In today’s world of social media, political polarization, and “fake news,” truth and reality can sometimes seem like slippery concepts. They remain, however, no less essential in solving problems, making sound decisions and otherwise safely navigating life.
What is Truth?
Philosophers and wordsmiths have long wrestled with the distinction between truth and reality. It all may be semantics, but the conversation might have useful implications when applied to critical thinking and decision-making.
For clarification purposes it is helpful to define what we mean by truth and reality. I prefer the following distinction. Reality encompasses all that exists, existed or will exist. The truth is that which is in accordance with reality. To be a truth, it must exist in the realm of reality. The below diagram helps to illustrate this:
You could say, reality is what is, and truth is what is known.
Now, of course the truth is the truth whether it is known or not. However, when we speak of the truth, we are usually referring to what is known about a certain matter. For example, in a court of law we might be asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This does not mean you are expected to know the whole truth of all that exists. In this case, the whole truth is referring to all you know to be true about the matter at hand.
In decision making, this distinction is important. It can be a critical error to beilieve that we know the whole truth.
Since we are not omniscient, we cannot know all of reality. In fact, we all have a view of reality that is based on our perception. This becomes more convoluted when there is more than one person involved in a decision-making process. Though there is only one true reality, our perceptions of that reality differ based on our past experiences and personal bias.
Most of us maintain a view of the truth as seen through the lens of our own perception of reality.
This practice can and often does lead to invalid conclusions. Sound decision-making needs to be based on accurate premises. Accurate premises need to be based on the truth. Often critical thinking errors are made when we mistake our limited perception of reality for the truth. By looking through our own perception lens and failing to see the perceptions of others we become easily misled about what is true.
The complex role of perception
However, perceptions are a part of reality. This was demonstrated a few years ago when a photograph of a dress went viral causing a heated debate about whether it was white and gold or blue and black. More than half of the people viewing the photo perceived it as white and gold, while many disagreed vehemently. You can read a scientific explanation of this phenomenon. In short, the difference in perception has to do with how our brain interprets light and shadow. The brain “autocorrects” visual data based on what it has learned about how light changes color. The truth is that the dress was blue and black. The reality is that not everyone’s brain interpreted the photo the same way.
A developing brain is constantly mining data and searching for patterns that create a world view to assist in interpreting reality. This process applies to much more than just visual data. Among other things, it is how we learn about language, safety, relationships and our sense of self in relation to the rest of the world.
Related to perception, emotions also exist in reality. Western culture has often viewed emotions as the opposite of reason and therefore having no place in objective reality. The truth is that emotions, as an unavoidable part of the human response, are a part of reality. Objectivity involves being able to discern between emotions, perceptions and factual observations, while acknowledging their connective relationship.
None of this means we abandon our search for truth as something unattainable or entirely subjective. There is only one Truth. However, in order to be a good critical thinker, we need to accept two facts. What we know to be the truth is not all of reality, and our perception of reality can skew the truth.
How does this help us to make better decisions?
In decision-making, I find it is helpful to “stand in the truth.” That is, start with what is objectively known by everyone involved to be true. From there you can examine reality, including an understanding of different perceptions. Then, objectively acknowledge individual emotions and perceptions as a component of reality but not necessarily the truth. The goal is to keep expanding the known truth, thus leading to more informed decisions.
This process of standing in the truth, as illustrated above, is particularly helpful in group decision making. You begin by identifying what is known and agreed to be true. Next, decision makers can share their perspective making the distinction between emotions, perceptions and observable facts. The truth can be further expanded by seeking differing but relevant perceptions regarding the matter, as well as seeking objective answers to lingering questions.
Guidelines for truth seeking
This method is not just for formal decision making. We all make decisions every day. Some of the most important daily decisions involve how we respond to each other. It can be helpful to follow the following guidelines:
- Share your point of view as one perception. Your perception has value, but we need to acknowledge that it may not encompass all or any of the truth. Learn to use phrases like “From my point of view…” or “As I see it…” The same goes for emotions. It is important to acknowledge emotions without evaluation or blame. Start with the word “I” and take ownership of what you are experiencing. As in, “I feel concerned that …”
- Listen for understanding as someone else is sharing their point of view. Pay attention to both the words and the body language. Try to identify the other person’s experiences and related emotions, as well as their thoughts and perceptions. Be careful of assumption regarding intent. Use reflective statements and clarifying questions to determine an accurate understanding of their point of view. Remember, it is not necessarily about agreement, it is about recognizing a different perspective.
- Lastly, focus on the future. Often, we get stuck on the details of what has happened. Although, it can be helpful to reflect on and learn from what has already occurred, we cannot redo the past. Find some common ground and move forward. The greater part of our energy should be focused on the solutions in front of us and the decision at hand.
Accurately viewing reality and expanding our knowledge of the truth allows us to see more options and solutions. It also increases our ability to predict possible outcomes of our decisions by having a better understanding of other perceptions and likely responses.
So, this is my perspective on truth and reality. I would be interested in hearing others. Please share your comments.