Numinations — July, 2000

And That’s the Truth

© 2000, by Gary D. Campbell

   Let’s Numinate about the truth.  Actually, we’ve touched on this topic before.  Let’s explore it now, organize it, and see if we can understand it as well as anyone except maybe a professional philosopher.  A good start can be made by looking in the dictionary.  I’ve got a “Random House Unabridged” and a “Webster’s ‘New’ Collegiate” (circa 1975).  Webster’s says that Truth, capitalized, is a Christian Science synonym for God.  Random House says that Truth (often, but not always capitalized) means the “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.”  All the other meanings of truth use the lower case.

   Let’s say that truth (or Truth) is the body of all statements, feelings, and things that are true.  We will use a capital T if we need to emphasize the transcendent (indicating all truth, and perhaps something more).  What we call truth must conform to actual conditions, reality, or the facts.  Some adjectives that apply to the truth are:  real, genuine, authentic, sincere, loyal, faithful, steadfast, proper, and accurate.  Something is true to a pattern to the extent that it conforms to that pattern.

   Why Numinate about truth?  Because human beings have a deep need to feel themselves in touch with the truth.  This need may even have a genetic basis.  All human cultures reflect this need by attempting to teach us what is true, and to “tell the truth.”  Truth is what a group agrees upon.  It’s what you can verify with your own senses.  Truth originates from four sources:  sensory perception, reason, authority, and emotion.  Truth is parsimonious.  Truth is what is good, consistent, and what works.  Truth is all of these things—each to some extent—but it is equal to none of them.

   Did I say truth “originates” from four sources?  It must have been something I read.  A more accurate statement is that truth arrives via four avenues.  It originates in nature (and perhaps artificial systems).

   Certain kinds of statements are rigorous enough to be submitted to a test.  Some of these (but not all, according to Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem) can be proved to be true.  Most statements (such as the accounts we read in history books) are not rigorous enough to be put to the test.  The opportunity to test many statements has vanished, and it will never reappear.  The truth of many an event is tested in court, and we get the O J version of the truth.

   It’s true—true statements can be made and proved within the bounds of a sufficiently rigorous domain.  But can truth, in general, be stated and communicated?  Let’s say we wished to describe the contents of a bottle.  We might say that it contained so many grams of water at a certain temperature and pressure.  Would this be the truth?  It wouldn’t be the whole truth, because the contents are an exact number of water molecules, each with its own position and motion at any given instant.  There will also be some impurities.  The value we give for any measurement is only an approximation—it can never be exact.  Almost every concept we have, when we try to describe it or use it to describe something else, turns out to be too complex for any simple statement to be the whole truth.  Statements of the whole truth probably need to be just as complex as their subjects.  Only a very few statements can express the whole truth, most statements are simply approximations of the truth that we lack the capability to express exactly.

   Subjective truth is simply what we believe it to be.  There are as many subjective versions of the truth as there are people to express it.  Is there any such thing as a supreme version?  An ultimate truth?  An absolute truth?  A transcendent Truth, perhaps the equivalent of God?  Could this Truth be anything less than a complete record and understanding of the Cosmos over all eternity?  I don’t see how this would be possible—but others might see it differently.

   If truth is subjective, then it’s simply another name for our own opinions.  Is truth anything more than what we believe in and render opinions about?  If truth is a collection of beliefs, it is certainly true that all such collections are not the same.  One collection might be what a given individual believes in, but a very different collection might be the collection of all models and statements that would be accepted as true by most scientists (restricting them each to their own professional fields).  A still different set would stem from the collective beliefs of the members of a particular religious faith.

   Truths that are shared (or felt to be shared) with others are the most powerful.  This is what our predisposition for the truth is all about.  It is a major part of the bonding process that ties people together into social units (couples, families, groups, and nations).  The feeling of epiphany is often acquired in just this way.

   We Numinate about things not just to review or learn about them, but to make possible a whole new relationship with them.  This Numination would not be complete without considering how we should arrive at the truth.  What kind of game plan should we adopt to refine our own collection of things that we believe to be true?  And do we even place a value on an effort of this sort?

   What sources can we rely on for the truth?  Should we include our memories in that body of things we believe to be the truth?  Should we include our feelings?  It’s a well known fact that the human memory of episodes and events tends to be pretty faulty, but of course that’s only true of other people’s memory, it never seems true for our own.  Still, it might be wise to make some kind of allowance.  As much as people begin to complain about their memory as they get older, have you ever noticed that nobody complains about their judgment?

   Maybe it would help if we tried to identify several categories of truth.  Let’s consider the following: definitions, postulates, axioms, statements amenable to proof, statements amenable to falsification, statements consistent with a set of facts, statements consistent with a set of claims, anecdotes or scenarios, and finally truths whose support is based only on trust, or faith, in their source.  One continuum of truth ends here.  Beyond this continuum are all truths or any Truth that cannot be formulated as some kind of statement.  If we can sort all of what we believe into these categories, then we can much more easily see how to deal with our beliefs.

   Definition is the simplest kind of truth:  Saying so, makes it so.  Definitions have to be accepted and understood by the users of a language.  Languages are only effective to the extent that this is true.  A language is nothing more than a set of conventions, among which are the words of the language and their definitions (statements that relate the words, show how they are used, and describe one word in terms of others).  Postulates are statements that are assumed to be true for the purpose of constructing a formal argument or proof.  An axiom is a statement that is widely held to be true, or considered to be self-evident, but whose truth is too fundamental or subtle to be capable of proof, and too important to be merely postulated.

   The above kinds of truth give us a working knowledge of our language in which we can make other more complex statements.  There are at least four kinds of statements:  One is the question, another is a command or direction, another involves the hypothetical, and the remainder are statements that may be either true or false.  Here we will conclude with statements amenable to proof or falsification.  Next time we will Numinate about the other kinds of statements, those consistent with facts, claims, anecdotes, scenarios, and trust.

   It takes a disciplined mind, and much Numination, to review all the definitions, postulates, and axioms that one has accepted and come to believe over the years.  When truth be told, we should at least know if it falls into any of these categories.  No truth can rest on a faulty understanding or recollection of any of these, and it’s always possible—even easy—to get our facts wrong.  Assuming that no fault lies in our use and understanding of the relevant definitions, postulates, and axioms then we should be able to reason the truth of any statement amenable to proof.

   Statements amenable to falsification, however, have an even more important place.  The problem with statements amenable to proof is that there are too few of them, and they are restricted by Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem.  Statements amenable to falsification properly include all of science.  Ideally, they should form the backbone, or core, of a person’s beliefs.  Here, the burden is to properly identify a statement as being in this category, attempt to falsify it, and consider it to be true only to the extent that it passes your tests.

   Next time we will Numinate into the other realms of truth, but here are some questions to keep you Numinating in the meantime.  Given the body of truths that you believe, what do you do with them?  Should they dictate what you say?  How you behave?  Most important, should your truths dictate what other people can do or say?  Who has the right to get others to accept their version of the truth?  Is a personal freedom of conscience consistent with a missionary ethic?  To what degree does any group have the right to inflict its version of the truth on any other group or individual?

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