Understanding truth and truth claims is essential for making appropriate and effective application of them. If we misunderstand a truth or mistake a falsehood for truth, any decisions or choices we make based on that misunderstanding will almost certainly be poor ones, if not disastrous.
So it is always wise to carefully examine significant truth claims, and why they are said to be true, to ensure that we fully understand the claim, before we even consider embracing it. Recognizing falsehood is as important as understanding truth, so we also need to learn how to discriminate between the real and the counterfeit.
What does it mean to understand truth?
First, we must recognize that truths are not true because of who promotes them or how confidently or passionately they do so. Bad people can believe and promote true ideas, and good people can believe and spread falsehoods.
As I’ve mentioned before, something is true only because it corresponds with reality, either current or past. So the most important step in understanding a truth is deciding whether it corresponds with reality.
Obviously, for some truths or truth claims, that’s easier to confirm than for others. Many truths are established well enough that it is reasonable to simply accept the testimony of an appropriate reference book (dictionary, encyclopedia, text book, etc.). But some truths are said to be in that category, when in fact there is reasonable doubt that they should be. To tell which truths might be more controversial than they first appear requires an open mind and probably some reading or research to find dissenting views.
Then you must study the various viewpoints enough to decide for yourself which one you believe corresponds with reality. Of course, depending on the subject matter and your level of expertise in that field, you may or may not be able to reach a firm conclusion. It might be more reasonable to accept a tentative conclusion, and leave the matter open for refinement as you encounter additional information about it.
In such a situation, you will likely be inclined to favor a particular individual or a group of experts over another. But although the opinion of an expert does not establish truth, experts can certainly make your reasoning process more efficient by doing the initial data-gathering and collating for you. They can also help weed out options that are so far off track as to be unworthy of your research time.
But always investigate why someone accepts and promotes a claim as true. If their arguments rely mostly on other authorities for support, that’s not very strong. People make mistakes. Although you should generally respect the experts, you shouldn’t simply agree with them just because they are experts. If another group of experts holds a very different opinion, that’s a clear sign that both sides of the issue require careful consideration before acceptance.
Watch out for defenses that are based on emotions and desires. If someone accepts something just because they want it to be true or because it’s emotionally appealing, their claim is very poorly supported.
But if they base their truth claims on evidence and sound reasoning, that is a much more solid foundation. But again, be careful about simply accepting it blindly. Evidence can be misinterpreted. It is also easy to cherry-pick the evidence to fit the conclusion you want to support. That’s why it’s so important to consider multiple viewpoints. Proponents of each viewpoint will point out the weaknesses of the others’ arguments or interpretation of evidence.
Pay attention to attitudes. Although a person’s attitude neither establishes nor indicates their claim’s truthfulness, it can indicate their level of confidence, and perhaps even their level of skill. If the person making a truth claim is either defensive or belligerent, it’s likely because he instinctively knows that his claim won’t stand up to rigorous examination: he’s not confident it’s true. That doesn’t prove it isn’t true, but it likely means that his evidence isn’t as strong as he wants you to believe it is. Whether he knows it or not, he is following the old advice given to young lawyers: “If the law supports your case, pound on the law. If the evidence supports your case, pound on the evidence. If neither supports your case, pound on the table.” Don’t mistake bluster for evidence.
What is the process for understanding truth? It starts with sincere desire and curiosity. You have to want to understand how things really are, and be curious enough to make the effort to discover and understand them.
Then you need to expose yourself to ideas, even—or especially—ones you might disagree with. That exposure can come from reading, conversing with others, taking classes, or surfing the Internet. All forms of art can be sources of ideas, but especially literature, film, and even television (depending on what kinds of shows you watch).
Wonder about things. If an assertion feels wrong, don’t just dismiss it, think about why that might be. Does it contradict something else that you are sure is true? Are you reacting to the personality of whoever is presenting the idea, rather than to the idea itself? Ask probing questions to figure out exactly what aspect of it bothers you, and to verify its foundation on good evidence or reasoning.
Practice honestly understanding ideas you disagree with, not just caricatures of them. Consider their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Pretend you believe a truth claim and are trying to convince someone else of it. How would you argue the case? Then think about how someone from the opposing viewpoint would argue against you. Hold mock debates in your mind, where you are alternately attacking and defending all sides.
When you discuss a topic with others—especially those you disagree with—demonstrate your intellectual integrity by describing the opposing viewpoint clearly and accurately. If you truly understand a truth claim, and still find it unconvincing, you’ll be much more persuasive when sharing what you understand to be true.
Why do you think we should try to understand truth?
What other methods have you discovered for doing so?
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net