The Nature of Truth


After decades of wandering in the wilderness of what to do with our Sunday mornings, my wife and I stumbled across the Socrates Café. We recently moved from the chaos and congestion of Seattle to Bellingham, Washington, a small town of about 75,000 situated on the Puget Sound between Seattle and VancouverBC and rated by Outside Magazine as the top “DreamTown” and “outdoorsy community” in the nation. We made a conscious choice to get actively involved in the town, and the Socrates Café seemed a perfect venue. This was especially relevant to us because the name of our company is The Socrates Network, and I have used the Socratic method for many years to teach and explore technology, business and human relationships.

The Socrates Café is a “community of philosophical inquiry” that takes place at coffee houses, book stores, community centers and other public spaces. The notion for these gatherings comes from Christopher Phillips and is described in his book, “Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy.”

At every meeting, we propose a variety of questions to explore, then vote and settle on a single question for the day’s discussion. The question we chose on this particular Sunday was, “Does experience render belief obsolete?”

We started in true Socratic form by turning this question into several other questions.

What is experience? What is belief? How does the question change if we twist it around and ask, “Does belief render experience obsolete?”

We explored the nature of experience for a while and loosely settled on the notion that our experience is the data we draw upon from our lives, and that belief seems somehow related to the judgments we have made about what that data means.

Now it’s important to acknowledge that these definitions reflect my judgments about the experience I had, and do not necessarily reflect a clear group decision. This is the nature of the Socrates Café. We discuss, we explore, and we often disagree. And since I am writing this paper, these are my beliefs about my experience.

As we explored the meaning of belief, we asked, “What is the relationship between belief and truth?” There certainly seems to be a relationship between belief and truth. Why would one hold beliefs that one does not believe to be true? What I believe, I believe to be true.

This lead us to the obvious question, is there such a thing as absolute Truth, Truth with a capital “T?” We looked at the truth derived from science and the “natural laws” of the universe. Certainly if I believe that I can fly and jump out of a building attached only to that belief, Gravity might manifest as a slightly higher truth. But is the law of Gravity an absolute truth? It would seem that way, at least given today’s context and experience. What I understand of science would hold that there are certain mathematical laws that govern how gravity works. But are these laws absolute truth? Newton first described them, but then along came Einstein with some relativistic modifications to Newton’s truths. And even Einstein struggled to find the one underlying formula or truth that links everything together.

The laws of science are evolving as our experience grows. The scientific method teaches us to ask a question, postulate an answer and then conduct an experiment that yields data. We then examine the resulting data, integrate it somehow with our existing beliefs, and either validate or challenge our beliefs.

We never conclusively ruled out the possibility of an absolute Truth with a capital “T,” but we were certainly challenged to name one. It was quite easy, though, for us to acknowledge that most of our beliefs we could label as truths with a lower case “t.”

So are there only two types of truth? Truth with a capital “T” and truth with a lower case “t,” or is truth simply a sliding scale of belief, with some beliefs being somehow more true than others?

Someone noted that the chairs we were seated on were, according to scientific truth, comprised mostly of empty space. If this is true, then what’s holding me off the floor? And if the floor is mostly empty space, why don’t we sink into the earth? It seems like some other truth is operating. Perhaps I am just dense enough not to melt through the chair. But then this might depend on your definition of “dense.”

How do the various truths about the chair affect me? Well, the chair may be mostly empty space, but my experience is that it usually holds me up. So is this experience or a belief? My data is that I have sat in countless chairs and only occasionally crashed to the floor. And when the chair didn’t hold me, it was because of a structural weakness in the chair or because somebody moved it at the last moment. Yes, there is also the occasional experience of aiming for the chair and simply missing it; but I tend to be a bit more careful about that as I get older. So I have lots of data from which I have formed a belief that chairs usually (but not always) keep my butt off the floor. And I will label this belief as a truth with some size of “t,” possibly a capital “T”, but probably someplace between upper and lower case.

So truth seems to come in all sizes, not just my truth and absolute truth. Apparently most truth is somewhat subjective. This seems to fit nicely, since truth is observed by humans who are, by our nature, capable of missing the chair entirely.

One member acknowledged that he is a Christian and asked, “What is the role of faith?” He admitted that he does not believe in the absolute truth of many events described in the Bible, but nonetheless he does have faith in the basic beliefs of Christianity.

Faith seems to be an important part of the equation somehow, especially when we don’t have all of the data. And do we ever have all of the data? If he doesn’t believe in the truth of the Bible, how can he still have faith?

At this point, a formula emerged that seemed to tie everything together rather nicely. It’s a formula for truth. Here goes.

My data (derived from my experience) + my faith (whatever I believe that data means) = my truth (with a “t” of some size).

Testing this formula, in the best of scientific traditions, my data is that most chairs that look like the one I was sitting on have supported my butt, and I had some degree of faith that this one would too. Add them together and my truth is that I could probably sit safely in this particular chair.

From this discussion emerged one of those points of clarity I will hold forever. One of the group observed that my truth is simply my certain “T.” That’s the word “certain” followed with the letter “t” of some size. My “certainty.”

In the case of the chair, my certainty was that it would hold me safely. However, if I get data that conflicts with my belief, I may adjust my truth. So I hold this certain “t” with only a moderately sized “t.”

What happens when my certainty interacts with your certainty and your certainty is different from mine? I think the work for this is “conflict.” How do we resolve it? If we accept the formula for truth, then, either my data and yours are different, or our what we believe about that data is somehow different. If we share the same data, but have different truths, then it’s our judgments about that data, our belief in what that data means, our faiths that differ. The same data + different beliefs = different truths.

But which truth is the more true? Which truth is the higher truth? Here, the notion of absolute truth shows up as certainty versus certitude[1]. If I am absolutely certain of my beliefs and they conflict with yours, how do we resolve the conflict? If the “t” in my truth is absolute, and I hold my beliefs with certitude, then we have little room to resolve our conflict, and events like September 11th happen. Bin Laden holds his truth as absolute, and thousands have died because of his certitude. President Bush also seems to hold his truths with a high degree of certitude. I have some serious concerns about where his certitude is leading us.

The original question was, “Does our experience render our beliefs obsolete?” What is your experience? What is your truth? What’s your answer?

About the Author

Bob Jones is a consultant, teacher and coach living in Bellingham, Washington. He may be reached by email at bob@rhj4.com or by phone at (360) 441-0784.

Last updated on 10/18/2008


[1] cer·ti·tude   (sûrt-td, -tyd) n.

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

  1. The state of being certain; complete assurance; confidence.
  2. Sureness of occurrence or result; inevitability.
  3. Something that is assured or unfailing: “eager to swap the hazards of American freedom for the gray certitudes of Soviet life” (Time).

Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

  1. Freedom from doubt; assurance; certainty.

Source: WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University

  1. total certainty or greater certainty that circumstances warrant [syn: cocksureness, overconfidence]

 

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