Is truth relative? I ask this question because I recently made a post on LinkedIn about truth in the media. A Dr. Scott Dell (CPA, CPC, DBA), who represents himself as an award winning academic, replied with this comment:
“Whose truth? Truth during the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, WWII, and the Dot Comm Boom can be very different and subject to interpretation. Truth is based on personal experience and upbringing and is subject to varied interpretations, multiple perspectives, and personal agendas. In the history books, the victors write the “truth” even though facts can be interpreted differently, from the “other side.” I DO wish truth to be absolute but sadly not so! Even facts are not absolute!!”
I love hearing opinions, but I like it even more when opinions are supported by examples. However, Dr. Dell did not provide any examples, so I am going to attempt to answer the question, “Is truth relative?”
First, we must define truth. A Google search brings up this definition: “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.” If you look up the definition of true it states, “in accordance with fact or reality.” So, what are facts? A fact is: “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” What is reality? Reality is “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”
So, to wind those definitions together truth is “something that is in accordance with fact and/or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”
Thus, truth is based on facts and things that exist (evidence). It is not based on some other interpretation (idealistic or notional idea) of those facts and things that actually exist. That statement is the exact opposite of Dr. Dell who says that “Truth (during certain periods in history) can be … subject to interpretation.”
I think what Dr. Dell is saying that there can be varying versions of the truth. Some years ago, I read a book about General Hood and his Texas Brigade during the Civil War. There are a number of books about the Texas Brigade, and I cannot remember which one I read (I wish I could because it was an extremely good read). What I liked about the book is that the author presented the story of many of the battles in which the Texas Brigade participated from a variety of viewpoints. A soldier’s diary or letters, an officer’s diary or letters and the historian’s official version recorded in the Confederate Army records. In many cases these versions differed considerably from each other. I am sure the soldier, the author and the historian all believed they were recording the truth. I would suggest Dr. Dell would say each was telling the truth, and that truth simply varied based on “varied interpretations, multiple perspectives, and personal agendas.”
I would disagree. I say one of those people was telling the truth. The others were relating their perception of the truth, which they believed to be true, because it was their perception, but which was in fact not true. Just because someone believes something to be true, does not make it so (at least based on the definition of truth defined above). I remember in one battle the soldier says the troops advance up a hill to the right side of their position, and another observer said the troops advanced up a hill to the left side. Simply put, one of the “truth tellers” was wrong, and was not telling the truth.
When I was a teenager a song that I heard on the radio was a song called “July, You’re a Woman.” For whatever reason that tune stayed in my head for years and one day I tried to find a recording. I was convinced the artist was Tom Wilkinson. I search and search but could find no recording of that song by any Tom Wilkinson. With the advent of the internet and access to more information I finally found the song I had heard so many years ago. The artist was a man named John Stewart.
My perception of the truth was wrong. Therefore, I was wrong. My truth was not true because I believed it, or because it was based on my “interpretation, perspective and agenda.”
Now does it really cause a problem if someone were to say “Well, Mike was wrong but that is what he believed based on his interpretation, perspective and agenda. Therefore, that was Mike’s truth because truth is relative.” I suppose in many cases saying that about varying “truths” would not cause any problem. A friend of mine often tells the story of what happened on a ski trip in Europe many years ago. I remember the facts differently. Does it matter when he is telling his story that he got the facts wrong? Isn’t his version of the truth acceptable? Of course, because his being wrong has no negative consequences.
The problem arises when accepting someone’s believed truth as truth, when in fact it is not true, can have very dire consequences. Let’s take the example of a criminal trial. The eyewitness tells her truth of the circumstances of a rape. Based on her testimony, a black man is put behind bars. Well, if truth is relative, then that’s okay. That’s her truth. But that is not okay. Her truth is wrong and convicted an innocent man. I use this example because it did happen.
Dr. Dell mentioned the Renaissance. During the Renaissance people believed the world was flat. That was their belief but to say it was true because they believed it is wrong. It was not true. The world as we know is a sphere. To say it was “their truth” because it was based on their “interpretation, perspective and agenda” is wrong. Truth is absolute. Truth must be based on facts and evidence. But an articulated truth based on faulty evidence is simply not true. It is wrong.
I believe the confusion comes from what constitutes truth. I think Dr. Dell thinks if someone believes it, that is their truth, and therefore truth is relatively. I disagree. We can all have a belief about something. Some of those beliefs will be true. Others will not. But to say different beliefs (different interpretations of the facts and evidence) are all true because truth is relative is wrong. One belief will be true, another will be wrong.
Some people think the killing of President Kennedy was a conspiracy. Some people think it was a lone gunman. Each of those beliefs is based on evidence interpreted differently. But you cannot say both beliefs are true. We may not know which one is wrong, but one is not true and the other is true.
There is no such thing as “their truth.” A belief that is not true is not anyone’s truth. It is a false belief. Truth is not relative. One version or one interpretation is true. All the others are false beliefs even if people believed them to be true based on their personal interpretations, perspectives, and agendas.