In this article I discuss some of the philosophical interpretations of the term, ‘truth,’ and explore the ways in which different concepts of truth affect how we see the world and how we relate to each other. I go on to suggest that human wellbeing may be more effectively cultivated if we think in terms of what is useful and beneficial rather than what is ‘true.’ My aim is to try to clarify some of the thinking around notions of truth and to help secular Buddhists to develop their own ideas of what is true and beneficial. This seems particularly important in our so-called ‘post-truth age,’ when diametrically opposed truth-claims are being made, and when the truth of a statement seems to be gauged more by who has said it, than by any evidence that might support it. In this culture of conflict and polarisation, we need to be clear about how we decide what is true, what we mean by ‘truth’ and how we relate concepts of truth to ideas about what is beneficial or ‘good.’ I go on to argue that by embracing diversity and cultivating compassionate understanding we can all help to heal and repair our divided society.
The Buddha's perspective on truth
In one of the sutras, the Canki sutra in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha is asked about truth – how we discover, verify and preserve truth – particularly in relation to the teachings of religious and other leaders. The Buddha makes use of a great many examples and detailed arguments to make his case. Surprisingly, perhaps, he begins by arguing against the notion that what we believe to be true renders all other views to be false: ‘it is not proper for a wise man…to come to the definite conclusion: “Only this is true, anything else is wrong.”’ (Bodhi 1998) At the outset the Buddha argues against dogmatism, absolutism and exclusivity. Truth is never singular and absolute - it is always plural and conditional.
The Buddha goes on to advise how we should evaluate the truth claims made by an individual – particularly a fellow monk or teacher. The truth of a statement is to be ascertained by careful and persistent scrutiny of what is claimed by a person and if such claims are tarnished by greed, hatred or delusion, then they should be considered as questionable, or rejected as being fallacious. This approach implies a direct correlation between the state of mind or attitude of a person and their ability to make truth-claims. To put it another way: true statements are not likely to be the product of greed, hatred or delusion; they are more likely to arise from a disposition of generosity, kindness and clear unbiased awareness.
In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, makes the point that ‘according to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent.’ (Rahula: 39) In other words truth is always conditional and open to revision as conditions change. Rahula goes on to define ‘truth’ as things seen as they are ‘without illusion or ignorance.’ To realise what is true, is to see things as they are (dharma) – to be aware of what is actually the case. However, this begs the question: how can we know how things actually are?
This brings us back to the Buddha’s advice to ascertain by careful scrutiny whether a particular truth claim is ‘tarnished by greed, hatred or delusion.’ In other words, we have to examine the conditions within which a claim is made, in order to ascertain whether it is likely to represent a true and accurate account of how things are. The word, ‘delusion’ in this context is a translation of the Buddhist term, avijja/avidya. Avidya, is a compound made up of a, meaning ‘not’ and vidya which comes from the Sanskrit root, vid, meaning ‘to perceive, know or understand.’ Thus, avidya means to ‘not know’ – particularly, in Buddhism, to not know that all phenomena are conditional, interdependent and impermanent. It is this misconception or misunderstanding about the nature of things which gives rise to dukkha – that is, suffering, dissatisfaction, confusion and alienation.
Justified true belief
The question of how we justify belief, and define truth, has been the subject of philosophical and religious thought since the beginnings of recorded history. Most western philosophers would agree with Aristotle's definition (in his Metaphysics): ‘To say of what is that it is not, or what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or what is not that it is not, is true.’ (O’Hear 1991) Aristotle makes it clear that truth and falsity are characteristics of statements or propositions about the world, not qualities of the world itself. This is a fundamentally important premise of most conceptions of truth, or what we might call ‘justified true belief.’
When we make a statement, such as, ‘the earth is round,’ we are making a claim that this is a true statement. Within western philosophy there are at least four widely acknowledged theories of how we recognise, and validate, truth-claims.
Four theories of truth in western philosophy
Two of these theories are closely related, and we can consider them together – they are known as Correspondence Theory and Picture Theory. In both, true statements, but not false ones, 'correspond to,' or ‘picture,’ reality - or bits of it - called facts or states of affairs. For instance: imagine there is an apple on the table in front of you and you say to me: ‘There is an apple on the table in front of me.’ I consider this to be a true statement because I can see the apple on the table – I can point to it, and I can even pick it up. The statement you have made can be said to correspond to, or picture, the apple on the table. If you say, ‘there is no apple on the table,’ and I can see that there is an apple on the table, I have grounds for considering this to be a false statement, because it doesn’t correspond to, or picture, the apple on the table in front of you.
But what if you say, ‘God exists.’ What does this statement correspond to, let alone picture? There would seem to be nothing you can point to that would verify this statement. And, even more problematic, what if you say, ‘God does not exist’. What does this statement correspond to, or picture? How can a statement be said to correspond to, or picture, an absent entity, something that I can’t point to? How can a negative statement be said to correspond to, or picture, a non-existing something.
