How to Understand Truth – A Theory and a Definition of Truth and Related Terms
We explore the nature of truth, the different types of truth, and the different types of entities who report truth to better understand the nature of information.
This will include touching upon:
- The nature of truth by describing rulesets like the law of thought and the nature of theories and facts.
- Terms, logic, and reason and their application in categorical syllogisms (logical deductive arguments that have definite truth-values) and in inductive arguments (where we argue for the probability of something).
- The “types of truth,” include types of real and counterfeit information ranging from: facts, to myths, to factoids, to lies, to truths, to half-truths, to statistics, to theories, and more.
- The different types of entities who convey truth, including journalists, philosophers, scientists, propagandists, and everything in between.
- The mediums of truth and the tools of the truth teller (or propagandist), including everything from pure propaganda to upstanding peer-reviewed journals.
By understanding the nature of truth, the types of truth, the purveyors of truth, and their technologies we can better understand the information that shapes our reality on a daily basis and the influencers who help to weave that narrative.
First, let’s quickly discuss the nature of truth (a very brief look at what we can know and what truth is), then we will discuss the different types of truth (and non-truth), then we’ll move onto the other items.
TIP: Generally speaking, adductive and synthetic reasoning aside, arguments are either Inductive (which compare propositions to determine probability that something is true) or Deductive (which compare propositions to determine if something is true with certainty). To find truth we need to use not only use valid forms of reasoning, but must also base our conclusion on sound and cogent premises and state certainty. That said, having facts is only half the battle, much of this page will deal with the other part of truth (which is how we present information).
An Introduction to the Nature of Truth
To help work with the above, it helps to know a few rules of what we can know and how we can know it (epistemology).
We can generally state the following rules pertaining to truth:
TIP: These are some important rules/theories gleaned from different mathematicians and philosophers, expressed as well as we can express them. This is not however an exhaustive or perfect list.
- The general rules behind the nature of what we can know (or at least deductive logic) are reducible to a few axioms, these are the Classical Three Fundamental Laws of Thought. The next three rules below are The Laws of Thought.
- The Law of Identity: Whatever is, is; Every A is A.
- The Law of Contradiction: Nothing can both be and not be; Nothing can be A and not A.
- The Law of Excluded Middles: Everything must either be or not be; Everything is either A or not A.
- The laws of thought are very useful, but they alone don’t comprise a perfect epistemological theory. We also need to consider the following points.
- The “Law” of Probability (the Axioms of Probability): [Very loosely speaking] things can exist in a state of probability (like a coin, sometimes being A and sometimes being B, but never literally both A and B at the same time). In other words, everything is either true or not when it happens, but we know from quantum physics that some things can exist as probabilities before they occur. With information, sometimes we can’t know things for sure, and instead we have to express likelihood. Since inductive logic produces degrees of probability, we must also consider probability when dealing with truth.
- Everything is either true or it isn’t. However, not everything true can be proven as such. In other words, some probable truth is probable because we don’t know for sure (other is probable in the way a coin flip can result in either A or B being true after a flip).
- Everything we can know is either empirically confirmable or requires rationalization.
- Everything we can know is either objectively true (confirmable by others), or it is subjectively true (confirmable based on personal experince or tastes).
- We generally consider things true when they have some degree of objective empirical evidence backing them up (when they can be confirmed by may facts, and/or repeated experiment, and/or direct experience). See: Correspondence theory of truth.
- When we use deductive reasoning, we want to stick to what we can know with certainty (or frame things in a certain way), this allows us to produce sound and valid conclusions we can state as fact. When we can’t have certainty, then we use probability and state likely-hood.
- Statements that contain more than one idea may contain a mix of truth, opinion, and belief.
- Any statement that is not fully objectively true is not fact. Only statements that are fully true (where all terms and judgements made are true) are facts.
- Statements that aren’t fully true, but have many facts pointing at them, and contain many truths alongside belief and opinion can still be “honest” and “useful” or insightful hypotheses and theories, but they are different than objective provable truths.
