When we’re wrong, we don’t know we’re wrong. And if we don’t know we’re wrong, being wrong must feel exactly the same as being right.

An Inconvenient Truth

I don’t know about you, but I like being right. When I’m arguing with someone and I know they’re wrong, it feels good! And (maybe not surprisingly) I feel like I’m right most of the time. But how would I know if I’m wrong about something?

What’s it feel like to be wrong?

When we’re wrong, we don’t know we’re wrong. And if we don’t know we’re wrong, being wrong must feel exactly the same as being right. That makes it pretty difficult to know when we’re right about something, and when we’re wrong. So if being wrong feels the same as being right, chances are I’m wrong about something at least once in a while…probably more often than I can imagine.

I suppose we all are. And why wouldn’t we be?

We do nothing to challenge our beliefs. We surround ourselves with people who have the same values and opinions as us. We gather information from sources that reinforce our biases. Those whose opinions differ from our own are brushed off, regardless of the validity of their argument. We spend our lives thinking we know best. That our choices are superior than those of others. We believe we know better than everyone we encounter who has a different way of thinking, a belief system that’s inconsistent with our own, or whose political persuasion conflicts with the “truths” that we consider to be self-evident.

But can we be right all of the time? About everything? Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, we’re not quite as smart as we think? That despite our best intentions, our perception is all wrong? Maybe there’s another way of thinking about things. A way that’s different, but equally valid…

As smart as we are, we won’t always be right, which is why we need to keep an open mind and be willing to look at things from another angle and through a different filter. Our biases keep us locked into a very specific, and very limited way of thinking. Our political persuasion predisposes us to a certain way of thinking. Our filters and biases are why some people see art, while others see pornography. (Which do you see? Leave a comment below.)

Truth is subjective.

And if truth is subjective, does that mean our beliefs are no more (or less) valid than those of people who believe exactly the opposite? In the photo above, did you see art or pornography? Why did you see what you saw, and why can another person look at the same photo and see something different? We can look at the same photo but see different things because our biases and filters color our perception of reality. Of what is, and what isn’t. Of what’s right and what’s wrong. Moral and immoral.

But what we see through our filter doesn’t make it so. It’s only interpretation…our interpretation. What we believe to be truth is our perception based on past experiences and current beliefs. Others may have a different interpretation.

The next time you feel absolute in your opinion, ask yourself if it’s possible you could be wrong. You just might be.

(Everything I’ve written here is my interpretation of truth. Your interpretation may vary.)

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21 thoughts on “An Inconvenient Truth

  1. I do know when I’m definitely right about facts. I have lots of beliefs about things which I’m not so sure about and if someone comes along and tells me something different I’ll be happy to hear about it and won’t argue. I only argue when I’m sure I’m right and can’t remember being mistaken about one of those things really. Then there are value judgements where I know my opinion is just one option. So I don’t think everyone is as strongly opinionated about everything as you suggest is this article.

    • But there can be different interpretations of those facts. In statistics, for example, you’re taught that numbers, depending on who’s using them and for what purpose, can be manipulated, not by changing the actual data, but by how that data is presented. I think the same holds true for many of the “facts” the we know and believe to be true. Isn’t it just as possible that what we know to be truth is (potentially) nothing more than skewed information presented to us through channels which have an agenda? And even if the facts that we receive are indeed accurate, isn’t it our filter that determines our opinion about that information? That’s why I brought up the issue of pornography and art. The photo is a non-biased piece of media that is exactly the same for everyone who sees it, however, depending on the individual, can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.

      I don’t see how that’s any different than, say, people’s opinion on how Obama is doing as President. Some people approve, others disapprove…but his actions are exactly the same regardless of who’s judging him. It’s our filter, not the facts. I think it’s important not only to listen to people, as we tend to listen to people and then write them off anyway, but to really try to understand where they’re coming from, and then decide if their ideas make sense or not.

      I do think people hold at least some things near and dear to their hearts without ever questioning whether or not it’s “right.” Politics, religion, veganism, etc. And it’s not always so much whether they’re right, but that everyone else is wrong. I see it all the time, especially in regards to the three issues I just mentioned. People latch onto these things and fight to the bitter end without ever considering if there are other ways.

  2. Loved this article!

    “Isn’t it just as possible that what we know to be truth is (potentially) nothing more than skewed information presented to us through channels which have an agenda?”

    This made me think of the FDA food pyramid.. which is a whole other discussion lol

    • By definition, “truth” is indeed non-subjective, but from a more philosophical perspective (which is what this article is meant to be), truth is not so simple.

  3. I disagree :)

    From a *philosophical* perspective this distinction / definition is far more important than when speaking in casual conversation, surely?

    In fact such rigor with language is what distinguishes a philosophical discussion from a casual one.

    Philosophy is not the same as just ‘pondering’ about things.

