“My” Truth

In a comment she made to a post I wrote about the nature of truth and falsity, Sha’Tara made the following remark: “In my world there is no truth whatever unless it is ‘my’ truth. . . “ I dismissed this claim as “indefensible,” which was a bit flippant. It deserves closer examination, though in the end I will try to show why it is indefensible. In effect the position is what has been called “solipsism,” and it has been around since humans began to think about truth and falsehood. The position rests on the assurance that I am the only one; I alone know about the “world” which is regarded as “real.” Truth, which is my personal fiction, is mine and mine alone.

As I noted in my comment to Sha’Tara, the claim “there is no truth” also claims to be true and this paradox is the key to the dismissal of the position. At best the claim itself is a half-truth. Some truths are mine while most have nothing whatever to do with me. To be sure, we all look at the world differently; each of us brings with us a large suitcase full of bias, prejudice and, at the very least, individual perspective. No question. But we bring this large piece of luggage to a world we share with others who also bring their own luggage. And we try to make sense of it, to make claims that can withstand criticism and which seem evidential. The evidence is itself available to others and can be examined and verified or rejected as the case warrants.

But in the end, claims from the axioms of Euclid (“Things equal to the same thing are equal to one another”) to the claims of the scientist (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) to the claims of the historian (“Caesar crossed the Rubicon”) can be verified. They are true because there is considerable intuitive, mathematical, historical, or sensory evidence to support them. They are not “my” truth: they are “our” truth. If we disagree about the claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, for example, we must bring evidence forward that provides an indisputable case against that claim. Indeed, like any claim, this one can be dismissed willy-nilly, because no one holds a gun to the head of anyone else (we would hope), but the dismissal is pure whimsy. There are no grounds for doing so, except that it makes the person himself or herself feel good. All the evidence supports the above claims in the parentheses.

The chemist/philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote a book in 1958 titled Personal Knowledge in which he argued that the scientist, no matter how exact the science itself, always brings with him or her a personal element. All claims, even the most precise and exact ones supported by mathematics and empirical observation are couched within a context of “personal knowledge.” Nonetheless, Polanyi insists, the knowledge itself is not in question because of the personal element. Polanyi’s goal was to restore science to a place within the body of human studies, to show that it is human knowledge and not so impersonal and somehow clinical that no one would approach it without rubber gloves and no interest whatever in the relationship between scientific truth and the truth in the social sciences and the Humanities. In a word, Polanyi wanted to substitute for the objective, impersonal ideal of scientific detachment an alternative ideal which gives attention to the personal involvement of the knower in all acts of understanding. But, note please, he did not reject all knowledge or all truth out of hand. Indeed, he affirmed the certainty of certain truths, while admitting the elements of personal involvement in the discovery and formulation of those truths.

The point of all this philosophical rambling is to show that truth is in a sense “mine,” but as truth it is there for anyone else. I am not all alone (solus ipse). I share a world with others with whom I can agree or disagree but with whom I also share a body of knowledge. I can get on the airplane with confidence that it will take off and land safely — because science tells me it is safe. I can drive my car and it will start and stop when I ask it to. The danger in rejecting truth is that we become open to manipulation by those in power who seek to instill in us a body of half-truths and “false facts” that allows them to realize their political goals. We are susceptible to the demagogue and the politically ambitious. We need to insist that there is truth and knowledge available to all who take the time to search and seek to validate it because if we do not do so we have nothing with which to defend ourselves from clap-trap and political nonsense.

This is why education is so important, especially in an age in which there are people “out there” who would have their way with us, convince us that black is white and that theirs is the only truth when, in fact, the truth belongs to no one. It belongs to all of us.


38 thoughts on ““My” Truth

  1. Agreed. I like your breakdown of ‘truth.’
    In a sense, ‘truth’ is always a past moment or moments in time, because it is the only our experience of ‘truth’ that can be shared. Our future ‘truth’ perhaps only lies in our minds as a result of past experiences. Life is an experiential process that we all feel differently. For instance, the person boarding an aircraft (knowing that statistically, they are safe) may be in fear of flying anyway. They hear every tremor in the engines that sound that all may not be well. A friend of mine, who knew what engines should sound like (his truth), gripped the arm rest and my arm as we were beginning a runway takeoff. “Oh God, that doesn’t sound right!” he’d said. And he was right, seconds later the engines shut down and takeoff was aborted. An engine had started to malfunction. My truth was, we’d be fine… It wasn’t his.
    Truths come with trust in them. So in a sense, Sha’Tara is right… We can only have our own truths. We can be influenced by the truths that come from others, especially if the evidence seems to be clear, but in the end, it is us, and us alone who will accept something as a truth or not regardless of popular opinion.

