It seems to me there are three ways to come at this essay about the different kinds of truth. The first and most obvious – to me, at least – is to quote the diabolical Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, who, when on the witness stand and told that the court wants the truth, scoffs, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! No truth-handler you! Bah, I deride your truth-handling abilities!”
The second (and only slightly less amusing) is to make reference to the classic Dwight Schrute meme where Dwight points out the problem with a statement – here, if I may indulge in a visual, is one of my favorites:
But I believe I will select the introductory quote about truth that is nearest to my own heart: Dan Rather, the former anchor for the CBS Evening News, said, “The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’”
I would like to poke you with a sharp stick called ‘Truth.’
This would seem, at first, a fruitless enterprise. After all, truth is truth; how can there be kinds of truth? But in fact there are, simply because we are flawed creatures, we humans; we cannot know everything, and so we cannot know absolutes: there may be circumstances and conditions under which anything we think to be true may in fact not be. Therefore there are at least two levels of truth: truth we can know, and truth we cannot because it is absolute and thus requires omniscience. Or more simply, truth we can know and truth we cannot know, but which is nonetheless truth. The key here is to accept that knowing truth changes its truth-value, which is the concept I hope to prove in this essay; the upper limit is truth which requires omniscience to know, but there are degrees leading up to that limit, and recognizable categories, which I will attempt to explicate.
By the way: because I wrote out that Sideshow Bob quote, now my word processor wants to autocomplete “truth” into “truth-hand” every time I write it. This is both wonderful and annoying.
Let us begin with a basic understanding of truth. Truth is perhaps best defined through defining its opposite, falsehood; I would argue that there are essentially two kinds of falsehood, which are one, untruths, and two, lies. Untruths are things – ideas, statements, assumptions – that are not truth because when one attempts to verify them objectively, one finds reality does not match the untruth. If I were to believe it is raining outside because I am in a room with no windows, I can look out through the door and discover whether my belief is true, or untrue: if it is raining then the belief is true, and if it is not raining, then the belief is untrue. This is the first point in arguing that knowing truth changes the truth-value: because the belief that “It is raining outside” is objectively true somewhere, presumably at every possible instant that one could believe it – especially if one broadens the concept of “rain” to include liquid precipitation on other planets and celestial bodies. So sure, it is always raining SOMEWHERE – but unless it is raining where I personally can verify it through my senses, then it doesn’t really matter to the truth-value of my belief; if I were to step outside into a sunny afternoon and say “It’s raining,” someone’s response would likely be
The second kind of falsehood is a lie: this is when the truth, objectively verifiable through the senses, is known, and an idea is put forward that is known to be counter to that truth. This is when I am in a room with windows, looking out at the sun, and I say, “It is raining.” The advantage for our purpose here is that it doesn’t matter which kind of falsehood it is, the truth is always the same: objectively verifiable through the senses.
But there is a difficulty there. Because there are truths that we have discovered, truths that we know, that are not verifiable through the senses, that are not objective. A strict prescriptivist of truth would argue that these truths are therefore not true, because only objectively verifiable facts can be true. To those people I say: talk to Heisenberg. (And this is funny, because it’s mostly science-y people who would say that, and Heisenberg is about as science-y as you can get. Take that, science!) The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that when a particle has two complementary properties, such as position and momentum, we cannot know both properties at the same time. If we know precisely where the particle is at a given moment, then we have frozen that particle in time, which means at that instant, to us, it has no momentum: picture it as a snapshot of the particle, showing us where it is, but in that snapshot, it is not moving. Alternatively, we could know the particle’s momentum, its velocity and direction; but we can only measure that by tracking its movement – which means that, over the time period when we re tracking its movement, we cannot say precisely where it was: only give a range, somewhere between Point A and Point B.
The real point is, that particle has both momentum and position, and both of those properties have objective truth, both are definite, verifiable facts – but we can only know one at a time. Knowing one makes it impossible to know the other, but it doesn’t change its truthiness.
