Ain’t it the truth?

[Edited to add the podcast, and correct a couple of typos while I was at it]
Walkabout podcast – Ain’t it the truth?

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating (because, somehow, people still aren’t getting it – am I not reaching anyone?!?): “truth” is one of the most abused words that I’ve ever come across. It stands radically apart from “true,” which almost always shares a binary state with “false” and remains in the testable, demonstrable realm, frequently associated with mathematics. But truth somehow goes beyond that, inhabiting a space far beyond human knowledge and testable assertions – truth is what people seek, or even a transcendent property of being. If you doubt this in the slightest, pay attention to the context when someone uses the word. You won’t see it every time, but I’m betting you’ll see it used in this manner three times as often as not.

It is, of course, a great favorite of the religious, and ever-so-frequently in such cases, ‘truth’ is actually differentiated, even polarly opposed, to ‘that which can be demonstrated.’ The word is flung about to imply a special state of being that we cannot observe and cannot rely upon for any result, yet should form the backbone of our behavior. Scientists and their ilk cannot find ‘truth,’ since it lies outside of human experience, so despite the millions of discoveries and physical properties that we utilize daily, quite readily and happily I might add, it is all a sham that does not approach ‘truth.’

Now, I want to bring your attention to something. Truth is never something that goes against someone’s beliefs, desires, or moral attitudes, no no, but it often goes against those of someone else. Truth is self-affirming, by its very nature – truth will never prove you wrong, but you can easily wield it to prove others wrong. And I feel the need to point out that truth is good, so of course when you find it, it will support you. That’s how you know it’s truth. Lest I forget, there is also personal truth, which isn’t really any different until someone finds themselves without any decent way to argue their standpoint, in which case they can blurt it out in their own defense and save the day.

The most startling thing about the abuse of the word ‘truth’ is the irony. So many of the things chosen to receive the accolade of truth are in no way demonstrable, provable, dependable, or even the same for everyone. You’d think that the truth would be self-evident and inarguable, but very often this is exactly the opposite case; in fact the word is almost certainly used in such cases precisely because it gives weight to something that has none of its own. It becomes an emotional appeal, hopefully stirring something supportive in those who do not possess the ability to make simple judgments on their own. Little wonder, then, that it is tied so tightly to religion and conspiracy theorists.

In fact, we can often use the word truth as a litmus test for corrupt thinking processes, since it forms a handy ‘out’ for the lack of supporting evidence. Those who favor the ideas of alien visitations and government conspiracies are inordinately fond of the word, claiming that it always waits just around the corner (while they already know what it is, of course.) Advocates of alternative medicine and paranormal powers apply the word to every circumstance that appears to support their beliefs, while (curiously) not applying it to the circumstances that fail to, no matter how badly those outnumber the former. Evidence is crass and clumsy, suspect by its very blatant nature, but truth can be found in the hints and clues hiding in the dust. That’s what makes it special.

The phrasing of that last sentence wasn’t accidental, by the way. In far too many cases, someone’s own idea of truth is what makes them special, perhaps a large part of the reason why it departs from common-as-muck evidence (that word must be read with a sneering tone to get the full effect.) If they followed the mainstream, they wouldn’t stand out, but they’re also not part of the fringe; instead, they are the few who know. The truth will set them free. Truth cannot be said to represent any distinctive property in these cases, but merely an eventual vindication of what someone wants to believe, the Big Reveal that finally justifies their desires.

There’s probably also an aspect of the human search for absolutes in there as well. Like good and evil, truth is supposed to denote something that can be counted on, never in question, never up for debate. Science changes all the time, and relies on evidence that is up for interpretation. It’s easy to get frustrated over the constantly changing ideas of what’s healthy for us, and whether a new fossil is important or not. Science on the whole doesn’t truck with absolutes, but only probabilities, in logical recognition that we could never establish an absolute anyway. Ironically, the few things that come closest to scientific absolutes, such as the laws of physics, are the things all too often countermanded by someone’s opposing ideas of ‘truth.’ This is potentially because facts are too impersonal to be good, like truth is.

Several times in online forums, I have come across those who repeatedly use truth in support of their standpoint, and I immediately ask them to define it. Is it telling that no one even attempts it? Did I make them aware of the problem? Recently, a better test occurred to me: Think about several things that comprise ‘truth.’ Will they all be the same if I ask again in ten years? Are they the same as the answers I would have received ten years ago? If not, what exactly is it that we’re dealing with? This highlights a potential perspective thing going on here, a “glass half full” concept: it’s easy to argue that anyone right now is the smartest they’ve ever been in their lives, but this should not be mistaken for the apex of knowledge – chances are, they’ll be even smarter tomorrow. Many people spend more time in consideration of what they’ve learned in the past and completely ignore what they may learn in the future. Strange but true.

Another fun test is to find two people with opposing ideas of truth and let them duke it out. Truth should certainly win out over anything else, right? Obviously at least one of them is wrong, and if neither one can convince the other, truth isn’t really apparent; so how can either determine who’s the delusional one? See if anyone manages a decent argument to dodge the conclusion that the word “truth” is simply an emotional crutch. You might also notice that people go out of their way to avoid exactly the situation proposed, never engaging in dueling truths; instead, they only express their standpoints to those who aren’t as insistent. Is this because they recognize that mere proclamation has no strength over an opposing proclamation?

Truth does another gross disservice: it halts the examination and learning process. If someone already knows the truth, why listen to anything else? It could only be false. While this implies an underlying arrogance – the idea that being wrong is simply not possible – it more likely indicates that someone actually recognizes the possibility and is trying to crush it. While knowing the truth should certainly make someone completely unafraid of open-minded discussion, this isn’t able to be observed very often. The use of the word can often be seen as a ‘quit while you’re ahead’ tactic, sticking a flag in a summit of knowledge that doesn’t exist, instead of eagerly climbing further. The analogy virtually prompts the question of who will gain the better view.

“Truth” is a word that may tell us a lot about the user, with a distinct chance that it is exactly the opposite of what they intended to tell us. Isn’t this fun?

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