Friday, 19 November 2010

The philosophy of truth

This is the first in a series of "Deep Thought" mini-essays. They're a bit longer than my usual posts.

What do you make of the concept of personal truth; the idea that what is true for you might be different from what is true for me? The classic case for plurality, tolerance and general chumminess rests on the fact that what you believe is your truth, but what others believe is true for them. There is no absolute truth. When I first came across this reasoning I dismissed it as absolute r*bb*sh (excuse my strong language but I think it’s fitting).

I think I have slowly begun to understand the thinking behind this way of thinking. When you look at the sky you see that it is blue, but how do you know that someone else doesn’t see it as puce? We understand the world based on our perception of it. I perceive an elk, therefore I believe that the elk exists, but what if someone else looked at the same thing and perceived a toaster?

Well, you say, there must be a way to test, to find out once and for all, whether this thing is an elk, a toaster or anything else! But however many tests and observations you carry out you still rely on human perception – we perceive the tests and the results, and how do we know that the test results are true? We have no way of knowing for sure that what our eyes tell us is real is actually real, that what we hear with our ears is an actual sound or a figment of our imagination. The only thing we can be 100% sure of is “I think, therefore I am.” Even if 27 million people all identified the object to really be a piano, how can we prove that those 27 million people actually exist, and aren’t just a creation of my over-active mind?

So this is how people end up deciding that what a person perceives is their truth, because there is no such thing as a “fact”, since nothing can be proven, there is only perception.

There are two main points that I would raise to address this kind of reasoning.

1)1) Just because no one can be absolutely sure whether a thing is true or not, doesn’t mean that there is no absolute truth. Even if no one can be sure whether it’s an elk, a toaster or a piano, there still can only be one reality. Either it is one thing, or it is another, or it doesn’t really exist at all. Nothing can simultaneously exist and not exist, so no matter how much you emphasise that the religious groups have one truth and the atheists another, one group really must be actually wrong. God cannot both exist and not exist, regardless of what different people perceive.

2) 2) People should believe what it is reasonable to believe. In the case of, well, nearly everything, we have ways of ascertaining what is, if not absolutely true, then at least a safe assumption. For example, in reality it is very easy to tell an elk apart from a toaster, and if it was a large brown furry thing with antlers everyone would agree that it’s a safe assumption, it’s reasonable to believe that the thing is an elk. If 27 million people thought it was a piano, it’s almost definitely a piano. No one argues about these things in real life. Not that you can prove it’s a piano, but who would disagree with 27 million people?

Just to illustrate this, here’s a list of things that you (according to the reasoning above) cannot prove to be true, but that I would say are reasonable to believe:

My name is Andy

Gravity exists

The world is round

I could not survive without water


I was born

I will die

If I jump into the sea I will get wet

Hopefully you agree that these things are safe assumptions. Some are safe to assume because they are commonly observed (such as being born), whereas some are safe to assume because they have been tested (E=mc2).

Here’s the thing; why, when it comes to spiritual things, do people completely ignore the idea of reasonable, evidence-based, observable ‘truths’ and say that it’s ok to believe absolutely anything? Just because you can’t be sure that what you perceive is true does not give you a licence to believe any old piffle, like “I am a pineapple” or “my dog used to be the king of Nepal”.

When it comes to religious beliefs, like the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you can’t just suddenly switch to different goggles and claim that it’s “up to you.” That Jesus rose from the dead is either a reasonable thing to believe or it is not. And, in reality, it is an event that either definitely happened or definitely didn’t. You can’t go all fuzzy on the facts just because gravity is “science” and Jesus is “religion” – that’s a false dichotomy.

Basically, the safest approach to ‘truth’ is to forget the whole argument about not being able to know what is absolutely true and pursue the thing that is most reasonable to believe, IMO.

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