Therefore we must add a word to our definition of truth: truth is an idea that is potentially objectively verifiable through the senses. If we had world enough and time, we could verify it; therefore it is true. But I hope we can all see that a truth that is objectively verifiable through the senses has more impact, more weight – more gravity, let us say – than a truth that is only potentially verifiable. If I suspect that the rain falling outside my room is in fact acidic, but I don’t have the instruments to test, then I may want to respond as if it were acidic, and act to protect my plants, let us say; but in the process I will undeniably encounter the verifiable truth of the rain itself: I will get wet. I am more likely to respond to the fact of wetness than to the theory of acid; that truth, then, has more weight, more potential to change my thoughts and actions. That truth has more gravity.
As I was saying, then, the lowest level of truth is one that is only potentially verifiable, but cannot be objectively verified. In fact there is one level of truth lower than that, based on knowledge – or rather, on ignorance; because if knowing a fact gives it more weight, then not knowing gives less. So the lowest kind of truth is truth we don’t know. It’s true, but for us, it is meaningless; because of our ignorance, this is equivalent to the absolute truths we can’t know. In either case, we can’t act on it, or change our thought process or paradigm because of it; it has no impact on us. For us, it might as well not be true, and so it has only the barest sliver of truth. That bottom level is the fact of rain outside a room with no windows and no doors. Or whether or not the worm currently crawling through the earth beneath me is depressed. I don’t know, and so cannot act on it. That’s the lowest kind of truth—and I apologize for using an underground worm’s depression as an example; I really didn’t think about the pun there.
As for truth that could be verifiable but can’t be objectively verified, let’s use as an example the infinite nature of the universe. Is the universe infinite? No idea. We’ll never know. In theory one could find a mathematical proof of it, if we could find the existence of the multiverse and the mechanism whereby new universes are created, but we can’t ever know it for sure. The only thing this kind of truth can do for us is give us a headache: it feels like we could know, but we can’t actually know. This kind of truth is a tease. At best a Zen koan.
Just above that level is an idea that I think is true, but I don’t know why I think it’s true. This kind of truth has the potential of being objectively verifiable, but I as the knower don’t know how to do that, and therefore could never verify it. This is where most racist ideas live. Why do racists think white skin is better than brown skin? They don’t know, but they think it’s true. There are quite a number of outright lies at this level, because people might be able to figure out how to verify their beliefs, but they don’t want to, because the truth will likely be the opposite of what they believe it is. That, in my opinion, is a lie: when I say it’s raining outside, but I refuse to open the door and look because I think it is probably sunny – but I won’t admit that.
The next level up is something that I am sure is true, and that I have evidence for, but which is not clearly objectively verifiable based on my evidence. This is where superstitions are found: Michael Jordan believed that his lucky shorts were one of the reasons for his success, and he wore them for every game he played. He won six NBA championships and three MVP awards wearing those shorts; so there is some evidence that the shorts were lucky. Just not verifiable evidence, because “luck” can’t be tested for – but just like (Okay, not just like) the uncertainty principle, if we were to create a laboratory experiment to confirm that the shorts were not lucky, the element of luck in the form of blind chance or influences on the experiment that we could not control would ruin the results: if we had Michael Jordan play half the time with his lucky shorts and half the time with “control shorts” (Which makes him sound like he has bladder control issues, which is just sad), that doesn’t mean we can make his teammates play the same in both games, or his opponents play the same, or even control all the other factors that go into Michael Jordan playing well or poorly. We can’t prove the shorts are or are not lucky, but there’s objective evidence in the form of success that says they are. And that’s why luck still exists as a concept, and why Jordan wore the same pair of shorts every game for almost fifteen years.
Oh – he did wash them, by the way. After every game.
