Truth has been much in the spotlight the last year. There has been a lot of discussion about what is true and not true and according to whom. There are discussions of facts and alternate facts and lots of fact-checking by individuals and organizations from many different points of view. The news media and others who purport to bring us the truth have been maligned and scrutinized in a way that hasn't occurred in a long time. Despite all this attention I think the words of the American humorist Josh Billings (yes the namesake for the Great Josh Billings RunAground) still prevail “As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand”
Truth is elusive. Webster defines truth as :”the property of being in accord with fact or reality” but facts and reality are often subjective and imprecise. Webster does not elaborate about the different kind of truths that exist. The two most common for most of us are empirical truth and philosophical truth.
Empirical truth relates to things that we can see, or hear or touch or measure. These are the truths, the facts that are often discussed. It is assumed that such truths are unequivocally discernable, that there is only one possible meaning and therefore everyone should be able to see them in the same way. Doesn't work. Consider the body of evidence regarding eyewitness identification by crime victims that demonstrate the utter unreliability of such identifications. If we think that what we see or what we remember are facts we are mistaken nearly as often as we are correct. So much for reality. And facts change. It was once a “fact” that stress caused ulcers, that removing tonsils would cure ear and throat infections in children and that Pluto was a planet. Some of today’s empirical facts will undoubtedly change over time.
Philosophical truths, which include religious truths, are things that can not be empirically proven or demonstrated in most cases. The truths that Thomas Jefferson held to be self evident were derived from the enlightenment philosophers. They were more aspirational than demonstrable. In an analogous manner Christians would see truth as emanating from God as when Jesus, said, "I am the Way and the Truth…”. In these cases truth is something to be taken on faith, it is a belief. Too often these two different kinds of truths are commingled and this is the source of some of the problems of discussing what is true.
I think there are a couple of different perspectives on truth that are worth considering that don't seem to be getting much attention.
The Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman is quoted as saying “when someone says something don't ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.”. What Kahneman is suggesting I think, is to look beyond the veracity of the initial statement for the deeper meaning behind the statement. Consider the case of President Clinton when he said that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky. The statement, as we soon learned, was not true. But what lies (pun intended) behind that statement? Is there a different truth that is revealed? We can not know for sure but we can speculate that the truth that Clinton feared was the consequences of publicly admitting his infidelity to his wife and to the country more than the possibility of being caught in a lie.. Another truth might be that Clinton’s position of power made him think the rules did not apply to him. This is all too typical of people of wealth, power and privilege from Wall Street traders to corporate executives to political leaders.
So when the leader of North Korea says that he will destroy the United States consider not just whether North Korea has the capability and the reason to carry out such a threat but what might compel him to say such a thing. What is the truth behind that statement? It might be that Kim Jong Un is paranoid or that there is a reason for him to be afraid or that he is engaging in the time-honored practice of rallying domestic support by enlarging the threat of a foreign enemy. This latter possibility is something that authoritarian figures have done throughout time and continues today. It is one way of viewing many of the statements and making sense of the truth of the current occupant of the American White House. Many of the things that he says may have more to do with diverting attention from another vexing issue or retaining support from key constituents then the actual facts of the statement made.
You might ask, how leaders can get away with repeatedly stating obvious untruths? That leads to my second point. Facts do not exist in isolation but in context. As anyone who has worked in a large office can attest, everyone may agree with the empirical fact that the thermometer reads 69 but some people will say that it is too cold while others will maintain it is too warm. And for many their answer will be different in the summer than in the winter. So context is critical to what is perceived to be true and the most important, the most persuasive context are our beliefs. Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Homo Sapiens” notes that Spanish conquerors in the New World put it this way, “A single Priest does the work of a hundred soldiers” meaning that if you can get people to accept your beliefs they will be compliant and the need for coercion is diminished. This trait is not limited to religion, political and cultural values are just as effective.
The convergence of these three realms - religion, culture and politics - creates an environment where people not only create their own truth but often ignore their own self interest. I have heard people remark in bewildered frustration about how some people can support politicians who advocate taking away their health insurance or providing tax cuts to the wealthy that they themselves will never benefit from. Issues such as abortion and gun control are highly emotional issues that transcend facts, self interest or compromise. Cultural and religious beliefs and values become the prism through which we “see” reality. The aforementioned Daniel Kahneman and many other researchers may shown the power of things such as confirmation bias and priming on people’s ability to perceive facts and the behavior they exhibit.
It is useful to remember that we are all susceptible to the influence of our beliefs on what we perceive and how we act. It is not limited to “other people” i.e. those with whom we disagree on an issue. For example, I believe that economic inequality in the US is unfair and is harmful to the nation. Therefore, based on my beliefs, I support higher wages for workers and a more progressive (higher) tax rate even though such policies would likely cost me money due to higher prices and higher taxes. Yes, I am prepared to vote against my own self interest. So like abortion or guns I can be a values driven voter. But self interest does not drive all our actions. In fact most acts of charity, kindness and respect are not necessarily in our material self interest and yet they are often our most satisfying and rewarding experiences.
As we debate truth, facts, alternative facts and such, remember the words of that great American philosopher Tommy Smothers (he was the "dumb" one). "Truth is what you get other people to believe". And so it is in religion and politics.
One Small Voice
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