Truth is a process

Published On: February 23, 2020 09:35 AM NPT By: Sarans Pandey

The progress of our species depends on us relying on and trusting the expertise of other people in subjects that are either beyond our comprehension, or for which we don’t have time

If the only thing that is constant is change, then where does that leave a concept like ‘truth’ that is assumed by many, to be grounded on immutability? 

In 2006, we were informed by the International Astronomical Union, that Pluto would have its status relegated to that of a dwarf planet. It wasn’t that the information we had previously been privy to turned out to be false, but it just so happened that, taking into account the new parameters, the truth changed. If such is the nature of this concept, and that too in a world of objectivity and precision, then one can only imagine the fluidity this entails when entering the world away from science and into the sphere of subjectivity. When in 2016, the oxford dictionary named “Post-truth” as the word of the year, it brought into question, the societal interpretation of truth and the relevance it holds when forming opinions.  

Are we humans really as rational as we want to believe or are we just creatures driven by impulse? A Kantian outlook, later adopted by post modernists, suggests that the world doesn’t exist apart from our experiences. And as such the world is essentially experiential. The interpretation of this philosophy implies that the things that we believe to exist, are ‘real’ part of our subjective experience, but they don’t transcend that experience. For instance, if my friend Rihen visits a new city, city A, for the first time and finds himself stuck in the most hectic traffic, the likes of which he hasn’t seen before, then for Rihen, on account of his experience, City A would be home to one of the busiest roads in the world. When he relays that experience to his friends, it would be factually correct. But then what might also be factually correct is that another person, who has been to the same city, travelled on the same road, finds that, on a different occasion, there is negligible traffic. Both of these statements would be true. But relying on either of them to form a strong opinion as to the state of traffic in country A, in any case, would be misleading. 

A series of experiments in the 1960s by cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason revealed that people tend to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs. This is what is known as the confirmation bias. By cherry picking information that is consistent with one’s beliefs, people tend to ignore information that supports an alternative hypothesis. Yuval Noah Harari in his book,  21 Lessons for the 21st Century, highlights an interesting observation. “We think we know a lot, even though individually, we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own”. Sloman and Fernbach call this problem the “illusion of explanatory depth”. 

Collaboration is one of the defining characteristics of humans living in a society. We rely on each other’s expertise when it comes to making several decisions in our everyday lives, and such is the level of our reliance, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins. This is especially the case when we relay information that we obtain second hand. When relying on the wisdom of a different individual, it puts us in a position where an event or information, which would otherwise be an outlier if we considered the entire phenomena, becomes the major evidence that feeds our bias. A cumulative response from experiences in the form a representative statistical study would be the best way to come up with credible data which can be used for projection. But then again, there might be a faction of people for whom the data holds little relevance. Take for instance, a country that has been seeing consistent economic growth for more than a couple of decades. The fact that the country has been seeing growth is indisputable. But what does that factually pristine statement mean to the tradie who, in the last couple of years, has been moving from one profession to another trying hard to make ends meet? 

In every sector, and in every study, there will be a group like this- the ones overlooked by the measure of central tendency. These people, like all the rest, will come with an inherent bias, which from their experiential perspective, would seem entirely justified. And when you rope in the confirmation bias, it is not difficult to understand why, come election night, they might latch on to the candidate who spins a yarn that appeals to their experiential truths and/or unfounded biases. For them, a fiction would be more closer to their version of reality, than accurate facts. The complexities of the world demand collaboration. 

The progress of our species depends on us relying on and trusting the expertise of other people in subjects that are either beyond our comprehension, or for which we don’t have time. Imagine having to go to the hospital and not be able to entrust yourself to the doctor’s abilities. Or having to build a house without being sure whether it is going to withstand the next quake. This reliance, which mostly works when intended for scientific applications, tends to disrupt and divide when used for the purpose of argumentation. Often times, and mainly in political and societal discussions, we are seen parroting the words of others, believing in them with such fervor, simply on account that one person who we trust, among thousands of others, had an experience that hints at an outcome that either shapes our bias, or seemingly corroborates it.

No one relishes in being wrong, but one needs to understand that truth is a process. It changes over time and it involves the process of being wrong, not just once, but several times before getting it right. And even when being right, there are several aspects of life that cannot be reduced to numerical values and facts. The cherrypicking of information will always be there, some of it prevalent even in this writing. But perhaps knowing the frailty in one’s position, helps make space through which the other side can seep in. 

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