Truth is Relative

Go beyond the appearance and the behaviour to the nature that underpins everything. 

The truth of being a cat is relative only to this cat.

The truth of being a cat is relative only to this cat.

Recent events got me thinking about what truth is.  I find that nobody has a monopoly on truth, that truth is relative.  Take for example the colour red, I see red as red, the bee sees red as black.  Truth is the product of self, the bee brain makes red black and my brain red as red; truth in this sense is relative to the beholder of the truth.

God.

Take the example of God, some believe in God, some reject God, some like me sit on the fence as agnostics.  Those that believe in God differ on what God is: energy, gravity, a mind, with no mind, in creation, separate from creation.  God is one of those ideas that can neither be disproved or proven with any certainty.  Truth is relative to the beholder.

Nothing is certain.

Truth then to me is never one conclusion, but can be a diversity of conclusions.  Red can be red but can also be black depending on the beholder, thus truth is relative.  It is better to say I believe the truth to be, rather than say this is the truth.  With the universe composed of visible and hidden variables, always changing and in feedback loops nothing can be claimed with any certainty.

Belief.

Since truth is relative it is better to say that I act and think according to a belief rather than a truth, the same for everyone.  When the word belief is mentioned some people choke on it, they believe that the universe is deterministic, that there is only one truth, often the one they believe it to be.  It is apparent neither bee or I have a monopoly on the truth of what the colour red is, we hold different beliefs of the colour red relative to ourselves.

The hubristic need to monopolise belief.

I see no harm in a world holding a diversity of beliefs.  So what if a Native American believes a tree has a spirit, a belief based on animism? Yet to the Christian missionary the Native American is a lost soul to be saved, and to the Atheist the Native American is one to be converted to the progress of modern science.  The outsider has this need to force their own beliefs onto the Native American, resulting in widespread suicide, mental illness, drug abuse and alcoholism amongst the people whose belief systems they obliterated.  The need of some to westernise Islam or Islam to convert the West sets the scene for a so-called clash of civilisations: violence, hate, fear and anger.

Black swans.

Even in my own empirical and inductive approach to truth, I know I can only draw a probability of truth.  I may count 1000 white swans on a lake and conclude the world only has white swans, then one day a black swan appears.  I have to be open to the possibility of black swans, which is a position of humility.

Hubris hates diversity of belief.

The individual or group who claims their truth is the only truth is gripped in hubris.  Truth is relative, there can be many truths. Hubris follows through to control, the individual or group needs and acts to force their belief upon other people who have a different belief of a truth relative to them.  Those inflicted with hubris hate diversity, they only want one truth, that of their own.  The horrors of Nazi Germany, or the Crusades or of Vietnam was because a group of people wanted a world based on their own beliefs with all other beliefs eliminated.

Grounding belief like roots of a tree.

A belief should be grounded like a tree has roots that anchors it into the ground, otherwise it moves into fantasy.  To ground a belief it is to be tested by asking questions, by looking for observable, experiential or demonstrable evidence of its existence.  A belief untested but accepted without question is ignorance, it is opinion.

Follow the common.

When Heraclitus suggests “follow the common”, he means to deal with things based upon their nature: it is common for all ducks to love water; it is common for all energy to flow; it is common for all things to evolve or change through strife.  Heraclitus suggests people go beyond appearances and behaviour to the underlying nature of the universe, and in this one grounds belief in the common of reality rather than in the ignorance of opinion.

28 responses to “Truth is Relative

  1. Your truth and my truth may not be the same. If you or i don’t witness an event and are told something happen it is up to us if we want to believe it to be true or not. Truth is true to only the one who believes it to be true.

    • Agreed. I add that any claims to truth by another should be tested by questioning. Untested belief is ignorance or opinion, which can be dangerous to the self. Tested belief where in some manner one can confirm its honesty results in wisdom and authenticity.

      Humility comes from accepting that every person has a different belief which is relative to the individual. How beautiful to accept the uniqueness of another mind without trying to force it to accept our version of belief.

      I have to keep reminding myself to offer choice never force belief upon others. I can offer a belief via this blog but leave it to the beautiful minds that read it to use as they will.

  2. Very powerful essay! Would like to take a few small extracts into a post that I am writing for this coming Thursday.

  3. If only more people could read this and let it sink in. Majority of the problems we see today come from one premise, they believe their opinions are truth, fact and therefore are not open to hearing another opinion. How I wish we could learn to be more tolerant of different opinions and remember that is all they are, opinions.

