Determine What is True
How should we decide whether what we learn is true and should be used to guide our life? We take in lots of information but only some of it is true. Determining truth is not easy for broad principles about living and moral philosophy. There are no certain answers. At best there can be persuasive evidence that what is learned deserves inclusion in our philosophy of life.
It can be easy to believe there is no truth. It is said by many that there is no objective reality and no accepted standard of truth. Everything depends on one’s perspective. Everyone’s version of reality is equally valid. Even the scientific method is questioned by some. This is a dead end.
This approach leads to chaos where progress is not possible. It is not a practical premise for trying to live a meaningful and happy life. It leaves us entirely on our own to fumble around without the benefit of shared knowledge and wisdom. This perspective precludes a solid philosophical framework because the foundation is made of constantly shifting sand.
I don’t believe in a nihilistic world view. I believe there is knowledge that is true enough to help us live better. There may be no absolute, unwavering truth; there will always be more to learn; and perspectives do matter. It is important to be humble and skeptical about what we know and what we can know. However, that caution should not stop us from seeking knowledge and truth.
The Scientific Method as a Model
A simple model can help us filter what we learn to determine what is true. The model is the scientific method. The truthfulness of information depends on how well it explains what we observe and its usefulness in achieving outcomes. The better it works, the more likely it is to be true.
The validity of a scientific theory rests on observations. Experiments and observations either support or disprove a theory. A good theory does a more reliable job explaining and predicting what is observed. The better the explanation and the better observations match the theory, the more we believe the theory to be true. We can use reason, observations, and data to test the veracity of what we learn.
Science is never settled. Human capacity to observe and comprehend the world is imperfect. Gaining knowledge is process with no end point. Success is getting better at each step.
Newton’s laws were considered true because they explained and accurately predicted how physical objects behave. In time experiments showed that Newton’s laws weren’t perfect and we inaccurate in some circumstances. New theories (relativity and quantum mechanics) were proposed and proved to more accurate in areas where Newton’s laws fell short. One theory supplants another based on the data and it explanatory and predictive power. Our understanding of the world keeps getting better, but it is never settled and unalterable. What we consider true is the best available now. Better theories may emerge in the future.
The same approach can be used to determine the truth of information relevant to how to live. The questions to ask are: “Does it work in achieving desired outcomes?”; and “Does it work better than alternatives.” Evidence can be gathered to test what is learned. We can use the information and see if is reliable in predicting outcomes. It may be difficult to have the double-blind tests that you find in science. But less rigorous observation and reason can validate or invalidate what we have learned.
Let’s look at an example. Perhaps we recall our parents telling us the “honesty is the best policy.” Or we read Kant’s categorical imperative — only act in a way we would compel everyone else to act — where telling the truth is the standard example.
Should we accept this guidance (always tell the truth) as true and live our lives accordingly? We could formulate some questions, or hypothesis, to test. Could the world function if people lied much of the time? Are people who tell the truth happier than those who lie? How are people who lie viewed by others and does this make the liars lives better or worse? Do societies with a reputation of being honest do better than ones where dishonesty is common? In our own life, do we do better when we are honest or when we lie? Then we can use logic and evidence to answer these questions.
In this example, I believe logic and the preponderance of evidence supports the validity of the moral guidance to tell the truth. It is not perfect. There can be reasons to lie under unusual circumstances. But as a general principle to live by it stands up. It works.
The Value of Evidence
Reason and evidence are the main tools to determine truth. I have come to put more weight in evidence over the logic and reason. Reason is powerful and is essential to living well. For example, we need reason often to override destructive emotions. However, reason has limitations.
There are many opportunities for reason and logic to fail. I have experienced many instances where there were flaws in my logic. It is particularly easy to have great logic built on false premises. Ideologies often fall into this trap where logically consistent systems are built on false premises. As Ayn Rand notes several times in Atlas Shrugged, “Check your premises.” Evidence and observation can get at the truth even when reason and logic can’t.
An example from physics illustrates this perspective. Quantum mechanics was developed in the early 1900s. Initially the theory was considered preposterous because it defied all logic. Even Einstein didn’t believe it. However, quantum mechanics has a 100 year perfect record in predicting what happens at the subatomic level. Experiments continue to make discoveries confirming the validity of quantum mechanics. Yet the experts in quantum theory readily admit they don’t understand it. The equations and models simply work. Quantum mechanics is the foundation for many technological advances (computer chips, lasers, etc.). Yet all reason and logic suggest the theory can’t be true. The point is that you can use an idea that has been proven to work even though you don’t know why it works.
As I decide what information to incorporate into my philosophy of living, I look for evidence more than the logic to verify the idea. In the example about honesty is the best policy, I am more convinced by what I see around me and what I have experienced than the logic of some thought experiment about telling the truth or lying. Like quantum mechanics, I don’t need to know why something works if I have evidence it does work. It is a simplification. But it is practical; it is an approach I can use.
To summarize, always be skeptical of what you learn. Much information is useless or wrong. Always seek to determine the truth. Use reason and evidence to get at the truth. Accept that truth often comes in degrees and not absolutes.