    I learned a lot about the power of using language well from this guy. Awesome stuff. Enjoy!
    http://www.youtube.com/user/stefbot

    • (I’d just like to preface this by stating that I’m not a philosopher…)

      I think truth is abstract, in the sense that “truth” is different depending on the filter through which reality and fact are perceived. It’s a bit like the old saying that there are two sides to every story. For both people involved, the facts of the situation remain exactly equal, though those facts can be interpreted in a variety of ways based on our personal biases, beliefs, agendas, values, etc. This isn’t to say that there isn’t any reality, only that our perception of that reality may not actually reflect fact.

      Does that clear up what I’m trying to express in this article, or have I missed what you’re getting at?

  4. Yes I think you have missed what I’m getting at.

    I agree that reality is not fixed and is a product of the (varied) perceptions and interpretations of people who may all adhere to different belief systems.

    But this is all the more reason to have a way of describing that which is not a product of our interpretation, but which exists independently…… ie truth.

    For example 2+2 =4 is the truth. It is not a matter of interpretation or debate.

    Can you imagine mathematics or physics (or whatever) without exactness…. without truth? We’d all be going around in wonky horse carts still.

    Without truth in philosophy we are left equally stuck in a dark age.

    This is WHY the idea of relativism is so heavily promoted by the establishment. It stunts our growth and keeps the hierarchy of power intact.

    • As a student of the Sciences, I can appreciate your example, though I’d consider that fact, rather than truth. To me, “truth” represents something more than facts. When I consider truth, I don’t apply the word to science or mathematics, which may be why we disagree. A fact can be proven, whereas a truth is something a person believes. At least, that’s how I’ve separated the two in my mind. Facts, therefore, are not open to debate, but truth is ambiguous.

  5. “A fact can be proven, whereas a truth is something a person believes.”

    OK let me have one last go ;)

    You imply in the above statement that a truth is something a person believes and that (unlike a fact) it can be disproved. But what you are actually talking about is a *belief* being disproved. A BELIEF that something is the truth!)

    Here’s an example: I believe that me owning 40,000 cats is the truth. But after an investigation it turns out I do not own 40,000 cats. My belief gets disproved. But let’s say I still believe it is the truth. But is it still the truth? No. Was it ever the truth? No. But in my madness, do I still believe it is the truth. Yes.

    Belief is not the same as truth. Truth is OBJECTIVE. Belief is SUBJECTIVE.

    What you are really talking about when you talk about ‘truth’ is belief. If I believe something is true that makes it a belief – it is NOT make it automatically the truth.

    However any belief may turn out to be the truth, or it may turn out to be a lie. But that is a separate issue.

    If we do not understand the difference between belief and truth we are doomed as a society. It is as important as understanding – and adhering to the fact/ truth that 2+2=4 (or any other hard scientific/ mathematical truth/ fact).

    For example Tony Blair said recently that he ‘believed it was true that there were WMD’s in Iraq’ as if this somehow justified the war (over a million dead). What if I murdered you and said ‘I believed it was true that you were about to attack me’? Obviously that is NOT an excuse!

    We are on extremely dodgy ground if we, as a society, lose a grip on the distinction between objective truth and subjective belief.

    The truth is the truth! The truth is like ‘North’, we cannot start saying ‘my north’ or ‘your north’ (ok bad example, with magnetic vs true north …. but you see my point!)

    Look at 9/11. The whole in the pentagon was 16 feet across! The truth is the truth! If hit by a plane it would have had to have squeezed through a 16 ft hole.

    When Truth becomes a subjective experience, a matter of opinion and debate, the people with the most money and control over the media ALWAYS end up winning the debate. And we all end up having to live in a world based on a ‘true stories’ such asthis one!

    • I agree that there’s a distinction to be made between belief and truth. I also agree that there’s a difference between being told the truth, and being lied to. I also agree that if our beliefs are based on lies, that it’s impossible to know the truth. I don’t think we disagree over any of this.

      What I think we disagree on is how I’m using the word truth. What I’m trying to convey in this article is that what you believe to be true…how you perceive reality…may NOT actually BE the reality. Truth is something that exists only in our mind. In your example of 9/11, you give specific points that counter the official story, and while that information may indeed be fact, it’s your interpretation of those facts that leads you to believe what you do. We may never know the real story of what happened, but we can speculate all we’d like.

      Facts on non-negotiable. But our interpretations of those facts are. As I’ve mentioned before, different people interpret the same information/data in different ways. Facts, however, are not open to interpretation. You may call that “truth.” I believe truth exists in your mind, and is therefore subjective. Like I said, your interpretation may vary. Clearly it does.

  6. “… I also agree that if our beliefs are based on lies, that it’s impossible to know the truth…”

    That may be so in many cases. But that doesn’t mean truth can NEVER be reached or as a concept should not exist.

    It seems you are using that as a justification for ‘watering down’ the very concept (definition) of Truth. Isn’t it better to just say something like ‘we may never know the truth in this case’?

    “…What I think we disagree on is how I’m using the word truth. What I’m trying to convey in this article is that what you believe to be true…how you perceive reality…may NOT actually BE the reality…..”

    Sure. But that’s belief you’re talking about. Or interpretation.