    • There are doubtless personal truths. That I do not deny. But there are truths that are impersonal as well. What we must be clear about is that those impersonal truths are not denied by those with an agenda who would convince us that black is white. Orwell was very much aware of the power of words and the temptation on the part of those in power to impose their meanings on the rest of us — and their ability to do so because we don’t stop to think about what is being said.

      • Well, those truths will be the one’s that we all agree on. But how many do we actually all agree on? If there were many agreed truths, we should, in theory, not see so much divide. I think it might be easier to agree on what is not true, rather than to find consensus on what is true.
        Of course, we all operate on assumptions that some things are true, or we would live in eternal chaos. So perhaps it is easier to say that we assume a lot of things are true in order to create order.

      • I think we agree on a great many more things than we disagree about, in fact. If we did not we would begin to wonder if we live in the same world!

  2. It’s really sad that we have leaders now who are so consistently reckless with truth, that they’ve caused the rest of us to actually debate “What is truth, after all?” (on WordPress and elsewhere). The pandemonium they’re inducing sinks us further and further.

    This polite debate about truth is entertaining, but yet another sideshow, and the clown in the White House is laughing all the way to a reelection. We need to stop debating what is and isn’t truth, and start holding these bastards accountable. Our spineless media and our apathetic electorate need to call these lying liars the LIARS they are…to their FACES…then kick their ASSES out of office!

    • I think the debate about “truth” is important because there are those who would impose their notion of what is true and false on the rest of us. But it is certainly past time to clean house in Washington.

      • I agree to an extent. But I don’t think a debate about defining truth is the correct debate. First, WordPress isn’t the most effective forum (although it’s therapeutic for us bloggers). Second, those who want to impose their own lies and falsities don’t care about truth, or reality. They’re not listening to the debate at all. They’re interested in results that benefit them, and the truth be damned.

        In my opinion, the debate should be about how to best rid ourselves of these cretins. Then, arrive at a consensus, and put it into action.

  3. Now you have made my head spin. Some things, I think, are indisputable. Snow is cold. The sun is hot. My shirt is blue. But then again, perhaps they are relative. Snow may be cold to me, but compared to the temperatures on Pluto, perhaps snow is quite warm. And while my shirt appears blue to me, perhaps somebody else might argue that it is green. I used to think it was grey.

    For the past several days I have been discussing with a certain friend via email, what is a ‘shirt’. Now, to me, ‘shirt’ is a broad category of anything that covers the upper half of the body, except jackets and coats. But to him, a shirt is only a button-down shirt, and the category excludes t-shirts, sweaters, etc. My argument is that if you step out of the shower, you are ‘shirtless’, but once you put on a sweater, you are no longer shirtless, therefore the sweater must be a form of a shirt. He defines ‘shirtless’ as having no money. So what is the truth? The truth is in the perception, and we will not change each other’s minds, but the argument is fun anyway.

    And so, in truth, I do not know the truth! It may be relative or about perception, but what to do about pesky facts?

    • Facts are those claims we know to be true. No? And the debate about “shirts” sounds to me like a verbal dispute! But in the end your spinning head is a good thing: it clears away the cobwebs — though you don’t seem to have any of those!

      • Facts … as you and I understand them, yes, they are those things that are undeniably true and have passed all the tests for veracity. But … remember that last year we were introduced to alternative facts. Remember the ‘Bowling Green massacre’?

        The great ‘shirt’ debate was all in fun, and he finally capitulated, though I’m suspicious, for it isn’t like him to give in so easily … I smell a plot afoot!

