Theories and speculations

Truth, facts, and an injured bird

The difference between truth and facts is an important and much debated one, especially if we discount any notion of religious ‘higher’ truth. I therefore want to make the argument that, in a purely secular sense, it is possible for there to be a kind of truth which is not factual, and that this is the most important kind of truth. On the face of it, it seems a common sense notion that, even if you remove the notion of ‘higher truth’ in a religious sense, you can still make a distinction between a fact that is demonstrably true and a moral truth. Two plus two equals four is a fact, but it is not usually considered to be a moral principal, so while we might say it is true, it is not ‘a truth’ in any moral sense. So what I mean by ‘common sense’ is that the distinction between something that’s just true and something you can live by as a truth is one most people would understand in principle. However the question of what exactly constitutes a clear moral truth is a much harder one.

One attempt at an answer might be to assert that there is no real difference, and that a moral truth is just a fact that has a broader positive outcome. That sounds OK in theory, but it is hard to apply in practice. It is outcome dependent, so it is backward looking and often only useful in relation to past actions. It also assumes that you understand what a positive outcome looks like. In other words, it begs the question both of what constitutes truth ‘now’, as we encounter moral decisions, and also how we recognise truth as we experience it. It assumes that we understand truth as an ‘outer’ system within which we all operate. This notion leads to pragmatist arguments framed in terms of greatest good or best outcome for survival.

Realists object, plausibly, that we are too limited in our understanding to comprehend fully what constitutes an ‘outer’ definitive truth in this way. So the opposite way of approaching this is to say that moral truths are like facts, but more important, and that we do our best to judge their importance without ever having perfect knowledge. So all we can say is that there is a true comprehension of a fact, though we don’t necessarily know what it is. In one of his excellent podcasts, Sam Harris gives an example of this as follows. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the moon is only there when it is perceived – that is, that the existence of the moon is not true, although it appears to be. Nevertheless, there is still a truth, which is that our comprehension works in order to perceive it like that. So there is always something that is true even though we may not know about it, and however many times we step outside the boundaries of what we believe to be true, there is always a further big truth. Effectively though, this ultimate big truth is not knowable. As Harris says, “It is possible that what we say may not be true. We don’t locate what we say within a true consensus, just an existing and partial one”. So we are always just doing our best.

There are also problems with this position. One is that however far the truth of comprehension recedes, you comprehend it, so the argument against the pragmatist position works in reverse. Can you imagine a new outer truth without in some way comprehending it? The other and more problematic objection is that this is an argument about the truth of factual observation, and although it might be good science it is just like pragmatism in that it still doesn’t help us with an understanding of what is right or wrong now. It doesn’t tell us what is a moral truth, and what is just a fact, and so it still denies a distinction between facts and truth.

There is a further problem with these two approaches to the understanding of truth, which is that they are completely exclusive of each other. Either we have a closed system of comprehension within which something is true or false, or we have an open system in which nothing as we understand it may be true at all. They are utterly incompatible. There are two further positions which are then produced by this contradiction. One is the suggestion that there is no such thing as truth at all. The semantic argument supporting this assertion is that the statement “John has a ball” is the same as the statement “it is true that John has a ball” and that the concept and meaning of truth add nothing to the fact. Clearly this is a logical step, and only true if there is no distinction between truth and fact. The other proposal is that there are multiple and conflicting truths. Neither of these add anything new in terms of understanding what moral truth might be, because in opposite ways they deny its existence.

My proposition is that we can shift the ground on which we are considering truth. It seems to me that we often make the mistake of assuming that truth is a fact a priori, which of course leads us to try to identify the meaning of truth as a fact in itself, using factual language. Defining truth has thus become the subject of a semantic debate where we are either seeking to attach a sign to an object, and finding nothing there, or depending on scientific definitions of fact and substituting these for truth. But I think there is a different way of considering moral truth which identifies it as quite independent of fact. It is not possible to understand what truth is at all if you try to define it within factual terms. Maybe truth is not factual?

So let’s say for instance that you save a bird with a broken leg. You feed it and attend to it and eventually release it back to the wild when it can survive. Now it is a fact, and true, that you have taken care of it. It is however not true because of the existential state of either your mind or the bird but because you have done something from which something else has benefited.

Now according to all the arguments above this truth, if it is a truth at all, depends on the outcome, the survival of the bird. However, there is another truth at play here, which relates to your motivation, and because you had nothing to gain from saving the bird let us say that the reason you saved it was because you felt compassion. The fact that you felt compassion is not dependent on the outcome. It would  remain true even if you thought you could save it by giving it arsenic. And maybe then it wasn’t a mistake and you felt that it was kindest to kill it. While more questionable the compassion remains true. Compassion is not contingent on outcome. (And if you really did just want to kill it we are looking at the opposite of compassion and the truth is then the practise of evil, for which the same arguments apply.) In all these instances we are considering the interaction of two living things and an outcome, of which the interaction is the only truth in the situation – the outcome itself is determined by a number of different factors and is not reliable or constant, so it is immaterial to the truth of the way you have acted.

This means that, strangely, it is a truth that you have taken care of it, which reflects your intention, but it is not a truth that is has survived, which although it may be factually true is contingent. This only seems strange because we are used to thinking of truth as a matter of fact. But moral truth is not factual. It is a state of mind and a manner of action, or interaction.

Materialists do not succeed in identifying truth because they do not make this distinction. They would assert that actions are material facts and that these are therefore truths whatever the outcome. They ignore the important point that it is purely the condition of the mind and body (both yours and the bird’s) that constitutes the truth. Truth is composed of suffering and compassion.

If this is so, then humans can comprehend truth even when they cannot comprehend facts. We will rarely know the exact outcome of what we do, but we can still act with compassion, in accordance with the truth that if we do so we will intend and be more likely to achieve a positive and beneficial outcome for the object of our intentions. And that object is also not a mere thing, or fact. For every act of compassion there is a state of suffering, which is the equal and opposite truth. We do not need to understand, then, that the bird had a minor injury and that you were a vet, or that the bird had a fatal injury and you had no skill. These would be material facts, not truths, and quite different to the fundamental truths of suffering and compassion which are not material.

In order to observe and understand truth we need to resist the temptation to take the moment of truth and story-tell it, in effect to materialise it and make it objective. The material facts – your skill, your action, and the condition of the bird – are infinitely variable and both these and the outcome are contingent and not reliably true. The truth is that you responded compassionately to suffering.

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