On Truth

N.B: Any one who has studied philosophy may take massive offence at the simplicity and logical leaps taken in this piece. Good for you.

Just like I Heart Huckabees

I was speaking to my friend, a philosophy masters student, about truth a while ago. He told me that on one occasion he and his girlfriend, a sociologist, were arguing for a long time about a subject. Eventually she said,

“Well that’s true for you but it’s not true for me.”

He found this baffling. His area of philosophy is very concerned with the truth and he believes there to be such a thing as empirical truth. We were sitting in a pub at the time, so I may have been a bit too pleased with my myself after a few beers, when it hit me.

“I think you were actually arguing different things here,” I said. What she was talking about was value judgements, where as he was thinking about a purer, more logically based, “truth”.

She based her judgements and feelings on one set of values, so it was “true for her”, he another, so something else was “true for him”.I suggested maybe in these cases the word “true” isn’t the best to use.

This got me thinking about the nature of truth, something I’m sure many, many others have thought about better. Better, but with less Simpsons references.

Rod Flanders: “Lies make Baby Jesus cry”

So maybe we could split truth into two categories, logical “scientific truths”, and value based “emotional truths”.

Let’s look at “emotional truths” first. As an example you could state that “killing is wrong” and take that as a truth. A lot of people would agree with you. But, then it would depend on what you value more highly; human life or (in past times especially) the power the ability to kill would give you. If you favour the latter, then killing isn’t wrong, it’s good. So then the statement “killing is right” would be  true for you.

Flanders dreams of killing Homer

Thinking about cases like this, it becomes hard to come up with any universal “emotional truths” and if you did they would have to add plenty provisos. For example you might predict: “if you are of sound mind and body and value human life above power or retribution or the idea of justice and the human life has developed for over 4 months in a womb then you believe killing is wrong”. But even then you would have far, far too many people who didn’t fit into that definition.

Are there any value judgements that every human would agree on? From which we could derive “emotional truths” for the whole human race. It’s very hard to find them, even basic human urges like eating don’t yield any universal truths. For example, “when I’m hungry I want to eat” would be a value shared by most but not by people with anorexia.

It’s also interesting how value judgements can effect harder, scientific truths. For example, if you value the status quo and ability to make money for you, climate change existing or being a problem is “not true”. Your value judgements mean that you are more likely to look for lone dissenting voices, or more rationally, prefer your short term benefits to the planet’s long term survival.

Obligatory picture of Al Gore as climate change was mentioned

So scientific truths. These must be a lot easier to say these are true, right? Well, again these come with a lot of conditions too.

Take an easy one, “a triangle has 180 degrees”.

Actually we need to toughen that up as it doesn’t make any sense. A triangle has 180 degrees where?

“The interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees”.  Mmmmm better. Well, let’s pick that one apart.

Firstly, the angles adding up to 180 degrees is a culturally determined concept, coming from the Ancient Phoenician system of having 360 degrees in a circle to mirror the “360” days of a year.

These guys

Secondly, we have to assume that this truth is important or useful otherwise, why look at it?

Thirdly, triangles don’t actually exist in our universe as they are defined as 2D objects, impossible in a multi dimensional universe, such as ours. So we would begin to have to narrow down our statement to say “On the triangular surface of an object the interior angles add up to 180 degrees.”

Fourthly, s pace time is curved. so even with this condition, the statement still isn’t “true”.  Any triangular surface is never completely flat, which leads to the interior angles to adding up to an number slightly greater than 180 degrees.

So we can add another condition: on a Euclidian plain (flat, non changing ) a triangle’s interior angles add up to 180 degrees.

So now we have a “truth”. One that’s almost entirely pointless as triangles don’t exist in our universe and a Euclidean plain doesn’t exist. Also we have to assume a system where the angles in a full turn add up to 360 degrees, because we like the Ancient Phoenician System.

the triangle is a lie

There you go, there are no scientific truths. Or “Bollocks!” as you may respond, “you cherry picked an example”. This is fair enough, and the point being to say “a triangle has 180 degrees” is true enough to be practical and usable, which is far more important.

Take another famous scientific truth, “The earth is round”. That is it’s like a ball, a sphere.


This is also untrue, as explained in Isaac Asimov’s wonderful article on scientific progress, as the earth is almost an ellipsoid except for it bulges a bit in the middle. But again, to say the earth is round is true, in that’s it’s “true enough”.

This applies to lots of things, such as the statement “I weigh 14 and a half stones”. You can kill it with, “what’s a stone?”, “is gravity constant?”, “is your mass consistent from second to second?” “does gravity effect your body in the same way at all points”?

Even when you start to rigidly define your parameters, things are a little tricky. For something to be scientifically true it has to have testable results. For example it may be true that the universe only started 5 seconds ago – I personally believe it did – but I have no way of proving it so it’s pointless to say it’s true.

So there’s “emotional truths” based on value judgements, which are individual to each of us and “scientific truths” which can be picked apart by the pedant. Neither are “true”.

So should we just believe anything? As I seem to be saying I don’t think anything is really “true” or at least universally “true”. Should we let creationism be taught in schools, for example, as it’s “true” for a lot of people. Well, no, I go along with the idea of “whatever works best” or “what can’t be easily proven wrong” for truth. So no to  teaching creationism  as you have to ignore lots and lots of things for it to work. Best stick to evolution. But we can teach why it’s interesting that people want creationism to be taught. Actually, best not.

For such a fundamental human idea, truth is particularly slippy. I’ll leave it to the Simpsons again .