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Commentary

What is truth?

In Pilate’s song in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the befuddled and exasperated Roman governor interrogates Jesus:

What is truth

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Is truth unchanging law

We both have truths

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Are mine the same as yours?

When I was young, I was told that not because something is written does it mean that it is true. In the age of the internet, we are told that not every website is trustworthy. Because of the democratization engendered by the internet—making everyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone a content producer and disseminator — we need fake information filters more than ever.

The question of truth arises mostly because of conflict. Since conflict is part of social interaction, we have been confronted with the question since time immemorial. Conflict makes the truth not neutral, coloring it with self-interest and motive.

Essentially, truth is both individual and social, subjective and objective.

Individual truth is what we perceive through our senses. With the limited range of human sensory perception, this individual truth or perception of reality is limited at best; how much more if there are sensory limitations like blindness or deafness? There are tools that extend our perceptual reach, such as infrared cameras or ultrasound machines, but these are not part of our physical senses.

Individual belief, or the power of the mind, also shapes reality. There is the well-known placebo effect, whereby a person gets well even when administered with a placebo and not the actual drug. One’s truth is the reality one creates. This indicates the benefit of positive thinking, just as negative thinking hampers us or prevents us from achieving our goals.

Which brings us to the social dimension of truth, or the truth that we acknowledge and share with others. While there is greater probability of validity, group truth, just like individual truth, does not necessarily conform to objective reality. Objective reality exists independent of individual or group perception.

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But even the truth of physical, documentary evidence is not complete in the sense that the very human factors of motive, circumstance, error and irrationality also play a part. A field like journalism which tries to carry factual information does not seek objectivity as much as it strives for balance and fairness, considering that just the technical constraints of layout and emphasis, like the size of headlines, or amount of airtime, reflect editorial judgments that are not completely objective.

Standards of truth have been set, like the judicial requirement for proof beyond reasonable doubt to convict an accused person. And even then, many persons have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Just as others have been acquitted despite strong evidence of guilt.

Seeing how debatable what truth is, we can only attempt to define the “best” truth. The best truth is the one that approximates reality in all its dimensions: physical, spiritual, digital. The best truth is the truth spoken without malice, ideally with the welfare of other persons at heart, or at least not their diminution.

In the end, just like everything social, it all comes down to the individual. The understanding of truth and the use to which we put it make a great difference. We realize that not all of us seek truth. Some of us simply cannot see beyond our noses. Worse, some of us want to deliberately mislead or deceive. As Nancy Sinatra sang in “These Boots Are Made for Walking”:

You keep lying, when you oughta be truthin’…

You keep samin’ when you oughta be

a-changin’

Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet.

Indeed, we both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?

* * *

Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.

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