Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     3-12,9-17

 ABSTRACT:  A definition of truth is offered, along with elements of how human beings deal or do not deal with truth.

KEYWORDS:  truth, falsehood, lying, reality

“Truth” is our word for assertions about reality that can be relied on as accurate and dependable.  Knowing the truth has always been of interest to human beings, because it can lead to more accurate predictions of the future and therefore to more effective goal-oriented behavior, as well as to acceptance of and lessened anxiety about the difficulties of living.  Discovering better understandings of reality has occupied people as long as there have been people.  The history of truth is a long story of corrections to inaccurate understandings (the earth is flat) and creation of new and hopefully more accurate understandings (the universe is expanding; the material brain is responsible for experience; quantum theory is more true than traditional physics).

Human beings used to depend mainly on the edicts of authority with regard to what to think and believe.  Prior to the rise of science, philosophy was humankind’s most serious attempt to figure out how to discern what is true and what can be considered to be reliable knowledge.  Now we subject many opinions to the proof method of science (careful observation and the confirmation of measureable observations by a number of different people in order to reach reliable consensus), but there are vast areas of human life about which science has nothing to say.

There are persons whom we view as truth-seekers, such as Socrates, who championed a particular verbal method of inquiry gauged to produce conclusions as close to the truth as we can get (the “Socratic method”).  There are others whose discoveries and conclusions we value highly, such as the Buddha or St. Thomas Aquinas, but it is important to assess just how committed to the truth any individual is.  Some religious seekers and some philosophers, for instance, have seemed to have greater loyalty to particular outcomes (less suffering; Nirvana; salvation; oneness with God; deconstruction; social change) than they had to the truth.

The history of the advancement of human knowledge can be viewed as a series of truth claims (claims about what is true), each followed by some sort of dissent or new and contradictory knowledge, followed by revised truth claims, etc., etc.  This cycle illustrates for us the importance to human beings of “knowing what is going on” so as to be able to cope well and with less anxiety.  In order to anchor and communicate our “knowing,” we make statements to express that “knowing” and claim that they are true (to give them some sort of trustworthiness).

From among the various conceptualizations of truth (correspondence, coherence, constructivist, consensual, pragmatic, minimalist, pluralist, formal, etc.), most people understand truth best from a correspondence point of view—that truth lies in an accurate correspondence between statements or propositions and the reality that they attempt to represent.  In this correspondence view of truth, we would not ask whether an orange is true, but we can question the truth of the statement “this is an orange” or that of the statement “all oranges are orange” or that of the statement “God created oranges.”

“Pure truth” or “perfect truth” would be ideal (defined as an assertion about reality that is always true and unambiguously described), but given our cognitive limitations and our penchant for distorting reality in order to make ourselves feel better or to get what we want, human truth is always less than pure or perfect.  We avoid knowing the truth and settle for lesser degrees of truth when we distort what we could readily know about reality.  We use various means of distorting, including denial, suppression, repression, sensory distortion, purposive logical errors, making up false explanations, and attacking those who have views of reality that we don’t like.  Much of what we think and believe is affected by our distortions.  We distort reality when we believe or present to someone else a description of reality that we know or should know (could readily know) is not the description of reality that is most likely to be trueWe “tell the truth” when we present to someone else a description of reality that we believe to be the most accurate description of reality that we can achieve to that point in time.  In distorting, we either ignore certain contrary information so that we can believe what we want to believe, or we present a description to someone else that we know to be incomplete or erroneous (and that we usually hope will be misleading to that other person, so that it will help us to get what we want).  The latter is commonly known as lying.  Ignoring or purposely distorting information to ensure a certain outcome or belief for oneself could be considered lying to oneself.

Another problem with arriving at the truth is that human statements are often incomplete—i.e., do not specify assumptions and conditions under which the statement will be true.  The statement “we can start a fire by putting a match to wood” is true only if the wood is a size and type of wood that can be ignited by the flame of one match.

It should be noted that in efforts to approach or find the truth, definitions of words are crucial.  Our definite and reproducible communications are all couched in words, and somewhat unfortunately every human being means something a little bit different about many words (love, freedom, autonomy, family loyalty, honor).  A majority of disagreements that seem to be about a conclusion are actually the result of the two parties interpreting some words in the proposition at issue in different ways.

In the correspondence view of truth, the term “reality” includes all that we deem to be “real,” and  “the truth” or “the real truth” is essentially the same as “reality” when reality is accurately understood.  “The truth” applies both to the observable, physical realm and to matters on which we cannot reach provable conclusions (since our assertions are still either true or not, even if we never know whether they are true or not).  If something is true, then it is true not just for those who think it or believe it but for everyone else as well.  Reality exists independent of human beings, and questions of truth still apply if no human beings are involved.  It is true that if a tree falls in the forest after human beings no longer live on the planet, pressure waves in the surrounding fluid (air) will be created, even if there is no human being present to hear them.

