The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

I must leave the question of our ability to know the truth with absolute certainty for others to debate.  For my part, I act according to what appears to me to be closest to the truth, although I realize I can’t be perfectly sure it really is the truth.  Rather, I accept the conclusions that seem to me to have the highest probability of being true, and act on them as if they were the truth.  It seems to me that actions based on the truth are more likely to have a positive outcome than actions based on falsehoods.  Therefore, I reason, investigate, and experiment in order to approach the truth as closely as I can.

Human beings have accomplished some remarkable intellectual feats, but usually by confirming their hypotheses with experiments every step of the way.  Take, for example, the conclusions of several talented physicists regarding the discovery of nuclear fission.  Although they were dealing with processes they couldn’t actually see, they predicted that it would be possible to build a nuclear weapon.  They proceeded to build such a weapon.  The weapon worked.  Therefore, there must have been some element of truth in their original conclusions.  Terrible as its result may be, the development of the bomb was, nevertheless, an awesome achievement of the human mind.  However, it did not result from much spinning of complex intellectual webs, carried out purely in the realm of theory.  Rather, to the extent possible, theory was confirmed by experiment every step of the way.

Despite such remarkable achievements, however, we are far less logical and intelligent than we give ourselves credit for.  Our conclusions about what is true are subject to a host of emotional biases having their origin in “human nature,” the way in which evolution has hard-wired various predispositions and responses in our brains.  We experience reality conditioned by a host of preconceived notions.  As a result, the more complex our theoretical and ideological speculations become, and the further we depart from the realm of experiment, the more likely we are to wander off the path of truth into intellectual swamps.  History is full of cautionary lessons to this effect.  Communism is an outstanding example.  Many others can be drawn from our endless quarrels over obscure matters of religious doctrine. 

The conclusion?  The truth is never “crystal clear,” and no individual or sect, whether political or religious, has a monopoly on it.  It is elusive, and easily lost sight of in the mist.  If you would approach it, do so with due humility, never assuming that you know it in advance.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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