Truth: A Figment of Our Imagination?

In daily life we act and assume that the truth is accessible and in many cases, we know it. We base our law enforcement and courts on the premise that the truth of any matter can be determined in court. Our politicians trade in truth, claiming they are bastions of truth whereas their opposition are charlatans and obfuscators. But ever since Pyrrho who founded the Greek Philosophical School of Scepticism there has been little doubt that our minds cannot access a pure, 100%, certain truth about most things.

The only way our minds can access any information is via our senses and they are known to be highly fallible and relatively poor compared with other animals. So, we can see we cannot know and be sure of anything. Another problem is our senses do not access all the phenomena of the Universe. For example, we can only directly detect a ridiculously small range of the electro-magnetic spectrum as visible light. If we can’t access all the information then how can we be sure we know “the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth”?

Rene Descartes captured it well in his “I think, therefore I am.” Which implies that the only thing we can be certain about is our own minds because we experience the process of thought. We can take nothing else as 100% truth. In our sciences we only have hypotheses as to the nature of nature and they are being revised and changed all the time. Even in mathematics the fundamental bases are axioms, that is assumptions; good assumptions, but still assumptions.

So, why do we go about our lives assuming we can know the truth of anything? To be sure, we can be more certain of some things and less certain of others. For example, we can be fairly confident about confirmed science (but not 100% sure) as opposed to less sure of religious meta-physical constructions. This is not an appeal to relativism and a desire to fall back to “everything is relative” because that is self-evidently a generalisation too far and self-defeating.

Most of the evils of this life are inflicted by people who are certain they are right. Think of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and other despots through the ages. People who were sure they were right conducted the various Christian inquisitions and crusades. In our own time Islamist suicide bombers truly believe they are 100% right, although all their victims and many more besides would dispute this.

Surely a better way forward is to acknowledge we can never be 100% sure of anything. Then conduct ourselves such that we believe we are near the level of truth in some things but could be wrong. In this way perhaps we would have a saner and more tolerant society.

If you think you’re 100%, right you are most probably wrong.


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