- When a theory is likely true, when it has a high degree of certainty based on facts, it can be framed as such and therefore be considered a type of truth. Ex. It is a fact that, according to intelligence reports, there is a high degree of certainty that Russia ordered an influence campaign in 2016 to undermine public faith in the US democratic process and the sway the election (i.e. we are making our statement true by adding the necessary qualifiers like “high degree of certainty;” this allows us to offer opinions, facts, beliefs, and theories as truths while also distinguishing them from empirically provable certainties).
- Honest and useful information that aims to be objectively provably true is good information, information meant to misinform is a type of counterfeit information. Even facts and theories can be twisted via wordplay or in the way they are presented, if the goal of the information is to mislead, it can be thought of as a type of counterfeit information in that context.
- We should always be skeptical of information, as any good theory can stand up to skepticism, and if it can’t than even better (perhaps being skeptical will lead to a better theory. “Question everything” as they say. That IS the art of science and philosophy (<– an example of an honest subjective truth, a justified belief and opinion; but not “a purely empirically objective fact”).
- To confirm one has accurate information, it always helps to be honest about sources and to be honest about what is fact and what is theory. Always presenting pure information is not easy, but making an honest attempt is to do so is the mandate of any truth teller. If there are two sides to a story, it is proper to strive to let the reader know both sides.
Suffice to say, the nature of truth is can be defined by rule-sets (in this case theories that work). These rule-sets were born over time from the testing and reasoning. They are the work of mathematicians and philosophers like Gödel and Aristotle. They key us in to the different types of information, what we can’t know for sure, and how we can use logic, reason, and skepticism to know more.
Now that we have gone over some rules of truth, let’s look at the different types of truth and other aspects of epistemology.
TIP: See also major theories of truth. Each deals with the question of “what is a proper basis for deciding how words, symbols, ideas and beliefs may properly be considered true, whether by a single person or an entire society.” See also, a basic theory of knowledge.
TIP: The tools we use to approach knowing the types of truth include: Logic (rule-sets and judgements), Reason (combing rule-sets and working with the results of judgements; general critical thinking and rationalization), and Skepticism (questioning everything). Learn more about logic and reason, we discuss this more below.
The Different Types of Truths (and Non-Truths)
Below is a non-exhaustive list of different types of truth (and non-truths), the goal is to introduce you to different types of information.
- In a strict sense, truth is something that is provable, objective, and not “opinion.” It is verified not to be false in any objective way, based on logic, reason, and/or empirical evidence (what is proper differs by what we are discussing; for example a mathematic truth can be proved with reason, where a truth of physics likely requires testing).
- Of the truths, the empirical and logical truths are the most concrete (we can sense, measure, and confirm their properties with certainty). Meanwhile the ethical and metaphysical truths tend to contain a degree of uncertainty (they exist partly or wholly in the “world of ideas” or in our own internal experience). For example, the laws of motion are solid logical and empirical truths, while the idea that all have “a right to life, liberty, and happiness” are a less tangible ethical and moral truths “we know in our hearts.” In both cases we can use indirect empirical evidence, logic, and reason to approach knowing, but certainly that which is empirically provable (either directly or indirectly) is the most certain (assuming our senses and measurement tools aren’t lying to us).
- A belief is something a person thinks is true, it may or may not be justified, and it may or may not be proven by facts. If one believes something, it is “a belief.”
- A justified belief is a belief based on reason, backed by facts, theories, logic, and empirical evidence. A justified belief isn’t necessarily true, but it is reasonable, and thus is proper to employ in debate, analysis, and rhetoric (although it should be treated as a justified belief and not fact; presenting truth dishonestly is a type of misinformation / BS / spin). TIP: Justified beliefs gleaned from the pairing of “pure reason” and “empirical evidence” are very valid non-statistics-based “likely truths.” In the sciences we call these “theories,” a theory isn’t always right, rather it invites skepticism, opinion, debate, and rigorous testing. A well oiled theory is a valid argument, until proven false.
- There are different types of theories that apply to different fields. For example, a scientific theory is a type of theory that is held to a the standard of the scientific method. In the physical empirical sciences like physics, a theory is expected to work every time without fail (or it gets tossed out). However, a theory in the social sciences will have a degree of probability to it (as it deals with human behavior), and a theory of metaphysics (while it can be backed with sound reason and logic) has an even higher degree of probability to it.
