TRUTH and nothing but

The Fringe Editor has decided to rise to the challenge of the holiday doldrums and take on the biggest issue of all:


The Truth? You want The Truth? You can’t make sufficiently inclusive cognitive representations of The Truth!

Warning! This discussion is not for the busy.

What is Truth?
As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.
Josh Billings

Miriam Webster’s On line dictionary provides the following most useful meanings of "Truth":

  • the state of being the case :"fact"
  • the body of real things, events, and facts : "actually"
  • often capitalized : a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality
  • a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true <truths of thermodynamics>
  • the body of true statements and propositions
  • the property (as of a statement) of being in agreement with fact or reality
  • and, most interestingly, for Christian Scientists, Truth is synonymous with God.

But, is that "true"?

If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. The "Thomas Theorem", W. I. and Doris S. Thomas, 1928

It’s interesting that Webster’s is able to simplify a vast, essential, and far from finished philosophical discussion about what "truth" is. We also see that the definitions of truth are circular. "Truth" is "facts" and "actuality" but when you look up facts you see they’re things that are "true", and what is actual is what is true, or supported by facts. Round and round we go, getting no wiser.

That might be a good working definition, but in our search for Truth we aren’t going to be satisfied with circular definitions.

A Babble of Truths

The words of truth are always paradoxical.
Lao Tzu

If you ever sprain your ankle or get your driver’s licensed jerked and have to stay around home, enter the internet with the search term "philosophy of truth". It will unleash a jungle of strange birds in your head, as people parse Truth, Meaning, Understanding, Mind, and so on.
If you aren’t keeping your ankle elevated or borrowing the kid’s bike to go to town, you probably don’t want to do that, so here’s our version.
There are four major positions (and a host of minor positions, any of which could be "true") in the discussion on Truth. 

Correspondence says truth is out there, and we can make a reasonable facsimile in our thoughts and speech. Things we say, "correspond" to something in the real world. This is the one most people are comfortable with because it allows one to believe in an objective truth that humans can access. Right is right and wrong is wrong. It isn’t intellectually satisfying, though, because regardless of literally thousands of years of work, the theory can’t explain away the "filtering process" of the brain/mind.

Pragmatism holds that there is truth out there, and we can discover it by careful methodology. This is the first truly American philosophy and it bears the mark of a nation enthralled with science and technology. An early proponant, C.S. Peirce said:
Consider what effects which might conceivably have practical bearings we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.
See? Pragmatic, or practical.

The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.
William James

Constructivism, in its purest form holds that there is no truth, and if there were, it would do you no good. All truth is social construction: we study only what we wish, and give meaning to what we find. In its purest form Constructivism holds that any claim to truth tells more about the truth claimant than about the truth itself. In the scientific world, skepticism holds that the process of obtaining, interpreting and disseminating truth leaves an indelible mark on the truth created which can’t be discerned from the truth itself, whatever it is.
An analogous extension of this is some Post-Modernist thought that says that all truth claims are simply narratives, stories. We manufacture a simulation of reality, even the reality of our selves. Phew!

Consensus theorists believe that truth can emerge from proper dialogue, or Marxist dialectic. Truth is not based on one thing, like a rod, but on many things which generally agree, like a cable. In short, thinking minds sharing thought can eventually emerge at understanding that is near the truth by considering the preponderance of evidence. (This over simplification scarcely does the concept justice.)

There are other theories of truth, some which try to escape the problem of emotive or subjective language by using formulations of logical terms, but that is all mostly as boring as Nona’s mush.

Photo: La Verite (Truth) by Jules Joseph Lefebvre
It isn't clear what this woman has to do with
Truth, but we so rarely get to run images like this...

To be truthful:

There is no truth. There is only perception.
Gustave Flaubert

Let’s say right up front that the Fringe Editor does not believe humans can understand capital "T" Truth. There are several real world constraints on how humans can understand anything, and those constraints most likely limit what we can ever know of Truth. Proof of this follows not as a philosophical discussion, but a chat about how we actually use "Truth" as a commodity.

Further, all truth we can know is context based, takes on meaning in mind, and so is limited in what it can append.

This is not to deny Truth, but to simply put it into the real universe of things humans simply can’t comprehend, making Truth somewhat more like the definition of God.

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.
Al Einstein

This will also explain why (if you’ve ever wondered) the Prospect tells the one truth that makes all other media types blanche: there is no "T" Truth media can present. This newspaper tells the truth as clearly as we see it. We publish hearsay, gossip, conjecture, and occasionally obfuscation.
You’ll never find a Truer statement than that, not in religion, science, law, politics, or media.

The logic of the world is prior to all truth and falsehood.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Time Unveiling Truth Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Five Truths

Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.
Albert Camus

Let’s consider five kinds of truth, and hope that the lousy weather and lack of anything on the tube will keep you reading.

There are basically five domains where truth is important:

  1. Religion
  2. Science
  3. Law
  4. Politics
  5. Media

Always speak the truth from horseback
Turkish proverb

Religion and Truth

Really true believers in God are willing to kill you, and me, and each other in the name of Truth. For this reason, we’d rather not encourage any holy terrorism against the Prospect.

Religion is granted its own truth, in our polite, freedom of religion society. This is not the case everywhere and always. Indeed, converting populations by killing those who don’t believe is very efficient, and the effects are long lasting, as is evidenced by Christian and Muslim peoples who were given the "convert or die" choice, and became very pious indeed, and their great great grandchildren are still pious.

Throughout much of the last fifteen hundred years in the West, God was the Truth, and all truth claims had to eventually refer to God. It made the early days of science rather difficult. What mattered, what was true, was what most people believed.

