Truth : Why Context Matters
There’s a problem with our common mental relationships with Truth, and a related idea… truthfulness. Truth appears to many of us as an on/off metaphor; something’s either true or not. Truthfulness introduces degrees of validity, and awareness of this distinction is a crucial aspect of the cognitive compass we must create in order to be able to intelligently navigate in the oceans of language, ideas, beliefs, declarations, and opinions with which we have relation.
We must learn to recognize and understand the unique structure… and relationships with context… that truth claims depend upon.
A truth claim is a proposition or statement that a particular person or belief system holds to be true.
In the call-out above, the phrase ‘holds to be true’ might be unpacked as: presents as a derivation of their purposeful relationships with context, structured thought and perspective.
So, in a sense, the kinds of things we are able to think about or say, or assert, or deny… are largely determined by our purposes, and how we understand or abuse the context which our ideas and beliefs are reflections of our relationships with.
Since we formulate the context ourselves (yet often pretend this isn’t so), the nature of the ‘truths’ we can derive from it is dependent upon how we formed the context. For example, ‘John is a man’ is a statement that is true because we first divided people into genders, and the word ‘man’ is simply validating that previous move.
Generally speaking… very few of us will ever know the advantage of becoming aware of such things, simply because… among the common folk — they are not discussed.
And from this seemingly simple oversight all manner of dark things find their origin. And functions…
Before I began writing this, I was thinking about Truth, at least as we common people speak of it. And I thought I saw something important about the topic that we are rarely introduced to.
So, in a context (thinking about how we talk about Truth), I became aware of a specific feature of Truth — related to how we derive and verify it.
And how confused we can become about a fundamentally important idea.
Although I have known this feature for a long time, in my daily life and speech I am often oblivious to such matters. After all, I am not always thinking about Truth when I am thinking or speaking about something I imagine to be true. I, too can be seduced by my relationship with something I imagine to be true. Or even want to be true. Although in my defense I would say that I prefer an idea or position that get us closer to something truthful rather than assert something as explicitly true (with exceptions).
[One might object that truths are simply true, no imagining required… yet this is not actually possible, since the idea of Truth is a human idea. It’s a concept. And to relate with a situation or idea and derive ‘truths’ from it, requires an imagination, just as determining the veracity of a claim or forming an objection… such things arise in our imaginations, an inconvenient fact commonly overlooked when the purpose is to denigrate our imagination by equating it with fantasy.]
There are many different forms of Truth for human beings. There is that which is rational, or mathematical, or logical… or verbal, or conceptual… and there are countless other forms of an entirely different order. The felt truth of sunrise or the caress of a loved one, for example. And there are emotional truths, and truths of personal experience. The field is too broad to encompass with a single idea of truth or how it is ‘properly’ arrived at.
Yet we can learn something simple about the way we commonly speak about Truth (or something ‘that is true’) that may empower us to evade many of the confusions we must otherwise endure.
Truth is relative to context. That’s the big reveal, right there. In a way, all truths are unique derivations or perceptions of features of their native context — coupled with the purposes and intentions of those who assert them.
A great deal of the ‘information’ we are subject to in our time partakes of an ancient tradition: the making of truth-claims. Often this is done in either a haphazard or manipulative fashion. If we understand that Truth is relative to context, and we can begin to see the context from which an assertion arises, we will acquire immunity to some of the rampant toxicity in the media we are exposed to. To progress further we can recognize the limitations of claims, in terms of degrees of validity as well as their scope.
So to get to assert, deny or evaluate a truth-claim, we must first either formulate or subscribe to a context. In most cases this involves ignoring nearly all of the universe outside the context, and forming a limited domain in which we feel we can trust ‘simple’ assertions. Inside this egg, we can determine the rules, and the limits of the context (this is what we must pay attention to), and then we can derive truth (or some ‘degree’ of truth) from observation, exploration, structured thought, and so on.
Within a specific context, a ‘truth’ of some reliability may be derived. Its nature is almost always inherited from the context, how we think about that context (which we ourselves invent, however unaware we may be of this), what is included and excluded from consideration, and other features of this activity.
