Truth. Fundamental truth.
I use these terms in my introduction to this blog without defining them because almost any fluent speaker of English understands their basic concepts intuitively. But it’s good to define them more formally also, or at least to explain how I think of them, since they are core concepts of this blog.
We usually talk about truth in reference to statements. In this regard, truth is the characteristic that the statement conforms with reality. If a statement indicates what actually exists or what has actually happened, the statement is truthful. That’s pretty straightforward. But when testing truth claims for this characteristic, it’s easy to be sidetracked by other considerations. So we must keep some basic principles in mind.
First, no person’s belief or knowledge regarding a truth claim has any bearing on its actual veracity. I could tell you what I ate for breakfast this morning, and you might or might not believe me, but whether you do or don’t does not affect whether my claim is true. Even knowing that something is true does not make it true. Nothing becomes true because someone knows that it is. It had to already be true before anyone could know it was. This seems really obvious, but some people think that if they just believe something strongly enough, or even convince themselves that they “know” it’s true, then it will become true for them.
Some truths are relative to certain domains or conditions, others are not. If I say, “I drove too fast to get here,” that would be a true statement if I drove 50 MPH on streets with a speed limit of 35. On the other hand, if I was on a freeway where the speed limit is 60 MPH, I was perhaps going too slow. So truths like “too fast” are relative to conditions or other truths.
On the other hand, the fact that I was born in Long Beach, California, is an absolute truth. It happened, and nothing can change that bit of not-terribly-important history. Even if someday the city changes its name, or moves the city limits, that will not change the fact that it was Long Beach, California, when I was born there.
But we do need to be careful when describing a truth as relative or absolute. It’s often possible to view a truth from a different frame of reference, and its truthfulness might depend on which frame of reference we use. For example, the same two geographical locations can be said to be either “close” or “distant,” depending on whether we’re talking about walking distance or driving distance. Of course, the frame of reference is often clear from the context of the conversation, and might not need to be specified. We should never arbitrarily switch to a different frame of reference mid-conversation without making it clear that we are doing so. That would be at least confusing, and very likely, disingenuous.
One final point about truth in general: Actual truths—especially absolute truths—cannot contradict each other as long as they are viewed from the same frame of reference. In other words, truth is non-contradictory. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be apparent contradictions. But generally, apparent contradictions are resolved by either finding more data that shows that one or the other truth claim is not true after all, or by finding a larger frame of reference that contains both and resolves the apparent conflict.
Fundamental truth is perhaps more likely a matter of opinion. What’s fundamentally true in my mind isn’t necessarily so in yours. I consider a truth to be fundamental if it significantly influences human behavior. For example, the fact that the Moon orbits the Earth is undeniably true, but I wouldn’t call it “fundamental” because it doesn’t have direct and daily relevance for how we live (unless perhaps you believe in astrology). On the other hand, moral truths, such as the statements that love is the highest good and that murder is evil, are fundamental truths, because such moral truths give essential direction to our lives both individually and as a society. This characteristic of fundamental truths gives them great significance and compels us to accept and embrace them.
I might guess that most or all fundamental truths are also absolute truths, that is, they are always true, for everyone, everywhere, but that would be difficult to confirm. I’m inclined to think that they are often self-evident, but that perception might just indicate that we are so accustomed to recognizing and applying them that they just seem intuitive.
So why does any of this matter? It should go without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that whenever we base decisions on insufficient evidence or invalid assumptions, we risk making bad decisions, sometimes with serious consequences. Seeking, confirming, and accepting truth (especially fundamental truth) provides solid foundations for our choices and decisions.
Unfortunately, embracing truth isn’t always easy. Opinions (even wrong ones) are often strongly held and difficult to give up. So in discussions such as the ones I hope to have through this blog, grace and humility should always be evident. They are more persuasive than lambasted rhetoric, and they make the conversation peaceful and inviting. But perhaps most importantly, they make the pill easier to swallow when you are the one needing to reconsider your own strongly held opinion.
I’ve made a number of truth claims in this post, and they seem self-evident to me. But I don’t want to be presumptuous, so tell me: Do you agree? Have I overlooked some considerations that might affect how I should understand truth? Can you give examples of truths that contradict what I’ve said here?
How would you define “fundamental truth”? What are some examples?
What reasons have you found for always seeking and embracing truth?