Individuals and groups often think or believe unproven assertions so strongly that they claim that they are true (God is love; non-Catholics will not go to heaven; dogs will go to heaven; President Reagan was a great man), even when there is no evidence of that truth (or even when the evidence suggests that an assertion is not true).  It is best to consider these claims to be that individual’s or that group’s view of reality, rather than some version of truth.  “Scientific reality” is what is currently believed to be true after unbiased observations by competent observers who apply (when appropriate) mathematical and statistical tests to the data found and who compare a finding rigorously to the current understanding of reality by science.  “Theories” are assertions about reality that may or may not be true but which provide understandings and predictions that can be discussed and investigated to see whether they prove to be accurate.  The only way to arrive at the closest that we can come to the truth or a true understanding of reality is to seek “tested reality”—that version of reality that is produced by using intelligence, objectivity, careful observation, and consensus among people who are sincerely looking for the truth and who have removed personal preferences for what reality is or will turn out to be from considerations about truth.

Historically, debates regarding truth have all involved (1) methods of finding the truth and/or (2) the status of current truth claims.  The major methodological divide has always been between observation and revealed truth (that which is told to us by parents, society, religious figures, etc.).  Revealed truth is simple and has been needed to regulate behavior in society and to organize people into societies that are productive, but its flaw is that revealers of that truth often allow their own personal wishes and goals to create, alter, or color that truth (Hitler; almost any politician; advocates of global warming theories; detractors of global warming theories; etc.).  The method of observation has developed into what we think of now as science, but even scientists are prone to distortions of their findings by their own personal wishes and goals.

An example of a recent methodological debate about truth is that regarding the Post-Modernist assertion that there is no truth but rather only opinions.  As we well know, many people claim to know the truth when in fact they have only their opinions and no evidence or arguments as to why their opinions are true.  The Post-Modern critique of truth-processes and beliefs points out correctly that we make up much of what we believe to be true (the world is obviously flat; Blacks are clearly inferior; God hears my prayers), and it is certainly true that the views of our parents and our cultures shape much of how we view and understand reality.  It is incorrect, however, to conclude that there is no such thing as truth.  It is true that on this Earth, using the customary two and three-dimensional orientations, the sun comes up every morning in the east.  This has not been “made up” or distorted by personal or cultural needs and beliefs.  On the other hand, it is well to understand, as well as we can, the qualifications on any such assertion.  If a big enough asteroid were to collide with the Earth in such as way as to stop its rotation, then the sun would no longer “come up” at all for people on Earth, and to even say “come up” presumes the viewpoint of human beings confined to the surface of the planet.

The overarching debate about a current truth claim is about whether individual preferences (for what to do and what to believe) can give an adequate grounding for a moral, peaceful society, or whether revealed truths are necessary for that purpose.  The idea of democracy and the importance of economic development have led modern societies toward equating what people want with what is good and good for them, but this has led to silly and unseemly excesses (at least in the view of some), such as an explosion of obesity, unnecessarily bigger and more expensive cars and houses for everyone, expanding wealth differences between different parts of humanity, a decline in the sense of community, and more violation of sexual mores.  Advocates of revealed truth, who tend to be more religious and to be labeled as conservative, believe that only revealed truth (that tells people what to do and what not to do and why) and probably only revealed truth from supernatural sources is sufficient to maintain order and propriety.  Societies that tightly integrate religion and secular matters (e.g., some Islamic societies) are the best example of the attempt to structure and control through revealed truth, but even they are trending slowly toward greater individual freedom and choice, mostly due to economic development.

Persons everywhere are concerned about understanding what is true and what is not (although individuals differ somewhat in this regard).  Those who live in cultures that depend on “revealed truth” (the teachings of a particular religious leader, for example) and use it as the basis for constructing the culture, may be less interested in seeking truth itself and somewhat more interested in applying already accepted truth to their lives and with continually convincing people that what has been revealed is in fact truth.

Avoidance of reality is a prime cause of the inhumanity of one person or group toward others, whether from avoiding facts or avoiding feelings, and it is the prime supporter of wars and other violence (e.g., from distorting the truth about others, when we classify enemies as “subhuman” or attribute aggressive motives to them when this is actually untrue).  The only hope of being more humane to each other and of avoiding wars in the future is seeing more of the truth (e.g., others are pretty much like us in wanting what they want and feeling what they feel, regardless of their different customs; vying for superiority may lead to short-term advantages but it always harms others and leads long-term to some negative consequences for those who “win;” we have no more “right” to get what we want than anyone else on the planet; we are not morally “better than” anyone else on the planet; etc.).

