I have spent more than a decade in various schools, learning different truths and learning how to apply them. But what is truth? It is generally accepted that truth has three characteristics: truth is public, truth is independent, and truth is eternal. Truth is public means that a statement is either true for everyone or no one. Truth is independent means that a statement may be false if everyone believes it to be true, or vice versa.
Truth is eternal means that a statement cannot be true today and false tomorrow; it is either always true or always false (Woolman, 6-7). It has been said that “different cultures have different truths.” It has also been said that “a truth is that which can be accepted universally.” The former presents truth as something that varies from person to person and from place to place, and is a bit lacking to say the least. The latter is a definite improvement, as it says that truth is truth is truth, no matter who you happen to be talking to. However it too is lacking, it makes truth about the world outside of people’s minds dependant on what is inside people’s heads. A third possibility, that truth exists separately from human belief, presents a far better picture of the nature of truth.
The statement that “different cultures have different truths” is flawed because it does not require truth to be universal. It allows me to believe that the sky is blue and a person in Australia to believe that the sky is red and both of us to be correct. It is a mathematical fact that 1+1=2. 1+1=2 for me, for my best friend, for the prime minister of Great Britain and for the computer on which I am typing this essay. It can never equal 4, no matter how much my history teacher may tell me that it does. It is a historical fact that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on august 6, 1945.
It is a fact for me, for the prime minister of Great Britain, and for the other six billion people on this planet. It is a scientific fact that Vf = Vi+at. It cannot = Vi-at or Vi+2at, no matter how bad my memory may be during the IB exam. These three truths, as well as every other truth, as the first characteristic of truth suggests, are true for everyone of every culture. They cannot be true for one person and not for another. The idea of heliocentrism shows this idea that truth must be universal quite clearly. To say that the earth is revolving around the sun in America and the sun around the earth in, say, Djibouti, quite simply makes no sense. The solar system cannot be heliocentric and geocentric at the same time.
The statement that “a truth is that which can be accepted universally” would seem to be an improvement. It agrees with the first characteristic of truth, that it is public. It allows scientific laws and historical facts to be universal, to be true for everyone. But even this view of truth has its shortcomings. It fails to meet the second characteristic of truth, that truth is independent of anyone’s belief. It says that if all six billion people come to believe that we dropped bananas on Hiroshima instead of an atomic bomb, then history will suddenly be altered, more than 150,000 people will suddenly rise from the dead, and everything that has happened in the last half century will instantaneously be altered. Obviously, this simply is not true.
History cannot be changed, no matter how many people may want it to be. To return to our astronomy example, this theory says that two millennia ago when everyone believed that the sun revolved around the earth, it did. Then with Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler the sun magically stopped revolving around the earth and the earth began revolving around the sun. Now this is certainly more coherent than the idea that solar system is simultaneously geocentric and heliocentric, but it still contradicts observations made prior to Copernicus, the laws of physics, and common sense in general and therefore cannot be correct.
Fortunately, there is a third possibility. What if truth exists totally unaffected by what is in people’s heads? It would mean that the earth was revolving around the sun long before Copernicus said that it was. That would explain astronomical observations made prior to Copernicus, it would fit within the laws of physics, and it would allow for what I consider to be the greatest accomplishment of humanity: the improvement and expansion of knowledge. If either of the prior two theories of truth were correct, then one idea is not inherently better or more correct than another. 1+1 could equal 2 or 3 or 487, depending on what people believe.
Deep plowing could cause plants to grow taller as people believed in china during the great leap forward, heavier bodies might actually fall faster than lighter ones, and bloodletting might actually cure disease. The fact that truth is unaffected by what people believe allows us to discover new things, it allows us to throw out old, flawed ideas and replace them with newer, better ones. It allows us to determine experimentally that heavier bodies and lighter bodies fall at the same speed, that deep plowing doesn’t make plants grow any taller, and that bleeding is more likely to cause death than health. And, unlike the first two theories about truth, this one agrees with all three characteristics of truth: it is public, it is independent, and it is eternal.
So far I have looked only at certain fields of knowledge (mathematics, science, and history). Two others (arts and ethics) are worthy of examination. I spent four years in orchestra, and I liked much of the music we played there. On the other hand, I cannot think of a single modern musician that I have any appreciation for. My sister, while having spent some time in orchestra, spends far too much time (at least in my opinion) listening to more recent music. Does the fact that we appreciate different types of music, that what I think is good she thinks is bad and vice versa, make one of us right and one wrong? Of course not.
Ethics, like arts, would seem support the idea that different cultures have different truths. For example, in the current debate on abortion, some people would tell you that the baby has a right to live, whether the mother likes it or not. Others would tell you that the mother has a right to decide what happens within her own body, even if that causes the fetus to die. Is one side inherently more right than the other? Probably not.
In these two fields, it seems that truth is different for different people, because these two fields deal with concepts created and defined by humans: good and bad, better and worse, right and wrong. When it comes to real truth, truth in fields dealing with the world outside the human mind, truth cannot be different for different cultures, and it cannot be that which is believed by all cultures. Truth is public and eternal, and most importantly is independent of what anyone believes.