Truth and its limits

Posted on July 27, 2012

In a recent book titled, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone” Prof. Dan Ariely describes a series of experiments. He traces the behavior of people and their tendency to be truthful, fudge a little bit or be increasingly untrue to outright liars! This tendency seems to be related to the “incentives” that entice people behave more one way than the other. As an example, it appears that college students cheated more, when they became aware that their fellow students were also cheating! But, cheating diminished when they learned that it was more prevalent in their rival college! In other words we don’t mind deviating from being truthful or shaving off at the edges as long as it is an accepted practice which also goes unnoticed within our own circle! We shun such behavior – which is unacceptable to start with – if we know that such is the culture of our perceived adversaries!
“What is truth and are there limits to it?”
Truth is what we believe it is at a given time and to the best of our knowledge. It is based on what we know, observe, understand and internalize. It includes all the relevant information pertinent to the subject viewed in an objective manner.
Truth is always based on our belief in what we know. “This is what I know to the best of my knowledge” is more truthful than to say “this is the truth”. It is more truthful to be explicit about the limits of our knowledge, rather than let the outcome dictate our admission of such limits!
Truth is also based on the established standards and our close adherence to such standards.
Hence TRUTH is a matter of KNOWLEDGE, our STANDARDS and the system of BELIEF with respect to both.
The above leaves us with an unpleasant truth! (i.e.): “Truth as we know it” is not something unchanging. It is the result of our knowledge and how we display that knowledge against a standard we have agreed to live by (our belief system). Hence we are left to interpret the original – the truth – in light of our current knowledge and understanding of the standards.
With respect to our knowledge, there is a need to be constantly vigilant to assess what we already know. We should also be willing to change our knowledge based on new facts, observation and understanding. But the everlasting OBJECTIVITY in our observations and the willingness to accept change, even if it is unpleasant and counter to our earlier knowledge has to be the only matter of permanence. This objectivity and adherence to it, is the only truth that is permanent. Anyone who practices such objectivity is the true practitioner of truth. He/she evolves as the enduring leader among us. This is the progression from Individual to Athma (universal person) to Mahathma (Superior among all persons).
For more details on “objectivity”: refer to our many earlier blog essays on understanding the connectors as a means to develop greater objectivity.
At the same time we also need to be vigilant about the standards and make every effort to maintain that standard. It is the temptation to shift our standards that leads to shades of lie or cheating and ultimately down the slippery slope. The time and circumstances (such as the economic enticements, as noted in Prof. Ariely’s studies) affect our judgment and hence our faithfulness to the standards.
Pursuing the path of constant vigilance to review our knowledge objectively and rigorous adherence to standards, would appear to be “Spirituality in Practice”
I take a banana on my hand. It looks ripe as best as I can judge. Hence I give it to a friend, for him to eat. He says “I think it needs to ripen further. But, I trust you and I will eat it”. He peels the skin off and takes a bite. Immediately he says, “The banana is not ripe yet”! Then I take a bite out of it and I truly believe that it is ripe enough to eat. Now my friend says, “I trusted you earlier, but now you call me a liar”!
Admittedly, the above is not an example of crucial importance. But it serves the purpose. The condition to which the banana has ripened would have the same measured value under established ripeness test involving physical measurements. How to measure ripeness of a banana?
But, when the same is expressed in a subjective standard (such as taste) we also see it in terms of truth and lie!
In Upanishads it is stated, “TRUTH is one; learned scholars (wise) express it, in many ways”!
While the aphorisms apply to much larger aspects of philosophy, we can also use them for everyday life. With respect to the subjective “standards” we can also resort to the writings from literature. Here are a few verses on truth from Thirukkural:
• “Truth” is that which is expressed in a way that does not harm anyone.
• Being untrue may be acceptable if it is spoken for a good reason without any deceit.
• There is nothing more precious than truthfulness.
• Water cleans the body; Truth cleans the soul.
• For the noble, truth is the lamp and the guide post.
While the above verses are indeed valuable guides, they pose contradictions that challenge us in practice. Is it not untruthful to speak a lie, or shade the truth even it is harmless to anyone? Can anyone be so objective that he/she knows of a good reason to lie? As you reflect on these questions we also leave you with a few quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, who practiced “Experiments with truth” as his life time mission:
• What may appear as truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person. But that need not worry the seeker.
• Truth and nonviolence demand that no human being may debar himself from serving any other human being, no matter how sinful he may be.
• An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.

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