Nothing but the truth!

Why should such an obvious concept, that of truth, be so very difficult to define?

Who in the world whose native tongue is English isn’t familiar with the words of the oath, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” often with the phrase, “so help me God.”  It is the fundamental foundation of a working justice system.  Probably the most famous of oaths is the American Presidential oath upon taking up office, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Then just the other day I was exploring the blog Lack of Environment written by Martin Lack who made himself known to Learning from Dogs from a comment to the post Sceptical voices, part two, published on the 23rd.  Martin’s blog carried an article about scientific scepticism (outcome being very little) in global warming being caused by man.  There was reference to the book Climate Cover-Up written by James Hoggan and an extract from that book on the Desmogblog website, as follows,

Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy. There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.

The sentence highlighted by me is fundamental to this essay.  Perhaps the crux of why it feels so difficult to determine the truth is that the vast 24-hour output of news and information, the 24-hour fear machine as John H. calls it, carries no means of distinguishing the reliability of the source, no details of any affiliations that the person offering the information to that particular media outlet may have, and so on and so on.  I wrote a piece on the 12th July called What Exactly is the Truth where I concluded that,

Despite my chest-beating on the subject of politicians and leaders deliberately lying in that recent piece about Juncker, there’s something much more fundamental.  What defines lying is really not that important.  It’s whether or not we trust that our leaders are doing their best for their constituents, to the best of their abilities.

Whether you support left-leaning or right-leaning policies is unimportant; indeed political differences and the ability to vote for one’s beliefs is at the heart of an open democracy.

But if we don’t trust that our leaders are doing their best for our country then that causes the destruction of faith.  If we do not have faith in those that lead us then the breakdown of a civilised social order becomes a very real risk.

So examining the essence of the word ‘truth’ creates a conflict, well it does in my mind.  A conflict between the idea that truth is a very simple concept and that peeling back the meaning of the word truth reveals many, many layers.  Let me quote from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,

Truth is one of the central subjects in philosophy. It is also one of the largest. Truth has been a topic of discussion in its own right for thousands of years. Moreover, a huge variety of issues in philosophy relate to truth, either by relying on theses about truth, or implying theses about truth.

It would be impossible to survey all there is to say about truth in any coherent way. Instead, this essay will concentrate on the main themes in the study of truth in the contemporary philosophical literature. It will attempt to survey the key problems and theories of current interest, and show how they relate to one-another. A number of other entries investigate many of these topics in greater depth. Generally, discussion of the principal arguments is left to them. The goal of this essay is only to provide an overview of the current theories.

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth. We will see a number of distinct ways of answering these questions.

Truth has been a topic of discussion in its own right for thousands of years.”  So I’m not the first and certainly won’t be the last to ponder on how one gets to know the truth.

Do I have any answers?  None!  Except, perhaps, to muse that if truth can be so difficult to pin down then adopting a rigid stance based on assumptions of truth will carry risk.  And, of course, to reflect that dogs don’t lie.

I’ll close with the quote from Oscar Wilde, “Truth is rarely pure and never simple.”  Quite so.

15 thoughts on “Nothing but the truth!

  1. Thanks for linking to my blog and for some very interesting quotes from other sources. As requested, here is my previously-emailed question: Can you explain what you mean by the brackets in the second paragraph “… (outcome being very little)…,” as, to me at least, the sentence appears to work quite well without it (doesn’t it?).

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  2. Loved this post Paul … Would the media ever ‘know’ the Truth if it came up to bite them?? me thinks they would still twist it a little 🙂 Love the Quote 24hr Fear machine.. Im always tell people to get rid of TV and News Channels.. lol —
    There are those that set out to mislead, and there are those who set out to embellish There is what I call alot of Miss-information out there especially on such sites that propose to be upholding Free-Speech.. And many who are Fear Mongers too..

    If I were to tell you my truth today- what I believe to be truth, may well change tomorrow.. Once upon a time the world thought the world was Flat… and anyone else who said otherwise was Way off their heads…And today there are many who are still thought to be off their heads.. But tomorrow can only tell 🙂

    However those who swear to uphold the law and tell nothing but the Truth… I find if you look back in history told us some of the Biggest Porkies.. And there are still some humongous ones still to be found out..