    • I waste an awful lot of resources having to deal with such people. I agree, it follows that harmony between peoples of many beliefs is only possible when those peoples can accept this diversity of belief without the need to force their own belief onto each other.

      Too many people force their belief onto others rather than offering it with respect to the other’s belief as a choice to be considered.

  4. Our Truth is constantly changing given the information we are all privy too…We draw our reality around us based upon the information we are given, and perceive it to be… But does that make it Truth? as you say, each may perceive a different truth based upon their perception which often is based upon a belief..
    From a young age we are taught to see the world based upon the perceived reality of others in their beliefs of what is True and real… We often never question that ‘Truth’ because we do not think to question it, because we have no reasons to disbelieve what we are being taught!…
    In bygone days the world was perceived to be Flat and those who thought otherwise were thought Mad to go sailing off the edge of the Ocean!….

    Wonderful Post Alex
    Sue

    • Thanks Sue. You bring up an important point that the truth relative to self is changing as new experience or knowledge is added from living life. People are in a constant state of becoming changing from one moment to a next. I see such changes in my own beliefs over time.

  5. This kind of ‘understanding’ comes directly from Aristotelian physics. And it is contains an epistemological weakness that diverts us from gaining reliable and consistent knowledge. Galileo, for example, showed very clearly that things don’t have natures, and it is upon his shoulders that Newton claimed to see farther. But here we go again, with the more philosophically inclined trying to vainly argue that things really, really, really do have natures as revealed by motion! Good grief, but this was put to bed half a millennium ago!

    I mention this because your essay is punctuated by Aristotelian terminology, and it is exactly here, in the terminology, that we go astray from what is knowable for everyone everywhere all the time and from which we build a model of understanding that produces technologies, applications, and therapies that are efficacious, and slide effortlessly backwards in time justifying why we should fool ourselves with our beliefs, that we move away from allowing and respecting reality to arbitrate and adjudicate our beliefs about it and slip into metaphysics that produces not one jot or tittle of knowledge, not a single technology, application, or therapy that works, not one advancement in our understanding of how reality operates. To get around this obvious and fatal error of using a known flawed epistemology, people like you try to do an end run by changing reality to mean a reflection of our beliefs in it. To succeed, we must alter the definition of words in such a way so that we are willing to consider the merits of ‘up’ mean ‘down’ and ‘black’ mean ‘white’ in order to save this broken model. Your broken model is not worth saving if we have to alter what we mean by the term ‘true’ to mean something else entirely…. to accept that what is true can be not true for you, that what is true is dependent on who is doing the labeling. This alters the meaning of what the term. Truth becomes relative and deconstructs all of reality to suit the beliefs of the viewer. But this isn’t knowledge, is it? This approach does not work to reflect the reality we share. Imagine trying to build a bridge on such vagaries of belief! It does no good to excuse the collapsed bridge with hand waving about belief in the capability of weight loads based not on reality but on the misguided beliefs of the bridge builder who honestly or not assumed that straw could manage weight loads better than steel. Belief does not inform knowledge: reality does. Changing the meaning of words doesn’t alter reality; it only alters our perception of it.

    I grow frustrated when otherwise intelligent people insist that the thing itself being viewed is somehow subject and relative to those doing the viewing. This is so stupid it burns and causes nothing but negative effects in achieving a common, testable, reliable understanding of how reality works. The frequency of reflected light is not relative to the eye that sees it, be it a person or a beetle. It is one frequency. It is not relative to the critter doing the viewing. What is relative is the perception, and – armed with this understanding of how perception is not reality – we can further our inquiry to avoid falling into this metaphysical trap whereby we fool ourselves into the cesspool of relativity. That you fail to grasp this point in order to submit your support of relativity shows a very clear misunderstanding you have about what ‘it’ is we are studying; you believe that what you experience translates seamlessly into what is real, what is true – and therefore relative – and confuse the relativity of the person doing the seeing with the objective state of what is being seen. This is very confused thinking, a guaranteed way of fooling yourself into believing that you determine your own reality. In medical terminology, we call this delusional thinking.

    • Tildeb, one of my influences is Aristotle, and it was he who may be considered one of the first to define a difference between potential and kinetic aspects of nature. Motion is kinetic, but all kinetic energy flows from a potential source. Potential is as I define it “will to move” i.e. it will move given the opportunity to do so in a given direction, a given pattern and a given form, thus when it is kinetic we perceive it’s nature by its appearance and behaviour. The nature of an object to me has the same meaning as essence or potentiality.

