Truth is Real (Or: I Want To Believe That the Truth is Out There.)
We know in our heart of hearts that facts are facts and truth still matters. Yet we feel like we’re living in a post-fact world. Which is it? Can it be both? It’s tough to reconcile. Some people (not naming any names) seem to be making up their own truth and getting away with it. Meanwhile, people that care about truth are getting screwed. It doesn’t seem fair. [Spoiler alert: it’s not.] We like to think that when a fact is true it must be absolutely and always true, but experience tells us this is rarely the case. There are plenty of facts that are sort-of true, in the sense that some facts are truer than others. And there are other facts that are sometimes true, facts the suddenly turn false if taken in a different context.
The silver lining is that this flexibility empowers our individualism. It allows for creativity, innovation, diversity, and all sort of other great things that make life amazing. But if it’s misused (ok, when it’s misused) it can be weaponized to cause chaos, misinformation, disinformation, doublespeak and other tools of oppression. To cut through all that, we need to establish a model that acknowledges that truth can be relative while insisting that truth carries objective meaning. That model is based on the relativity of truth.
Most facts are relative and arbitrary, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. Truth is still objective, we just have to challenge our concept of objectivity to fit it all together. Some facts are sort-of true. Other facts are sometimes true. That makes them relative but it doesn’t necessarily make them subjective. I’ve written quite a bit about this, but it all gets a bit mathy and let’s face it: no one likes math. [Well, that’s not entirely true, but it’s sort of true. So there’s your first example.] If you’re a big fan of math or logic (logic is just math with words instead of numbers) let me know and I’ll be happy to send you the mathy version once I get it under 5,000 words.
If truth is relative, does that mean logic is out the window? In a word, no. In a few more words, logic still applies and relativity is how we account for objectivity. Here’s an exercise: take a yardstick and glue a handle on one side and a tennis ball on the other. You can grab that stick by the handle and wave it around. Wave it around, throw it around, tie it to the back of a truck, mail it to Cleveland, do whatever you want with it. That tennis ball is at your mercy. Where that tennis ball exists in space depends on what you do with that handle. But the position of the tennis ball relative to the handle will always be three feet. Similarly we can affect the truth by changing the context (provided we have the power to do so), but we cannot change the way facts relate to each other according to the laws of logic.
Math and logic work the same way. You can change the independent variables all you want, but all the dependent variables will keep the same objective value relative to the independent variable. [For example, If x*x=y you can make y bigger by making x bigger, but you can can’t make y less than x. That’s as mathy as I’ll get, I promise.] The premise of any syllogism is arbitrary, and the facticity of your deductions are at the mercy of your premises. But if the logic is valid, that’s an objective relationship. It works with inductive logic as well.
Inductive logic gets a reputation for being highly subjective because its based on individual perception. But once you collect the data, some ways of interpreting that data are going to be objectively more valid than others, and that will depend on the same four elements: specificity, probability, arbitrariness and conditionality. The relative facticity of any truth can be objectively measured along those four attributes of validity. Why did I pick four categories? It’s arbitrary. I could break it down further, but lets take things one layer at a time.
Specificity: Something can be more true by being more specific. If I said something like “the sun is far away,” does that count as an objective truth? It’s a bit subjective, but there’s no real context in daily life where you would say something like “the sun is far away” and some one would call you a liar. What makes a statement like that more true is being more specific. “The sun is 93 million miles away.” That’s more true because it’s more specific. And some geek might might point out that’s just the average distance of the sun from the Earth. On my birthday, which happened to be Aphelion Day, the sun was 94.5 million miles away fro the earth. It’s more true in the sense that it’s more specific. Whether or not its more relevant is another question entirely, and since that question is more subjective we’re going to leave it alone for now.
Probability: Some facts can be more true by being more likely. Probability puts truth on a sliding scale. This makes some people nervous because it takes away certainty. But putting truth on a scale of probability is a more objective approach, not a less objective approach. C3PO may have been a pessimist to Han Solo’s optimism, but saying “navigating an asteroid belt is impossible” would have been subjective. “The odds of navigating an asteroid belt are 3720 to 1” is more objective (and more true) than the former. Han Solo and C3PO didn’t disagree about the odds, they just had different feelings about them.
