“The Truth is Out There”

One of the chapters in Beyond Feelings, the Critical Thinking book I used for years and years, was titled “What is TRUTH?” It was a very hard chapter to teach because it went against most of what my students had learned in their lives about Truth. It was fun, though, provocative and engaging.

The author of Beyond Feelings — Vincent Ryan Ruggiero — made the case that:

  • Truth is not a matter of opinion
  • Just because we don’t know what it is, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist
  • Truth is not personal
  • Belief doesn’t make something true

The search for truth is the essence of curiosity. Its best friend is humility.

Ruggiero’s objective was to stimulate students to question, and they did, sometimes loudly and fervently. “No! That’s my truth and you can’t change it!” My job at that point was to help them understand that what they were defending wasn’t truth at all. It was their belief about something. It’s a threatening idea that can leave a person — especially a student who’s worried about his/her GPA — feeling like they’re standing on the sand by the ocean while the water pulls the sand out from under his/her feet. Students who had been penalized for saying, “I don’t know,” had a hard time with the fact that “I don’t know” is a valid answer when they, uh, don’t know. In my class it was never a wrong answer.

Those who understood (and most did after a while) felt a sense of liberation. They didn’t have to waste any more time defending anything.

Personal taste and personal belief, however, are always true. A person can speak for him/herself in that dimension and always speak the truth. An example:

“Does God exist?”
“I believe so.”
“But do you KNOW he does? Can you prove it?”
“No, but I can’t prove that God DOESN’T exist, either.”

The pure essence of belief. One endless (and easily escalated) argument bites the dust. Belief is a choice and requires no defense. Truth, however, is an objective reality and needs defense through demonstrable evidence.

I had a colleague at one of the colleges in which I taught who HATED the idea of objective truth. He said it was fascist because it insisted everyone believe the same thing. He absolutely didn’t understand it. First, objective truth is not an idea. Second, it has nothing to do with personal belief. This guy also hated it when I subbed for one of his classes and presented a PowerPoint (1998!) on Kafka’s life. “What does PowerPoint have to do with Kafka?” This teacher never saw the show, never saw the streets of Prague in Kafka’s time or photos of Kafka “writ large” and projected to the class so they could SEE a world that, in space and time, was completely alien to them. (Because, really, what did Kafka’s world have to do with Kafka? Or the fact that he was a real person not a concept?)

No point arguing personal belief. I shrugged and avoided him from then on, not so much because of his opinion about truth, but because he dismissed a technological tool just because he didn’t want to learn it, even if it was relevant to the world in which his students would live.

Here is an interesting analysis of the “truth vs. belief” phenomenon.

Why Smart People Believe Coronavirus Myths


10 thoughts on ““The Truth is Out There”

  1. When I answered “I don’t know” to my father, he called it “the dummy’s answer”. It was only many years later that I learned that not knowing is the only road to learning and the only place that truth can be found. I leaned that, as a parent, my job was to help my kids learn how to think, not to tell them what to think. Thanks, Martha.

    • Exactly. Speaking the truth matters a lot to me and I don’t know is often the truth and, as you say, the first step toward learning something. It was so hard for my students that I let them add, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” They were more comfortable with that and I respected them for that.

  2. There were certainly valid points. Truth is not opinion. And just because I believe the world is flat doesn’t make it flat. It’s good to know that there is a reversal going on from the “Truth is only your perspective,” thinking we heard years ago.

  3. Truth on the deepest level may be something we humans with our upgraded ape’s brains can never understand. If you get into cosmology or quantum theory or relativity, the concepts are so abstract they can only be modeled with very high level math. It can’t be directly visualized and only very inadequately simulated. The brain is only wired to handle 3+1 dimensions in a world still governed by Euclid.

    On a human scale all those uncertainties average out to give us a concrete reality. If you step in front of a train you will get smashed and not the other way around. That’s not my reality or yours – it is everyone’s. There may be a huge difference between the perception of reality of two people but the one who sees that train coming and gets out of the way is the one who will leave genes behind. Consequently I have faith that under normal conditions our senses have evolved to give us a very close approximation of truth.

    Sometimes that data is distorted in how we process it. The need to seek out patterns in the world gives us a tendency to create patterns where none exist. Laziness gives us a tendency to let others think for us, so we accept their conclusions. Logic is often distorted by emotions associated with learning something. We may ignore things because we don’t want to hear them or we are buried too deep in our own thoughts to emerge. Opinion and theory get conflated with fact.

    So yeah, our perceptions of reality may be flawed but that train is till coming down the tracks. I am still amazed at how many non suicidal persons get hit by trains.

  4. I wish I had been in one of your classes! Instead I had a teacher more like your unpleasant coworker who didn’t like technology….

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