      I fear you are too obsessed with buckets rather than the contents of those buckets. In the metaphor of buckets I mean that the word is empty until it has a meaning attached to it. It was interesting one day for me to go through a list of the ideas of over a hundred philosophers from ancient to modern, and it quickly became apparent that they repeated the same ideas but with different words. Nothing is fixed in nature, only humanity seems to be obsessed with fixing anything into an unchangeable state. Words and their meanings evolve, thats the way it is. It is a good practice to change a word, for instance “problem” changed to “challenge” alters perception significantly to have a healthy outcome in dealing with life’s challenges. I suggest go beyond words and appearances to meanings and the nature of things for in that one indeed changes perceptions and allows for paradigm shifts to healthy and amazing possibilities. In the application of bridge building, being open to many possibilities than fixated to a few old ideas means new bridge designs that are stronger and more effective than the old.

      Why are your frustrated? What is it to you that I hold a certain belief or way of thinking? Thats the problem I raise in this post, to be able to accept the diversity of belief without seeking to control and force your beliefs on another. As to how an animal perceives an object in its mind, it matters not if the difference from one animal to another is sensory, processing or meaning, the end result is relative to the animal in question. I would suggest that the idea of a human as a rational objective machine is delusional, rather humanity is subjective in their relationship with the universe.

      • It is frustrating because respecting faith-based beliefs of any kind is the root cause of allowing the infliction of real harm to real people in real life, the central block to effectively addressing real problems with a common language based on reality, the core and often fatal flaw to gaining knowledge of that reality, and the undermining of the principle of respecting reality not as we wish it to be but as it is. And this problem is exacerbated by otherwise intelligent and caring people who have utterly fooled themselves into empowering their perspectives to be equivalent to reality, and who think their conclusions based on this bias to be an expression of an educated mind. It’s not. It’s how illusionists and naturopaths and tarot card readers priests and snake oil salesmen make their living.

      • I am sure you value democracy, and in such democracy everyone is blessed with choice, to choose their belief, their way of life. You may disagree with the lifestyle or belief of another but you have the problem that your paradigm is the minority and the those that you criticise are in the majority. If a person wishes to believe that the stars have a direct impact on their fate, although I may consider that ignorant opinion I respect their choice to act of their own free will to choose their beliefs. It is neither for you or me to determine the belief of another, that leads to hubris, which leads to control, which leads to inhumanity of man to man.

        Another blessing of living in a democracy is diversity, which is that nobody are clones but hold a variety of beliefs. I encourage each to respect the belief of another, to offer the choice of alternative beliefs but never force it on the other. I encourage people in a world that is threatened by unsustainable activities to understand the belief of others and then use the elements of the belief to encourage people en-mass to adopt sustainable practices. The 541 followers of Liberated Way come from diverse beliefs, cultures, nations and races, they share in common a love for humanity and this planet, and in that all are one mind.

      • I will fight to the death for you to have the same rights as I regardless of your language, culture, religion, sexual orientation, age, or gender, to have the same legal freedom as I do to believe what you want. Exercising that freedom to cause public effect that harms or reduces those rights, however, must be recognized for the danger it is to those shared rights, recognized for the damage it causes to real people in real life by supporting conflicting and contrary values to that very freedom for others to exercise only for private effect. But we’re not talking about rights nor am I suggesting their curtailment. What I am talking about why it is important to respect what’s true first and foremost over and above respecting beliefs that may or may not be true.

        As long as two people care about what’s true, then their beliefs will be subject to it, subject to being influenced by reason and evidence of cause and effect, subject to critical inquiry, subject to best practices, subject to doubt and change when conditions show merit to do so. This respect is healthy and vital to a functioning democracy that must change and adapt policies over time, policies measured for effect and altered when reality shows them to be insufficient. But democracy without respect for reality itself and what’s true about it is doomed. Democracy without respect for equality rights, and respect for the reasons and evidence from reality why they have public value greater than some tyrannical element that would reduce them in the name of some belief, is nothing but mob rule and equivalently doomed (cue the Arab Spring as evidence). There is no benefit to the public good to respect ‘diversity’ from this central secular enlightenment value of equality rights. There is only harm and negative consequences when denied.

