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The concept has been rendered practically meaningless.
Imagine this scenario. We take two people, one male and one female, both from entirely different cultural and religious backgrounds. And we throw them off the roof of a building, at the same time.
Don’t worry, we have a big inflatable cushion for them to land on, because we don’t want them to die: we want to ask them both about their experience.
Having landed safely into the bosom of the cushion, we ask them both what happened, and what they experienced. We would likely get two completely different answers. What is unlikely is that they would explain their experience in terms of mass, acceleration, force, or that a free-falling object has an acceleration of 9.8m per second squared (assuming no air resistance) due to the Earth’s gravity.
The latter - gravity - is an objective Truth (uppercase ‘T’, denoting a proper noun: something we can, and do, know). However, when we ask them both what happened and what they experienced, we receive two different perspectives. Anticipating the chance of death, one may have thought of their belief-system deity on the way down, while the other conjured to mind an entirely different set of beliefs. One may have experienced some elation, the other terror. Two realities from the same phenomenon.
This is a philosophical conundrum that science has always faced. What is ‘True’? What is ‘reality’? Do Truth and Reality have to correspond with experience? The late American philosopher Richard Rorty posited that in such circumstances, claims to objective reality should be avoided altogether. Rorty stated that the criteria for something to be ‘true’ having to correspond with reality was an unnecessary step, and that the pertinent question was whether any given beliefs helped people cope with their environment.
However, while this may explain the importance of cultural and religious worldviews that humans have formed in order to cope with their environments, it does not negate the fact that, in our example, gravity is True. It is True because it is testable, falsifiable, and therefore verifiable, and holds True invariantly. If we threw our man from a building in Mumbai, India, and our women from a building in Reykjavík, Iceland, the outcome would be the same.
Yet while we can establish, through the scientific method, gravity as True, this does not provide an explanation for the differing experiences of the phenomenon by our protagonists. This is where Truth can become tricky. In Rorty’s philosophical view, if our gravitational guinea pigs explained why they fell to the Earth as the result of a spiritual force, a god in the ground, then if this explanation allowed them to cope with what they experienced, it suffices: a claim to the Truth of gravity is not warranted.
There is a problem with this, however, because their explanation is demonstrably false. Irrespective of what either of our protagonists believe based on their respective cultural and religious backgrounds, or any ideas they think explain why they fell and didn’t float or fly, the forces at play - gravity - is True. And it would remain True whether they believe it or not.
Humans are hardwired to seek, and provide, explanations. They provide us with a means of addressing and dealing with occurrence or phenomena, without any particular need for logic or scientific reasoning. In the 1940’s, Oppenheimer proposed a theory that humans arrive at explanations by invoking a set of axioms, and using deductive reasoning from those axioms to form an explanation, like logical proofs. But this has found little evidential support, and is inconsistent with how humans decide in favour of Option A vs. Option B, which is often purely from how they 'feel’ about the question. Explanations provided to support the choice are often primarily a means of rationalising the choice for themselves.
We get into issues when people who have rationalised their choice based on emotional thinking, motivated reasoning, and selective evidence, then convey their rationalisation to the world at large as some foundational ‘truth'. The problem with this word - ‘truth’ - is that it currently exists in various forms. For present purposes, we’ll make three distinctions: Truth, tRuTh, and TRUTH. We’ll come back to Truth.
Mixed-uppercase tRuTh is the ‘truth’ of charlatans and quacks. This would be the type of tRuTh an individual is possessed with if they believe Covid-19 is a Bill Gates conspiracy to deploy vaccinations as a means to microchip the population. Generally, these people are seeking a group, a place where the tRuTh is merely a unifying narrative providing common ground to base a set of ideas.
All-uppercase TRUTH is the ‘truth’ of the narcissistic, self-indulgent, faux-spiritually ‘awakened’, urban, educated, new moral clerisy. This is the type of TRUTH which travels cloaked in environmental piety, social justice vacuity, and accompanied by calls to WAKE UP and to EDUCATE YOURSELF, which are also capitalised in case you might miss them. People tend to find this ‘My TRUTH’ after a trip to Bali, or watching the latest vegan Netflix documentary.