- An opinion is a belief based on data of any kind. Opinions can be insightful, they can be honest, and they can be well substantiated by evidence, theory and fact, but they aren’t necessarily true or factual (nor or they meant to be). It is proper to label an opinion has such, and then to support that opinion with fact.
- A fact is something that is proved to be undoubtedly true.
- A myth is something that is proved to be undoubtedly untrue.
- A factoid can be said to be something that appears true but is unverified.
- A Counterpoint is a type of information that adds context or debate to another type. One might present a fact, then present a theory that augments it, then present an opinion that challenges it (providing counterpoints).
- “Alternative facts,” while not a real type of information, can be said to range from factoids, to counterpoints, to hypotheses, to half-truths, to talking-points. It depends on context.
- Frame of reference, some types of subjective truths can depend on a “cognitive” frame of reference (perception). Even aspects of physics depend on frame of reference. It can be useful to denote a frame of reference when telling truth, for example on can say, “in terms of physics, from my point of view on this rocket, time seems to be at a normal speed.”
- A lie is something that is not true, but is knowingly framed as truth anyways. If a person tells a lie, but thinks they are telling the truth, they are being honest, but “spreading counterfeit information,” due to their “belief” that the information is true.
- A half-truth is part lie and part truth, either oscillating between multiple claims or mixing fact and fiction in a single claim.
- There are also types of “counterfeit information” designed to provide inaccurate information or instill emotion and influence opinion, these include propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation (i.e. they are not information, which is fact and truth designed to inform, they are disinformation designed to influence). Misinformation is designed to misinform someone and usually uses half-truths, it can include information a person believes to be true (they are misinformed and spreading misinformation). Disinformation is purposely designed to misinform someone and usually uses intentional lies (it can use false logic and logical fallacies). Propaganda is designed to convey emotion rather than fact and can be comprised of truth, lies, half-truths or no information at all, it is designed to spread belief not truth. TIP: If the ends of information is anything other than “to convey truth,” it is a type of propaganda (very roughly speaking). Here propaganda doesn’t just mean a poster from WWII, it is rather any information designed to manipulate public opinion rather than to spread accurate information.
- BS describes a wide variety of counterfeit information designed to manipulate opinion; it can be comprised of truth, lies, half-truths, or any other type of claim. Misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda are all types of BS. The archetypical “used car salesman” uses BS. Their only goal is to sell the car for high price, everything else is just a tool used to get to that point.
- Spin is a PR term that means “to twist the truth” to make something look good. It is a type of BS and a type of propaganda. It, like BS , can be half-truth, truths, and/or lies. The goal is influence, not information.
- A statistic is any quantifiable bit of data. We can find likely truths with algorithms like Bayes’ theorem by pairing the science of logic with statistics (watch out though, not every statistic is created equally, reason must be applied and skepticism is healthy when considering sources).
- Mathematical truths, such as proofs, are a type of truth that can be proved “on paper”. See Types of Truths Arithmetical, Geometrical, Logical (Analytic), Synthetic, and Ethical Truths.
- A talking point is often a factoid meant for the purposes of BS (but not always). It is typically a type of propaganda that is often also a type of disinformation or misinformation. It is designed for influence, not information, but certainly it can contain information.
- A hypothesis is a testable educated guess. A theory is the ends of a hypothesis shown to be reasonably true with facts. A scientific theory, in the strictest sense, is one that has never been proven false. See an essay on theories.
- A conspiracy theory is a theory formulated based on a limited set of facts. Here some facts may be right, but the overarching hypothesis, conclusion, and some connections may not be (thus a conspiracy theory is like the “half-truth” of theories; generally well intentioned, sometimes justified, but ultimately relying on assumptions rather than proofs to some degree). See an essay on conspiracy theories for more detail.
- Common language words like folk tale, common belief, etc. describe types of factoids (claims that aren’t specifically verified as true).
The Tools of the Truth Finder
The nature and types of truth are only one part of the story, we also need to consider the tools one uses to find truths, the art of rhetoric, and the methods for conveying information.
A truth teller should always seek to verify their data, sometimes that means citations, sometimes that means experiment, sometimes that means using logic and reason, sometimes that means being skeptical, sometimes it means seeking testimony, and sometimes that means using a mix of all these things.
Let’s look at some tools of the truth finder (the tools of a lover of wisdom; natural or moral).
