The truth about truth revisited.
“A version of truth transmits through channels of human acceptance.”
By Marcel Dohmen
Taking Henry Mintzberg’s blog “The truth about truth” as a starting point this article will first address the semantics around the word truth. It then argues, that truth in itself does not exist to investigate if a version of truth might exist. The purpose of this article is to try and understand why people destroy and scorch the Earth, because it is believed, that understanding the reasoning and motivation behind the intent is a starting point to change this intent because we don’t want to destroy things like the resources on Earth, that we borrowed from our children. It concludes, that people act selfishly mainly because of their bounded knowledge, caused by the distance between cause of action and consequence and because of the human characteristic of selecting only suitable knowledge. The article will hopefully shed some light on the motives behind the destructiveness of human behaviour by taking a philosophical approach towards this phenomenon.
In March 2015 Henry Mintzberg wrote a blog (he calls it a TWOG) named “The thruth about truth” (http://www.mintzberg.org/blog/truth). In this article a follow up on that TWOG is presented. This article tries to answer two questions: 1) Why are people knowingly destroying Earth and a future for our children and 2) What can we do about it? So as a minimum we need to understand what moves people into acting as they do and why. In order to achieve that, we need to learn more about things like the truth, knowledge, human behaviour and perception. Let’s start by looking at concept of truth hoping that all other things will follow as a consequence.
As we are taught in Philosophy class, the truth is considered an interpretation of reality stemming from “ratio” (Plato, Descartes) and “empirica” (Aristotles), leaving reality to be a never to be reached target but it still can be researched through thinking, abstraction, observation and experience. The words in this article are an interpretation of a reality in itself, stemming from a brain and shaped by experience and observation. One has to accept, that reality in its entire will never be grasped and understood (fully), always leaving room for other interpretations. So that means that truth in its entire doesn’t exist either, although a version of truth most probably in general exacerbates the search for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (at least by scientists, law, researchers, journalists, priests, imams etc).
So here is the problem, which is hopefully solved in this article: If truth doesn’t exist, then how can we assure that at least an accurate version of truth is found?
You may ask: “why on earth are you looking for a version of truth? Isn’t man looking for truth itself?” Indeed, man is searching for truth, but does so under the false pretence, that truth itself exists. Maybe that’s why the truth itself is never debated, discussed or questioned by Philosophers. They simply accept the term by itself, adding no other meaning than the notion that the term itself brings into one’s mind. Therefore, it cannot claim truth and cannot use it as a target for research and reasoning.
Inhere lies a fundamental problem: “When people are looking for ‘A’, that (we all know) clearly doesn’t exist, will it not try to find something else and claim it is ‘A’ nevertheless, because of the satisfaction of finding it?” This theory can be put to the test by using the same example that Mintzberg used, but looking at it from a different angle.
The measles vaccine was “proved safe” to convince parents to have their children inoculated. Let’s call the “proven safe vaccine” a version of “truth”. (It is an interpretation of reality that scientists have found out by doing their thing so to say). However, we know for a fact, that empirical science is suffering from bounded rationality and from many social, political, physical and economic forces, which are influencing that rationality. Rationality, so to say is a function of reality and as Martin Heidegger (2005) puts it, a derivative of “revealing what was concealed earlier” 1).
First, the methods for proving a medicine safe are bounded by many stakeholder’s interests, bounded by time, money, intelligence and so on.
But more fundamentally, the truth is searched for within a reality that is being interpreted in as many ways as there are scientists. (This follows the theory by Thomas Kuhn (1962), treating the phase we are in as a phase of normal science in which believes are based on earlier believes that were accepted by the same, cf. Kuhn’s reasoning on paradigm shift).
So the best, that that search can reveal is a version of truth, defined and bounded by the interpretation of human beings, that were tasked in finding it within their current paradigm. Coming back to the measles vaccine, if it is accepted that the search for a safe vaccine was sufficiently conducted then also the conclusion can be accepted for now (the version of truth that says “the vaccine is safe”) and therefore act upon it until a new version of truth unveils itself. Nevertheless, the claim that the vaccine is safe should never be regarded “true”. Any claim stating otherwise should be regarded upon with great scepticism. Clearly, people simply can’t know all versions of a truth and will make selections, because man is not capable of grasping the truth in its entire.