        And trust me, there are cobwebs. An example: tonight I went into the kitchen to clean my glasses. When I got there, I realized that the dishwasher had finished, so I unloaded it and put the clean dishes away. Then I put the few dirty dishes into the dishwasher. Then the counters were dirty, so I wiped them down. Then I realized I hadn’t yet folded the towels, so I did that. And then I came back into the living room, sat down, picked up my computer and realized that I couldn’t see because … after all that, I hadn’t done the one thing I went into the kitchen for … cleaned my glasses!!! Oy vey … cobwebs galore!!!

      • P.S. We seem to be doing fine with ‘liking’ and commenting each others posts, so can we assume the troubles have been fixed? Knock on wood, of course. 😉

  4. What a timely and interesting post, Hugh. I will have to read it again, I read it while waiting for a train and immediately wanted to talk about it – but no one was there to share! It really is perfectly judged for the times we live in. Thank you for doing this research, compilation and thinking for those of us (me!) who are too distracted to do it for ourselves. I have often thought to the point of exasperation about whether we can ever know what each other sees, whether what I call red is really the same as what you call red – in reality (!). But eventually does that matter if we agree to label something with the same labels and treat it in the same way and agree its existence?

    • I don’t think we ever see precisely what another sees — or experiences in any way. But we all see the same things. The world itself is as it is and we seek to understand it given our various perspectives. But the perspectives cancel out in the end because what matters is what we experience, not how we experience it.

  5. My friend Hugh… methinks I failed to make myself clear on that comment. Let me try again.

    At the end of your post you say, “…the truth belongs to no one. It belongs to all of us.  I have no argument with that, except to ask, what is THE truth?  Jesus said long ago, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life…’  Was that hubris or what?  That is not what I meant when I said in my world there is no truth whatever unless it is my truth. But before I clarify that, let’s ask the age-old question: what is truth? Is it just “facts” or more, less? Other than? Is “truth” an absolute value, or is it open to interpretation? Objective, subjective, both? Either?

    If it was facts, we’d call it facts, wouldn’t we? My thread ran out on my sewing machine: fact? Truth? Both? I’d call that a fact if indeed that was the case. Observable, but not something anyone would get twisted about (as you point out.)

    But to me that is never the question. Truth, to me, is deeper than mere facts. “The TRUTH: cannot be objective, so it cannot be an absolute. Again, what is truth?

    Truth, as a concept, is not stand alone. It requires the support of ideas and beliefs. That gets murkier. When I stated that only my truth is truth, it was an attempt to point out that we forever get ourselves into pointless arguments over truth, therefore let’s just say it is all subject to my interpretation. It’s not the truth that matters, it’s my interpretation.  Truth by itself has no power. (Thinking out loud here.) That’s its problem, its inherent weakness: truth cannot convince anyone of anything. Therefore if, as you point out, some unconscionable type can claim that his truth is the real truth and convince enough people (Donald Trump, anyone?) lies become truth. Only discernment can sort out his truth from an opposing truth.

    Without discernment, any statement can become truth. Did Hitler speak truth when he spewed his murderous bile? Yes, as a matter of fact he did because, like Trump, there were enough numbties around to accept his truth however it violated commonly acceptable human morality.

    Am I making myself clearer here? The point I am making is, apart from observable facts, truth is a chimera, totally subject to changing circumstances. As an academic you probably see it differently: that truth can be secured from delving in various writings; philosophies and whatnot’s (words fail me here) but with 71 years of interactions with others, and having read a great deal, I have come to the conclusion that truth, no, not “truth” as such, but THE TRUTH simply does not exist. So, if I want truth, I have to make it up as I go along, subject to change without previous notice as I am moved by the one constant in the universe, which is change.  Hence, the only valid truth in my life is my truth, no one else’s – unless someone else’s trumps mine, or validates what I already know to be true. Example: compassion is the leading force in my life. Any “truth” that validates that, becomes, or is added, to my truth.

    So it all comes down to discernment based on self empowerment. Truth is a personal matter.

    • I would tend to agree with you Sha’Tara. While Hugh makes a valid argument, holes appear when some accepted ‘truths’ appear to no longer be valid and indeed become falsehoods that may alter other truths. For instance, the speed of light is now no longer accepted to be perfectly constant which begs the question, is our concept of the values of time and space accurate? And on a more earthly plane, fats in our diet were once blamed for all manner of ills…. That has just been turned on its head by further research. The fact is, that underlying truth’s in our world, are constantly changing. And so is our acceptance of them.