The international relevance of considerations regarding truth lies mainly in the importance of recognizing that one’s own culture’s assumptions about what is true may be simply that—somewhat idiosyncratic and arbitrary assumptions, and that what other cultures believe about what is true may be more true than what one’s own culture believes.  This recognition, while painful and disorienting, can lead to global interactions that are more peaceful, more productive, and less violent than if all of our interactions have as their background a struggle for the predominance of the views and beliefs of one culture rather than another.

The human tendency to arrange people in a status hierarchy is probably in our genes, and it serves a useful purpose—to minimize violence and dissent regarding the share of the available resources that each person in society gets.  However, assigning persons different statuses also significantly affects their self-esteem and their expectations of themselves and thus significantly affects the quality of their lives.  With the increasing interaction between peoples in different parts of the world, this tendency extends to assigning status values to people from different cultures.  There are always “reasons” for the assignment of status (wealth, attractiveness, race, religion, the status of one’s parents, etc.), none of which stand up if the “truth claim” of “X, Y, and Z make me a better or more deserving person than you” is examined.  Exploding this “truth claim” would perhaps be the most effective thing that could be done to improve quality of life and reduce violence around the world, but we all tend to avoid recognizing the falsity of our own status claims, in order to avoid being lowered in status ourselves.

We can learn how to get as close to finding the truth as human beings can, by cultivating the following skills and attitude.  Be patient and tolerant.  It takes time and effort to question what you have believed, what everyone else believes, and what your culture believes.  The bigger your base of reliable knowledge gets, though, the faster you can assess and establish what is likely to be the truth.

1. Learn more about how to think accurately and apply what you learn in all areas.  Always define your terms carefully.  Assess the accuracy of your information, and don’t make conclusions that aren’t supported by the best evidence available.  “Try out” all of the likely conclusions to see how they fit with what you already know relatively accurately and to see what emotions they engender in you.  Ensure that your conclusions about what is true are not being arrived at to make yourself feel better or to make it more likely that you can get something you want.  Take a course in logic or in philosophy, as these will show you more about accurate thinking.

2. Examine anew every sensory perception, thought, feeling, and memory that you have.  Question each one to see whether there are reasons not to believe it that you have been ignoring.  (Did my dad really beat me, or did he just terrify me?   Do I really simply hate my boss, or do I actually kind of respect him at the same time?  When I feel scared of my wife, is she really that dangerous, or am I perhaps reacting to memories of my mother?)   Ask yourself if you have any evidence to support each of your beliefs.  Evidence may be in the form of your own careful observations, observations of others whom you trust (either personally or in books) and whose observations in the given instance are likely to be accurate, the findings of science, or the wisdom of institutions that are dedicated to knowing the truth.  Evidence for most things should be based on several (or even many) confirming repeated observations, rather than on only one.

3. Be very careful about definitions when examining a proposition or assertion.  There are many, many definitions of “love,” “freedom,” “better,” “perfect,” etc., etc., and if you don’t ask or explore this, you and others will often be attempting to communicate with different underlying assumptions.

4. Don’t accept your own, your family’s, other peoples’, or your culture’s assumptions about reality, without examination.  (People from other cultures are dangerous.  Strangers are dangerous.  A free-market economy is always the best.  God actually guided the hand of every person who wrote every book of the Bible.  A foetus has a soul from the moment of conception.)  Assume that every perception and every interpretation of a perception may be distorted, and check every one of these as closely as you can.  Be skeptical but unbiased.

Before you make an important conclusion, review the assumptions on which it rests.  (If you concluded, based on your experience of being emotionally abused by your parents, that everyone else would emotionally abuse you in a close relationship, that conclusion would be in error.)

5. Identify all of your self-serving distortions–the ways in which you make reality into what you want to believe or will justify your inappropriate behavior (e.g., I’m better than he is, so I should be the starting quarterback and not him).

6. Accept that your emotions or emotional reactions to things do not necessarily guide you to the truth.  Sometimes our emotional reactions are simply telling us to avoid and therefore to avoid learning more because the truth would be unpleasant (e.g., I feel scared around him, so he must be bad; I love her, so she must be “the one” for me; etc.).  Emotions do have information for us and do guide us, but it is best to examine them and compare their information to what we “know” otherwise before acting on them.

7. Notice any reactions that you have to a reality perception or description of reality that indicate aversion to that view of reality and a preference to avoid it or reject it.  These reactions will tempt you to distort.  (If you are angry at those who believe differently than you do, perhaps you’re actually unsure of your own beliefs.)

8. Identify the reason for your aversion or avoidance.   You may find it to be threatening, unpleasant, hurtful, disappointing, confusing, calling your beliefs or adaptation

into question, suggesting a change in your behavior that would lead to fewer gratifications, etc.

9. Notice the “holes” in your awareness–the things that you are not aware of or avoid.  (I wonder why I never think about my family.  I wonder why I just can’t see it when others accuse me of being self-centered.)

