“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” –Margaret Mead
Every set of eyes is a lens through which each individual mind sees the world. A lens crafted from beliefs, knowledge, and personal experiences — shaped by environments, circumstances, chance, choice, and peers. No two sets of lenses or individual minds are the same, largely because we all have our own perspectives and points of view: each of us sees the world differently, thinks differently, and experiences things differently. As such, we all live our own realities in our own worlds and though we may not see it, we live by our own definitions, rules, and interpretations as well. One could say none of us are living in the same reality as anyone else, despite the fact we all exist in the same physical world and work together to keep it running.
But this raises the question: if life, existence, and reality is different for all of us, then what can we consider truth? Some people say truth is “fact” or “universal knowledge,” such as it is a fact Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States, or it is universal knowledge that washing one’s hands helps prevent illness. However, the President of the United States serves one term at a time and is re-elected, which means John F. Kennedy was technically the 44th president — just as George Washington was both the first and second president. Because of this definition of presidency, Barack Obama is actually the 56th and 57th President of the United States. In a similar vein, washing one’s hands builds the soap tolerance of germs and bacteria on your skin. Because of this, washing your hands too much can make you more susceptible to illness by making the germs you frequently come into contact with more resistant to antibacterial agents. Again, the truth here lies in the context by which it is presented. Because we all think, experience, and believe differently, we all see truth, facts, and knowledge through different contexts or lenses.
Let’s get epistemic
Now that I’ve diluted the truth of a fact and an example of universal knowledge, does that mean neither were true to begin with, or they were both always only partially true? Can they still be considered a fact and a piece of knowledge despite only being true when given a certain context? To answer these two questions we must ask a third question: How can we know we know what we know is true?
For instance, you “know” you are reading this post, but how can you be sure? You may be dreaming right now or your entire life could be a dream, the world and/or reality around you could be an illusion cast by some all-powerful being or very clever scientists, you could’ve been abducted by aliens last night in your sleep and placed in a holographic world where everyone you know has been replaced by impostors. Perhaps you’re really schizophrenic and are really in a padded room somewhere imagining your entire life — or at least imagining that you are reading this blog right now.
It’s hard to know if any of that is the case or not, let alone know you know that’s the case or not. And even if you know something is the case, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is true: We used to know the world was flat and now we know the dinosaurs were killed off by meteors, but we disproved the first theory many years ago (so we never really “knew” it and it was never true to begin with), and we may do the same with the second one eventually and deliver it to the same fate. Truth and knowledge are very tricky concepts and we seem to take them for granted on a daily basis.
So what’s left? Individual truth, for one. What we as individuals know to be true based on our own perspectives, experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions. You know you aren’t dreaming because you woke up today and have had to breathe all day to stay alive. You know washing your hands kills bacteria and prevents infection, and you know Barack Obama was the 44th person elected President of the United States. You may even know the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary offers a definition of “president” as “4: the presiding officer of a governmental body,” and since “presiding” is present tense, a president serving two terms counts as a single president. However, you may also know that the print edition of the Merriam -Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition offers a definition of “presidency” as “2: the term during which a president holds office,” and since “term” is a singular word, a presidency only applies to a single term. Because of these different beliefs, thoughts, and definitions, it can be true that Barack Obama is both the 44th president and the 56th and 57th president. However, we also know presidents can’t serve more than two terms, so now we’ve reached a contradiction and must throw this out the window. We could say Barack Obama could either be the 44th president or the 56th and 57th president, but that makes truth conditional and therefore, relative. And if truth is fact or universal knowledge, it can’t be relative. We just reached another contradiction. In these cases we tend to go with the answer given to us by a credible source, and the websites for the White House, The National Museum of American History, and Wikipedia all say Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States. But just because they say it is true, doesn’t mean it is — we only give them the power to make definitions and create truth for the rest of us.
“Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.” –William Penn
So how can we know what we know is true? We can use reason and logic, but due to their very own designs we would still be skeptical of any truth and look for ways to verify it by falsifying the other possibilities and testing our theories (if we are to be philosophical and scientific about it). So for instance, you could reason that perhaps you did have to breathe all day but that doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t been dreaming. As for washing your hands and who the 44th president is, who is to say that hand washing isn’t just “Nanny State” propaganda to keep P&G sales in the black or that the real first president was assassinated and removed from history books to keep the future country from knowing about him (or her…).
There are many different ways your reasoning can go depending on the context or lens through which you see truth. You can use your own knowledge, interpretations, beliefs, and experiences to know that you know something, however you have to justify and validate each of them by determining if your sources are good, your interpretations are logical, your beliefs are valid, and your experiences are generalizable and unbiased. It’s a lot of work, to be honest. And over time, searching for verifiable and justifiable truth leaves you with a lot of skepticism and very few truths, if not just only one: You think and therefore exist, “Cogito ergo sum,” in the words of Descartes. But even then your thoughts may not be your own. Your thoughts could actually belong to a universal unconsciousness or a God, which means you exist but only as a vessel of something much bigger than yourself and not as your own, governable entity. At that point your foundation of truth crumbles, and everything either becomes pure “subscribed” belief or the entire lack thereof — sincere faith or absolute nihilism. You know and believe Barack Obama is the 44th president because of how you define a presidency, you know and believe hand washing prevents illness because it kills germs and the Medieval times were both very dirty and very diseased. You know and believe your whole life hasn’t been a dream, illusion, or hallucination because if it was, things would be much better. Despite the facts, they are all supported by and arranged from beliefs, all the way down to the simple belief that you exist on Earth as a human and the world around you is real. But ultimately your knowledge and beliefs can always turn out to be false given access to the right (or true) context.