Dana Scully’s character provided a similar foil to Fox Mulder in the X-Files. One common take on the Mulder/Scully dynamic is that Mulder was subjective and Scully was objective, but I see it differently. My take on it was that Mulder represented induction (or intuition) and Scully represented deduction. Both shared the same mission of seeking facts and uncovering truth. By working together they made each other more objective and found more of the truth that was out there. [Spoiler alert: the truth was out there.]
Arbitrariness: Some facts are just arbitrary. You can write just about anything and call it a poem. If you put some random words on paper and say “that’s a poem” no one can prove you wrong (although I know people who will try.) But if you want to write a sonnet you have to follow a certain form. Who decides if it’s a sonnet or not? Certainly not me, but probably not you either. Someone at some point invented what constitutes a sonnet, and now we are forever held to that standard. Anything that dictates adherence to an invented system, standard or language are arbitrarily true. The values and definitions may be made up, but that doesn’t make them any less objective.
Conditionality: Some facts are true in one sense but not another. [For fellow math geeks, arbitrariness refers to independent variables whereas conditionality refers to dependent variables.] Conditionality is closely related to arbitrariness with the key difference being that a conditional truth can change from true to false if taken in a different sense. For example the statement “the word “cola” refers to the rear appendage of a dog” sounds like a false statement, but it’s true if you hear it in Spanish class. Another example is the statement “its hotter today than it was yesterday.” If you say the same statement every day the statement itself does not change, but whether it is true or false depends on yesterday’s weather. A lot of “arguments” occur when two people are considering the same fact but presuming a different sense of its condition. These disputes can be easily avoided (or at least quickly resolved) by clarifying the sense or condition by which a person means something.
So how can I use this to win arguments on Twitter? This is a good question, an important question, but we need to take a step back and manage our expectations. Let’s take it down and notch to “how can I use this to understand arguments on Twitter?” This may not be the answer you signed up for, but this the answer your going to get: let people be wrong. That’s step one. If you’re looking for validation, you’ve come to the wrong place. That place is, ironically, also Twitter. You go to the same place to both deny yourself, and entitle yourself to, validation. If that’s a little game you like to play with yourself, then by all means keep playing with yourself. I won’t judge you on your choice of entertainment until you start confusing it for edification.
Step two is to understand how “right” they are on a scale, even if they are mostly wrong. One nice thing about the relativity of truth is that you can give someone else plenty of room to be partially right about something and still leave yourself enough room to be way more right than they are. But if you want to measure that distance, you’re going to have to get on one of two pages. One is “okay, how right are they?” Or “Okay, so how wrong am I?” One way will put you apples to apples, the other way will put you oranges to oranges. “I’m right and they’re wrong” is always apples to oranges. I recommend running it twice and do both. Think about how right they are and think about how wrong you are. The bottom line is that…
Relativity gives you space to question your own truth without abandoning it. You don’t win an argument on Twitter by changing someone else’s mind. You “win” an argument on twitter by getting someone to think about new ideas in different ways. And if you want to challenge other people with new ideas, you have to be willing to challenge yourself. Accounting for relative truth gives you all the room you need to question your own opinions, ideals, and values, and improve on them without rejecting them outright. Rhetoric is usually competition for entertainment. Discourse, on the other hand, provides opportunities to make connections and form deeper understandings of other people and new ideas. Quite frankly, if making connections and fostering understanding doesn’t interest you then you’re part of the problem.
Ok, that’s fair. But what does this have to do with civics? So maybe none of this is going to get [Your Favorite Politician’s Name Here] elected. Not directly, at least. But relative truth is an essential concept to understand to inoculate ourselves against doublespeak and other forms of propaganda. Doublespeak takes advantage of a simplistic, binary understanding of truth to spread conspiracies and other forms of misinformation. A binary understanding of truth means that you take a fact as either true or false, with no scale or middle ground. If someone can get you to focus on the smallest element of truth, they can get you to buy into a lie. Likewise, they can undermine facts that are demonstrably true as long as they can get you to focus on the smallest element of falsehood. Adopting a model of relative truth is a commitment to understanding the full scope of a statement or message for what it is. We commit to regarding messages not in terms of whether or not they are true, but in terms of how true they are and how much truth they represent. This approach fights fascism.
A philosophy of relative truth is not a little blue pill that we can take and suddenly understand reality. It’s not a switch that we can flip on and instantly see things in a new light. It’s one of many tools to keep in our critical thinking toolbox, a skill that we have to develop and practice to make it work for us. But take my word for it: if you do develop a proficiency for it you will see the world in a new light and you will develop a deeper understanding of reality.