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A Frank Discussion about Truth

Truth is one of the most fascinating concepts that exists, as it guides the pursuit of all disciplines and interactions. In academic work, be it scientific or philosophical, the main pursuit is truth; in human interaction, a fundamental assumption for a functioning society is that what is being said or promised is true, for truth shares a relationship with trust, and without trust all interaction falls apart. From the origins of philosophy, a high status has been conferred upon truth, as it was one of the transcendentals that compose being in Platonic Philosophy: One, True, and Good. Despite the importance of truth, the nature and role of truth has been so badly obscured in modern discourse that the human and academic pursuits of all individuals are at risk. It is this obfuscation that this paper hopes to address.

Etymologically, the concept of truth is interesting in and of itself. Truth in English derives from the old Germanic word for faithfulness, revealing the relationship to trust that it has in English concepts. The relationship between truth and trust bore strongly upon the ability for these societies to industrialize and attain sustained economic growth, as free market interactions fundamentally assume a trust relationship to occur. It is the breakdown of this trust relationship in communist countries for example, where truth and the use of true language was penalized and controlled, that led to the dehumanization of agents within these nations, thereby hampering free economic interaction. It is also important to note that this etymological relationship for truth only bears on Germanic languages, with Romance languages tracing their word for truth back to the Latin Veritas, the goddess of Truth, who was so elusive she hid at the bottom of a well. The sound of Veritasis very different from the English Truth, and does not necessarily hold the same conceptual relationships. Lacking sufficient historical context to defend the divergence of these concepts, this will not be dwelt upon for long. It is however pertinent to note the pleasantness of the Latin aphorism Via et Veritas et Vita. Other languages such as Russian, Hindi, and Chinese, have had the concept of truth grow in divergent ways as well.

One of the shared conceptions historically between these various conceptions of truth has been its relationship to being. To be true is to act and exist truthfully. Truth as a result was something lived, not simply pondered. One lived truthfully if one was true to themselves (authentic) and true to others (trustworthy/faithful). This conception of truth has however been overtaken in recent years by a very narrow definition of truth, that all truth is scientific truth. This, however, opens up many issues on exactly what scientific truth is, and what does it mean for something to be true. For to be scientifically true does not necessarily mean that it is a finding of a scientific discipline, but rather following the scientific method. In this sense, only empirical and falsifiable truths are truths. This, however, obscures the different types of truth even within sciences. When something is true in physics, it answers a question about how the universe works and what it is within the universe that stands in a certain causal relationship. When something is true in psychology, it answers a question about how the mind operates, and what is the mental property acting in a certain causal relationship. When something is true in economics, it answers a question about how the economy and human interaction occurs, and what is the amalgamated result of a certain series of allocations and exchanges. The what and the how in these situations are so different, and bear on so many different factors, that their basic structure does not mean that they are answered in similar ways. To test something in physics has a far greater potential to yield a precise result than a test regarding a brain that is difficult to experiment on and human interactions which are near impossible to isolate.

Despite the various designs of truth that occur from the varying levels of “hardness” ascribed to a scientific endeavor, an even more fundamental flaw arises when scientific truth is taken to mean all truth. For what and how are not the only questions that we ask, nor are the only questions that have answers. Questions about why exist, and they can be answered in a methodical way, just not in a scientifically methodical way necessarily. Not only are questions about why fundamental to a conception of truth, but neglecting why questions, and reducing all truths to empirical or logical truths leads to a great distortion in social contexts. For when “why” is neglected and “what is” is given sole priority, a tendency to conflate “is” with “ought” occurs. This can be seen with the assignment of morality to random outcomes or natural occurrences within even supposedly high level “academic” work. It is this conflation that has given rise to the so called “post-truth” claim that has enamored so many overly educated people this past year.

One of the problems with this term, which Oxford Dictionary has dubbed the word of the year, is that it neglects to acknowledge the domains of truth and conflates what is with what ought to be. It has been used to criticize the forgotten working class who are deemed to have neglected the opinions of experts and statistical facts in their decision making. This however assumes that certain issues take precedence over others, that economic “facts” somehow trump one’s subjective experience as true. While it is an economic fact that immigrants on net balance add to the economy, it is not necessarily true that immigration benefits everybody. There are social and cultural beliefs for which economic “facts” simply do not account. It does no good to the man who is further back in the queue for social housing to say that only a small percent of immigrants end up using social housing stock, for this is to discuss in aggregate what is an individual issue. Sure the citied elite benefit from lower prices of goods and overall increased productivity, but when a working class individual sees that this comes at the expense of their job and livelihood, does this statistic provide any consolation. More importantly, does the statistic make the subjective experience of this individual any less true.

What is fundamentally true is that there are people whose experience of the world is worse and worse with each passing year, and they attach explanations to it given the lives they live and what they personally witness. Their framing of the world is no less valid than the supposedly disinterested academic’s statistical analysis. One of the conflations that can be used to explain why there are some unable to accept that what the disadvantaged experience deserves a platform is the concept that because something is happening, a moral judgement can be attached to it. There is an increasing amount of immigration in western countries, which makes populations more diverse, and a claim of moral goodness in diversity is attached by many of those who trumpet such “post-truth” claims. Where the morality of diversity came from is anyone’s guess, but the claim that the occurrence of something is deserving of moral weight is a fallacious way to view social events. To claim that diversity is good, and therefore the negative experiences felt by many of increased diversity is therefore an untrue claim is an argument that becomes hard to defend against, simply because the philosophical presupposition at its heart is logically incoherent.

One of the great issues with truth is that it is hard to communicate. Language is too narrow a form of thought to be able to effectively describe the affective experience of something. Distortions occur at every stage of processing and transmission when it comes to creating an image of the world. This error leads to a great deal of talking past one another, but it leads to what is a potentially more dangerous issue. The failure to acknowledge the various ways of being true or experiencing the world comes with a boxed narcissism, that one’s in-group definition of world affairs is the only way the world could possibly arranged. It becomes empirically difficult to refute these claims through a combination of the underdetermination of observed data, errors in communication, and the theoretical prisms that individuals attach onto their subjective experience. With greatened intensity of conflating what is with what ought to be, this in-group truth transforms from being an interpretation of the world, to an absolutist moral perspective. Such a view would lead individuals to view those who disagree with them as disagreeable for moral reasons and not empirical ones, which justifies in a mind a view of viewing others with disgust and contempt. History has provided humanity with countless examples of the danger of viewing one’s fellow man with disgust and contempt, and it is terrifying to think of history once again repeating itself.

For these reasons I find it pertinent to engage in such frank discussions about truth.

This post was originally published by the author on his personal blog: https://medium.com/@ryankhurana/a-frank-discussion-about-truth-2358afe941e3

About Ryan Khurana

Profile photo of Ryan Khurana
Ryan Khurana is a Research Fellow at the Consumer Choice Center. He has previously worked at the General Medical Council and the Institute of Economic Affairs. His work on UK Land Planning Regulation won the first annual Breakthrough Prize on Poverty Alleviation. His current interests are in the Economics of Technology, Health, and Welfare Policy.

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