But, it isn’t the number of believers that gives a religion its claim to Truth. It is the unknowability. Who can say what God is? He can also say what Truth is.

We only note how many different true gods there are. Surely your God is the right one; surely you’ve found the Truth.

Truth: A very popular image of Jesus
Artist unknown (that’s the truth)

Science and the Truth

One fool will deny more truth in half an hour than a wise man can prove in seven years.
Coventry Patmore

Science today claims the chair as truth teller that the church had a few centuries ago. All truth ends with science.
Except, it doesn’t.
Karl Popper, economist and philosopher of science wrote a relatively slender book called The Logic of Scientific Discovery. In it, he put forth that no theory is provable, but all true theories are dis-provable. In short, you can never prove something is true, you can only fail to prove it isn’t. This doesn’t mean Popper didn’t believe in "Truth", only that humans can just approximate it, and wait for further research to disprove or modify that Truth.

Karl Popper,

The reality is most scientists don’t do much science as truth seeking; mostly they are technologists and bureaucrats. Science has really had no better luck with Truth than philosophy did, but what it does have is technology. When you have technology, the truth becomes a commodity, both in terms of increasing capitalist productivity, but also in terms of research.

Neo Marxists have gone on to show how the search for Truth is science has given way to the search for technological commodification. Far from seeking the truth, most science is absorbed with seeking funding to do research, and doing the research funding pays for. 

What science does well is to measure things. The problem with that, as constructivists might argue, is that the measurements themselves are arbitrary, chosen by the scientist; indeed, if you rob the sciences and math of the ability to make arbitrary definitions, all meaning disappears. Science is really only good at comparing things, and making "hypotheses" from that data. A "hypothesis" is a little story we tell ourselves so reality makes sense.

Law and the Truth

There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.
Alfred North Whitehead

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Lawyers do law, which should make anything else I have to say unnecessary, but let’s look at the Truth in law.
I can do no better than to quote Jack M. Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment,In fact, one of the most interesting features of law as a system of social conventions is its ability to make things true or, to put it another way, to create legal categories that permit characterizations of situations and practices that are true or false. My point, however, is not simply that propositions of law are true in virtue of legal conventions. It is rather that law creates truth-- it makes things true as a matter of law. It makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.

Again, the point is that the truth the law finds is arbitrary, and the process often screens out more truth than it finds, but like science, it doesn’t care, because its conditions have been met, the "truth" has been found, and everybody gets a paycheck over it.

There is no such thing as a harmless truth.
Gregory Nunn

Politics and Truth

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.
Thomas Jefferson
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

It might seem like the terms "politics" and "Truth" should generally considered to be mutually exclusive. That isn’t true, indeed, all of politics is about truth.
Here’s the short version: politics is the art of managing other people’s money, goods, and person. In order to get community support for the enforcement of the laws and regulations politicians create, they must have a couple of things: legitimacy and authority. Legitimacy and authority are not real things, they are things that emerge from humans acting. Legitimacy means the person is who they say they are, and authority means the person can speak to a certain issue. All of life is parsed into slightly overlapping authorities. But, what authority needs most of all is a claim to truth. That claim to truth allows that person to speak for the community. It is the ability to speak for the community which gives the politician the right to control resources.

Therefore, most of what we hear from politicians is blah blah about how much more of the truth they know than you do, and so they should be allowed to make decisions on your wealth, goods, and person.

What Truth do they actually demonstrate? Might makes right, and right preserves might.

Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.
Hannah Ardent

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic
John F. Kennedy

I guess truth can hurt you worse in an election than about anything that can happen to you.
Will Rogers

Media and Truth

It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

The old saw says, "Let a sleeping dog lie." Right. Still, when there is much at stake it is better to get a newspaper to do it.
Mark Twain

I figure I don't have much duty to truth: truth has a duty to me. Sort of like God.
Don Russell

The media, including the Prospect, is in the business of making sense from day to day. Good journalists, like good artists, seek to provide a truth that is hidden in reality.

The truth is, like politicians, judges, scientists, and priests, those in the media can only make what truth people will allow. On the one hand, people demand a certain amount of mystery with their news; on the other, they want to know the truth.

In war, truth is the first casualty.
Aeschylus 500 BCE

What is the truth?

Some media deal with the problem by only reporting "facts". But facts are problematic, first because someone along the way has to create that fact. They don’t create it in a vacuum, but in the social world. Then that fact has to be given meaning. That meaning carries with it all manner of implications. If one avoids all intentionality and conjecture, the truth is simply not obvious, and people will tend to weigh all "facts" with the same weight. That is not Truth.

Other media, including the Prospect, do "analysis". We look at the news, and try to interpret what the various facts actually signify, to tell the reader what things "mean." But, that isn’t truth, either.

To the media person, the Truth is most cumbersome to deal with, partly because it is so often not "believable," meaning it doesn’t fit into the world the way the readers knows it.

In the end, even the best media can only provide the truth as clearly as we see it. We publish hearsay, gossip, conjecture, and occasionally obfuscation.

New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths.
George Bernard Shaw


There you have it, the unvarnished but very oversimplified truth about Truth. It might seem like a lot to take in, but don’t worry, most of the time, you don’t have to deal with it, after all, that’s our job. The Truth!

Truth springs from argument amongst friends.
David Hume

In short, thinking minds sharing thought can eventually emerge at understanding that is near the truth by considering the preponderance of evidence.  The scientific consensus on Global Climate Change.

Graph: Figure 1: Response to the survey question "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?" (Doran 2009) General public data come from a 2008 Gallup poll.

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