Monday, February 18, 2008

What is Truth?

It might seem like the attempt to define truth as being a bit like trying to define light or pain. Yet, there seem to be as many definitions of truth as there are people. Most of our ideas of truth, however, are based on a common idea of truth. Truth doesn't make much sense unless it is something upon which more than one person can agree. It's this idea of truth; the idea that there is some notion that is outside the individual, that can be applied to many, or even all.
This idea is a powerful one, because many, if not most of us base our lives and world-view on the idea of universal truth. Universal truth is so powerful that it seems part of us, part of the human experience. Most of human conflict, progress, destruction, suffering, abuse, art, charity, or even action is based on a notion of truth. To question truth, or the notion of truth, is to question human existence.
But truth seems so straightforward, some may say. Isn't it obvious what truth is? If this were so, why do we constantly argue and wage war about what should be so obvious? A definition of truth may be needed to help direct our conversation. Some truths are self-evident, and others are less so. Are there more types of truth than just one? Perhaps an example would help us answer this question:

There are few who would argue about this truth: 2+2=4
There are many different ideas, or truths, about this subject: Human Rights.

The first is an example of a truth of fact. Truths of fact are very rarely the fuel of controversy. Yes, men like Galileo and Copernicus were condemned for revealing truths of fact, but they were not condemned for their logic, but for their attack on the second type of truth: the truth of action. In the example above, 2+2=4 is a truth of fact. It can be proved through logic and reason. The second example is one of truth of action; it's definition is based on perspective and philosophy. It is this kind of truth that causes us conflict and pain. It is this kind of truth that needs to be defined and understood.
In the context of this discussion, we will be examining the idea of truth of action. Why is this important? The unpredictability of human action is as important an aspect of the human condition as almost any other reality. Only the most basic and short-term activities can be defined as predictable. Drinking will quench thirst. Sleeping will bring rest. Eating will cure hunger. However, as we consider more and more complex human actions, the ability to predict their results becomes increasingly difficult. This is where truth of action becomes vital. Thus our definition of truth:

Truth is that act whose results can be predicted.

Why this definition? Since truth of fact is by definition a fact that is commonly held, or easily proved, it provides little confusion and can be taken for granted. The truth of gravity, although having a relatively complex explanation, can be taken for granted in spite of our ignorance of its precepts. Always being honest in dealing with others, however, has a much less predictable outcome, and thus becomes an activity that may or may not be a truth of action, and is regulated by philosophical or religious concepts. This leads to our second step in understanding truth:

As the truth of action projects more into the future, its basis becomes more philosophical.

Our philosophies and religions provide us with widely diverse predictions, and thus provide us with widely destructive conflicts. Understanding truth may help us avoid conflict, or at least provide a universal truth of action that can help us live with our differences.