Degrees of truth

There are things I know, things I understand, and things I believe.

Things I know are things that I know to be true, that I can prove or that have been proven to me. These are scientific facts. They can either be replicated at full scale before my very eyes, replicated at different scale (well it happens with a pound so we know it happens with a ton), or extrapolated from other facts (if this is true and this is true than that must be true). And be the way, these three types of scientific facts have been presented in order of reliability, the order in which each type of fact has the least chance of being later disproven.

Things I understand represent a less confident degree of knowing, a more personalized knowing. Understanding is a combination of what happened and my interpretation of what happened. For example, “I understand you will be coming for dinner” is to admit that the knowledge is individualized. It is based on what have been told (this is what happened: someone told me you were coming for dinner) combined with my interpretation (I know from experience that things that haven’t actually happened might not happen so I can’t say I know for sure you are coming for dinner). And with understanding there are varying degrees of it relative to how close I was to what happened (did I hear it first hand, recently?) and my experience with the source (how much I can trust the source). And by the way, something I understand might be a scientific fact, such as “I understand that when a lit match touches gasoline it blows up,” but not all that I understand are necessarily scientific facts.

Things I believe are things that may not be scientific facts (although they might be), and I may not understand them (although I might),  yet I choose to consider it true anyway. Beliefs are things that work well for me to live by. They are things that give me comfort and strength even if I can’t replicate them or understand them. Beliefs give me strength and courage and super-human powers.

These three things — knowledge, understanding, and belief — are simply touchstones along a spectrum  that we might call “degrees of truth.” At one end are things that are replicable and agreed to by huge numbers of people. They seem really, really true. At the other end are things that kind of seem true, at least for now, at least for me, maybe. The point is that truth has a scale and that everything we think is somewhere on the scale. And no thing we think is absolutely, totally true and no thing we think is absolutely, totally untrue.

For me, all truth is a combination of what happened and how I interpret it. What we think of as scientific facts, at one end of the spectrum, are mostly “what happened” and leave little room for interpretation. They seem true to a hugely wide variety of people and leave little room for interpretation. At the other end of the spectrum, beliefs are mostly “interpretation” and there is not so much weight placed on facts. Beliefs are highly personal and vary widely among people.

Yet even the most steadfast facts have a small component of interpretation and even the most wacky beliefs have a small dose of fact.

“Understanding” is the name of the touchstone I have chosen for the center of the spectrum and “Relative Understanding” is the name I have chosen for my theory, because I want to signal that all truth is really “understanding.” It’s personal. It depends on where one sits and how one sees. It’s relative.

Now an extra word about beliefs.

Of all the ways of knowing, beliefs are the most comforting because we can conform them to fit really well with who we are, what we have experienced, and with our other beliefs. They are, like, the very definition of comfortable. They are conforming. Yet of all the types of truth, beliefs are the most dangerous because they are least likely to be true for others. And because we believe them, we are inclined to impose them on others. And because they are really easy to grab hold of and live by. It is so much easier to conform a belief to my behavior than conform my behavior to a fact. It is way easier to change my beliefs than change my behaviors.

Is it okay to believe in something that is not a fact or that I don’t understand? Sure. I believe in many things that I don’t understand. This is what I call spirituality, or faith. These are good things. But it’s not okay to impose my beliefs on others. When I try to impose my belief on someone else for whom it is not true, now we have a conflict. That’s a bad thing.


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