What Is Truth?

The Oxford dictionary defines truth as something that is ‘in accordance with fact or reality’, a definition that is ambiguous about whether there is an absolute truth or if there are multiple truths.

The question of what truth is, and whether we should try to reach it at all costs, is far from new. But with fake news creeping up everywhere, the quest for what is true or not is more important than ever. What is absolute ‘truth’ has been debated for centuries by many philosophers. There is, for example, the Leibniz principle of sufficient reason. According to Leibniz nothing ever happens without a cause or reason, which in turn explains why it exists and why it is so rather than any other way. Leibniz suggests that humans should be satisfied with knowing that everything is connected rather than seeking an absolute, more abstract, truth. Meaning that if something exists, it ‘is’ and therefore must be true.

On the other hand, Descartes proposed to eradicate doubt first to pursue absolute truth. Descartes undertook to doubt everything with the aim to reach an unshakeable foundation, i.e 'The Truth', from which we can deduct everything else. So, first doubt, then - after all doubts have been removed - you are left with what is true, like peeling an onion. But real truth is of course also based on the absence of telling lies and by not confusing beliefs with truth. There are people, for example, who (still) believe the earth is flat and are very vocal about this, but this belief is not to be presented as truth as it is factually incorrect.

Today the concept of a unique truth is more questioned than ever, especially with many people claiming ‘their own truths’ or presenting us with ‘alternative facts’. But mistaking one’s own personal beliefs as ‘truth’ is creating chaos in the truth department and begs the question if society can accept one truth, one set of facts about the world around us? After all, nobody faces a fact or a reality alone, hence facts and reality must be accepted as true by many to be true. Would this mean that the consensus view is automatically the truth? The consensus view in society is as close to truth as we can get, especially if this is based on proven facts (how things happened) and when scientific, that these findings are unbiased and peer reviewed. But the consensus view does not have to be set in stone as it moves with time and with new, better, knowledge of the world around us.

The 20th century philosopher Lacan wrote that ‘the object is in the gaze’, meaning that if facts have an objective reality and exist independently of us, the understanding of these facts is personal. What we consider truth would then depend on personal experience and beliefs. Facts matter, but our interpretation of the facts matters too, and for democracies to thrive (and to avoid anarchy), we need to have, if not a universal truth, truths that can coexist. Much like religious co-existence, where the various beliefs definitely have different ‘truths’.

Fake news and deception are not new either, but social media has vastly increased its reach. A specific problem with truth, or co-existing truths, today is that we tend to consume information that aligns with our beliefs and/or political affiliation and the social media algo-rhythms will send more and more of what we ‘believe’ our way. This has led to different parts of the population refusing the ‘truth’ advocated by groups who do not agree with them.

However, this doesn’t mean that there is no universal truth, as this is where the difference between fact and opinion lies. Even if we believe different things or have different opinions, in order to learn, to move forward and to co-exist, the facts must be accepted by all participants in the conversation, be it at a personal or a national level. But then again, if someone believes the earth is flat and will not accept that this can’t be true, there is little left to discuss. Back to square one? Not so fast, maybe if we all followed Descartes’ train of thought and cast doubt, aka not immediately believe, what we are told and apply critical thinking and fact check our sources, a universal fact-based truth could possibly prevail.

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