Truth - What is it?
When we say that something is "true", what do we really mean?
Supposing I strike a match, it ignites and I put my finger in the flame, what will happen?
When I ask this question to groups, they immediately respond: "You'd burn yourself!"
To which I then ask: "How do you know?"
The discussion arising from this question normally lasts a long time.
Let's look at why
Isn't it obvious that I will burn myself? How do I know that, if I've never burned myself before?
Do I believe you if you tell me that I will burn myself? Can I trust you to be honest with me? And in any case, isn't honesty just giving an accurate account of what you believe to be true for you at this moment, and might your belief be subject to change?
Do I just accept what you say, either on blind faith or as a kind of insurance policy since, whether I believe you or not, I don't want to take the risk that you might be right.
Suppose I then strike the match and burn myself.
Now maybe I believe you.
But maybe you hypnotised me into feeling the pain, and the blister on my finger is some kind of hallucination. I can continue with my belief, but do I know it?
Supposing I burn myself several times, some of them when you're not around to hypnotise me, but it could still be an implanted suggestion you left me with. (Sadly, my fingers are looking a bit rough at this stage and I'm taking lots of aspirin and running out of bandages, so my doubt is starting to waver a bit!)
Supposing you introduce me to lots of other people who all agree that they have burned themselves on matches in the past and are certain that this is an inevitable consequence of putting fingers in flames.
Supposing I read scientific journals which describe the laws of heat transfer, supported by mathematical proofs and backed up by countless examples of experimental evidence to support the theory that naked flame has a detrimental effect on human skin.
Supposing I read articles in magazines or hear on the news that all agree that putting fingers in flames is not recommended for my well-being and the government is thinking of bringing in a new law to prevent people from messing about with matches.
Supposing my religious leader, assuming I had one, tells me that it says in "the book" that I must not mess about with matches because the almighty deity says that I mustn't and bad stuff will happen to me after I die and I won't get to go to paradise and be bathed in golden light and be loved unconditionally and, incidentally, I will burn myself if I do.
OK so I'd probably have to be a bit silly not to believe that there was something in this by now, but would I really know?
Had I been reluctant, at first, to take your word for it, there were several heavyweight reasons given above that might have convinced me to believe you:
Consensus - lots of people say so.
Scientific evidence - scientists have proved it by mathematical reasoning and experiments in different parts of the world yielded similar results and, so far, no one has been unable to disprove it.
Authority - the guys with the power say it's bad for me and it says so in my magazine and on the BBC!
Experience - I've felt it for myself
Which is the most convincing?
There was a time when a majority of people believed that the Earth was flat. And it's not that long since a majority of people, including eminent scientists at the time, believed that the sun went round the Earth. Well, it was obvious, wasn't it?
Are magazine articles and books always written by people who know what they are talking about? Do governments always know what's best for us? And of course, who am I to argue with big G?
Experience maybe has the edge here but can we always be sure that what we experience is true? Who's truth are we talking about?
And when it comes to issues other than our little example about matches, are we always so sure and is our certainty justified?
Most scientists readily admit that our knowledge of the universe is incomplete. We test our theories and work out the laws as far as our observations and reasoning allow us at any given time but the "truth", as we currently know it, is subject to change in the light of new evidence which broadens or re-clarifies our viewpoint.
Someone once said "You shall know the truth, the truth shall set you free." So perhaps it's worth discovering what that truth is.
If I tell the truth, what I am doing is being honest about what I believe to be true at this particular instant in time. If my understanding of the truth changes tomorrow in the light of new information, that doesn't mean I am lying now, I'm perhaps just badly informed or delusional.
If my "truth" turns out to be inaccurate, the question then becomes: was there an objective truth all along that I just wasn't aware of at the time or is truth an ephemeral thing that depends on our individual perceptions of what is real?
Philosophers have argued about this, possibly for as long as there have been philosophers. What do you think?
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