Monday, March 23, 2009

The Varieties of Truth

Once of the problems in attempting to nail down the truth is that there are always a variety of different kinds of truth. Suppose that a huge explosion occurs in he center of a small town in the northeastern United States. And people ask "What happened?" There are many possible answers to this question, all of which has some claim on being 'the truth'.

You could explain the explosion in terms of the chemical reactions that caused the explosion to occur. You might say something like "chemical A in conjunction with chemical B in the presence of a trigger such as heat or shock caused a chemical reaction that expanded too rapidly for the space in which it was contained and the result was an explosion". This, assuming that the facts are correct, could be considered the truth. However, it is hardly satisfying.

A newspaper account might say that there was an explosion due to irresponsible dumping of hazardous chemicals into the sewage system, or perhaps a disgruntled political group was making a statement. Either of these explanations, assuming the facts to be correct, could also claim to be the truth.

Years later a social historian might claim that the explosion was merely an instance of a larger social trend in which corporations showed reckless regard for the environment. The damage done by the explosion, in this case, was part of the cost for that reckless behavior. Again this may very well be true.

Finally, an author might write a novel at some point which shows how human greed in the present often surpassed our concern for the future attempting to reveal some larger truth about the human condition. This, if the story were sufficiently compelling, might also be considered as the truth.

All of these statements have some claim on being 'the truth'. We can quibble about 'kinds' of truth and say the first is scientific truth, the second truth in journalism, the third a historical truth, and the last one a literary truth. But acknolwedging all these kinds of truth flies in the face of the notion that there is something called 'The Truth'. Different people probably have some preference for which variety of truth is the most important. However, these people probably also don't agree with each other, and since there is no way to resolve the dispute there is no way to get to the truth.

However, all is not lost. All of these varieties of truth have two things in common. First, is that claiming something is 'the truth' is a durability claim. And, second, that durability claim is enhanced by arriving at the claim through an agreed upon method. These two ideas will be taken up next.

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