    “…Truth is something that exists only in our mind….”

    Well… I guess that’s a stance you can take. Sure, everything can be said to exist in our minds. And reality can be said to all be one enormous illusion. And so nothing is really real and so on…..

    This is fine but it’s not very helpful! ;) I mean if we’re going to design and build an passenger plane we can say “everything is just energy condensed to a slow vibration and life is just a dream” OR we can use scientific principals, mathematics, the known properties of various materials and so on and build ourselves an airplane which works!

    The same is true of philosophy (or of normal sensible discussion). If we are going to have a conversation about truth at all, then we might as well do so within the confines of a generally agreed reality!

    If I punch you in the face and you press assault charges against me, you wouldn’t like it if I said that me punching you in the face was just your mind’s interpretation of this dream like reality and that my interpretation of it was different. We have to establish some ground rules in this reality!

    If I write 2+2=5 on a wall then that is (truthfully) what’s written on the wall – but it doesn’t make it true in terms of mathematics. Again we have to work within an agreed framework.

    As for 9/11….. what I’m really trying to say is that we mustn’t get into the mindset of thinking a truth about what happened doesn’t exist and 9/11 is all a matter of interpretation. We mustn’t start to think of it as being like jazz or marmite – a matter of taste!

    We must remember that even if we never get a a proper criminal investigation into it and never get to the bottom of it the truth of what happened a truthful account of that day still exists! (even if we can’t ever be 100% sure what it is).

    Truth is perhaps like the concept of zero. It doesn’t exist and can’t ever be ‘held’ yet it is absolutely necessary for us to keep this concept absolute and pure (and not start calling ‘a tiny bit’ zero) otherwise we can’t use maths in the real world.

    In the same way all speculation and interpretation of the events of 9/11 (or anything else) must revolve around the concept of an absolute Truth existing. Otherwise we might as well just make up a story that we want to believe…. and just believe it (which is what so many people seem to have done!).

    This ‘jazz/ marmite’ approach will drag us all back into a new dark age of fear and superstition, which is why I think it is as important issue :)

    • I can agree to everything you’ve written above, but with one caveat: Truth is dynamic. If not relative, dynamic. As our knowledge grows, so too does our understanding. Not too long ago, people thought the world was flat. At the time, it was a truth. Then they were proven wrong. Some said humans would never fly, and that was accepted as fact…until a couple of guys proved that wrong as well. Today, the acceleration of gravity is -9.8 m/s^2 and is considered to be fact, and by your definition, a truth. However, it’s possible that tomorrow someone will come along and disprove THAT. What I’m saying is that fact/reality DOES exist, but our interpretations of that information, what you’d describe as truth, isn’t always understood. Even though it’s accepted as fact, it may not be truth. Which is why I believe truth is still interpretation of fact, and therefore subjective (and dynamic.)

      I think we could go ’round and ’round on this topic for years without ever reaching an agreement, but I think we ARE finding at least some common ground.

  7. Nice article Steven. You are so right to suggest that we are not always right and that opening our minds – a hard thing to do – will actually improve our changes. Irony wins again.

  8. It took me a long time to question things, to really start thinking for myself. Much longer than it should have. But once I realized that, I constantly try to remember that I could always be wrong or that I could always simply have a different opinion than someone else.

  9. “…. Not too long ago, people thought the world was flat. At the time, it was a truth…..”

    No it wasn’t! ;)

    At the time it was a belief. That’s was kind of my whole point. Belief and truth are not the same thing. It may have been a universally accepted belief (a belief everyone thought was true) but that doesn’t mean it actually was the truth.

    There was a time not too long ago that many people thought that black people were inherently inferior to white people (in some places people still believe this is true). Are you trying to tell me that this was actually the truth in those days??? Of course it wasn’t the truth, it’s just that many people believed it was true, that’s all.

    The problem with thinking that belief = the truth is that it creates very, very bad situations for humanity. Slavery, the holocaust, no rights for women etc etc would still be happening today if belief = truth. In order for humanity to advance we must separate belief from truth and accept that truth is absolute! (like ‘zero’ is absolute)

    Without the idea of truth it becomes very hard to figure out what is really going on in the world, just as mathematics becomes very hard to figure out if we allow zero to mean other values that aren’t 0

    • “Truth” is relative to our understanding of reality. You’re right…what we consider to be truth might not actually be truth, but that doesn’t really change the fact that beliefs, however wrong they might be, are oftentimes held with such fervor that it doesn’t really matter what the facts are. This can apply to the hard sciences and mathematics, but I think the general application is in religion, politics, and other areas where there is much more grey area.

  10. Also, I feel as though your own apparent “truth” is often developed throughout childhood, more of a values sort of thing. I see this truth as being comparable to transcendentalism and how since a child’s mind is so unbiased and pure, they see things differently, innocently. The truth of one of these children may differ from another whose childhood was completely different or way more violent. I guess I believe that each individual forms their own truth. Holy, I boggled myself. Very interesting discussion.

    Steve

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