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  3. Dear Paul:
    Popper defended the notion of falsification to define what was known with certainty (what I call science). I propose to greatly generalize falsification, in the pursuit of truth.

    One can proceed towards truth by cutting off what is deception, and what is false.
    As you say, some are deliberately deceiving. Thus an approach to truth: expose those who deliberately lie, and the lying subjects they promote.

    OK, both methods are aggressive. But aggression is not antagonistic to truth. Quite the opposite. Verily, it’s often its ultimate proof. As wolves will certify, best nourishment is to be had from the marrow of the erroneous. The proof is not just in the pudding, it’s in the kill.

    Another approach to truth is to seriate problems, and logical components according to their logical probability, or certainty. For example that can be applied inside Einstein’s theory of Relativity (and Einstein’s critique of his own theory gave me the idea). In climate, the number “450” cannot be contested; it’s raw data (as 390 cannot be contested for CO2).

    Still another classification will come from the importance of the notions one considers, within the theory one addresses. That will allow also to expose those one may suspect of deceiving. Deceivers will typically focus on secondary details, and forget the big pictures.

    For example, for the CO2 equivalent gas poisoning, just one number is enough: 450. Contesting that number is impossible, denying its importance, lie or deception. When confronted to a climate denier, just ask her/him what part of “450” s/he does not understand. And why.
    If they say ‘”450″ is not important, what are talking about?’ They are just either so dumb that they pretend to read, but don’t know how to read a single letter, or they are deliberately lying. In both cases, they are fanatics. namely they come out of the fanum, the temple.
    http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/

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    1. Dear Patrice, what a beautiful and powerful reply. To others who read what Patrice wrote, if the above isn’t a reason to read Patrice’s writings on his own Blog then there will be no other reason! Thank you, Paul

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    2. Patrice,

      I was particularly struck by your final sentence (as I had no idea where the word “fanatic” came from).

      Clearly, I don’t know which denialists you are talking to but, most of those that I have come across won;t even discuss details like what is or is not a safe level of CO2 (is there one?). Most seem determined to argue that AGW is not actually happening and/or we are heading for an ice age. This latter proposition baffles me; and if anyone can tell me why it has now been put back on the table (after a 30 year absence) I would be very grateful.

      Martin.
      P.S. For the record, Paul, my favourite sentence of Hoggan’s is “Deception is not a point of view“.

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      1. Hi Paul,

        I am sure most (if not all) of your readers will be aware of it but (if so forgive my johnny-come-lately ignorance because) I have only just discovered the WordPress site of an outfit called EcoAffect, which has published two very interesting articles in the last 24 hours (both of which I felt compelled to comment on)… Once again, my apologies if this is very much the “news of the last decade“!

        Martin.

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  4. Newsflash: Having repeatedly failed to engage James Delingpole in debate (probably because he knows he would lose), my latest post has attracted the attention of Tim Worstall (who was – even if inadvertently – partly responsible for Andrew Montford writing his Hockey Stick Illusion book)… and the discussion is ongoing as I type this…

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  5. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”. I suspect ‘truth’ although less tangible falls into a similar category.

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      1. What? This was is an insane hit-and-run comment by someone without a WP account. 😦

        Why should we, the readers, be forced to find out whether someone famous once made this remark (or whether it was all the work of our guest philosopher)? Moral relativism is one of the major causes of humanity’s paralysis in the face of an existential threat like AGW. Now, more than ever, we need to re-discover our moral compass and accept that, in life, there are winners and losers; and there are right and wrong answers. Bad decisions have consequences; and poor judgement could be very expensive in the long run. As I said yesterday I think (paraphrasing Ben Goldacre in Bad Science) we cannot all be better-than-average at anything (i.e. it is stastistically impossible). With climate change – as with everything else – there is truth; and there is falsehood. Here endeth the rant. (Thanks be to God)

        Ahem, sorry for the sense of humour failure. Excuse me while I go and take some sedatives. 🙂

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