The next level is one I don’t want to include, but I have to because of the parameters I have set forth. If someone knowing a thing makes it more true than something that nobody knows, then if a lot of people know a thing, it has to be more true than if only one person knows it. Because a known fact has more weight, more gravity, and that is an element of the fact’s truth-value. So the next level up is a thing that is known, with evidence but without objective verification (but still potentially objectively verifiable – have I broken your brains yet?), by a lot of people. I hate this because I don’t want to say that the popularity of an idea has any bearing on its truth, but in fact, if we want to include a truth’s potential to change someone’s mind or behavior – and I do, because otherwise there is no point to speaking about truth at all – then I have to make this a separate and higher level, because something that a lot of people believe to be true has a much greater chance of changing their behavior. This is something like this statement: Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server makes her a poorer candidate for president (Meaning she would have been a worse president than someone otherwise identical but who didn’t use a private email server; the statement that the private email server made her less likely to win is objectively verifiable truth, because: well, look.). A lot of people believed that Clinton’s private email server made her less trustworthy, and therefore a bad candidate for the Presidency. And because a lot of people believed it, with evidence (Because that’s an untrustworthy act) but not objectively verified (Because she never became president and so we can’t see how untrustworthy she would have been in the Oval Office), it had more weight: it had more impact. It changed enough votes that it, along with other factors, changed the outcome of the election. That truth had more value, more gravity, because more people thought it was true.
Are we having fun yet?
The next level is something that is true not because it is objectively verified but because it cannot be disproven. This is sort of an offshoot from the last level, because there isn’t objective verification, but there is somewhat more weight to these ideas because there is an argument to be made for them, that nobody can disprove the idea, that makes it more likely that people will accept it as truth, which increases the truth-value or gravity of the idea. (Don’t worry: we’re almost at the top. Almost at simple truth. But not quite.) This is the level where God lives. The existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, non-material personal deity is impossible to disprove: there is no observation I can make that would prove that God doesn’t exist. According to science, this makes the god-hypothesis false, because it is unfalsifiable; but I’m not talking about science, I’m talking about impact on humans through the intersection of objective reality and knowledge. There are quite a few people who know God’s existence is real, and since God cannot be disproven, that gives the idea more weight than Michael Jordan’s lucky shorts. (You have to be an atheist to make that statement with a straight face. Okay, I was smiling a little when I wrote it.) It moves the truth of religion to a higher level, how’s that? Not objectively proven, but not objectively disproven, either.
But now, at last, after ignorance and belief and faith and falsifiability and religion and – Lord help us – even sports, we come to the simplest level, and nearly the top. This is where we find: the truth. Simple truth. Facts, with known evidence, which are objectively verifiable: I can look out my door and see that it is or is not raining, and I can actually test it to make sure that it is rain. I can step outside, and I will get wet. Truth. Simple truth.
Of course, even this level isn’t that simple, because the evidence of our senses is, sadly, not necessarily reflective of objective reality; all my senses could verify that it is in fact raining, but I could be mad, or in the Matrix. But that moves us over into the question of absolute truth, and since I can’t know absolute truth, it doesn’t matter to me: absolute truth is actually down at that bottom level, truth I don’t know. (There’s no way out of Descartes’ labyrinth here, by the way. In the Matrix, it is possible to know that the Matrix is not real – but then, the second movie shows us that there is another level of truth, that Neo is the sixth version of the One, and the other characters did not know that truth; and then past that there is another level – because the character Neo, like the character of the Architect who makes him, who made the Matrix, don’t know that they’re actually in a fictional movie. The only truth we can ever know is what our senses tell us. Period. Cogito ergo sum.) We take our reality as just that, as reality, and that is all we know, and all we need to know. That is truth.
One level left: that is the important truth. The weighty truth, the truth that is both objectively verified and also able to change thoughts and actions of humans; the kind of truth that makes a paradigm shift, that combines both science and popularity, and therefore moves mountains and changes continents. Proven facts that also have gravity. This is, for example, the truth that every living thing dies.
The truth that love conquers all.
The truth that money makes the world go ’round.
The truth that man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.
The truth that art is humanity’s highest calling.
The truth that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The truth that evolution through natural selection is sufficient to explain all complexity in the biosphere.
The truth that we’ll never know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
My last truth is this: we can handle the truth. We can. We do.
Just not enough.