Another approach taken by philosophers is known as Coherence Theory. The idea here is that true statements are statements that best fit into a particular system of beliefs – for instance a particular religion, philosophy, culture or worldview. Consistency is an important consideration - if a statement does not fit into the 'system' of beliefs or ideas it cannot be true. For instance, in contemporary society, grounded in a scientific belief system, if I say, ‘the earth is flat,’ or, more controversially, if I claim that ‘the earth was made in seven days,’ most people would probably dismiss these statements as being untrue or false - not because they don’t correspond to anything out in the world, but because they don’t fit into, our scientific belief-system – they go against and contradict what science tells us. Another example might be: if I am a committed Christian and you say to me that God does not exist, I will probably consider this to be a false statement – not because the statement doesn’t ‘correspond’ with something out in the world (how could it?) but because the absence of God does not fit into my Christian belief system.
Of course, this theory of truth also poses significant questions. For instance, in a world where there are many belief systems competing for our attention, who is to determine or define the correct one? If I firmly believe in membership of the European Union, the statement that ‘we would be much better off if we leave the EU,’ would appear to me to me to be untrue - because it does not fit with my Eurocentric belief system. For someone who doesn’t subscribe to a Eurocentric belief system the statement may well be considered to be true – regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
One other problem associated with the coherence theory of truth is the question of how we can gain new knowledge, if knowledge always has to fit within the current belief system. If truth-claims have to fit within, say, the dominant belief system of a particular era, wouldn’t we still believe that the earth is flat?
The fourth of these theories of truth is known as Pragmatist Theory and is associated with the ideas of the twentieth century philosophers, C.S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty. Here the principal notion is that the truth of statements is determined by their practical applicability or usefulness. In Peirce's case (he was particularly interested in science) ‘truth consisted in what worked in the sense of being acceptable to scientists in the long run – “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate.”’ (O’Hear 1991) John Dewey suggests that valid truth-claims are those that are found to work towards the common good, or we might say, the relief of suffering and the cultivation of wellbeing.
Pragmatists believe that the possibility of error can never be ruled out - even with regard to judgments about our sensory experience. Therefore, our ideas of what is true need always to be open to revision in the light of changing experiences, further investigation and new information. This idea of the relative, changing, evolving nature of truth is seen by many as undermining the notion of truth as something we can believe in or depend on. Once more, we have to recognise that there may be many different, even contradictory, truth-claims competing for validation or acceptance at any particular time. A pragmatist would probably argue that this is always the case in ‘real life’ and to pretend otherwise is unrealistic. Indeed, embracing the idea that there may be many, equally valid and competing truth-claims relating to many situations and states of affairs in the world, is a good thing. To be open to, and tolerant of, varied truth-claims may enable us to understand each other better and to live together more effectively by reducing misunderstanding, distrust and conflict.
Many pragmatist thinkers would argue that the categories of true and false are less important to the general good than the categories of useful or not useful - beneficial or not beneficial.
Michael Ignatieff, in his excellent biography of Isaiah Berlin, argues that until the late 18th century European philosophers tended to believe that ‘for any genuine question there must be one true answer; that these truths were accessible to all human beings; and that all true answers to true questions must be compatible with each other.’ (Ignatieff 1998: 244) He goes on to point out that Berlin thought this line of argument was faulty. He argued instead that reason could lead us to divergent, even contradictory, answers to important questions. This meant that we have to find ways to live with multiple ‘truths,’ and the conflicting beliefs that are predicated on these truths. In order to live together in a pluralistic society, a society in which many valid truth-claims compete for our assent and belief, toleration is a necessity if we are to avoid endless conflict and tyranny. Dogmatic assertions of all kinds, and the authoritarian desire to impose one’s beliefs and values on others, or the submissive desire to take on trust any truth-claim made by the powerful, are to be challenged wherever possible. What is needed is not authoritarianism, or unthinking submissiveness, but ‘enlightened scepticism [and] more toleration of idiosyncrasies.’ (ibid: 198)
Back to the Buddha on truth
This brings us back to the Buddha’s views on how we ascertain what is true – that is, by careful scrutiny of statements or truth-claims. In this way we can determine on what basis we accept or reject a particular truth claim, including on the basis of whether it is ‘tarnished by greed, hatred or delusion.’ Given that the Buddha is always seeking for ways in which suffering can be recognised and alleviated, one could claim that he was a pragmatist. He considered ‘truth’ not as a philosophical abstraction, but rather as an evolving set of tools and methods that have practical value – as a means of identifying and healing the many kinds of suffering in the world.
As mentioned earlier, the Buddha argued against the notion of truth as being absolute and unchanging. Instead, he suggested that truth-claims always need to be examined in relation to the conditions and circumstances in which they are made. Truth-claims are always dependent upon context – when and where they are made, and by whom. ‘Truths’ are always relative and subject to change – just like everything else in the universe.
