Do you think truth is objective?

April 12, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog

People imply by the concept “truth” something objective. They’d like it to mean they know something that could never be false, I don’t think it means what they think it does.

I’ve come to believe the concept of truth describes a feeling attached to believing you know something. That is, the difference between saying “The sky is blue” and “It’s true that the sky is blue” is in your feeling, not in the meaning.

Simply that people describe “your truth” or “my truth,” which you’ve no doubt heard at least once, should suffice to show truth isn’t objective. When two people agree on their truths, no problem. But sometimes people’s truths disagree. Then big problems can occur. If you don’t attach the feeling that you have access to perfect objectivity, you don’t create so many problems for yourself.

My training in science tells me that everything we think we know has error bars — science-speak for the little bars in graphs that show the range in a quantity you measured. No scientist claims to know a measured quantity perfectly. A theory may predict an exact number, but that’s not truth, that’s prediction, which is always based in a model which has uncertainty. You say you believe a number is a certain amount to within some amount of uncertainty: “This block weighs 1 kilogram plus or minus 0.05 kilograms.”

To allow uncertainty in everything you believe you know is subtle but far-reaching. I find allowing doubt augments my understanding of my world, not detracts from it, as you might suspect uncertainty might. Extrapolating from uncertainty in measurements in experiments to all knowledge — a big step — you have to allow doubt in everything you think you know or believe true.

If pressed, I might say I believe something may have an exact value, but that the limitations of my senses and memory keep me from knowing it perfectly. In other words, something may be objectively true in some abstract sense, but my knowledge of it remains uncertain.

I have never found claiming absolute knowledge of something helpful. If I agree with someone, no problem — but then we agree anyway. If I disagree with someone on something I believe true — do you see the problem? It forces me to believe “I’m right and you’re wrong.” But if something is so true, how can we disagree?

If they believe their conflicting position is true, the problem can get worse.

More relevant to your quality of life, how often has feeling you were right and someone else was wrong helped you — in a debate or in a relationship? How many times have you come to regret feeling that way after learning something new that undermined your self-righteousness?

I’ve found feeling “I’m right and you’re wrong” an effective sign that I don’t understand something and would benefit from learning something new, likely starting with more humility.

As I wrote above, I’ve come to understand that most people mean by “truth” the feeling that something is consistent with some expectation.

Next time you feel something is perfectly true and disagree with someone, try seeing it from their perspective and see if maybe you’ve made some assumptions or have room for doubt and see if that doesn’t help resolve the disagreement.

By the way, the above applies to “reality” too.

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