10. Gather accurate information about the issue, and be very careful about the reliability of your information. Just because your parents said it or it’s on the internet or in a book doesn’t mean that it is true or that it is the most accurate information currently available.  Much of what is taken to be information in the world is biased by the person’s emotions or by what he or she wants to believe in the first place, so it is important to be careful.

11. Use the consistency of your experiences over time (after purging them of avoidances) to establish observations that are firm enough to use in constructing a fact or a description of reality.

12. Check out whether a perception, thought, or feeling is consistent with your other senses and understanding at that time.  (When I think of getting closer to Joan I feel scared, but if I think about it further, she isn’t doing anything that would indicate danger.)

13. Check out whether the experience of others is consistent with your own.  Be especially careful in your use of language when you do this, because people often mean different things by the same words.

14. Use cultural experience and concepts–the wisdom of the past–as a check on your observations.  People and their basic needs, emotions, and thought capabilities have not changed much in the last thousand years.

15. Find out whether other cultures have come to the same conclusion about the claim in question.  If they have not, then you (and your culture) may be engaging in distortion.  Just because your culture believes something does not make it true.

16. Once you think you have a statement of reliable knowledge, try to think of any example (person or situation) in the world that does not fit your conclusion.  If you can find even one such example, then your conclusion is wrong and needs further refinement.  It is especially useful in this regard to consider what other people are doing around the world, since if you confine your checking to your own culture, then you may conclude that the conclusion is correct simply because it is consistent with everything in a culture that already believes that conclusion.

17. Keep track of how you know each thing that you know.  Based on the history of how you “know” each of the things that you “know,” keep track of the degree of certainty with which you “know” each thing (and don’t assert more certainty than is justified).  (I think I see enough evidence in the world and in life that God exists to organize my life around that belief, but I still have no direct experience or evidence to “prove” it.)

18. Employ a healthy skepticism about how you interpret your own experience, as well as being skeptical about how others do this, too.

19. Pay attention to your inner voice or inner wisdom–that part of us that has some intuitive awareness of the truth and of when we are trying to fool ourselves.  Cultivate that part of yourself.

20. Ask others whose reality perceptions and honesty you trust to give you their opinion about the matter in question.

21. Strive to be honest with yourself, even when you are alone.  Most people find it easier to distort to themselves when no one else is involved (although the agreement of others helps greatly to establish and maintain group distortions).

22. Strive to know yourself well enough that you know your motives and what you hope to get out of each situation.  Using this knowledge will help you correct for self-serving

distortions.  (I know that I tend to inflate my abilities, so I should re-examine whether I can actually do this new job before I accept it.)

23. Check out how accurately the understanding of reality in question predicts other realities.  Are its predictions consistent with what you know otherwise?  This is often done

by looking at history and what has happened in the past when people have assumed this same thing to be true.  (Has having government and religion joined together for societies led to healthier behavior and happier people than having them separated?)

24. Examine the impact that a given understanding of reality has had on the lives of everyone affected when people act on this understanding of reality (or predict as best you can what the impact on everyone would be if this understanding of reality were acted upon).  (Did heavier emphasis on conformity and on everyone believing the same thing lead to people enjoying relationships more or did it lead to more distrust?)

25. Ask yourself if you would say or believe the same thing if you didn’t care about the outcome for yourself.  (Would I really claim that our team is better than theirs if I didn’t want to win so badly?)

26. Imagine yourself saying the same thing or expressing the same belief and then adding to it an explanation of your motives.  This also will help to identify your self-serving interests.  (I want the family to go to church today, but really I myself “need” to go because I’m feeling guilty about what I did this week.)

27. When you cannot determine whether something is true (or likely to be true), suspend judgment, if it is practical to do so, until you get more information one way or another.  Learn to tolerate currently unresolvable ambiguity.  Often we must act without knowing the full truth or facts, but you act and still know that you are not certain of the truth or the facts, and keeping this in mind will make it easier for you to adjust course as needed.


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Baldwin, James Mark (Ed.).  (1901-1905). Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, New York, NY:  Macmillan.

Blackburn, Simon, & and Simmons, Keith (Eds.). (1999). Truth.  Oxford UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

Garfield, Jay L., & Kiteley, Murray. (1991).  Meaning and Truth:  The Essential Readings in Modern Semantics, New York NY:  Paragon House.

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Kirkham, Richard L.  (1992).  Theories of Truth. Cambridge MA:  MIT Press.

Russell, Bertrand.  (1912). The Problems of Philosophy. 1st published 1912.  Reprinted, (1959) New York NY:  Oxford Univ. Press, Galaxy Books.  Reprinted, (1988)  Buffalo NY:  Prometheus Books.


An Introduction to Truth ( by Paul Newall.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http;//


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