Adding knowledge to the mix
Nonaka (2000) argues that knowledge is created through human interaction (shared context). Using his SECI cycle he tries to formulate mechanisms on how knowledge (an interpretation of the environment) is created and transported through the organization. Subsequently this new knowledge becomes the seed for new knowledge creation. In this mechanism the two basic versions of knowledge (explicit knowledge, acquired through reading, listening to instructions, combination of persisted information and implicit knowledge, acquired through copied experience, trial and error, exercise etc) transform, transgress, and mutate in the process. The reason for adding knowledge to the picture is because it is long argued that knowledge is the basis for all human action. It determines and predetermines what cause of action a human being is conducting at any point in time. One might argue that a lot of actions and activities are conducted without reasoning or without conscious consideration (like eating, sleeping), but in effect even those activities are (from a certain age onward until a certain age) consciously performed. As an example: Knowing how to ride a bike you may rent a bike in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and go cycling through the centre of the town. To be able to ride a bike in Amsterdam however you need to familiarize yourself with and and prepare yourself for the very complex intricacies of Dutch traffic, its rules, the drivers’ habits and cruelties and last but not least the ignorance of all tourists walking in the city. Bikers in Amsterdam, believe it or not, can be thought of as bullets being shot at random at ignorant tourists, most of the time missing target, but once in a while hitting and overrunning a pedestrian crossing a road at a green traffic light.
In above story a picture was drawn of someone cycling in the centre of Amsterdam. An imaginary situation might be pictured in which a bicyclist ignores a red traffic light and runs over a tourist, who was unaware of illegitimately moving vehicles within a crowded city during summer season. Unconsciously you will draw a picture yourself and depending on whether you had a similar experience or not in Amsterdam that picture may resemble someone else’s picture more closely or less closely. If you are reading this, not knowing what a bike is, or not knowing how to ride a bike, your picture (interpretation) may be perceived as surrealistic when explained to others, containing shot-guns, flying through the city. Or maybe, because you are from the United States, you picture the bikes riding between skyscrapers, which would be very unrealistic, but you wouldn’t know that. (There are no skyscrapers in the centre of Amsterdam). Anyway, the knowledge that you gather now, reading this article at this moment is built upon an interpretation of a story, aligned with your context, experience, understanding of language, culture, social systems and your interpretation of the environment. It also proves, that knowledge can lead to a version of truth but most likely won’t be someone else’s version of truth. If you know how to ride a bike, you might now want to have the same experience and share it with others, which in Nonaka’s model is the socialization of knowledge. By the way, if you want to learn how to ride a bike in Amsterdam, you are doing well by reading about it first.
The answer to the questions
This article aims to answer the following questions:
1) Why are people knowingly destroying Earth and a future for our children and
2) What can we do about it? In trying to answer these questions an approach is used that connects the concept of truth with the notion of knowledge.
Knowledge in itself isn’t enough to ascertain a version of truth. Knowledge must be righteous and when brought to you (through reading, experience or other means) must have the “right intent”. This is a very difficult aspect of knowledge and there is an incredible amount of literature on this topic. As mentioned earlier, in Greek philosophy “truth” (Aletheia) was regarded as revealing what was concealed before. In that context the “right intent” would mean the full disclosure of what was hidden, leaving all interpretation open to the audience. One may never know what full means: At what point is all fully revealed? This is a question that lies at the foundation of all science obviously. But in any circumstance, even if a considerable amount is revealed, people can still make a choice what to share and what not. If there is a choice what to disclose and what not, the opportunity will be taken to make a choice. In many cases, one doesn’t even know that choices are made and one assumes a full disclosure. For example, there is ample evidence, that smoking causes cancer, heart disease and early death. Full disclosure of all the evidence would also mean, that tobacco companies tell the buyer, what they put into the cigarettes. The reason they don’t is, because it would mean confessing to having committed serious crimes against humanity. (The additives they put into cigarettes for the sole purpose of boosting sale are severely addictive whereas the nicotine in the cigarette itself isn’t). A partly revealed concealment is therefore in this case to be regarded as a version of truth that is beneficial to the tobacco industry and seriously harmful for the poor (in many cases literally poor) people, who got addicted against their own choice and who are suffering from the consequences as a result, not even knowing they were set up so to say. It is exactly this opportunity (to make a choice) that makes ascertaining a “version of truth” so incredibly complex. At the beginning of the article the assumption was made that truth itself (an interpretation of reality) doesn’t exist. This argument is now taken one step further by stating, that a version of truth doesn’t exist either.
