simply doesn’t have the truth. That’s not…true. Everyone, including you and me, has a lens on the situation that’s distorted by what they want, how they see the world, and their biases… One idea I find helpful when faced with a situation is perspective-taking. I construct a mental room that I fill with all the participants and stakeholders around a table. I then put myself into their seats and try to see the room through their eyes. Not only does this help me better understand reality by showing me my blind spots, but it shows me what other people care about and how I can create win-wins.– Farnam Street
What About Proof?
What about proof? Can truth be verified by evidence, making it conclusive? It’s not quite that simple.
- Proof is evidence that helps to establish a fact. (Remember that proof doesn’t have to be visible. We can’t see gravity or electromagnetic forces, for example, but they can help to prove a point. )
- Thus, proof is a way to differentiate fact from opinion.
- In other words, proof helps to establish a fact, just as a fact helps to establish a truth.
- Proof is a powerful and key aspect in the quest for truth. But for the most part, proof helps us to conclude that something is a fact or credible statement as opposed to a truth.
The point in differentiating facts from truth isn’t to nit-pick and waste time on unrealistic wordplay. It’s to help identify where different ideas of truth come from and how we can find common ground with others. This lays the groundwork for “getting real” below.
Grand, Absolutist Ideas
It’s common to think of truth in absolutist terms but it would behoove us to get real about our expectations about the process of truth-seeking and about how truth actually shows up in the world. When a person says they want the truth, often they’re hoping for such grandiose objectives as:
- A single truth, a clear conclusion
- A “neutral, unbiased perspective”
- Equal weight given to all perspectives
Truth in the Real World
Those are wonderful ideals, but they aren’t based in how truth actually works:
- Life is complex and any subject can be considered from numerous perspectives, thus there are always “competing” or “partial truths.”
- We interpret and make meaning based on our mindset: beliefs, ideas and opinions. These are influenced by such factors as which statements about a subject that we heard first. “We are easily influenced when we know nothing about a subject.” (Hector Macdonald) Thus, meaning-making is a process undertaken individually by each person.
- By definition, no perspective is neutral and unbiased. However, facts are neutral and unbiased. Therefore, clarifying what is factual can go a long way to meeting the desire for a neutral look at a topic.
- To give equal weight to all perspectives isn’t practical. And even if it were, to do so would mean disregarding ethical considerations. (e.g. Should a person who committed fraud have equal say on the consequences as a person who was a victim of the perpetrator?)
Truths are Used to Mislead
It’s not simply that we’re being lied to; the more insidious problem is that we are routinely misled by the truth.– Hector Macdonald
Macdonald divides communicators into three types based on how they go about selecting information to present their case:
- Advocates — Select information to create “a reasonably accurate impression of reality in order to achieve a constructive goal”
- Misinformers — Propagate information that “unintentionally distorts reality”
- Misleaders — “Deliberately… create an impression of reality that they know is not true”
While those categories offer some welcome clarity, they’re based in part on the intention of the communicator, and that’s something we can rarely know at the time we want to evaluate their trustworthiness. Still, it highlights two key points:
- Ethical people with good intentions can make mistakes.
- It’s entirely possible to present partial truths to mislead and thus a person can manipulate truth with the same intention and the same effect as lying.
- Sometimes called “spin doctors,” there are innumerable people and organizations that are effective at using the truth to get a desired result, which may include intentionally misleading.
What isn’t truth? Of course, we’ve got liars. And as Hector Macdonald points out, we’ve got the “misleaders” who deliberately create an impression they know isn’t true. And we’ve got mistakes.
There are a few more things that are often slipped into our communications, but aren’t truth:
- Beliefs — A belief is a proposition that a person accepts as representing the way the world actually is, but it can be based on false propositions or misperceptions. (Learn more here.)
- Opinions / Subjective Statements — An opinion is a judgment based on morality or perceived value.
- Naming / Vocabulary — Naming is an artificial overlay and means different things to different people.
- Predictions — A statement that can’t be proven false but is basically a belief about the future.
Discernment: Things to Consider
When evaluating facts and partial truths, here are some considerations:
- Verify factual correctness — Separate facts and credible statements from opinions and judgments. Are the facts verifiable?
- Uncover the agenda — Investigate and evaluate the speaker’s motive and agenda. What outcome does the speaker desire? Is it constructive? Is it aligned with your values?
- Evaluate trustworthiness — Based on what you uncover, what is your overall sense of trustworthiness?
- Beware the power of the status quo — Be mindful of mainstream thinking and its impact on you.
- Don’t equate your beliefs with truth — Continuously investigate your belief systems. What is your inherent bias? Choose to set beliefs aside for now.
- Be open — Allow the possibility that something you never imagined to be possible (or that seems you couldn’t bear if it were true), might, in fact, be true or partially true.
- Develop discernment — Be aware of your limited perspective and ability to grow your discernment skills with mindfulness.
Authorities on Truth?
You might wonder, are science and research the ultimate authority on objective truth? Can journalists deliver objective truth? In other words, are there authorities or experts that we can rely on to deliver truth? Those are questions best answered for yourself, but the teachings presented above offer a pretty convincing case that there is no such thing as a true authority on truth, because there are always multiple perspectives. However, when making decisions, you might be more likely to believe and act on information provided by those who:
- Are transparent about their motive and agenda.
- Have a motive and agenda that are aligned with your interests.
- Use facts and credible statements that offer knowledge and meaning that resonate for you.
We can use competing truths constructively to engage people and inspire action, but we should also watch out for communicators who use competing truth to mislead us… Let’s establish a simple rule of thumb: If your audience knew everything you know about your subject, would they think you had portrayed it fairly?–Hector Macdonald
- Who Can You Trust? Developing Discernment
- Evaluating Individual Testimony
- Evaluating Numbers and Statistics
Sources & Resources
- Deschamps, Justin, Stillness in the Storm — 4 Key Steps of Discernment: Advanced Truth-Seeking Tools
- Farnam — How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape our Reality
- Macdonald, Hector — How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality — 2018 book
- Philosophy News — What is Truth?
- Tater, Mohit — Entrepreneurship Life