On the nature of truth

Many years ago a friend, K, and I were discussing a traumatic situation between two other friends. K had spoken to the girl, and I had heard the guy’s side of the story. As K & I talked it over, I commented that the truth probably lay somewhere in between, but K was most indignant. “What possible reason would she have to lie?” he demanded.

I was somewhat nonplussed by the astounding naivete of that question, but K’s outlook on life has always been uncomplicated. Not simple, or dumb, because he is highly intelligent. But he took the view that things were very straightforward, and that what was said was generally true and unambiguous.

My own view was that she almost certainly had not lied – nor had the guy in question. But that what we had heard was not a precise, unambiguous and accurate portrayal of events, but rather their own individual interpretation of what had happened. We heard a version of the situation that was substantially filtered through their own perception and experience. There need be no intent to mislead or dissemble to get two radically different accounts of the same event. Few people  have photographic memories and I would argue that none have word-perfect, objective memories of events. We all recall events as we perceive and experience them, rather than precisely as they happen. That’s a natural part of the workings of the human psyche.

It seems to me that most, if not all, human conflicts could be avoided, or at least substantially reduced, if more people understood this truth at the gut level.

I was once bailed up by a friend who was massively upset with me. He bombarded me with things he swore I had said, and demanded I explain, justify and make sense of every individual word. This was impossible for me, because not only was I dealing with his memory of what had happened, rather than a word perfect recall of what I had actually said (though that is what he swore it was), but because human language, and especially English language, is simply not precise, unambiguous and perfect. Those of us with a mathematical or computer science bent might wish it were so, but it can never be. We just don’t work that way – even computer scientists and engineers don’t work that way. (Although we’re not necessarily very good at accepting it!)

Thus “the truth” of a situation is a flexible beast, assuming a different shape for every participant, and gradually metamorphosing through each telling and retelling. Sometimes my truth clashes so badly with another’s that it seems like we inhabit different planets, and this can be a tremendously distressing experience. To be accused of saying things I have not said, or to be told that things happened which I am certain did not – when it comes from a sufficiently influential source, it can be powerfully unsettling.

The challenge, for me, at least, is not to take it personally. To release the cherished notion of absolute truth, and embrace its flexibility as an example of the rich diversity of life. A poetic notion, and a noble aim. But I am a long, long way from achieving it.

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2 thoughts on “On the nature of truth

  1. Daniel

    At a dinner one time, I sat next to a former foreign minister of a southeast Asian nation who said that not taking things too personally was a key truth that he had learned in his life’s journey.

    Reflecting on this as per above: I think that misunderstanding lies at the root of much human suffering and misery. From the micro to the macro – and unfortunately, our leaders’ view of the world is swayed by personal and petty observations just like the rest of us – we make all kinds of assumptions based on our (sub)conscious views of truth and understanding.

    People from a technical background could well learn that truth can differ greatly depending on perspective and interpretation. And those not from a technical background could learn that it gets frustrating when interpretations constantly change, without acknowledging that fact.

    And patience, kindness and empathy … we do need that for each other.

    1. lindamciver

      I think it would be a mistake to assume that it is only people from a technical background who need to learn about perspective and interpretation and how they can change the nature of truth. I know plenty of non-technical people who are utterly rigid in their interpretations of events, and who can admit of no other possible explanation than the one they adhere to so tenaciously. I think that true empathy can be challenging for the human psyche!

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