Truth Is a Matter of Opinion

By John "Birdman" Bryant


As I have said on many occasions, there is no such thing as truth, but only various opinions. In saying this, however, I do not mean to say that truth does not exist, but only that we cannot know that it exists. What we can know -- or at least what we can have a strong opinion about -- is that men's opinions often converge, and that such convergence makes it convenient to say that we have "discovered some truth" at the point of convergence; and it was precisely this which I meant when I once stated that "Truth is the asymptote of opinion". I hasten to point out, however, that the fact that men's opinions often converge is not sufficient to prove the existence of truth, or even a truth, for men's opinions once converged in agreeing to the truth of the proposition that the world is flat, and yet most men would not now say that such a proposition is (or was ever) true.

But what then does all this mean when we say -- as both "truth believers" and "truth disbelievers" do -- that something is "true", "false", "a lie" or some other phrase which would indicate that we believe in the existence of truth? That is, if the theory that truth exists is false, are we not constrained from using its theoretical terms? Indeed, if it is false, are we not thereby prevented from saying just that? The answer, to use a phrase made famous by Harvard philosopher WV Quine, is that truth is "a good and useful myth". It is helpful in speaking about things, in part because the theory that truth exists is fundamental to our linguistic structure, or at least closely interwoven with it. But is it essential? That is, can we abandon speaking of truth in favor of speaking only of opinion, ie, can we translate all statements of the form "X is true (false, a lie, etc)" into "It is my (his, etc) opinion that-x"? The answer, surprisingly, is No, because the latter statement is a covert expression of the theory that truth exists, because it is a sotto voce expression of the statement "It is my (his, etc) opinion that x is true". Or in other words, our very linguistic structure requires us to employ a theory which is false -- or at least false in my humble opinion.

But then again, perhaps all this is the problem of the relation of perception and existence all over again -- the one expressed so often (and so poorly) by the question, If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it fall, does it make any sound?, ie, if the sound is not heard, does it "really" exist? Now if we believe, as Bishop Berkeley believed, that God hears the sound -- or can see the truth -- then we would not hesitate to say it exists after all and that we don't have to be worried about the fact that mere mortals do not or cannot perceive it. Unfortunately, however, this particular theory is beyond my cranial carrying capacity.

So what then to do for those, like myself, who do not believe in truth, but only in opinion? To begin with, both believers and non-believers agree (or mostly agree) that the thing called truth -- whether real or just a good and useful myth -- is determined or indicated by convergence of opinion, so it seems that there is no "objective" problem of determining "the truth", no matter how much we may disagree about its "ultimate nature". The problem -- if you can call it that -- is that for the "truth believers", convergence of opinion represents a metaphysical-like reality (like dust for my mother on Saturday morning: you can't see it, but it's there, so sweep!), while for the non-believers it represents a ghost-like entity which is admitted to the company of other more respectable ideas only because nothing can keep it out. So this then leaves the non-believer but one alternative, namely, to accept the existence of truth but to deny that it can be known, or alternately, to accept its existence but say that it can be known only with uncertainty or degree of probability. He can, of course, happily point out that he doesn't "really" believe in truth, because something whose existence cannot be perceived (except in the ghostly outline of opinion convergence) does not "really" exist, and thus all the tortures he has been put thru in order to make him confess the existence of truth are therefore negated by this clever little observation.

In my opinion, the resolution to this conundrum -- if it may be called a resolution -- is that it is a matter of opinion, tho obviously the believers in truth will demur since they believe it is a matter of Truth. To be specific, my resolution is that the controversy is one of those irresolvable problems of philosophy, several others of which I have identified and discussed at length in my Systems Theory and Scientific Philosophy (University Press of America, 1991), and thus the "resolution" depends not on Truth, but simply on which way you prefer to look at it. In particular, you can be a "truth believer" on the basis that (a) opinions tend to converge over time (tho there are some embarrassing discontinuities, like the flat-earth theory) and (b) that the concept of truth is embedded in language and thought and is thus inescapable. Or you can be a "truth disbeliever" on the basis that, even tho (like Plato's cave) you can see truth's shadow on the wall (the convergence of opinion), you nonetheless refuse to believe what you see is truth because you can never see anything more than the shadow and you know there are embarrassing discontinuities in the shadow which may mean that truth does not exist after all.

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