A theory of truth

Truth is epiphenomenal. It is established through the covenant of a social group in the macro, through power. But what is the criteria by which power creates a truth? That it serves power’s economic interests was the answer given by Marx. I agree, but that is only one aspect of the criteria and is a broad, high-level perspective. I wish to dig deeper.

Truth for the individual is that which is good for the single individual within the broader social context. For example, at one point in time it may be good for an individual to believe in God like the rest of his group, but at another point it may become intolerable for that individual to maintain such a belief, because the costs of believing in God outweigh the benefits. The individual’s view of the truth of God will change. He will defy his social group, and if he’s lucky he won’t be burnt at the stake. Such changes often do not occur with full awareness. One may change one’s view of truth and only later will its significance be realised. Another person may be so intimidated by the prospect of being burnt alive (and other, less-severe social pressure from the group) that he will unthinkingly go along with anything he’s told. The third case is one person (consciously) assenting to the group’s beliefs for mere expediency; he doesn’t really believe anything the group says it believes, but it is beneficial to his social standing.

Sartre interprets Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes as an example of an unconscious ‘magical transformation of the world’ in which the fox, denied the delicious grapes, later comes to see them as sour and undesirable. This is emotionally beneficial to the fox, as it nullifies destructive feelings of unsatisfied desire. This is an example of what psychologists call the Laws of the Lightest Load and the Greatest Gain, the tendency to reinterpret the world in ways favourable to the subject. Truth literally changes according to these reinterpretations. It is a subjective truth, but it could also be an ‘objective’ truth, as objective truth is merely the ‘inter-subjective’ negotiated through relations of power within a social group. As exemplified before, one will deny an ‘objective truth’ (e.g. God; as some suppose God to fall in the category of objective truth) if it is not of benefit to the individual. In such a case, one will not claim that their subjective truth is ‘more truthful’ than the group’s objective truth, rather he will claim that the group’s truth is a lie and that his truth an objective one. This is because a claim of ‘objective truth’ carries more power and rhetorical effect than a claim of ‘subjective truth’. Claims of objective truth are more powerful by virtue that it is claimed that not only a single individual believes such a truth. Unless you are Rambo – a very powerful individual, the beliefs of groups are always more powerful than one’s own beliefs. Ever wondered why a monarch refers to themself as ‘we’ rather than I? Because ‘we’ carries more authority and objectivity than ‘I’ by virtue that the monarch is supposed to represent more than the peasant ‘I’.

Freud’s discussed cases where his patients maintained self-concepts which were clearly delusional. Freud interpreted these delusions as coping mechanisms; it was emotionally beneficial to the patient to maintain such illusions rather than try to deal with their repressed beliefs.

Truth is that which is good for the individual. Truth has its source in us; there is no truth-in-itself. But what is good?

I think Nietzsche was closest, “all that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.” I am not going to elaborate on what Nietzsche means by ‘power’ in this context; suffice is to say that it has to do with self-preservation, flourishing, self-expression and creativity.

I must quickly add that one can really piss off Nietzsche and be deluded to think that sacrificing one’s life in this world will acutally lead to self-preservation and flourishing in another. This is another example of Lightest Load and Greatest Gain.

In the last analysis, Kierkegaard was right, truth is subjectivity.

What implications can we draw from this theory of truth? The most alarming is that some perspectives will naturally tend to be off-limits to us. It is not ‘good’ for the religious believer indoctrinated with dogma from birth and surrounded by other pious, bigoted believers to consider perspectives contrary to his own. The dangers are ostracism from his peers and the painful realignment of attitudes to the world. A perspective on the truth free from his familiar dogma is anathema to him.

How can this block to the exploration of perspectives be overcome? For Sartre, that life is in essence meaningless condemns us to be free. Only in a world gifted with meaninglessness are we truly free and responsible for our thoughts, actions and commitments; solely in this world are we justified in creating our own meaning. It is only with the realisation that our existing beliefs are contingent and without meaning in advance that we can even consider exploring alternative perspectives. When we find a perspective that may be ‘better’ for us (hopefully not delusional/other-worldly) this realisation will justify us in tearing down the old beliefs.


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