Conceptualization, logic, and reason. The art of thought can be said to be of three types, with each type increasing in complexity. It works like this:
- There are terms or concepts; like Socrates, men, or mortality.
- There are logical judgements; like Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal.
- Then there is reasoned inferences; like since Socrates is a man and since all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal.
Another mode of thought is skepticism.
Skepticism is the art of picking apart theories and justified beliefs to find deeper truths. Speaking loosely, the highest good for a lover of natural or moral wisdom isn’t finding truths by proving things true, it is finding truths via skepticism. The scientific method is a logical method that applies empiricism and skepticism to hypotheses to create better theories.
Meanwhile, rhetoric is the art not only applying reasoned arguments and skepticism for debate and oration and promotion, but the art of constructing arguments in a way that compels others. If one seeks to convey truth, it can from that frame of reference be useful to employ elements of rhetoric or even propaganda. The PSAs for quitting smoking use rhetoric and propaganda to convey the idea that smoking causes cancer (which it does).
With the above examples in mind, it can be useful to use a mix of pure information and rhetoric to convey truth, but certainly it is not appropriate in every situation.
This brings us to the methods for conveying information.
The Methods for Conveying Information: Journalism vs. Opinion vs. Propaganda
Not only do different types of truth exist, but different types of “reporters, or purveyors, of truth” exist and different “methods for conveying information” do too.
A “good” journalist seeks to report “the best obtainable version of the truth,” fact-checked and verified, framed in an honest way, delivered ideally with both sides of the argument presented and free from emotion.
Real journalism isn’t opinion and emotion, but it can exist alongside opinion and emotion if presented in an honest way.
When presenting real information it is important to present it with citations and counterarguments, this can look like a military field manual (with no none sense), a peer reviewed journal, or a well written and researched bit of journalism.
There is a range of ways to present this highest quality of information, but the general goal is to convey true, good, and honest information in true and honest context.
Opinion is, as above, a thing that ranges from justified to unjustified belief, it is a mid-way point between propaganda and fact. Opinion can augment truth telling, information giving, and journalism, and has a place at the table, but it isn’t the same as conveying pure information and should be framed as such.
On the other end of the spectrum is propaganda, conning, and other types of counterfeit information and its presentation.
A propagandist or con artist may use opinion or fact, but that is an aside. More so, they focus on half-truths, misinformation, and disinformation in an effort to convey mindsets and opinions via emotion rather than fact.
A journalist can report on propaganda and use opinion, and a propagandist or conman can use journalism and opinion to construct their half-truths, and a opinionist can use journalism and propaganda, but despite the grey areas, these are different and distinct ways to report the truth (each with a differing degree of quality and purpose, each relating to the types of truth discussed above).
Thus, unlike with information, the informer is subject to additional rules, such as integrity regarding the way information is presented and framed.
Some reasons why we differ on opinions even though there is only one set of facts (and why it is hard to sway the opposition): People’s deepest held world-views, when perceived to be threatened by skeptics of their beliefs, make contrary facts an enemy to be slayed. Show a flat earth theorist facts that point to the world being round-ish, and you’ll get pushback. Show a 9/11 truther some facts that point to there being no malicious intent, it could make the truther believe in their theory even more! According to an article by Michael Shermer in Scientific American, this power of belief over evidence is the result of two factors: cognitive dissonance (the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change) and the backfire effect (a type of confirmation bias where, given evidence against a belief, people reject the evidence and believe even more).
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND ENGAGE PROPER DEBATE: In words, when we confront a difficult issue (theory about Kennedy or 9/11 for example), let us not try to debunk that head on. Let us instead discuss what biases and mechanics are at play in human cognition regarding the formation of conspiratorial theories, and then address specifics with that in mind. When we approach a difficult issue from the side, like one might approach a wild dog, we diffuse some resistance. Maybe in this we can avoid some of the pushback of which propagandists and conmen create, but which it is the duty of a “lover of wisdom” to undo. For more reading, see: How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail.
Episode 1.3: Deductive and Inductive Arguments. Understanding what real information looks like is a good first step, understanding how to think critically and construct compelling arguments grounded in the facts is the next step after that one.
