Sunday, October 4, 2015

Truth is a bully

A character in a novel by Gregory David Roberts called truth a "bully". People feel they have to pursue and honor truth even when they don't like it or it doesn't seem to serve them.

"...take yesterday, for instance, when we were all talking about truth. Capital T Truth. Absolute truth. Ultimate truth. And is there any truth, is anything true? Everybody had something to say about it – Didier, Ulla, Maurizio, even Modena. Then you said, The truth is a bully we all pretend to like. I was knocked out by it. Did you read that in a book, or hear it in a play, or a movie?"

This truth, this bully, requires its own bully – the challenge of falsehood – to compel it to strengthen itself. John Stuart Mill wrote, "If opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up."

But then, maybe the devil's advocate is also correct, as per Neils Bohr: "There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of the great truth is also true."

Some see a "hierarchy of truth," as explained by Kovach and Rosenstiel:

"It is interesting that oppressive societies tend to belittle literal definitions of truthfulness and accuracy, just as postmodernists do today, though for different reasons. In the Middle Ages, for instance, monks held that there was actually a hierarchy of truth. At the highest level were messages that told us about the fate of the universe, such as whether heaven existed. Next came moral truth, which taught us how to live. This was followed by allegorical truth, which taught the moral of stories. Finally, at the bottom, the least important, was the literal truth, which the theorists said was usually empty of meaning and irrelevant. As one fourteenth-century manual explained, using logic similar to what we might hear today from a postmodern scholar or a Hollywood producer, 'Whether it is truth of history or fiction doesn't matter, because the example is not supplied for its own sake but for its signification.'

"The goal of the medieval thinkers was not enlightenment so much as control. They didn't want literal facts to get in the way of political/religious orthodoxy. An accurate understanding of the day threatened that control – just as today it is a weapon against oppression and manipulation."

What reins in truth? It does require "a measure of some kind" or else it is not viewed as truth. Nicholas Fearn:

"The wider conclusions of Protagoras may be self-refuting, but he did hit upon an important insight. This is the thought that every truth requires a measure of some kind. Truths are not true of and in themselves, but are true within a system of thought, or according to certain rules that test their veracity. This would be the case even if there were only one objective measure of truth. It is unequivocally true that two plus two equals four, but only because four is always the result when we apply the rules of addition correctly. The value of a pair of shoes, on the other hand, may be different according to whether they are given to a beggar or a king, but in each case their value is a value to someone. In both cases, the measure of the truth is external to what it evaluates. How we are to evaluate the measure is another issue, and one that does not always have an easy answer. It will certainly not do to say that this measure is simply 'reality' or 'the way things are,' since how we divine the nature of things is precisely what is in question."


Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. p. 60.

John Stuart Mill. Essay on Liberty, quoted in Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972. p 109-110.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001. p 38.

Nicholas Fearn. How to Think Like a Philosopher. New York: Grove Press, 2001. p 15.

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