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.