Recently, a reader made an interesting comment to the effect that what I personally believed to be true doesn’t necessarily turn out to be true for others. This is a statement that initially sounds very reasonable, and studies indicate that it’s something that most people believe.

But… it’s also incredibly deceptive and dangerous. Now, I may have been correct, or I may have been incorrect. I may have had my facts wrong, or perhaps they were right. But the idea that correctness, accuracy, or “the truth” of something varies from individual to individual, depending on individual perception, is a very dangerous proposition.

Part of the reason why that proposition is dangerous is the use of the word “truth.” The word “truth” embodies a connotation of moral purity and certainty on the part of the individual defining that truth. On the other hand, facts are. How they’re perceived by individuals obviously varies, and different individuals give different weight to the same set of facts. Different individuals cite different sets of facts in support or opposition to policies, proposals, books, laws, or in other settings. But the bottom line should always be based on whether the facts are indeed accurate, and whether they apply to the situation at hand, not upon my beliefs about them or someone else’s beliefs about them.

It appears to me that today we’ve gotten into a societal mindset that places what we feel about anything far above determining what is accurate, what is actually so, and what is not. As feeling beings, this tendency has always been a great part of being human, but one of the great drivers of the advancement of human civilization has been the effort to determine verifiable facts, workable scientific theories based on replicable experiments and solid facts, as opposed to belief based on what cannot be determined to be accurate.

Yes, scientists and true empiricists have beliefs, but they try [and sometimes fail] to base those beliefs on hard evidence.

I’m not dismissing the importance of belief. Every human being needs things or ideals in which to believe, but the idea that what is “true” for one individual is not for another puts individual perception above accuracy and tends to support the idea that each set of beliefs is as valid as any other set of beliefs, when time and history and science have shown that “truth” resides far more often in what can be accurately determined and verified than in what cannot.

Despite the fact that in the third century BCE the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos had presented a proof that the Earth revolved around the sun, more than 1500 years later the Christian Church was burning as heretics those who stated that the Earth was not the center of the universe and that it revolved around the sun. The “moral certainty” of faith trumped the facts, at least until science advanced to the point where the proof was irrefutable.

We’ve now reached a point where individuals realize that they must have at least some facts to support the “truth” of their beliefs… and in welter of “information” that surrounds us, too many individuals pick inaccurate or inapplicable facts in order to support their beliefs.

The idea that truth of belief varies from individual to individual is actually an accurate statement of a dangerous proposition – that “individual truth” is superior to verified evidence and facts, when, in fact the converse should be what we all strive for, that verified evidence and facts support our beliefs, rather than having our beliefs force us to find facts to support those beliefs.

Yet recent study after recent study shows that the majority of people tailor their facts to support their beliefs, rather than using verifiable facts to change their beliefs. Will we revert to faith over facts, as did the Christian Church of the 1500s? Given what I’ve seen over the last few years, it’s anything but an unreasonable question.

6 thoughts on “Truth…”

  1. larry says:

    Can I ask how you define faith? When you say “…“individual truth” is superior to verified evidence and facts, when, in fact the converse should be what we all strive for, that verified evidence and facts support our beliefs, rather than having our beliefs force us to find facts to support those beliefs”… from the way I think of faith, that would mean there is no place for that in our lives. I mean, isn’t the difference in faith that there are no supporting facts?
    I find this fascinating in my own life because I totally agree with what you said, and yet I know there are things that I hold as true (for the moment) because I feel in my heart that they are true. Regardless of fact or evidence. So, I do hold my personal experience and truth to be of more importance to me than a generally accepted truth. But does the fact that I hold truth to be mutable and that I’m willing (even look forward to) being proven wrong make it less ‘dangerous’? Genuinely asking cause it’s something I think about?

    1. My personal definition of faith is belief in something unsupported by verifiable and accurate facts and/or evidence,

  2. Tom says:

    For myself:

    “The Truth” is what ever I believe it to be … as long as I convince you, by my method of my presenting “facts”, that indeed “it” is “The Truth”.

    “Faith” is “True” and relevant only to the individual; unless their belief(s) damage others: at which time ‘faith’ must be replaced by another word to explain the cause of one’s actions.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    Too many people think truth and facts are interchangeable. That’s bunk and instinctively we all know it, but most people JUST DON’T CARE.

    For example: white lies. We know they exist. We all use them to grease social interactions into acceptability and we choose to ignore them, even when the facts say otherwise… until it is in our better interest not to ignore them. Running into the boss outside of work when you’re supposed to be tele-commuting and you say “Yup, just out for a bit of lunch and to get the mail from the post office box!” And you’re in swim trunks and flip flops.

    And the boss says nothing because you’re one of her better workers so she cuts you some slack. Until she really needs you for the Next Big Project and she makes that laser eye contact with you and says, “I’m sure you’ll give it your FULL attention.”

    It is true that you’re one of the better workers. So she cuts you slack… even though she shouldn’t have. And now the marker is due.

    And you resent it – which you should not, but you do because the fact is that you should have been working and you were not… but you feel entitled to a little down time because you’re one of the better workers.

  4. Gore Vidal noted how people say ‘I feel’ nowadays rather than ‘I think’. My girlfriend, bless her, is a little inclined to believe in fortune telling and spirits. When I tell her it’s tosh she says ‘there’s more than one truth.’ I don’t agree. There is one truth, one set of verifiable facts. We just don’t know all of it yet.

  5. Robert says:

    It’s important to recognize that value judgments are a personal truth. The things one does or supports that are based on those values need the interplay of actual facts and those subjective values.

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