CRITICAL THINKING – Fundamentals: Introduction to Critical Thinking [HD]. Understanding what real information looks like is a good first step, understanding how to think critically and construct compelling arguments grounded in the facts is the next step after that one.
Deductive and Inductive Reasoning (Bacon vs Aristotle – Scientific Revolution).
How to Argue – Philosophical Reasoning: Crash Course Philosophy #2. This is to say, knowing the facts is one part of healthy debate, knowing how to argue about the meaning of facts is another. Browbeating the opposition with disinformation until they tap out is a manipulation tactic I call “the bed of nails principle“, this tactic might work, but it is based on counterfeit information and is thus not ideal regarding truth seeking.
Some Metaphysics of Truth
Below are a few key points that, while not provable via fact (they are theory, opinion, and metaphysics), should be none-the-less insightful:
- The Arete of Information (“information of the highest order”): One could say, a journalist who presents facts and theories, noting differing opinions, and shedding light on confusion and propaganda with the purpose of informing is “of the higher order.” A Journalist, and by a wider definition, teacher, scientist, economist, PR person, etc, in their best light, is the arete of information giver, just as truth, theory, and pure information when presented in the correct way, is the arete of information. Generally, no state or group can define better rules for truth and truth proveyors than nature has already assigned herself. Truth isn’t purely empirical, but enough of its nature is empirical and mathematical to weed out most grey areas.
- Information “of the lowest order”: In the modern era, everyone has a pen and a soapbox. Back in the early days only certain entities could be influencers, and those eras gave us people like Bernayes. Today, everyone can play journalist, opinionist, and propagandist via the web and personal networks, and everyone can help spread truth, half-truths, and/or lies. Today we each have a responsibility, and a choice: Do we act as “the new journalist” or do we act as “the new propagandist.” If we act as the latter, it is as human as Aristotle’ rhetoric, but we still need to root our thinking in true and pure information. A propagandist who doesn’t have their facts straight (one who is themselves a victim of counterfeit information) is arguably “of the lowest order” (in the context of information; they are a “useful idiot” so to speak).
- The Information economy: Why don’t people believe in Climate science? One reason may be propaganda, but another reason may be more about different types of “information consumers” with different needs in the “information economy” (the free-or-not exchange, supply, demand, etc of information). So, to back this idea up with facts, one thing to note is that liberals and conservatives have different types of brains (oddly enough, yes really). Pair this with the observable and testable hypothesis that different types of truths that resonate with different types of people and their biases, and we start to see how perhaps different people are primed to respond to different types of truths. The statistics from NASA sway me, but the 97% talking point may seem like BS to those looking for empirical evidence and turn another person off. Just as their are different purveyors of truth and different types of truth, we can think that there are different audiences with different demands for truth. They are the buyers in the information economy.
Why People Don’t Believe In Climate Science. A philosophical musing on “why the heck can’t we all agree on the climate science data”. Why couldn’t we all agree that smoking caused cancer and “was bad”, but people “had the right” to do it anyway 100 years ago? The answer is arguably evidenced by the sum of this page… with the real economy and special interest taken into account.
Things That are True About the Nature of Truth
- Truth can be subjective or objective, only objective truths meet a sound scientific or mathematic definition of truth, but philosophy considers arguments that use reason and empirical evidence to find moral and ethical truths.
- All statements are either true or not true, if a statement is anything less than fully true, it is not true.
- Even though everything is true or not true, we cannot prove everything true that is true and we cannot prove everything false that is false.
- Due to the way truth works, a useful tool of humankind is theories (ideally rooted in the scientific method).
- Theories and hypotheses have very specific meanings in science and philosophy, a theory is a testable working model and a hypotheses is a falsifiable “educated guess” with lots of facts pointing at it.
- A theory isn’t true just because we prove it, and it isn’t false just because we can’t.
- Despite our limitations, we can use complex theories like Bayes’ theorem, Godel’s theorems, and other insights to get very close to unknowable truths.
TIP: All statements are either true or not true, but they can’t be properly labeled as fact, myth, lie, or truth until all parts of the statement have been proved true or untrue. If something is likely to be true it is either a factoid or a theory.
For more reading on the nature of truth, see:
- major theories of truth
- INFORMATION AND ITS COUNTERFEITS: PROPAGANDA, MISINFORMATION AND DISINFORMATION