However, it is important to note that having a relativist view of truth does not mean that ‘anything goes’, or that we can’t distinguish between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Facts are a particular category of knowledge – the product of provisional agreement arrived at by careful scrutiny, experimentation and rational argument. Facts are determined by collective agreements made by groups of people who have studied a particular field of enquiry. They stand for as long as they are not invalidated by further evidence, or are revised in the light of further study, experiment and peer review. Even facts in the hard sciences are always open to disproof and revision through collective study and argument. Facts are determined by collective enquiry rather than individual opinion, however powerful that individual might be. The Buddha, a charismatic and powerful individual, urged those around him never to take his opinions as true or factual, just because he has uttered them, rather, he repeatedly urged everyone to scrutinise what he said and test his statements against their own experience. Only in this way can a truth-claim be shown to be useful and valid. A key method of scrutiny, advocated by the Buddha, is mindful meditation.
The Jain perspective on truth
In relation to ideas about truth, the Jain tradition in India provides an interesting and helpful perspective. Within Jain philosophy the term, syadvada, is used - derived from a root word, ‘syat,’ meaning ‘relatively speaking,’ or ‘conditionally.’ Syadvada, is sometimes known as the ‘maybe-so’ doctrine, or the doctrine of ‘up to a point’ or ‘in a manner of speaking.’ According to this non-doctrinaire ‘doctrine’, ‘no matter how carefully elaborated a philosophy may be, it remains, after all, only a human point of view. It is inseparable from a particular standpoint, and therefore inescapably expresses only a single perspective on a reality which transcends all perspectives. No proposition is wholly and completely true but only up to a point, in a manner of speaking.’ (Kaplan 1962: 230)
Abraham Kaplan argues that we shouldn’t underestimate the implications of syadvada. It is not just that we can’t decide as to what is true or false, or that all theories can offer only degrees of probability as to what is true or correct and, therefore, are never simply statements of ‘fact’. No, the more radical implication of syadvada is that we can only approach what we might call a ‘true’ understanding of a particular state of affairs ‘not by choosing among alternative beliefs and philosophies, but by broadening our perspectives so as to find a place for the several alternatives.’ (ibid: 231) Taking account of different perspectives, however incompatible, is more likely to give us a more rounded, holistic, and probably more interesting and richer, understanding of a given phenomenon, than by selecting only one perspective and dogmatically asserting that this is ‘the truth’.
The tendency of Indian religious thinkers to consider all religions and philosophies as different darśana, or points of view, is a reflection of the desire to integrate, to synthesise and to find a position that encompasses competing, and possibly contradictory, alternatives. As Kaplan suggests, the truth ‘does not and cannot lie wholly on one side or the other, nor yet somewhere betwixt and between; what must be found is a larger perspective that incorporates both.’ (ibid: 232) This is an argument for pluralism – an acceptance of, indeed an embracing of, multiple perspectives and many truths.
‘The art of not taking sides’ is, perhaps a neglected art – though it is interesting that such an approach is crucial to the way in which judges exercise their power in our legal system, and to the ways in which medical and aid services work, and to the processes of conflict resolution. In all these fields, impartiality - trying to maintain an even-handed approach, setting aside preconceptions and prejudices, and being open to many interpretations of what is ‘true’ - are the qualities needed for effective action. Conflict resolution can only happen when both sides have a voice and when a way forward is agreed that is inclusive of the aspirations of both sides. It is a pity that this art of balance, openness and pluralism isn’t more widely practiced – perhaps if it was, there would be fewer conflicts to be resolved.
For a holistic, less egocentric perspective
Meditation practices and mindful ethics (articulated in the Eightfold Path or Eight Tasks/Skills) can enable anyone to reorientate their minds to a more holistic, less egocentric, perspective from which to see themselves and the world. Rather than focussing on the pursuit of absolute truth and the dogmatism that leads so often to intolerance and an authoritarian desire to impose one set of truths on others, mindful ethics is concerned with cultivating an understanding and celebration of many truths and working towards sukha – the development of a sustainable ‘good life’ and the flourishing of all beings. Through the development of compassionate understanding and openness, we can lessen the many forms of suffering that affect us and, hopefully, enable us to experience more fully the wonder and joy of our diverse, beautiful and many-sided universe.
I would like to end with a poem by Kenneth Rexroth. It is from a sequence titled, ‘The City of the Moon’ – written in 1972 when Rexroth was visiting Kyoto, the cultural centre and former capital city of Japan:
Buddha took some Autumn leaves In his hand and asked Ananda if these were all The red leaves there were. Ananda answered that it Was Autumn and leaves Were falling all about them, More than could ever Be numbered. So, Buddha said, “I have given you A handful of truths. Besides These there are many Thousands of other truths, more Than can ever be numbered.” (Rexroth 1974: 36)
Bikkhu Bodhi, ed. & trans., In the Buddha’s Words. 2005. Massachusetts, Wisdom Publications.
Ignatieff, Michael. 1998. Isaiah Berlin: A Life. London: Chatto & Windus.
Kaplan, Abraham. 1962. The New World of Philosophy, London: Collins.
O'Hear, Anthony. 1991. What Philosophy Is: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. Penguin.
Rexroth, Kenneth. 1974. New Poems. New York: New Directions.
Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. 1974. New York: Grove Press.