David Weinberger
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What is truth?

26 February 2001

Here's what makes me mad: People who, when the going gets rough in a conversation, say something like: "Well, that's true for you. Everyone has a different truth, man." Say wha'? If we all have a different truth, then truth is whatever we believe. Believing makes it so. This childish, fairy tale philosophy undermines not only the authoritarian control of experts (three cheers) but also the possibility of being interested in what another person has to say. It's the conversational way out of having to think. It is as insulting as the kid with the backwards baseball cap who rolls his eyes and says, "What-EV-er."

It's also wrong.

This idea of truth has a long history which I'll demean by trying to roll into two paragraphs, sort of like trying to recite Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 in a single breath: you can't possibly do it justice. Nevertheless, here goes:

Philosophy began with observation that the world isn't necessarily what it seems to be. In fact, sometimes it proves us wrong. How can that be? There must be a difference between beliefs we believe and beliefs we know. Wouldn't it be grand if we could know which were which? Well, beliefs we know -- AKA knowledge -- are true. So, truth became a quality of beliefs and the statements that express beliefs. A true belief is one that corresponds to the way the world is: "The cat is on the mat" is true if the cat really is on the mat. Philosophy becomes the study of the nature of the correspondence between belief and reality. Science and other disciplines become the pursuit of true beliefs.

So far we're one step away from thinking that truth is something in our heads. For that we need the general theory of perception that grew out of this theory of knowledge. If what makes a belief true is that it corresponds to the way the world is, then how do we know what the world is? We have sense organs. We get perceptions. And from those perceptions we make judgments: we turn our head in the direction of the mat, get cat-like sensory data, and judge that the cat is on the mat. Philosophers, still hot on the heels of trying to distinguish mere beliefs from knowledge, concluded that while we can be certain of what we sense (the musty smell of cat, a fuzzy-edged visual image), we can't be certain we're drawing the right conclusions about the world from it. And, in so doing, they gave us a picture of life that says that we live not in the world but in our perceptions of the world. We are, in effect, viewing an inner movie of the world. If that's true, then my experience of the world is radically separate and apart from yours. Thus, what's true for me may not be true for you. Dude.

The only problem with this glorious theory, one that pervades our basic experience of the world, is that it's not just wrong, it's psychotic. The idea that we live in a world of private phantasms that may have no relation to reality would be enough to get us committed to a happy residence with a high fence and no sharp instruments. Yet it is what passes as our culture's "default philosophy."

There is are alternatives. One -- phenomenology -- goes something like this. We live in a world together. We see, touch, taste, feel and smell this world. When we kiss our spouse, we are actually kissing our spouse, not kissing the sensation of our spouse (whatever that would mean). What we see and otherwise sense of this world is always from a point of view. It isn't always reliable, but usually it is; mirages are rare but do occur. We believe many things, some of which are more true than others, and some of which are more knowable than others. But there's not hardly nuthin' that we know with complete certainty. But that's usually ok. We just have to deal with the fact that we and everyone we know are fallible.

So, what is truth? If we stick with the idea that truth is a property of beliefs and statements, then we can look at truth formally and talk about what makes true a statement like the philosopher's standard example, "The cat is on the mat." Taken abstractly, it's true because it corresponds to the world. But who cares? Why are you telling me about the cat on the mat? The truth that matters, truth at work in the world, pertains to statements that not only formally correspond to the world but that show me the world in a new way. Truth that counts uncovers something that was there all the time, and, since you're bothering to tell me about it, it must be something that matters to us. Not "The cat is on the mat" but perhaps "Roses smell like vanilla," "You're too drunk to drive," and "The fog comes on little cat feet." In short, the correspondence theory of truth is accurate for the least interesting of statements. The real work of truth is uncovering the world in new ways.

The presuppositions of this view of truth include: We share a world. The world can be seen in many ways. We can help one another see the world in new ways. This can be interesting, useful, helpful, inspiring, moving, life-changing. Certainty may not be granted to us, so we have to live with fallibility. But fallibility is the source and assumption of all human interaction. It's also damn funny.

Two messages for knowledge management: First, we're in this together. Second, knowledge with a capital K is for cowards.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.