One might say that a certain person who is earning vast quantities of money regularly ‘is successful’. But this involves unusual suppositions about the nature of success and the scope of this claim; if something befell them where they were no longer in this situation, would the claim still be true? All claims have various domains of scope. In this example, awareness of the temporal scope transforms our understanding the claim.
I might reasonably claim that ‘I am a man’. Yet the scope of this truth is extremely thin: it’s categorical. None of us know, for example, what a man really is… if I was something else before, or will be something else after this. Or if either of this things is vastly more true than the categorical fact that, at least at present, I qualify for inclusion in the set ‘men’ according to our common linguistic and conceptual culture.
The fact that we can name, and thus actively distinguish aspects of our thought and experience is deceptive — because we can easily come to think that naming is understanding.
All truths are relative to the contexts we must actively derive in order to assert or deny them. Contexts are both powerful and largely invented, at least when they are verbal or conceptual, rather than, for example, an actual person or ecology; either of which would be a living context, and thus not merely conceptual.
Outside of a given context (and most of those we use when speaking are largely imaginary), a truth may not only be untrue… it may be the opposite of what is true. Or irrelevant, or nonsensical.
In scientific endeavors, researchers remain aware not only of the structure of an assertion, and whether or not it has been validated (and to what degree), but also the scope of a claim. For example, theories from classical physics have little or no truth value beyond their scope (i.e. in quantum mechanics), and many things that are true of quantum ‘objects’ cannot be true of macro-scale objects.
And we, like Truth as we usually speak of it, derive our roles and identities from the commercial, social and ideological contexts with which we are in most common contact. So we share this way of arising from relations with context in the same way ideas about what is true do.
In the context of mathematics, when we are doing addition, the equation 1 + 1 = 2 is true. But outside of concern with numbers, it’s relatively meaningless, even though it does appear to capture something fundamental about how animals may relate with beings or objects.
But if we name ‘some group of persons’ and make some assertion about them, i.e. ‘Most people are ignorant.’, we have made a number of mistakes as common as they are catastrophic (to Truth-sensing). If we extend the context to some group we have no direct experience of (how can you experience most Italians?) or to ‘everyone’ or ‘everything’, it becomes nearly impossible to make coherent statements. And even if we can, their grasp upon what we are referring to will usually be negligible. After all, they are just statements. Ideas. Evaluations. Comparisons. This is an aspect of Truth, but it’s a utilitarian and very limited form of it.
The failure to properly present and acknowledge a context is a crucial fault in our modern ways of thinking, reacting and imagining ourselves and others.
The world or universe is staggeringly beyond the capacities of our common ways of thinking and speaking — we are not able to make universal claims because the universe is the supercontext. And that won’t fit within representations, language, math, computation or ideas. We must therefore be especially careful about statements that assert an explicit truth ‘universally’.
Of course, if you look carefully at what I just wrote, you will notice that I made a truth claim about everything. See how strange language is when we pay attention to the scope of claims? It’s even stranger when we don’t.
By realizing that contexts limit our domain of concern and perception (dramatically, in all cases), we can then begin to understand both how something true can be examined or validated, and also notice the contextual limitations of its origin. This can be understood as the scope of a truth. And this is another crucial feature of Truth we can learn to become conscious of.
You may be thinking about Truth right now in relation to this brief essay. Wondering, for example, if what I am saying is true. And if so, I am glad. But pause for a moment and ask yourself: what’s the context here? Where is it focused ?For what purpose was it formed? Who formed it? What are its limits?
And bear in mind that there are different kinds and degrees of truthfulness in speech or description. Some are provisional (only true in certain cases), others are not so much true as they are the result of confusion related to context (a clumsy context can produce the appearance of truth in a statement without it being very true at all). Truth with a capital T is a much stranger animal, and comes from the depths of our humanity and heart. This kind of truth isn’t really subject to the courtrooms of language and ideas, having more to do with purpose, relation and activity than concepts.
To what degree are scientific ‘facts’ true, and in which contexts?
Are there actually things we can reliably say that are universally true?
When we are using language, is that, in itself, a special context we should acquire understanding of?
Do we confuse ideas or concepts… with reality? If so, how does this happen?