Truth with a capital ’T’, is distinguished as a proper noun: something we can, and do, know, through empiricism, experimentation, falsifiability, verifiability, reproducibility. Both tRuTh and TRUTH have common ground, and elevate subjective opinion to the status of equivocal fact. They exist often in contradiction with established Truth, or at least lacking the full nuance of the whole Truth.
In fact, all that tRuTh or TRUTH are, in reality, is an explanation. Nothing more. As an explanation, they can be divorced from any real knowledge, or verified Truth. The explanations of tRuTh or TRUTH are offered as valid, real knowledge, as evidence itself of the truth of a statement. And the reason they are considered tRuTh or TRUTH is simply because they fit within the preconceived set of beliefs of the group, and are rationalised as entirely consistent with that worldview. Both tRuTh and TRUTH are not only often demonstrably incorrect, but are inherently value-laden. They are rationalised as sufficient causal explanations for a belief. What makes explanations-masquerading-as-evidence problematic is that they can be divorced from completeness, and lack all of the nuance and context inherent in an important, complex conversation.
The challenge with the inherent desire for people to seek explanations, without necessarily any particular need for the full facts, logic, or scientific reasoning, is that explanations can be used to construct the reality that they then describe. All they actually reflect is the moral and value system underpinning the explanations people have for their actions. Partly why tRuTh/TRUTH explanations may be so contagious is that they are transactional: the provider gains from the ego of converting the ‘unenlightened’ to the tRuTh/TRUTH, and the new convert gains from becoming possessed of the tRuTh/TRUTH, and is now ‘in the know’. Ultimately, tRuTh/TRUTH explanations provide people with a means to understand the world in a causal sense. This is where Truth becomes important, and where we can see the fundamental difference.
Truth is something we can know through empiricism and direct experimentation, i.e., hypothesis testing. This positivist approach to elucidating explanations for the phenomena around us is defined by the ability to independently verify the explanations we have for empirical observations. This is an epistemic approach to the study of what we know, and how - by what methods - we can come to truly know this. It begins with empiricism, and the process of systematic observation through the human senses. These empirical observations are considered through deductive and inductive reasoning, subject to the formation of theories and hypotheses, and tested through experimentation.
What allows different scientific disciplines to co-exist is that these characteristics may all take slightly different forms, depending on the field of inquiry, yet the underlying principles governing the process of inquiry remain the same across disciplines: hence termed the 'scientific method’. This epistemic genesis is what unifies the scientific method and distinguishes it from pseudoscience.
Fundamental to this distinction between science and pseudoscience is falsifiability. Popper proposed ‘falsifiability’, holding that we must be able to disprove any theory or hypothesis, i.e., that it is testable. To make it testable, the proposers of a theory or hypothesis must present predictions about their theory or model, and these predictions are what make the theory testable, and therefore falsifiable. If a prediction is shown to be true, and it can be repeated in subsequent experiments, then it may become accepted as a scientific theory - but the defining feature of falsifiability is that this theory is always subject to change or future disproving. Thus, a characteristic feature of a scientific theory is that it is simultaneously open to falsification while it may gather evidence in support of its truth. And fundamental to this process is reproducibility: if the findings are reproducible, and are corroborated from other lines of evidence converging to support the hypothesis, then it may become an accepted scientific theory. It may be deemed an approximate Truth of the question at hand.
But this is a challenging process. This is why science is hard. And because these critical approaches to knowledge are difficult, this is why people default to what ‘feels truth-y’ to them. It is why simple explanations, as a means of addressing and dealing with occurrence or phenomena, are attractive. Explanations can be derived scientifically, or without any particular need for logic or scientific reasoning. But now, and in the very near future, we are going to have to become much more rigorous in distinguishing between Truth and tRuTh/TRUTH. Rorty argued that claims to Truth were unnecessary where they served no additional purpose for helping someone cope with their environment. But how does that now fit with the Information Age, when falsifiable and verifiable Truth became optional?