Filtering the truth
Truth is a powerful concept. That is why it is often used, overused, misused and mostly abused.
Truth could be defined as thoughts, beliefs, words or deeds, that conform to some predefined standard. But, who sets the standard of what is true or how do we conclude if something is true?
There are six common criteria used for determining the truth. They are are consensus, consistency, authority, durability, revelation and science.
Common knowledge or herd behaviour assumes that if everyone says so, then it must be true. This requires little or no effort, it is the preferred filter for the intellectually and spiritually lazy, inferior or timid, individual and society.
Consensus is a safe bet. Even if proven wrong the person can always take shelter within the anonymous majority. They contend that so many people cannot be stupid or wrong. Wars, fads of all kinds social, economic, and political are the frequent result of consensus.
Consistency assumes that if 'B' fact fits with 'C' and 'D' facts, then it can be regarded as true. Auditors, courts etc, believe consistency as truthfulness, and inconsistencies raises suspicion that the truth is being distorted. This is the approach of the suspicious, legalistic and logical person's filter of truth.
For some, the truth is based on what is presumed to be some revelation. It can’t be questioned, it just is. Revelations are used by religious leaders, politicians, media persons, etc. This filter is greatly abused, because anyone with credibility can make a revelation and it is often considered as true.
Authority can be, moral, religious, educational, scientific, economic, political, legal, or military. We are socially conditioned to accept generally as true the uttering of authorities. The head of the family, or a religious order, a Nobel prize winner, the Prime minister, a judge, or a military leader is believed. Holy books are often accepted to be authority and hence true.
Certain actors, acquire authority on certain matters, simply because of the related role they play in cinema, television .
At one time the mass media were considered as authority. If the newspapers or television said something it was considered as true. However alternate sources of information and social media have exposed the insincerity and extreme bias thus the authority of the mass media is constantly getting eroded.
Teachers also possess great authority but increasing interference of parents, governments and politicians have made them indifferent towards students. This has destroyed much of the authority teachers had.
We seldom in any coherent way to test the actual capability of an authority, relying instead on the image of authority conferred by a title, a diploma or an accreditation agency of some type. In which case we bow to the authority conferring the certification. It becomes the authority on authority.
Sometimes the test of truth is based on age and durability. Has the “truth” stood “the test of time”? Is it “tried and true,” or is it new, hence questionable? Here the authority is not a God, a book or a person but that immense slice of time called the past.
Maybe soup is good for curing colds, but does the fact that it has been passed down through a long line of grandmothers necessarily make it so?
For most of us today it is hard to appreciate just how important inherited truth was before modern times.. Historian Alan Kors of the University of Pennsylvania says “the overturning of the presumptive authority of the past was one of the most profound developments in the entire history of the world.”
Science is different from all the other truth-test criteria. It is the only one that itself depends on rigorous testing.
However science is probably the one we least rely on in our daily lives. We don’t, as a rule, choose a puppy, because he passes some scientific test; we just fall in love with it. We don’t perform lab tests to decide what movie to watch. Or what friends to make. Among all our daily personal, and business decisions, those that are made scientifically are no more than a trace element. Yet among the six truth criteria, none in recent centuries has had a greater impact on our material well being. And none, as we’ll see, is more endangered.
Modern science demands validation and proof before acceptance.
Ancient science like 'Yoga', and 'Ayurveda' are frequently validated in application However often ignored by modern science because masters and texts that could provide proof do not exist anymore, having been lost to war, bigotry, theft or neglect.
Science is not a collection of facts. It is a process, often messy and non sequential for testing ideas. The idea and knowledge must be testable, at least in principle, and, some would add, falsifiable. The tests involve observation and experiment. Results must be reproducible.
Even the most persuasive scientific findings are, therefore, held to be incomplete and tentative, always subject to further investigation, revision and dismissal in the light of new scientifically tested discoveries.
This makes science the only one of the six truth filters that is inherently opposed to fanaticism of any kind, religious, political, nationalist, racist or otherwise. It is fanatic certainty that breeds persecution, terrorism, inquisitions and other atrocities. And it is fanatic certainty that science replaces with a recognition that even the most entrenched scientific findings are at the best partial or temporary truths and hence uncertain.
This idea that every scientific finding could and should be improved or thrown out puts science in a class by itself. Thus among all the other main truth filters, only science is self correcting.
Formal science is the discovery of the most effective method of discovery. Science is a powerful tool for probing the unknown and leads to technological change and economic progress whenever societies have let it.
All societies that focussed on science have had a dominating influence on the world. This is why 2000 years ago Indian and Chinese civilisations led the world. 800 years ago the Islamic civilisations joined the club. 350 years ago Europe began to surge ahead and dominate the world. Now its is the Americans that dominate and will do so for in the foreseeable future.
Not only individuals but entire societies or cultures rely on more than one form or combination of truth validation. Science for medical help, revelatory religion for moral advice. We shift among these criteria or use combination of them.
Since our happiness, well being, safety and progress depend heavily on which truth filters we use to validate knowledge, choosing wisely the right filter is important.
Written and Posted: May 2018 by ~ Gurvinder Singh
I acknowledge that I was influenced by the thoughts and work of the futurist and late writer Alvin Toffler in writing this article.