Your truth doesn’t exist.

Joan Westenberg
@westenberg
Published in
5 min readMay 31, 2024
Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

“Truth? What is that?” — The rhetorical question Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus in the Gospel of John.

Pilate’s world-weary cynicism suggested that truth is slippery and subjective, impossible to pin down. His question should resonate with modern audiences — in our current grappling with the nature of reality, facts, and certainty.

Somehow, “What is truth?” has morphed into “Your truth, my truth” — the notion that contradictory things can be simultaneously true for different people.

In 2005, the comedian Stephen Colbert coined a new word: “truthiness.”

Truthiness, Colbert explained, was the quality of seeming or feeling true, even if not necessarily true. “We’re not talking about truth; we’re talking about something that seems like truth — the truth we want to exist,” he said.

It was a clever political satire aimed squarely at the George W. Bush administration’s tendency to cherry-pick intelligence to justify the Iraq War. But what started as a joke has turned into something much more pernicious — a creeping relativism that threatens to undermine the very notion of objective truth.

Social media’s mantra is that “perception is reality” — that we each have a license to construct our own alternate realities, no matter how divergent from actual, verifiable truth.

This is nonsense. There is only one reality, one set of facts, one truth — messy and multifaceted as it may be. Your beliefs and my beliefs, your perspective and my perspective, don’t change the fundamental nature of what is real and what is not.

Consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant, originating in the Buddhist text Tittha Sutta. A group of blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. Each touches a different part — the trunk, the tusk, the leg, and the tail. When they compare notes, they are shocked that they seem to describe different things. The one who feels the trunk insists it is a snake. Another swears it is a spear. The leg is a tree trunk, and the tail is a rope.

Of course, none of them are correct. They each touched a part of the elephant but mistook it for the whole. Their perspectives were incomplete, distorted by their limited experience and sensory information. No matter how vigorously each blind man asserts that his “truth” is the real one, it doesn’t change the reality of the elephant.

The same applies in the wider world. Just because you sincerely believe something does not make it accurate.

The Earth is not flat, no matter how many people think it feels that way. Vaccines do not cause autism, regardless of how many anguished parents cling to that belief in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Climate change is real and primarily caused by human activity, even if it’s ideologically inconvenient for some to accept. An ignorance of up-to-date science beyond high school-level biology is not an argument against facts, which remain stubbornly unmoved by what you believe or feel.

The social psychologist Lee Ross coined the term “naïve realism” for the implicit belief that we see objective reality as it is and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased. We think of our views and perceptions as simply reflecting the “real world,” failing to recognize how much our beliefs, expectations, and desires skew them. It’s a cognitive trap we all fall into.

Our beliefs and perceptions are profoundly shaped by a whole host of factors beyond objective facts — our upbringing, our social circles, our education, and our cultural and political affiliations. Two well-meaning and intelligent people can look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. The key is to recognize that these differing views come from differences in perspective and interpretation, not from alternate realities.

The scary thing about our “post-truth” era is how easy it has become to find ostensible validation for any belief, whether fringe or irrational. On the Internet, you can always find someone asserting the thing you want to believe with absolute conviction. Just do a quick search, and you’ll turn up someone insisting that the Earth is flat, or that the moon landings were faked, or that lizard people secretly control the world.

If you’re inclined to believe any of those things, it’s comforting to find others asserting them confidently — it lets you say, “See, it’s not just me; there are other people who know the real truth!”

But the fact that you can find people proclaiming something online doesn’t make it any more true. What matters is the actual evidence and facts — which are not the same as sincerely held beliefs. There is a real world out there, and it doesn’t change just because we fervently believe something different.

The truth can be messy, complicated, and riddled with uncertainties for many contentious issues. Good-faith disputes are possible. But that doesn’t mean there is no underlying objective reality to be understood or that all perspectives are equally valid. Usually, a careful examination of logic and evidence reveals that one view aligns with verifiable facts much better than the other.

The alternative to objective truth is scary to contemplate. If my truth is just as valid as yours, even if they directly contradict each other, then truth loses all meaning. It’s a short road to “Nothing is true, and everything is possible,” the ideology that journalist Peter Pomerantsev argues has taken hold in Putin’s Russia, where facts and truth are treated as endlessly malleable.

If we accept that your truth and my truth can be whatever we feel is right, we lose any common basis for reasoned discourse and debate. The only “truth” becomes whatever you can get enough people to believe. And as history has shown again and again, what people ardently believe is often very far from factual truth.

Truth exists independently of what anyone thinks or feels about it. The Earth still orbited the sun in the centuries when the official “truth” was that it was the centre of the universe. Millions of people believing a falsehood doesn’t make it any less false. As the physicist Richard Feynman put it, “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

None of us has a monopoly on truth. We’re all susceptible to bias, motivated reasoning, and incomplete understanding, which is exactly why we must rely on facts and evidence to arbitrate between competing views.

Your truth, my truth, their truth — at the end of the day, there is only the truth. Not the truth we want to exist to confirm our beliefs, but the truth that does exist, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient we may find it. Our feelings and beliefs must align with reality — not vice versa.

The alternative is for truth itself to slowly recede like the elephant fading from view as the blind men stubbornly cling to their distorted perceptions of it. We can’t afford to let that happen.

Truth matters — now more than ever.

Join thousands of other readers, creators and thinkers who subscribe to @Westenberg — where I write about tech, humans and philosophy.

--

--