Universal Truth: Fact or Myth?

There seems to be a lot of angst these days over “fake” news. In our American culture, news (as presented to us by our media outlets) is presumed to be “true.”

So let’s examine truth. Oxford’s web dictionary even seems to be a little unclear. Consider these two definitions:[1]

  1. That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.
  2. A fact or belief that is accepted as true.

The first definition is either circular (truth is what’s true?) or very clear: “reality.”

The second appears to me to be significantly less clear: “accepted as true.”

“Accepted as true” is fraught with interpretation based on dozens of parameters: age, culture, nationality, religion, race, experience, point of view, etc.

My experience has been that your “truth” and mine probably don’t match exactly for just about anything. Which leads me to the conclusion that there is a difference between “truth” and “reality.”

Earlier this week I had a fun exchange with a client in a group setting who was doing his best to defend a concept of “universal truth”—that there MUST be something that is real and everybody agrees on.

To be sure, there are facts. The web tells us that a fact is a “thing that is indisputably the case.” What makes something indisputable?

  • I witnessed it?
    • Right now?
    • 10 years ago?
  • You told me and I totally trust you?
  • I read it in a history book by a famous author?
  • Heard it on Fox News?
  • Read it in the New York Times?

Can you see how the firmness of said fact softens as we go through the list?

So if “truth” depends on “facts” and “facts” need to be indisputable, but we simply can’t be certain, then what is “truth”?

At best, I’ve arrived at the concept that “truth” can only be observed through any number of filters that stand in the way of the accuracy of that reality. Time. Culture. Age. Racial bias. Religious bias. Second-hand reporting. Complete agendized falsehood. But never, never indisputable.

When I have this conversation with clients or in group sessions, it can be very scary… as is the fellow defending a “universal truth.”

We can, of course, believe any truth we concoct. Why? Because it makes our lives easier. I can feel safe in my belief that the world is flat, Pluto is a planet, and the atom is the smallest particle (all “facts” accepted at one time or another in our civilization). All of these have since been disproven, but believing in them at the time didn’t hurt anybody.

We feel safe in our belief of truths and want to see them as universal because it makes our lives easier.

And none of us sees the world though the same set of eyes, experiences, and filters, so all of us see reality differently—some to a smaller degree and some to a larger degree.

Sometimes we even get to have our “truth” challenged and altered. Take, for example, that close play at second base. The ump called him out. Every home-team fan saw him as out. The second baseman clearly tagged the runner as he slid into second.

Then we get the indisputable fact when the visiting team’s manager calls for a replay and we see the action from seven different angles. And the one angle from deep left-field shows he clearly missed the tag. Fact. Yet the ump and 40,000 fans had it wrong!

We all would say that the man was out at second and that was the truth. Yet the official AND thousands of witnesses—because of their position on the field, or their wishful thinking, or maybe even their own best observation—simply were not accurate.

The debate then comes down to “truth” vs. “accuracy.”

Accuracy is the reality of the occurrence. Yes, it’s semantics, but to me, accuracy is far more indisputable than truth. It’s what happened vs. what we believe happened.

Think about all the things in your life you believe to be (universally) true. How do you know they’re true? From personal experience? From reading it in a book? Because science says so? My minister? Dad? Rush Limbaugh? Steven Colbert?

Are all these things accurate? Is there possibly another interpretation? I’m a huge fan of good old-fashioned, healthy doubt. I can’t see other interpretations unless I can let a little light in, which starts with a crack in my belief, my truth.

Universal truth? At the risk of upsetting my readers, I can’t imagine what it would be.

Can you?

[1] From https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/truth.

 

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