Susan C. Anthony

How Can We Know Truth?

Philosophers have debated the question of truth for centuries. The World Book Encyclopedia states: "The nature of truth has baffled people since ancient times, partly because people so often use the term true for ideas they find congenial and want to believe, and also because people so often disagree about which ideas are true."

Some people, including people I love, doubt that objective truth even exists. What's true for one person may not be true for another, they say. They believe what they believe because it works for them. Who cares whether it's objectively true? Others say that although truth may exist, there is no way to know it with our limited human faculties. They are obstinately agnostic.

I have no doubt that there is truth and there are lies. An example is O.J. Simpson. There is an objective truth. Either he did murder his wife or he did not. Objective truth exists, independent of our opinions or our ability to apprehend it.

Truth can be proved to any of the following levels:

  • Beyond all doubt.
  • Beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Preponderance of evidence.
  • More likely than not.

There is no way to prove beyond all doubt that O.J. Simpson is guilty or innocent. That would only be possible if a large number of people witnessed the crime and he was arrested on the spot.

Criminal trials require that allegations be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury hears evidence and arguments from both sides and does its best to determine the truth. Many people believe that O.J. Simpson was proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury did not think so. The jury heard all admissible evidence before making their decision. Most people base opinions on a great deal less evidence than that.

A preponderance of evidence is required in a civil trial. That's a less stringent test and explains why people who are acquitted of criminal charges may lose civil trials related to the same incident.

Sometimes an event is said to be "more likely than not". That is a very low level of proof.

To the greatest extent possible, information used in making a judgment as to whether something is true must be factual. Most human judgment is colored by opinions, assumptions and misconceptions. One must be vigilant in the attempt to consider evidence objectively from all angles, guarding against the natural tendency to consider only information that supports one's preconceptions while dismissing information that does not.

It has been said that, "There is none so blind as he who will not see." It is impossible to persuade a person of anything, true or not, if he has closed his mind and refuses to consider evidence that contradicts his opinions. I write this not to convince anyone, but to assist those who, like me, are open to discovering unexpected truths and who find blind faith in the Bible insufficient.

Most of what any of us "know" is taken on authority. For example, I have never been to China. I believe there is such a place as China based on authority. I've spoken with people who've been there. I've seen photos and films. I can find it on the map. I believe the authorities who have told me about China are trustworthy. Although it is possible that there is no such place as China and I have been bamboozled by everyone, it is highly unlikely. I fully expect that if I were to board a plane bound for China, I would arrive in a real place called China.

I do not believe just anyone or anything based on authority. There are thousands of competing claims to truth in the world today. I test the authorities. If they contradict themselves or don't make sense, I dig deeper to determine what is true and which authorities can be trusted. Even after determining what I think is true, I recognize that further factual evidence might persuade me I'm wrong. I have been wrong in the past, even though I truly believed I was right. I know my limitations.

For years, I took for granted that Darwin's theory of evolution was true. For years, I took for granted that the Bible was nothing more than ancient mythology. I hadn't heard the other side of the story. It was only after I critically considered both sides of the story that I realized how many unproven assumptions I had previously taken for granted.

Most of us don't want there to be a God. We don't want any authority over us. We really, really want to be our own boss, make up our own rules and live on our own terms. It's human nature to want evolution's story of origins to be true and to vehemently ignore or deny facts that might undermine it, or for those with a spiritual bent, to create a "god" that suits our preferences. We are by nature attracted to philosophical systems that assure us we are good by nature, that the problems we have or the wrongs we do are someone else's fault.

How can we know truth? We can't know some truths beyond all doubt. We are forced to settle for a lower standard. That means we must agree to disagree, acknowledging that sincere and intelligent people may reach different conclusions because they assign different weight to pieces of evidence or are convinced that one authority is more credible than another.

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