The Truth About Truth

"Just because you believe something to be true doesn't mean it is."
- Theodore Shick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn

Many people like to use the phrase "It's true for me" when speaking about an objective reality, but there is no such thing as subjective truth about objective reality. Either Bigfoot exists for everybody or not. Either the Loch Ness Monster exists for everybody or not. Bigfoot can't suddenly exist "just for you," you can only simply have a belief that he exists...but this doesn't entail that he actually does just because you believe it. Truth is not a matter of "I think something is true, so therefore it is." Individuals do not create "truth monopolies" or "create reality" by simply thinking. Reality exists whether or not any minds think of it and reality exists independently of our thoughts.

We can certainly interpret reality in different ways and come to different conclusions, but this does not mean that our subjective ideas constitute an objective reality. I might believe that a vehicle is travelling 75 MPH, for example, and you might believe that a vehicle is travelling 60MPH. While we may not have an answer to what the speed really is in practice (we might not have a radar gun on hand), there is an answer in principle...and there is only one answer. Our thoughts about a situation and a conclusion we come to are merely interpretations, not facts about reality.

It might be appealing to fall for "truth relativism" and utter phrases like "it's true for me" because many don't like to disagree with others or even have intellectual conversations about important differences. Different views aren't "equally true" or all valid because claims about an objective reality that conflict simply all can't be true because of the law of non-contradiction. A clock, for example, can't be both on the wall and off the all. Christianity and Hinduism both can't be true. 9/11 can't be both a conspiracy theory and not a conspiracy theory.

It is true that we can't be "100% certain" about anything but this is a red herring as I discuss in the linked post and poses no threat to knowledge. All of our knowledge is based on current available background information about the world and is subject to change pending new evidence. When I say "truth," I mean a belief that is held to a very high degree of confidence and is supplied with good evidence, arguments, etc.

Let's deal with many forms of truth relativism with the help of How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age.

- We each create our own reality

This claim simply can't be true because reality exists independent of what we think about it. The logical conclusion of this thought is the position of solipsism - the idea that the thinker (me) is the only person who actually exists and the rest is simply a figment of the thinker's (my) imagination. This view is absurd because there is no rational basis whatsoever for believing that this is true. We understand that matter independent of ourselves exists. Other people exist and they function regardless of whether we think about them. There's not much more to say here about solipsism.

- Truth is a matter of social agreement

This claim is often used in conjunction with bandwagon arguments and fallacious appeals to tradition/longevity. Just because a group of persons believes that something is true does not mean that this something is true. Many people believe in ghosts, astrology, etc, but this doesn't matter because the evidence for either is simply not there. If 60% of Americans believed that the earth is flat, the earth suddenly does not become flat. Social agreement only tells you what people think, not what reality actually is. The view of socially constructed truth fails when established truths such as the logical truths are concerned, as mentioned above, and can't contradict established definitions we have. 1 + 1 =2, for example, no matter what people say because we have established definitions for 1, +, =, and 2. The Holocaust can't "un-happen" if people suddenly think that it was a farce.

There are appropriate appeals to social agreement when experts in a field are decided, a non-extraordinary claim is made and there are independent witnesses (Johnny hit Jane's car after speeding through the red light), or disinterested sources report information. Even in these three previous cases (and there could be more), evidence is still presented or accessible to bolster the strength of the claim being made. Scientists who arrive at a well-established conclusion can show you evidence to support their claims. Eyewitness testimony is suspect, so witnesses are scrutinized, police make sure they are disinterested, the stories concur, the witnesses didn't collude, etc. Reporters are obligated to report honestly about events and it's quite easy to see what many sources are saying to verify that an event happened the way it was reported.

- Moral/Cultural Relativism?

Some people might claim "Well, it was true for Hitler that the Jews were evil and if the Germans decided to kill Jews, they were OK because they were in power," "Well, Saudis think stoning women is OK, and that's what they decide, so that's fine for them!" This view utterly fails. Although morality can't be totally defined or agreed on with everyone, we have to come to an understanding, no matter what we believe, that morality is concerned with questions of well-being. Killing Jews does not increase the well-being of the Jews and is not conducive to goodness. We know that depriving the lives of other humans is immoral because we are taking away their rights to have a future like ours, violating the safety of others, etc. It's not hard to understand that.

As I've discussed in my "Naturalistic Morality" post, morality is a product of socialization, human knowledge, and realizing that others have the same basic needs and wants as us. Once we realize that others are like us and wanted to be treated with the respect that we hope to be treated with, we can establish that treating others poorly is immoral without appealing to any gods or scriptures. Morality is not "might makes right" or "whoever is in power calls the shots" (that's totalitarianism).

We can say, on quite simple grounds, that splashing acid into the faces of women who want to read is immoral. Learning to read is not harming anyone, but rather is benefiting society and the individual who learns to read. Humans should have the ability to be literate and functional in a society that demands it. If a society decides that acid splashing is morally justified, the action suddenly does not become morally justified. Whether or not acid splashing is justifiable can't come down to a vote of a society...what if everyone votes that this is permissible? Clearly, moral/cultural relativism fails. "The idea of cultural relativism is nothing but an excuse to violate human rights." - Shirin Ebadi

I could go into morality more, but I've touched on this in previous posts and you can go out and read Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, listen to Matt Dillahunty's Superiority of Secular Morality lecture, or read/listen to something else.

What about personal opinions?

If I make a statement such as "herb-baked salmon is the best food in the King's College marketplace," this is a factual representation of my food tastes and of myself. This still isn't a situation that can allow for an argument for subjective truth. Shick and Vaughn explain,
Let's say that Jane loves white wine and Jack doesn't. On their first dinner date, Jane says, "I love white wine." Is Jane's statement true for her but not true for Jack? No. Her statement reports a fact about herself, and because she does love white wine, her statement is true. It's not true for her and false for Jack; it's just true. If Jack says, "I don't love white wine," his statement refers to a fact about himself and is also true for both of them (313-314).
So, opinions about favorites and our likes are merely facts about ourselves.


We might perceive and interpret reality in different ways, but this doesn't entail that truth is relative. Things don't exist just because we believe that they do. There is such a thing as an objective reality that is entirely indifferent to what we think about it. We ought to accept this fact and search for the truth.

Perhaps this "It's true for me" nonsense really means "I believe it but don't or can't give reasons to you." If this is the case, people should say this...and should really question why they believe something if they can't dictate why they believe it to others. If you're not comfortable with giving reasons to others, you should be intellectually honest and search for the truth yourself, listen to arguments from others, and strive to hold as many justified beliefs as possible.