      • Many things we have taken as true are now seen to be false. That is true (sorry!). But the truth of falsity rests on evidence and argument — as I noted in my comment to Sha’Tara. Most of the claims we regard as true are more or less true depending on the weight of the evidence. But to simply sit back and tweet “The Truth” is absurd. Something is not true simply because someone says it is true, as I noted in my reply to Sha’Tara. We must carefully distinguish between subjective claims and claims that have the weight of considerable evidence — such as the theory of evolution, for example.

    • Terrific stuff! Thanks so much for expanding the discussion. Let’s focus on one of your many claims — most of which I agree with, by the way! Take this snippit: “. . .THE TRUTH simply does not exist. So, if I want truth, I have to make it up as I go along…” It’s not either/or — either absolute TRUTH or subjective whimsey. There are truths that are unshakable, in mathematics, for example. And there are truths that people (like our president) make up. But the latter are not truths, they are fictions disguised as truth. And the fact that we can say this, that we can distinguish between them suggests that there is at the heart of those claims a truth. It is true, for example, that so much of what the man says is false. Just because someone says something is true does not make it true. Its truth rests upon evidence and argument. So, perhaps, we can agree that there are a few unshakable truths and that much of what we say is true is, in fact, false. But this does not rule out the possibility of finding truths, namely, those claims that correspond to facts — to be sure there is a relationship there. One such truth is that you have a good mind and almost always make sense! Thanks again for the good comment!

  6. Hugh and commenters, very thought provoking post and discussion via comment. I would love to be in a classroom discussing this topic. It round wake up even the sleepiest student – at least that is my opinion.

    A couple of pragmatic comments. We too often equate personal opinions as truths. What I said above is an opinion.
    To me, overarching truths need to be accepted, but even then that does not make them correct. The sun revolved around the earth until Copernicus confirmed that to no longer be true. While the latter is now a universal truth, we have learned that stars die, so at some point even that truth will no longer be true.

    But, I do believe that we have fact-based universal truths. If we are born, we will die. Humans are inherently self-centered, it is in our nature. Humans are also biased, as we are the filters for information. My opinion is this is why we have a hard time believing certain universal truths saying it is not true to me.

    So, let me leave you with a song lyric that has two contradictory opinions (not personal truths), courtesy of Steely Dan. They sing “You have been telling me you are genius since you were seventeen. In all this time I’ve known, I still don’t know what you mean.”

    By the way, this song reference is my way of giving Jill an earworm for all her great song posts of late. Keith

    • I also think there are universal truths. But Sha’Tara is correct to remind us that it is dangerous to be the one to claim to have a tight grip on that TRUTH. We should always accept our own limitations. There is an absolute truth but no one can claim to know it absolutely. Will that work?

      • This discussion (which WP decided NOT to include in my email received comments???) made me delve into my collection of books from Project Gutenberg, and lo and behold, I found a book titled “The Problem of Truth” by H. Wildon Carr, which I’m now going to read. It isn’t recent, dating it seems from the mid-1900’s, but the preface is intriguing:
        “A problem of philosophy is completely different from a problem of science. In science we accept our subject-matter as it is presented in unanalysed experience; in philosophy we examine the first principles and ultimate questions that concern conscious experience itself. The problem of truth is a problem of philosophy. It is not a problem of merely historical interest, but a present problem—a living controversy, the issue of which is undecided. Its present interest may be said to centre round the doctrine of pragmatism, which some fifteen years ago began to challenge the generally accepted principles of philosophy. In expounding this problem of truth, my main purpose has been to make clear to the reader the nature of a problem of philosophy and to disclose the secret of its interest. My book presumes no previous study of philosophy nor special knowledge of its problems. The theories that I have shown in conflict on this question are, each of them, held by some of the leaders of philosophy. In presenting them, therefore, I have tried to let the full dialectical force of the argument appear. I have indicated my own view, that the direction in which the solution lies is in the new conception of life and the theory of knowledge given to us in the philosophy of Bergson. If I am right, the solution is not, like pragmatism, a doctrine of the nature of truth, but a theory of knowledge in which the dilemma in regard to truth does not arise. But, as always in philosophy, the solution of one problem is the emergence of another. There is no finality.”

