Varying Interpretations of Truth, or Truth as a Social Construct

In this age of relativism, where one often hears reference to “your truth” and “my truth,” there are so many varying interpretations of truth that the concept of truth itself seems devoid of meaning. It is fashionable to see the concept of truth as indistinguishable from opinions or preferences. For example, Mari Fitzduff writes that

for many of us, far from our beliefs being “true,” they are actually born out of a particular social context, allied to physiological needs such as a differing neural sensitivity to threats and the greater certainty that a group can provide. Thus, beliefs are often what is termed “groupish” rather than necessarily true.

The task of deciding which group has the “true” version of facts is then left to expert fact-checkers who will pronounce on what is true or false.

In that light, it is easy to see why those who update dictionaries seek to reflect the common usage of words, rather than to reflect what is true. Dictionary definitions do not purport to be true nor do they claim to reflect any underlying universal truth underpinning the words defined; they are simply statements of how words are conventionally used. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary defines a woman as “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”—that is how the word “woman” is now commonly used, and being defined in that way by the dictionary does not mean that anyone who lives and identifies as female is, in truth, a woman.

Aristotle famously defined truth as facts corresponding with reality: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” In “Mises and the Diminished a Priori,” David Gordon defines an a priori proposition as

a proposition that can be known to be true just by thinking about it: you don’t need to examine the world to see whether it’s true. “2 + 2 = 4” is a priori true: once you understand what the proposition says, you can grasp that it’s true. You don’t need to keep counting objects to see whether the claimed equality holds true.

What does it mean to describe a proposition as true in that sense? In describing praxeological axioms as true, the word “truth” is deployed to mean that “if A implies B, and A is true, then B must also be true.” Science strives for accuracy and tests its propositions empirically or logically to ensure that they are accurate and valid and seeks to establish the correct facts. In ordinary language, we say it is true that 2 + 2 = 4, but “truth” in that context only means accuracy. It expresses a scientific principle that is true in the sense that equating 2 + 2 with 4 is the only formula that works. Anyone who accepts the suggestion of decolonized mathematics that 2 + 2 = 5, or indeed any number we want, would soon find their planes falling out of the sky and their infrastructure collapsing.

Beyond that, the question of what it would mean to say that science strives for “truth” is contested among philosophers. Indeed, many philosophers would say that there is no ultimate truth, in that what is said to be true is always open to question. In The Intellectuals and Socialism, Friedrich von Hayek explains why intellectuals are inclined to question everything:

Orthodoxy of any kind, any pretense that a system of ideas is final and must be unquestioningly accepted as a whole, is the one view which of necessity antagonizes all intellectuals, whatever their views on particular issues. Any system which judges men by the completeness of their conformity to a fixed set of opinions, by their “soundness” or the extent to which they can be relied upon to hold approved views on all points, deprives itself of a support without which no set of ideas can maintain its influence in modern society. The ability to criticize accepted views, to explore new vistas and to experience with new conceptions, provides the atmosphere without which the intellectual cannot breathe.

In Human Action, Ludwig von Mises also explains that neither the natural nor social sciences are concerned with truth in the philosophical sense: “Granted that science cannot give us truth—and who knows what truth really means—at any rate it is certain that it works in leading us to success.” Thus, praxeology, the science of human action, does not seek the truth in the grand “meaning of life” sense that characterizes many philosophical perspectives and perhaps all religions. In Mises’s view, praxeology does not “claim to reveal information about the true, objective, and absolute meaning of life.” Instead, praxeology “is neutral with regard to all judgments of value and the choice of ultimate ends. Its task is not to approve or to disapprove, but only to establish facts.”

Many liberals are also wary of the concept of “truth” and avoid it altogether not only because they are relativists who reject the notion of objective truth, but also because the concept of “truth” is associated in popular discourse with things people must do. Many people think that if something is true, then it follows logically that others must be forced to do it. For example, they would think that as soon as it is established to be true that something is harmful to health, it follows that it must be banned to force people to promote good health. Thus, the enemies of liberty often march under the banner of truth, armed with true principles about what is needed to promote human health. Liberty falls by the wayside. It is true that smoking is harmful to health, and on that basis, the Tory Party in the United Kingdom wants to ban it. As Rothbard warned:

And remember, if today they come for the smoker, tomorrow they will come for you. If today they grab your cigarette, tomorrow they will seize your junk food, your carbohydrates, your yummy but “empty” calories . . . Are you ready for the Left Nutritional Kingdom, with everyone forced to confine his food to yoghurt and tofu and bean sprouts? Are you ready to be confined in a cage, to make sure that your diet is perfect, and that you get the prescribed Compulsory Exercise?

Rothbard warns against this “neo-Puritanical” combining of the theological quest for truth with the statist quest for power: the power of the state to tell everyone what they must do.

In the postmodern age, far from being devoted to the pursuit of truth, statists promote the ideology that truth is anything you want and that each of us can therefore have our own version of the truth. They are devoted not to the pursuit of truth but to the version of “truth” that they think will promote their political goals. As Lew Rockwell observes: “In class after class, the postmodern message is the same: what we call truth is wholly subjective, what we call science is merely the momentary professional consensus, and what we call reality is a fiction made up to sooth our psychological need for order in the universe.”

Far from being designed to embrace the truth, postmodernism rejects the very notion that anything is true.

Originally Posted at https://mises.org/

By Mises