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20180902 – A Short History of Truth



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The main idea of this book is to analyze and summarize the meaning of truth, its different presentations in various areas and its interaction with non-truths, half-truths, and such. Also the important point is that truth is complicated and could not be easily presented without understanding of background and believes of both sender and receiver of message, because depending on this the same message could be identified at completely different levels, sometimes contradictory.



This starts with author’s recollection of free magazine from 1980 called “Plain Truth” and contemplation on intertwining of “plain”, “truth”, and linguistical meaning of this. Then he moves to philosophical meaning of truth. This kind of distorted everything, so author finds that problem is not “with what truth means, but by how and by whom truth is established”. Overall author concludes that despite all “post-truth” ideas and discussions, truth does exist, only one should be careful to consider complexity of issue, because this complexity provides for all different kinds of truth and author in this book is trying to define how evaluate truth-claims for different type of truth.


This starts with the “Truth” of Mormons and proceed to discuss situation when majority of minority believes in some revealed text, but majority of majority believes that most revealed texts are not revealed. From here author discusses various “eternal truths” of religions and deviations from literal understanding as a method of reconciling them with reality and science. From here follows method of peaceful coexistence – various truths either religious or scientific exist in parallel moral and intellectual universes and therefore do not intersect and could not conflict.


This starts with Indian sect of Sai Baba and goes to discuss how validations of epistemological authority are expertise or divine. Obviously, the underlying foundation is the notion that truth exists. After that it is only question of who can confirm authority, but it could not rely on one’s experience only because it is necessary very limited. It had to rely on communications about this from others.


This starts with discussion of 9/11 truthers and claim that it is not possible to know if their idea completely false or have some truth to them and it was intentionally hidden. It leads to an interesting point: “One of the perennial challenges of being a critical thinker is to be appropriately skeptical without being indiscriminately cynical”.


This starts with experimental truths as in Jefferson’s “American Experiment” of governing by reason and truth. However, that experiment is complicated and contains lots of contradictory facts. Author brings in Western tradition of constructing “truth” via reason. He discusses in some details Spinoza and his search for truth via formalized reasoning, which now pretty much out of fashion. Nevertheless, it is still a powerful tool if combined with experience.


This starts with reference to Francis Bacon – original promoter of empirical method in formal philosophy. Eventually it became what is normally called science. Author provides an interesting example of controversy whether regular Cold is caused by cold or by virus. Eventually it was proved that virus is suppressed by immune system when it is warm, but much less so when it is cold. It demonstrates complexity of reality and a simple fact that real science never provides the final answer, only some approximation to reality, often good enough for practical improvements. It is interesting that this understanding logically forces author to admit that “climate deniers” could be right, which is not an easy thing for Western academic.


This chapter starts with Bush’s “Mission accomplished” truth or non-truth. Author uses this to discuss complexity of declaration when truth of simple facts is mixed with hopes and believes. From here author moves to a notion of “illocutionary truth” when “by saying something we do something”. However, it is a complex and not always consistent process so sometimes truth can be created by words, but sometimes it is not, however creative are these words.


It starts with difficulty of proving or rejecting popular meme that Intuits have 50 words for snow. It actually depends on interpretation of words and there is even approach of Relativism, which states that the meaning comes only from interpretation, not facts, so truth is always relative. Author somewhat defends this approach based on idea of conventional meaning of language and words. He also discusses contextual meaning that complicates things even more. Eventually it comes to existence of “real truths about relative truths”.  The final point here is important in and of itself: “there are no alternative facts, just additional facts” that may or may not change perception of truth.


Autor starts with diets: widely propagated for many years untruth that saturated Fat is cause of diseases. Author claims that it was intentional by powerful interests that wanted to protect sugar. The point here is that truth of health impact of different foods is not defined by scientific facts, but rather by relative power of industries producing different foods. This is an important demonstration of how power to define truth could be converted into financial and other benefits.


It starts with obvious statement that such truths are culture dependent and author condemns “arrogant oppressors”, but right after that says something about rape and other niceties of non-western cultures are not necessary acceptable and position “Who are we to judge?” is often not really tenable. This follows by funny discussion of passions being a master and reason the slave, so it is not really possible to be tolerant to something that is completely unacceptable for a person morally. The author discusses choice vs. nature moral problems such as “homosexuality could not be morally wrong because it is genetic makeup of the person, not a choice”. Author also discusses in some details Hume’s idea that morality is rooted in “moral sympathy” and how it is impacted by facts.


It starts with discussion of true believers in such things as Bible’s defined creation of universe and note that these believes are logically consistent and so are many other believes. Consequently, one cannot change mind by providing any factual or logical truth if there is not agreement on what to consider as such truths. Author discusses how believes form webs and often filter incoming information to fit these webs. The only way to get to the truth is to keep own believes in check and use diverse sources of information, while keeping filters in check.

Conclusion Future truths

In conclusion author summarizes his typology of truths as such:

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I think that idea of truth is quite complex and analysis of different types of truth, while useful, could not provide what people need most – tool to differentiate truth from non-truth. There is also very important part of it that is usually missing, which is absence of “I do not know” position. Another thing often missing is gradation and relevance of truth. I believe that the only relatively reliable method to define truthful understanding of the subject is analysis of confirmation or rejection of prediction about future. Without this any truth is tentative, especially if it is based on believes that are not subject to empirical falsification. Eventually all really important believes are logically consistent and therefore could not be changed by direct contest. They only could be changed by demonstrating real live consequences of acting or not acting in accordance with such believes, then allowing people to decide which type of consequences they prefer and then decide for themselves whether believes adjustment is required or not. This practically means that acquisition of truth should be done carefully with lots of small-scale experimentation before rolling it out, and preferably without u-e of violence. As example I would offer to review socialism of Robert Owen vs. socialism of Lenin / Stalin / Mao. The former was voluntary and on small scale, but clearly demonstrated socialism’s flows and failures at the cost of a few disappointments and slightly shattered lives. The latter demonstrated the same flows and failures times billion, but at the cost of hundred of millions lives lost and billions destroyed. If humans in XIX – XXI century had a bit better philosophical understanding of truth, the Owen’s experiment would be enough and all this billions of lives would be saved.


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