How do we know what’s true? (part one)

There is no single simple answer. 

THE LIMITS OF THOUGHTS

In a more absolute sense, no thought can reflect any final, full, or absolute truth.

Thoughts are questions about the world.

They are mental representations meant to help us orient and function in the world.

They are different in kind from what they refer to. And they simplify.

Reality is always more than and different from any thought. And it’s also inherently simpler than any thought.

For all of these reasons, thoughts are unable to capture any final, full, or absolute truth. 

NAVIGATING IN THE WORLD

When it comes to our life in the world, we need to use our discernment and methods to discern what’s more or less accurate in a conventional sense. 

If possible, we can try something out for ourselves. Someone said something, and we check it out. Most of what I write about in these articles is something we can check out for ourselves and see what we find. And sometimes it requires some guidance and persistence over time. 

If we are told something we cannot, or cannot yet, check out for ourselves, we can put it on the “this person said it and I don’t know” shelf AKA the “maybe” shelf. Depending on the solidity of the data and the logic, and how well it fits the majority of the data, we can hold it as more or less reliable.

We can be aware of biases. We all have biases from our biology and evolution, from our culture and society, from whatever subcultures we are familiar with and resonate with, and our personal experiences, inclinations, preferences, and hangups. What may the biases of the source be? What are my biases, and how do they color how I relate to what this source said? 

Do I have an emotional attachment to a certain view? Do I feel I need to defend it? Does it bring up reactivity in me? If so, it’s a clear sign that I may be caught up in an emotional issue and not be so clearheaded in how I relate to it. 

Another side of this is the weight of the source. Does it align with how experts in the field generally see it? Does it fit the highest quality data and the majority of the data we have? Does it come from someone who has the credentials in the field? That gives it more weight, although these views are also provisional and up for revision in the face of better knowledge. 

Some like to say that our views and opinions on a range of issues are equivalent. “You say that and I say this, and they are equal in value.” That’s obviously not accurate. Some have far more experience and insights into a particular issue. And some views are supported by far more and higher quality data than other views. And that gives it more weight. (It may still be wrong, although it’s less likely to be grossly wrong.) 

In addition, I like to examine the practical effects of certain views. Does it help me live with kindness, receptivity, and curiosity? If so, I’ll give it more weight. 

Ultimately, solid data is what determines what’s true. For instance, Putin says the war against Ukraine is to “denazify” the country. The numbers show that only about 2% of the population vote for right-wing parties, and they elected a Jewish president. This alone shows that Putin’s argument is out of alignment with reality. Similarly, when it comes to the question about the risk of taking the covid vaccine, we can look at the numbers. Hospitals were full of patients with covid, not people who were there because of how their bodies responded to the vaccine. Simple numbers show us something about reality. And there is, of course, a need for nuance and discernment here too.

DISCERNMENT

Yes, it’s true that we cannot know anything for certain, and even our most cherished assumptions are up for revision. Much of what people assumed about the world one or five hundred years ago is different from how we see the world today. 

And it’s also true that views are more or less accurate in a conventional sense, and we can learn discernment to arrive at the views that have the best chance of being accurate. 

This is about learning methods for evaluating views and data, examining sources, knowing a bit about the history of ideas and science, being aware of one’s own biases, and being honest with oneself.

In part two of this article, I’ll write about what we may discover if we take a closer look at this topic.

TRUTH VS VALIDITY

Why do I write about validity and not truth?

It’s mainly because the word “truth” often comes with some unfortunate associations. It can make it sound as if thoughts can hold a full, final, and absolute truth, and that’s obviously not true (!).

Validity is a bit more gentle and open-ended. A thought can have validity, in one way or another, without holding any final, full, or absolute truth.

Using the word “validity” instead of “truth” can help us hold it a bit more lightly and with more curiosity.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that validity in a conventional sense can be more or less supported by solid data, it can be supported by varying amounts of data, it can be more or less logically coherent, and so on.

Note: All of this seems obvious and what many of us learn early in life. So why do I bother writing about it? Because some seem to – against better knowledge? – take a view that “my opinion is as good as yours” when that’s clearly not the case. On many topics, some have a far more informed view, and some views are far more grounded in experience, good data, and good logic. That doesn’t mean we should automatically accept the conclusions or advice of others (I have received terrible advice from doctors). But it does mean that a measure of intellectual honesty and humility is appropriate and useful.


DRAFT

There is no single simple answer. 

THE LIMITS OF THOUGHTS

In a more absolute sense, no thought can reflect any final, full, or absolute truth. Thoughts are questions about the world. They are mental representations meant to help us orient and function in the world. They are different in kind from what they refer to. And they simplify. Reality is always more than and different from any thought. And it’s also inherently simpler than any thought. For all of these reasons, thoughts are unable to capture any final, full, or absolute truth. 

NAVIGATING IN THE WORLD

When it comes to our life in the world, we need to use our discernment and methods to discern what’s more or less accurate in a conventional sense. 

If possible, we can try something out for ourselves. Someone said something, and we check it out. Most of what I write about in these articles is something we can check out for ourselves and see what we find. And sometimes it requires some guidance and persistence over time. 

If we are told something we cannot, or cannot yet, check out for ourselves, we can put it on the “this person said it and I don’t know” shelf. Independent of who or what the source is, we can put it on the “maybe” shelf. 

We can be aware of biases. We all have biases from our biology and evolution, from our culture and society, from whatever subcultures we are familiar with and resonate with, and our personal experiences, inclinations, preferences, and hangups. What may the biases of the source be? What are my biases, and how do they color how I relate to what this source said? 

Do I have an emotional attachment to a certain view? Do I feel I need to defend it? Does it bring up reactivity in me? If so, it’s a clear sign that I may be caught up in an emotional issue and not be so clearheaded in how I relate to it. 

Another side of this is the weight of the source. Does it align with how experts in the field generally see it? Does it come from someone who has the credentials in the field? That gives it more weight, although these views are also provisional and up for revision in the face of better knowledge. 

Some like to say that our views and opinions on a range of issues are equivalent. “You say that and I say this, and they are equal in value.” That’s obviously not accurate. Some have far more experience and insights into a particular issue, which gives it more weight. And some views are supported by far more data than other views. (It may still be wrong, although it’s less likely to be grossly wrong.) 

…..

And there are many forms of validity, from having validity as a mirror for ourselves to a more conventional sense of validity that’s supported by more or less solid data and different amounts of data.

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