More on the subjectivity of “truth”

April 14, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog

Another perspective on truth and its subjectivity came from my musician friend.

He described to me the concept of truth in music, which at first didn’t make sense to me. Since music doesn’t make verifiable or falsifiable statements it wasn’t obvious to me how it could be “true”?

He described music being true by how it made you feel. He’s a composer and he described how when you write a piece, if you do it right, it becomes true. Listen to any great work and it feels right, or true. When you do it wrong it doesn’t sound true. Composers struggle to find that truth and express it.

His description sounds like what I hear from other artists, especially actors and performers, who tell me they look for a similar truth.

This concept of truth seems to me obviously subjective. What sounds great to one person might not to another, all the more so across cultures with different traditions. Bach’s music sounds as true as anything, for example, but he was famously neglected as a composer for decades after he died before being rediscovered. Nothing about him changed after he died. The music didn’t change. People’s perspectives changed, though, and so did their models of truth in music. Other cultures may today regard his music as meaningless.

I’m sure you’ve seen or heard great art from other cultures that you found meaningless, at least at first. After learning more about the context, you may have found truth and meaning in it, but that reinforces that truth describes consistency with a model more than objectivity.

I think people consider the artistic meaning of truth different than the usual something that could never be false. (In itself this belief of different kinds of truth undermines that perspective, but let’s leave that for now.) I’ve come to conclude the meanings are the same.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to see things this way, but try it out — the next time you consider something objectively true, allow that your knowledge may have uncertainty and that others might see it differently and consider conflicting perspectives equally true. Examine the sources of your information — have they ever been wrong before? Are they perfect?

And see if allowing that you may not have knowledge of absolute truth doesn’t keep you from getting into arguments, keep you humble, and enable you to grow and learn in unexpected ways.

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