I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of truth, especially since the lies about the results of our 2020 Presidential election and, more recently, Russian propaganda about its war. It’s easy to see “truth” as simply opposed to lies or mistakes, but is it really so simple?
I’ve heard, mainly on television, people who are praised for “telling my truth.” What, exactly, does that mean? Is it telling the truth about your personal experience, or is it telling about a version of reality that conforms to your viewpoint, whatever its source, however biased? If it simply means, “Here’s how it looks to me,” it’s not really a “truth,” is it? No matter how fervently you believe it.
I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Something’s Gotta Give, where the Jack Nicholson character says to the Diane Keaton character, “I have never lied to you, I have always told you some version of the truth.” She is outraged, even going so far as to write and produce a Broadway play entitled “Some Version of the Truth,” ridiculing the Nicholson character. But wait (as the late-night tv ads say). Since telling the truth involves language, and words are often slippery, isn’t “some version of the truth” the best we can hope for? A few exceptions come to mind, e.g. a sentence such as “2 + 2 = 4.” Does science lead us to the truth? Maybe “toward the truth is more accurate,” as scientific knowledge is constantly and admittedly in a process of revision, as the histories of Newtonian / Quantum physics, or Covid-19 guidelines, suggest. Think of attorneys arguing about a set of facts, each presenting “some version of the truth.”
When I taught Humanities, I told my students that the Ancient Greeks invented the concept of truth, attainable through observation (science) or logic (geometry and philosophy). I’m not sure how true that is, but I think it’s a version of the truth. Before that we had superstition, mythology (I also argued that the myths are true – like an arrow aimed true, they hit the mark), and we may even have had people who made claims with no basis in reality, even after the votes have been counted. Supposedly, “truth” has some sort of correspondence to “reality,” whatever that word means. The problem, again, is that truths exist as language formulations, words mean different things to different people, and words come to light through the filter of fallible human beings who use the words.
And then there is “true love.” It has to mean more than the lovers involved are sexually faithful to one another, and that they are not lying to each other, or to themselves. Or not being just a little off from true love, the way that “true north” is not quite the same as magnetic north. Google the term “true love” and you find a nice list of sweet characteristics, blah blah blah, but what does all that have to do with “true”? One dictionary clarified “true” in truelove as meaning “properly so called,” which does not clarify much, does it? “True love” is not “just friends” or “secret enemies.” I like the image of an arrow’s flying true, which means without deviation to its mark, suggesting Cupid’s arrow, though that is mythology, not truth. The term “true love” suggests to me that there are many kinds of love that are, indeed, love, but they fall short of “true love” the way that fact often falls short of fiction. And if you make it into one word, “truelove,” that takes it into Fantasyland where one’s truelove is a character, not a person.
Speaking of fact and fiction, I just learned that Trump’s social media venture is called “Truth Social.” Makes one wonder about his definition of “truth.”
In a college philosophy course, I learned that “knowledge” can be understood as “justified true belief.” We spent some time clarifying what counts as “justified,” usually something involving physical evidence, but I’d like to slip away from “justified” over to the problematic word, “true.” If you have a belief and can say what it is, you have formulated it as a string of words, which is supposed to be somehow equivalent to whatever it is you feel is your belief. Is a belief stated in German the same as it is when translated into Spanish or Latin? Language, I repeat, is slippery business.
Then there’s always the promise to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Any problems with that?