There's No Such Thing as "True"

 [Read Time: 6 minutes]

Photo by Claudio.Ar

I actually remember the day that I decided to set honesty above everything else. But, mind you, honesty doesn't necessarily entail truth, or at least truth as we usually think of it.

Once again, I found myself on the wrong end of an argument with a friend. Middle school isn't particularly forgiving, and my friend's passion for the truth reflected this. I had been corrected again, and still in a haze of embarrassment, decided it would never happen again. To be more specific, that I would never believe and insist that I knew something, only to be harshly and rigorously disproved.

Very long story short, I became very good at what my friend had done to me--that is, inflicting embarrassment on the confused with truth and accuracy. Luckily, I soon saw through the heroic rays of intellectual vigilantism that shone down upon me and realized that I was, to be concise, kind of a dick. So as I understood it:

"Truth is good"
"Being a dick is bad"
"Truth leads to being a dick"
Therefore, "To do good things, you have to be a dick, which is a bad thing."

Wait...what?... Of course, as a lover of truth, I couldn't let this contradiction stand unresolved. After running through as many explanations for this as I could, nothing seemed satisfying. Probably the two most common, and least helpful, of these answers are the refrains that "sometimes you have to settle for an non-truth to do good things" or even worse, "nobody's perfect, just do your best." The first is wrong because it's a lazy answer that is more of a sad apology than a helpful bit of advice. The second answer is just empty--it doesn't say anything.

So now what? Time to have a philosophical crisis and watch my epistemological fortress come crashing down in a heap of broken dreams with my mouth filled with the bitter ash of failure?


I've never had this kind of philosophical crisis, I don't even know what it means to experience that kind of a thing, and I hope I never will. I don't think I will, and I at least have a guess as to why.

I think I have a good natural sense for how the world generally works, and I believe this is true for most people. Each time I have one of those holy s*** epiphany, it's really just something that I already knew and agreed with, but that I had not yet so elegantly articulated. And even when that idea is written over, and replaced with another, it's only because a new epiphany seems an even more elegant and clear way of looking at the same thing. I think this is how most people work.

So the beliefs we hold become the things that most clearly and elegantly express our sense of how things work, and these beliefs are put to the test by our use of them out in the world. If it doesn't work well for us in light of others' beliefs, or whatever other worldly experiences they may clash with, we alter them to fit.

Well, all of the sudden the concept of "truth" no longer means much. We can talk about beliefs, and how these beliefs are or aren't helpful, but "Truth" seems to have lost it's force and clout. I can declare that I believe the world is flat, but if I sail off into the horizon looking forward to falling off, I'll probably be disappointed. We don't need to say it's true or not that "this or that," we need only be concerned beliefs with what happens to others and ourselves when we enact them. To believe the world is flat--that is, belief as in the previous paragraph--is simply not a helpful belief to hold.

Truth then, is deflated, it's basically an empty concept. Gottlob Frege and many other philosophers argued this in the following way:

"[Sentence X] is true, if and only if [Sentence X] is true." That's it, that's the most interesting thing we can say about truth--there's nothing more. If we ask how we know if [Sentence X] is true, we must turn to belief as our guide.

But now I'd like to know wtf this has to do with my middle school experience. So this is where we've arrived:

"The concept of truth doesn't have any substance to it"
"Beliefs are what matter to our experience in the world"
"Beliefs can be both helpful and harmful"
Therefore, "To do good things, relate your beliefs to the world around you in a way that is helpful rather than harmful."

Now this is a conception of honesty that I can get behind, and one that I think is worthy of being held as valuable.

Of course, this is probably the least original idea ever and has likely been around as long as thought itself.

Somewhere along the way though, we started habitually getting it wrong and being taught to do so. I'm lucky enough to know many, many people who are flabbergastingly good at what they do, and it seems to me that this is the way they all work--whether they teach, practice medicine, design advertising, or are that kind of person who somehow has no enemies and who everyone loves.

Most of them probably don't think of it in the terms I use here, but the terms aren't important, it's the perspective that gives rise to their actions, and this is where I see an inspiring overlap.

Arguments over truth are not only meaningless, they're not helpful. Operating on beliefs rather than "truths" means you get to define the rules. If your rules don't work, you change them and try again. If they do work, you end up playing by your own rules while others play by the manual they've been handed.

Studying Our Thoughts About Morality

Credit Frederic Poirot

In the comments, please define the following three ideas, in order, in one sentence each and starting with the phrase, "A _____ person is a person who..."

1. A good person

2. A person who is not good but not bad

3. A bad person

(If what you believe has already been said, that's alright. I'm just looking for responses, not original ideas.

Answers don't need to be groundbreaking, I want to know what you really think of when you hear these terms, not how you would intellectually define them.

If you want to remain anonymous, fill the form out using the name "Anon" and the email address ""

Please try to avoid reading others' answers until after you've left your own.

The results will be analyzed and published in a post--this blog is, of course, not the only or even the primary means of info gathering. Thanks for your participation!

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