The knowledge dilemma.
A human being has a choice to know or not to know. Funnily enough (or maybe sadly enough), man is perfectly able to accept information if it suits him/her. If it is a compliment to him/her, or provides information that can be used in his/her endeavours and to his/her advantage it is “easily” (read: without thorough questioning, challenging it) accepted. This information is now becoming knowledge and thus a version of truth. Knowledge that can be used, transformed, passed on, transgressed and mutated. If the information at hand is not suitable, things become more difficult. Chances are, that (as a standard defence mechanism) the information is denied, ignored, changed, rationalized or otherwise manipulated. Chances are also that the information will not travel far. So having considered this, information that is not suitable may not be very effective to annihilate information that is suitable to one person but very inconvenient for other stakeholders. For example, a car salesman is very likely not very susceptible to information on health risks caused by NOx and particulates if the salesman sells diesel cars. And even if he knows, he most probably won’t warn off potential buyers of his cars, because it would endanger his income and bonus. It can be stated, that he is not going to change his job or vision, based on this information, because by definition as stated before, non-suitable information is not received very well. To have him change jobs, one has to find arguments that he is susceptible to. An argument might be, that he will earn twice as much if he starts selling electric vehicles. However, electric vehicles are also causing depletion of resources, causing pollution and are costing much more to the environment than they are priced and than is generally perceived. So the question arises, which knowledge is getting us closer to a version of truth? The answer is: Both versions will and neither of them will.
To explain let’s take both approaches to truth:
Both are true:
Depending on the level of satisfactory research (how long, how deep, how wide was the search for a version of truth) different versions and in many cases conflicting or contradicting versions of truth arise. If I am a researcher, researching chemical substances in fuel emissions and their effect on (human) health I might come to the conclusion that a certain exposure to the particulates increases chance on cancer and pulmonary diseases. On the other hand, if I am a researcher doing research on the costs of depletion of magnetic substance (needed in electric vehicles) and economic monopolistic Chinese imperialism I might conclude that the damage caused by depleting the Earth’s magnetic minerals and the economic power gained by the Chinese monopoly might cost much more than the price of the car and is much worse than the damage caused by diesel cars. Both researches may prove right, but what is the truth? Is the truth, that what costs us more? Or is the truth something that exacerbates another conversation that is more ethical?
Both are wrong:
Taking a different angle or paradigm might righteously render both versions of above truths false. An argument could be used that would obliterate these versions of truth by stating that a true protection of Earth’s resources is to not travel at all. This basic statement takes away the need to think about the above altogether. As stated earlier, there are things that people simply don’t want to hear. The arguments in itself would be a waste of space and (unintentionally) would open a can of worms. A subsequent article will elaborate on this aspect.
Hopefully you will have gained some insight into why people make certain decisions. The reader should now be able to, so to say, “rationalize” (as in one of Sigmund Freud’s defence mechanisms, described and used throughout his works) why people ruin forests, pollute the seas, use up all water in Africa to grow roses leaving nothing but poverty (and war) to the people in Kenya and Ethiopia, ruin the variety of species, deplete the Earth’s resources, ignore the full cost of products and act selfishly as if only a bonus counts, regardless what it costs to the others. There are numerous examples of activities, which are (maybe unconsciously) disregarding the destructive outcomes of these activities.
There is great literature and examples available on how to do things differently. So all is not lost, which is a relieve. What can you do about it? Check out our website for tips and recommended reading.
1) Heidegger makes a distinction between the Greek word for truth “Aletheia” being the concealment of what was concealed earlier and the Latin word “Veritas” which contrastingly means “a statement being in accordance with matter”
Heidegger, M. (2005). On the essence of truth. Truth: Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions, 244-260.
Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.
Mintzberg, H. (2014). Re-balancing society. Berrett–Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Nonaka, I., Toyama, R., & Konno, N. (2000). SECI, Ba and leadership: a unified model of dynamic knowledge creation. Long range planning, 33(1), 5-34.