Searching for Truth

As a philosopher, I have long since concluded that if there is such a thing as an absolute, completely objective truth, it is not something to which we humans have access. My fallback quotation on this point is from the first verse of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the absolute Tao,” which I interpret to mean something like “we can’t put it all into words (or other representations).”  

Despite this basic presumption, as a philosopher and teacher, I very strongly believe that there is a difference between truth and falsehood, and believe that the attempt to distinguish one from the other is the   extremely valuable role of the scholar/teacher/student/researcher/journalist/analyst in modern societies, especially those that are founded on the idea that governments are elected by the people.

How do I reconcile these two competing views—that there is no ultimate Truth (at least that we can express) and that there is a difference between truth and falsehood?  I suppose my answer is that the question is resolved situationally: at times the question of what is true is difficult and elusive, and other times it is clear and distinct. If pressed into a close philosophical argument, I would take the position that truth is elusive and that the truth that can be put into words is not the absolute truth, but in many cases a close philosophical argument is not necessary or even useful.


My notions on this subject have been, I suppose, strongly influenced by my (very limited) understanding of the Pragmatic school of philosophy, sometimes called American Pragmatism, which is historically associated with Charles Sanders Pierce and William James, and more recently with C.W. Churchman and Hilary Putnam, who are generally associated with the notion that “truth is what works,” and the idea of the “cash value” of an idea.  These ideas seem to me important, though they do not in my mind comprehend all the issues related to the difference between truth and falsehood. But again, the more we try to engage in close philosophical argument, the more elusive the issues become.  And this, perhaps, is the value in thinking that truth is what works: in many cases the question of truth is important because of how ideas off truth guide our actions (it is on this point that I wrote about how all knowledge is political). If there were an ultimate truth, it would be a valuable guide to our actions (plans work better when take the facts into consideration), but in the absence of ultimate truth, there is still the value that we can get from on a pragmatic view of “what works.”

One problem of viewing truth in terms of “what works,” or “cash value,” however, makes an appearance if we ask “for whom”?  Who gets the cash value?  Politicians and businesses have often uttered falsehoods that gained them all sorts of personal gain.  The tobacco industry maintained that tobacco wasn’t unhealthy for a long time. Exxon (now ExxonMobil) long profited over denying that climate change was real. Politicians have lied about all sorts of things for their own personal gain.

The Problem with Individual Notions of Truth

But in these questions we can see part of the problems that can beset notions of “truth.”  If truth is only what works for a given person, then there is great social danger, as some people will inevitably argue from purely personal biases, and, if the intent is bad, can poison any possibility of cooperation or constructive compromise.  Thus the desire for some objective standard—something that is true for everyone.  And I believe that there are such things, even though the abstract search for an ultimate, objective truth will not lead to a certain end.

There are things that can be considered objective truths in simple, everyday actions.  If I go to the supermarket, for example, and fill my shopping cart, there is a true and definitive answer to the question “do I have enough cash to make this purchase?”  Either I am carrying sufficient cash or I am not, and that answer (whether I have enough cash) is true for me, for the cashier, for the store manager, and indeed for every human being.  Admittedly, the question of whether I, Dave Harris, have enough cash to purchase the groceries in my cart, is not one of interest to most people, but it is one example of a whole class of questions that are amenable to absolute true-false answers. Each successive shopper is asked the same question: do you have cash to pay for this? Each successive shopper either does or does not. There are many different questions that can be answered is such absolute and objective terms.  

The Desirability of Truth

For practical reasons, it would be great if we could identify absolute, objective truths more frequently: there is little debate about possible courses of action when faced with an absolute truth. But such truths are too few and far between. For most questions, there is too much opportunity to question and doubt.  A general premise driving the skepticism of David Hume is that the future might differ from the past—no matter how many observations we make that agree with a premise, there is no certainty that future observations will match it. Other problems can arise for certainty, as well, when dealing with concepts that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.  We may all agree that one man killed another, but was it murder?  To answer the question of murder depends on how we define murder.  It is to deal with such questions that judicial systems are developed to make judgements about how to define and understand certain events that are not amenable to any abstract ultimate standard of truth.

Scholarly Truth and Legal Truth

Judicial systems and scholarship have a lot in common; they both seek confidence in the claims they make. They try to take into account evidence; they try to separate out those truths that can be ascertained (did he kill the man?) from those that cannot (did he murder the man?).  In both cases, those involved are ultimately forced to make decisions on the basis of best evidence or probability rather than ultimate certain truth. And in both cases, the decisions made are, in the long run, subject to dispute and revision as new evidence and knowledge come to light.

An Ongoing Search

The fact these systems are fallible is a product of the nature of our human knowledge, but this does not mean that we ought not continue to seek the truth.  There are those who act in bad faith, who try to deceive other for their own personal gain. To allow such people to use the unavoidable doubt about some questions to poison the well of scholarship or of legal systems and the larger social systems they represent, is to abdicate responsibility to those who would lie for their personal gain.  That is why, for one, it is important to remember that there are questions that can be answered with ultimate objective truth, and for two, to strive to find such undeniable truths on which to base decisions.  Just because truth is elusive does not mean we ought not seek it. Seeking truth is a process and a principle; it is, in my mind, one of the fundamental principles that should guide any moral system.  Without a genuine commitment to seeking truth, societies fall into evil and dangerous patterns where malevolent actors visit harm on many to satisfy their own selfish aims. 

Of course this last premise falls into an area of understanding that is much debated: the realm of right and wrong/good and evil.  In this realm, I make no claim to an ultimate truth, but I feel strongly that there are good and evil in the hearts of humans, and societies are most likely to prosper when the interest in the good outweighs the interest in evil. Regardless, the search for truth is, at least as I see the world and societies in the world, an act of good more than of evil (even if evil has been done in pursuit of truth).