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Truth

A lot of people get hung up on truth. They think its something that exists in the world like an apple or a hot summer's day. They think there is such thing as a fact that is absolutely true and that absolute truths exist in the universe and can either be found or discovered or even revealed by a divine heavenly being. This form of truth is absolute in the sense that its evangelists would argue that it has never been false and will never be shown to be false. It is unfalsifiable and holds independent of time.

But thinking and believing that truth - in this absolute sense - is real and exist is dangerous. And today I'd like to talk a little bit as to the why of that statement.

The Scientific View : falsifiable Truth

Firstly, let's look at what truth is from the point of view of science. There truth is simply anything - so long as its falsifiable - that hasn't been shown to be false yet. There is no difference between a law and a theory except that a law has been tested even more than a theory and its predictions have been verified to an even greater degree. The key point here is that anything that is true today is just one test away from being false tomorrow.

This doesn't mean things that were true and are now false suddenly lose their usefulness. Classical Mechanics isn't a perfectly accurate model of how the universe actually works, but that doesn't stop it from being true enough to suffice for solving lots of real-world engineering problems.

This is the idea of truth as a tool, a tool we use to make predictions about the universe, and a tool we use to understand that universe. But like all tools the scientific truth can be sharpened and we can build ourselves newer and better tools as our understanding changes.

Another way to think about this form of truth is like a work of art. You can get pencils and pens and draw a still life, and at first that still life doesn't look very realistic, but after you practice a bunch of times your paintings start looking better and better. Eventually, you get a camera and can take photographs, some time later you get a virtual reality headset and learn to model the still life in 3D and now ,from a visual perspective, you can hardly differentiate between the 3D VR rendering and reality. Some day you might even build technology that adds the smells, sounds, and tactile qualities of that still life. But no matter how much you try to recreate and model the still life you will never be able to capture all of its qualities. Even if you were to copy everything atom by atom you would still only have copies and not the original thing.

The merits of viewing truth in this approximate and testable way are obvious. We can constantly improve and better our models, predictions, and understanding of the universe over time. If science didn't take this stance on truth then we could still believe the earth was flat or that it was the center of the universe, because an absolute truth by definition admits no change.

What are Facts

Facts are a not so interesting iteration on the scientific idea of truth. Essentially, some event happens or happened in the past and we have to choose how certain we are that the event occurred in the manner described. As we learn more about the context of the event, this shapes the certainty we have as to the causes, effects, and description of the event. This certainty, given new information, is also always subject to change and, in general, follows the rest of the scientific view of truth.

This way of thinking about facts is useful because it allows us to improve our understanding and hence predictive models of any set of historical events, which in turn is very helpful when doing scientific inquiry or performing real-world actions such as developing economic and political policy.

An additional metaphor for thinking about truth in this way is truth as likelihood. You can ask yourself, "How likely is it that X is a fact?". Notice that a true fact is redundant language.

Absolute Truth

What is absolute truth? Its something that needs no evidence to be true. It can have evidence to support it, but it doesn't need any. It, also by definition, cannot be falsified. There is no test anyone can do which can falsify absolute truth. There is no way to test it. If there were a test then it wouldn't be absolute truth and would just fall under the scientific definition of truth.

When someone tells you that they have the absolute truth, it means they think they have found something which perhaps has some evidence supporting it, but which certainly has no way of testing and evaluating it. Its as if I were to tell you that the sun rises because a tiny red invisible being puts the sun on his back and causes it to slowly cross the sky over the course of a day. I could then say that this tiny red invisible being swore to the moon that he would do this forever, so we should expect the sun to rise tomorrow as well. There would be some evidence supporting my claim i.e. the sun does rise every day, but there is no way to falsify it. There is no test that we can do to find this tiny red invisible being. And any test we do which makes it more and more difficult to accept the absolute truth of the tiny red invisible man can easily be dismissed his followers. When we discover that the sun doesn't rise but that our planet is moving around the sun, the absolutist would say, "Well, he puts the sun on his back, and causes doesn't mean he moves the sun, it just means that it looks like the sun is moving.". And any further evidence against the absolutist view its dealt with in such a manner. Why? Because the absolute truth, by definition, can never be wrong, even the slightest altercation to its value statement would be an admission of failure. It must always be true, forever.

Now given the previous scientific view on truth and facts, and our current knowledge of absolute truth you might be thinking that the question now is: is there any thing that could possibly be considered an absolute truth?

But actually, I don't think thats the most important question. Its certainly an interesting one and one we will think about shortly, but the real question we should be thinking about is not whether absolute truth exist somewhere in the universe, but whether or not approaching truth values from an absolutist perspective is useful at all.

If we operate under the assumption that anything is true so long as it hasn't been falsified, then we will by definition find any absolute truths - should they exist - we will just consider them conditional as they are iteratively reaffirmed ad-infinitum.

On the other hand if we operate under the assumption that we already hold some set of truths - however large or small - which are absolutely true, we run the risk of putting ourself in a place where we hold things to be true which are just as false as believing the earth is flat.

There are admittedly situations where you could just get lucky and accept something as absolute truth, which turns out to be a falsifiable conditional truth which will be reaffirmed as long as the universe and humanity exist.

For instance, let's examine the idea that "murder is wrong" is an absolute truth. This is a moral value that has emerged in virtually every human society since the dawn of the historical record. Its seems tempting to accept this as an instance of absolute truth and say, "Aha! Absolute truth exist therefore I must accept that absolute truth is a good thing."

But that would be the wrong conclusion to make. If we think of "murder as wrong" as being falsifiably true, it means we can evaluate the claim and we have a reason founded on evidence for making the claim in the first place.

So to answer the question, "Why is it true that murder bad?"

A falsifiable truth can say:

  1. Because it keeps humans from self-actualizing when living in groups.
  2. Because it naturally emerged as a means for cooperative living independent of any one civilization.
  3. Because it minimizes the risk of cooperation between different people.
  4. ... etc, etc, so long as the reasons are falsifiable and testable

The absolute truth can say:

  1. Because X.

Where X can range from a single statement, "I said so", to a 10,000 page novel, so long as nothing is testable and falsifiable.

Absolute truth does offer comfort. It offers a feeling of wholeness. It lets its adherents think that they have found an unwavering pillar on which to base their actions. But its a false comfort, a false sense certainty. A sense of certainty founded on nothingness. Nothingness because any concrete reason has a foundation that is testable, verifiable, and has tangible evidence to support it.

Summary

It should now be obvious why the absolute view of truth is so dangerous - it cannot be tested or falsified under any circumstances. If any part of an absolute truth gets some aspect of its claim wrong, however tiny that may be, then it will be wrong in that way forever and never admit any change.

Absolute truth has been and is still used to justify slavery, violence against ethnic groups, wars, and numerous other crimes against humanity.

So ask yourself, is false certainty worth the risks? Is a feeling of rightness worth the possibility of irreversible mistakes?