      • Interesting comment — though somewhat dated. Pragmatism has long since died a quiet death. But I would tend to agree with the writer’s overall sentiments — as I do yours for the most part. Truth is not mere facts. It is something greater and certainly tainted, if not determined, by personal perspectives.

  7. Hugh, it seems Rudy has weighed in on your post without knowing it. Yet, as we choose between an honorable man and one who has been measured to lie more than not, I will go with the honorable man. What Rudy left out is why has it taken eighteen months to denounce what happened? Keith

      • Hugh, I wrote this in response to Jill’s comment on my post, but Trump changes his stories so often, he does not know his own truth. Of course, he is at risk of perjury, as he cannot keep track of his own versions of stories. Keith

      • Trump believes in the eternal circle. You begin with a truth, you lie about it, then you lie about the lie and presto: it becomes the truth again. If you say it fast enough, that is…

      • Trump fits this description written by Huxley: “The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..”

      • Hugh, we should not forget that a key mentor to Trump is none other than Roy Cohn, who also counseled Senator Joe McCarthy. In Trump’s biographies, Cohn advised two messages to Trump – never admit a mistake and sue everyone. He follows that advice to this day. And, by the way, another person who associated with McCarthy, is one Richard M. Nixon. What conclusions can be drawn by Joe’s proteges? Keith

  8. Very convincing stuff we can’t just fly off at a tangent as we may please , the great body of gathered knowledge cannot be ignored and it accumulates at a exponential rate. Those with a scientific bent can exercise their imaginations in science fiction. Those who would reject the world of knowledge are quick to take essential medicine and to climb into the internal combustion engine to travel at speed and in comfort.
    Do you remember ‘flower power’ ? Strawberry Fields Forever and all the other escape valves from a cruel world? LSD stripped us of the mind of logic and even such a logician as Aldous Huxley was fascinated by the depths of the human mind.
    ‘ The mind has depths , cliffs of fall , no man fathomed ,
    They hold them cheap who ne’er hung there’ ‘

      • You’re giving me a headache here, making me think! Isn’t everything “true” on some broad level, becoming fragmented into truth and/or lies when universal “truth” is broken down to fit our conceptions, or pre-conceptions? A lie is true to itself, as a true lie, if you see what I mean. When we break it down and apply rules to what is true, what is false don’t we automatically fall into the totalitarian mindset, as exemplified by organized religions for example. What’s that word used to depict a forced belief imposed by an institution…??? Anyway, whether academic, religious, state or scientific, shouldn’t the truth of the matter be allowed to rest within the individual mind, in personal choice? No need to proselytize, just state it and let individuals decide what is true based on the evidence. If they choose to see truth as diametrically opposed to my choice of truth, do we have to burn people at the stake for it? I think the pushing of truth is a matter of patriarchal control more than a real interest in truth. IMHO!

      • The exact sciences are the paradigm of truth and the physicist, for example, must share his results with his colleagues and give them a chance to test his results before his claims can be said to be true. So also with the chemist and even the biologist. The social sciences imitate the hard sciences and also share their claims with colleagues to confirm their claims. There is a descending scale below that to the truths you and I have in private. It’s true that my head aches from thinking about truth. This is not a claim that can be confirmed by anyone else. It is a private truth. All other truths on the scale above are more or less true, depending on the weight of the evidence.
        Does this make any sense??

      • Yes, that does make a lot of sense. If I may project from that, it would seem that on a sliding scale, truth is relative, never absolute. Even the “exact sciences” have proved untrustworthy over time. Assessments of certain measures, distances, temperatures are constantly being revised. Yes we can say that 2+2 equals 4, but to go on from there to claim that math is “the” universal language is scientific hubris – what works on earth may well not work at all from some alien viewpoint. I think when we address the concept of truth we should always qualify what we mean… I also think that, as the Greeks found it necessary to invent several words to describe “love” (agape, eros, philia and stroge) so we should invent new descriptive words to explain more accurately what we mean when we speak of truth. Again, that is but my opinion. Enjoying the discussion!

  9. Pingback: My truth – Sivalali

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