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I don’t know about you, but I’m a pen person. I love a good pen, one that glides over the page and lays down ink smoothly, that feels “right” in my hand. I don’t have a lot of quality pens, and they can be hard to find, so I try not to lose them.

Imagine this: I am at a coffeehouse, with a great pen, taking notes on my next Stumbling Forward ideas. I hang out for an hour or so, then go to pay the check. When I come back, my pen is not on the table!

So, now I’m pissed. I head home, and when I get there I complain to my partner, telling her how someone stole my pen! When I sense doubt from her, I add “It’s true, I left my pen on the table, and when I came back from paying the bill, it was gone!”

The thing is, people like to throw words around, big and small, without really thinking about them too much, none more so than the word “truth”. So it can be very important to know exactly what we mean when we use that word – and what the consequences are thereof.

When most people say something is true, they mean that it is real. That it isn’t an opinion, they are claiming to be stating fact. “There is a table over there” is a statement about the real world, and what you will find in it. But here’s the kicker: how do you know? Or to put it another way, your “truths” are only as dependable as the methods by which you gathered them. And since NO gathering method is absolutely free from flaw or error, no fact or conclusion that any of us can ever reach can be one hundred percent trusted. None.

We can all agree that the question of “is there a table over there” has a true answer – either there is or there isn’t. We all believe that – because to believe otherwise is to believe that reality doesn’t exist, which contradicts itself. And we can pursue whether the table really is there, in our hallway, as deeply as we like. We can even take steps to becoming ever surer, looking at it, smelling the varnish, asking others to confirm what we are sensing. We can become 98% sure, or 99% sure, or 99.9% sure, or even 99.99999% sure.

But we can never become 100% sure – not rationally, not when we know things like stage magicians, dreams, human error, and mental glitches exist. Not when we know that we as humans have an overwhelming tendency to draw conclusions first and think things through second, if at all.

Did someone really steal my pen at the coffeehouse? Maybe. Maybe not. Did it roll off the table onto the floor? Perhaps. Did one of the baristas take it, thinking that they left it? Maybe. Did I return to the wrong table? Could be. Will I actually find it in my knapsack in a day or two, because I stuck it back in my bag without realizing, before I got up? Quite possibly.

You can never know the truth about anything – not with absolute certainty – which most people strongly imply by “truth”, and others directly state. Truth is reality – and reality truth – at least the way most people use that word. But we are very fallible beings. Our senses are far from perfect, and can give us information we misinterpret – like a mirage in the desert where there is no water, or a seemingly empty box where the magician is hiding the bunny behind a mirror. And we are also imperfect in our ability to reason and draw conclusions – anyone who has ever forgotten in math to carry the “1” knows what I mean!

This is why I am convinced that most people use the word “truth” incorrectly – because if they are speaking about the way reality actually is, they can never rationally express complete and absolute confidence in any understanding of truth, so-defined.

I do not use that word that way. If I say something is “true”, I am only really saying that it is known true, but not that it actually is. If I say, “It’s true, my pen was swiped at the coffeehouse”, I am not saying that it actually happened that way, I am saying that I have concluded that it happened that way – although it may not have!

The only rational way to discuss the truth is to discuss what we can reasonably claim to know. Therefore, an argument over a disagreement about the truth of something is not an argument about whether it is actually true or not. No, the argument is really about whether the claim of calling it true is justified – or whether the reverse claim of calling it false is, or neither.

Rationally speaking, we can never know reality directly, we can only perceive it. So any conversation we have about our disagreements of what reality contains can never be about what it really contains, only about what (and how) we can justify the claim of knowing that. (Like “truth”, you can correctly claim to know something now, even if later that claim turns out to be incorrect. Like “truth”, knowing isn’t about reality, it is about our understanding of reality, which evolves and changes.)

Thus, anytime anyone claims “X” as true (or being “the truth”), the most that claim can rationally support is that we can at this time know “X” is true – because of various reasons. But in the same breath, now we have to admit we are only discussing whether “X” is justifiably known to be true, not if it’s actually true. Therefore we can always change our minds when new evidence or thinking (or both) challenge a “known truth” – because a known truth is a product of our efforts, and never absolute, like “the truth”.

And this applies to every domain of discussion and “truth” – science, politics, religion, philosophy, business – even what I had for dinner last night. (Or at least what I can remember!)

Truth – that is, known truth – is not absolute. It’s our current best guess given the information we have, our ability to correctly process that information, and the time and energy we have to allocate to those endeavors. We would all be in much better shape if we simply eliminate the idea we can ever have actual objective truth, and instead focus on what’s actually possible – a shifting, hopefully ever-improving collection of non-absolute known truths, which represent nothing more or less than our current set of working knowledge.

  • raane

    Again, I do not disagree with what you’ve written but ask, so what? True that dead certainty is probably not gonna happen, but as humans who have evolved a physical and intellectual community, we have agreed upon an understanding of the word true, or truth. That understanding continues to serve us, if not perfectly, at least fairly well. Like you, I’m a believer in curiosity and questioning, but I do realize that we have to function within the common denominators we have evolved for ourselves as a society.

  • benjamingrant

    If I read between the lines of your comment, I think you may be asking why I felt I needed to write this post, that perhaps it seems obvious to you?

    I think I had three reasons in writing this post:
    1) There seem to be many that speak the Truth with a capital T. It would be wise for us all, especially those people, to embrace that no one speaks “the truth”, just “known truth”.
    2) The more we think of truth we embrace as a work in progress and less as unshakable, the more we are open to our positions evolving and improving.
    3) There are some who believe that I speak from a place of known “the” truth. Far from it, I make mistakes just like anyone else. This post demonstrates that you can be passionate and argue for what you think of as true without being closed to someone with a more rational argument. One can be full of verve and convinced one’s arguments are sound and one’s position solid without taking the extra, wrong step of thinking suddenly that we have “ultimate” truth.

    I guess I just think that those of us who embrace rational thought and eschew unreason can seem utterly absolutist – and yet not be, while there are others that seem perhaps calm and reasonable, but have come to conclusions that their beliefs are free from any possibility of error, mistake, or flawed judgment or reason.

    I guess I would say, don’t judge the open-mindedness by the volume or passion of the approach, judge it by the willingness to rationally examine contradictory claims, as well as eagerness to justify one’s on position using nothing but reason.

  • benjamingrant

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, this post was not bemoaning the fact we can’t ever have absolute truth, because I think having a bucket of “known truth” that we can continually work on and update is so much cooler than some fake inflexible edifice of “the” truth. I vastly prefer having current truth to the irrational forever truth.