The truth is out there
Imagine something being true even though no one believes it, knows it, or is capable of understanding it. That truth is an unknown. It is still a truth or a fact, but no one knows it exists, believes it exists, or is capable of understanding its existence — which makes this truth unattainable or speculative at best. For instance, say the entire universe is a pebble and every galaxy in the universe is an atom or molecule that makes up that pebble, which is sitting on a creek bed in a forest somewhere that is inhabited by the Gods of all religions and mythologies. In this case we don’t know the truth because we don’t have access to the right context — being on the creek bed and able to see the pebble and that it contains our entire universe — but we can “know” what is true or real to us based on our own knowledge, experience, and points of view. None of us can know our universe is a pebble on a creek bed in a forest somewhere, but we can know that we live on Earth, that Earth is in a solar system within the Milky Way galaxy, and that the Andromeda galaxy is relatively nearby. We don’t have access to the right context to know the truth of our universe pebble, so it is unknown despite being true.
To accommodate for unknown truths, relative truths, individual truths, and subscribed truths, we have our chosen beliefs. We can simply choose what we believe is true, which is typically what we do to help us understand and navigate through life. For instance, I can choose to believe our universe is a pebble on a creek bed in a forest somewhere that is inhabited by the Gods of every religion and mythology (you’re free to believe this too), but that doesn’t make my belief true. For it to be true it needs to be justified and for it to be justified it needs to have substantial evidence, and for this particular truth to be true it must also be seen through the right context, frame of reference, and mode of presentation ((the last two are fancy ways of saying point of view and the means by which you came to know something). But all that is really needed is enough evidence to convince me or anyone else to believe it is true or to have faith that it is. So people can believe Barack Obama was the 56th and 57th president because their source of choice defines a “presidency” as serving one term, so serving two terms counts as two presidencies. People can also believe washing one’s hands helps prevent illness and control the spread of disease, but only in moderate and prudent usage. Both would be true for their contexts, frames of reference, and modes of presentation. But through a different lens from a different point of view and learned though some other means, the opposite of both claims can also be true. Maybe some people are allergic to soap and prone to infection when using it. To them, “washing one’s hands prevents illness” is absolutely false despite being true for many.
Astrophysicists can choose to believe that we live on Earth, that Earth is in a solar system within the Milky Way galaxy, and that the Andromeda galaxy is relatively nearby. They have plenty of evidence to justify the truth of their beliefs, so I wouldn’t blame them for believing those things. But even then, perhaps the Earth and/or solar system is like a terrarium and the universe is an illusion or projection that aliens created to mislead us. Or maybe NASA is making up stories and Photoshopping pictures so we keep giving them money to stare into space with telescopes. Maybe everything around you is a concerted effort to keep you thinking you live in a progressing world with scientists, teachers, and businessmen when really the entire planet is an intergalactic zoo that aliens visit when they’re on vacation or win free tickets from a radio station. Of course, these alternatives seem extremely unlikely so we discard them as possibilities the way we’ve been conditioned to. But the fact that they were thought of makes them legitimate possibilities, along with thousands of other theories (according to philosopher David Lewis’s Law of Attention). And we still don’t know if there are any unknown truths that falsify the beliefs of these hypothetical astrophysicists, so even if they are true today that doesn’t mean they will be true tomorrow: inductive reasoning versus deductive reasoning.
Considering all of this, is truth something worth pursuing? Or is it much wiser to ignore the concept of truth due to our inability to understand or fully attain it, and instead just focus on the things we “know” and the things that are real to us as individuals (basically, our beliefs, knowledge, and experiences)? It’s the age-old question of objectivity versus subjectivity. Humans have been discussing this very thing for thousands of years and still haven’t come up with a satisfying answer. Maybe we never will. Some things are just too elusive for our minds to grasp. Though there may be a hint in the quote at the beginning of this post:
“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” –Margaret Mead
Despite our different lenses, minds, experiences, perspectives, beliefs, knowledge sets, interpretations, and circumstances, we all have things in common. We are all unique, for one. We’re all human and we all live on Earth. We all want to love and be loved, we all have our own lives and our own stories (though to be fair, none of us can actually know if anyone else thinks or exists as anything more than a hallucination, so this is all belief at best). So perhaps “truth” is simply anything that ties us all together to experience, think, and believe the same thing. Then again, truth may be nothing more than what we consider it to be and vary greatly from person to person.
The truth is, you can’t handle the truth. It is sand between your fingers and the wind blowing by. You can feel it, see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or otherwise sense it or perceive it — but you can’t hold it and you can’t keep it. This is why the truth is different for everyone — it is an elephant being touched by six blind men, everyone experiences it differently.
Despite some of my examples being farfetched they are very applicable to everyday life. Asking the same kinds of questions about a variety of topics and subjects helps sharpen your critical thinking skills and trains your brain to decipher the truth of every claim and concept. Whether you are being exposed to politics, getting information from the media, dealing with a salesperson, trying to learn the truth of a situation, or evaluating whether you or someone else knows the truth at all, this will help you find it by stripping away lies, misinformation, propaganda, and false beliefs. It’s a philosophical practice called “epistemology,” and after reading this post you are now initiated in the practice. Use it wisely friends.
If you are interested in reading more posts like this, please let me know in the comments section below!