        Beliefs that conflict with and are contrary to this enlightenment secular value must be exposed and then faced down by sustained and loud criticism formed not by equivalent belief and equivalent opinion and equivalent personal perspective but by better reasons, better practices, better evidence from realitythat demonstrates why. Arguing (and then acting) on the assumption that this value of legal equality is simply an equivalent relative belief exempt from better reasons, better practices, better evidence under the false banner of respecting diversity, submits all of us to the stealthy advancement under cover of tolerance to a religious or political tyranny. This is a very real and pressing danger to all of us. For anyone to argue that both values – legal equality and tyranny – should be equivalently respected because they are magically and mutually compatible is a form of secular disembowelment that directly aids only tyranny. This is the result you will achieve by respecting belief to be equivalent to knowledge, to what’s true in reality.

        Those who support this kind of tolerant foolishness while thinking themselves enlightened are in truth offering aid and comfort to the enemy – those determined to subject our rights and freedoms to their beliefs – offering tacit support to promote a very real and growing problem throughout the enlightened West and is most insidious danger to the very values they mistakenly think they are exercising. You find neither tolerance nor respect for diversity and equality rights under a tyranny. Personal beliefs and perspective are not, have not been, never shall be, equivalent to knowledge, equivalent to respecting what’s true in reality, equivalent to a principled position based on best reasons of practical effect. To be clear, empowering personal beliefs by the granting of respect to be equivalent to respecting what is true in reality is the opposite of wise, the opposite of informed, the opposite of principled. And it is richly deserving of reasonable criticism rather than acclaim from the equivalently foolish.

      • Hi tildeb, thank you for providing a detailed set of comments in which you have put forward a lot of thought and energy. These all and my replies will exist for the world to consider and draw their own opinions from for many years into the future.

        I am unable to agree with many of your ideas, but I respect your passion for them. This will be my closing response on this blog post.

        To me there are no enemies, there is no us and them, just human beings who have a diversity of beliefs. The great enemy to the survival of humanity is not because of difference of beliefs but because the world is doing unsustainable actions. Everyone can argue their differences on belief until the world ends, but this will never change anything, however everyone will be destroyed because the planet died.

        Punching someone on the nose, or being cold towards them, or any manner controlling towards them because of their religion or belief will always end in conflict, separation, anger, fear, hate. The time is now that all regardless of their belief join forces to create a sustainable world, thus for everyone the focus is on harmony through respect of differences of belief, not to create division by forcing belief on each other.

      • You’re welcome, and – hopefully – I’ve added a voice to something that you can chew on when and where you come across opinions and perspective based on beliefs that are contrary to and incompatible with the very tolerance and respect for diversity (I wish more people would celebrate diversity) I know you advocate. But to do so successfully I think requires a solid ground of principle on which to stand, namely, enlightenment values of equality, dignity, and respect not just for personhood for humanity but for the maintenance and welfare of our planet, our home, to only then offer a helping hand that lifts people out of their faith-based biases and prejudices and beliefs into the light of knowledge, reason, and humility for how reality operates, a reality that shapes and determines our success in achieving a sustainable future, an ethical and moral ground on which we can then demonstrate by action respect for this reality, respect for what’s true, and reflected in the new reality we can bring into being.

        Before we can implement sustainability, we have do the work necessary to understand what that is, what that means, and how best we can achieve it. Basing it on beliefs that do not allow reality to adjudicate these efforts, meanings, and goals dooms us to failure before we even begin and you know as well as I that we can and must do better than we have. This is our duty to the seventh generation but it starts right here, right now, by each of us to honestly respect what’s true first and foremost – before bringing our cherished beliefs to bear. Let reality arbitrate these beliefs and determine what honest value we can from them that do not impede this effort, not because we wish to eliminate beliefs but align them with reality. Only then can we unify to make this a better place by each individual and informed action we take.

  6. [ Smiles ] Another lovely thought-provoking article, Alex.

  7. an open heart is the key, i think be need to be open -minded… the beauty is always around us …and something sounds wrong inside take a lantern and light up the cave :)

    • re: “lantern and light”
      Many cultures equate wisdom with shining, fire, light. Once one acts on knowledge in an experiential doing way then it becomes wisdom. Often the belief rises or falls when it is acted upon in the doing. Thanks for your comment Sandra.

  8. Like you I believe that there are many truths and accepting them all as valid for the people who believe in them is the surest way of living in harmony with the world and dealing honorably with people different form ourselves.

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