What is truth?

A tweet-thread like micro-blog on a topic that I’ve been obsessing over lately.

1/ Whenever someone says “this is true”, or “I’m a truth-seeker”, ask them to first define truth. (Or if you’re asking this question, answer what evidence will constitute truth for you).

2/ Getting a hold of the definition being used for truth is especially important when talking about complex systems like business, politics, economics, ecology or essentially any field where you usually can’t just read error-free data from a well-isolated system.

3/ This privilege of substituting data with the truth is mostly available only to physicists. But even there, interpretations of truth can be widely debated – is 5-sigma a good enough threshold for declaring the Higgs boson to be true? Well, it’s anybody’s guess.

4/ The word ‘truth’ is bothersome because it’s ill-defined. If something is ‘true’, it won’t be debated. If something is debated but is ‘true’, how would you differentiate ‘truth’ from ‘falsity’? You’d use your subjective judgment to assess the evidence and then make that distinction. If you’d do that, so will everybody else and they can arrive at an opposite conclusion. (Much to your chagrin, they usually do). How can your truth be different from someone else’s truth?

5/ As you can see, this ‘truth’ business is a slippery slope. I’d much rather prefer to use the word ‘satisfaction’. Rather than asking, whether an explanation is true, I’d say ask if I’m satisfied by the explanation. At least, then, I’ll not hide beneath the veneer of objectivity and embrace my subjectivity full on.

6/ Another way to interpret ‘truth’ is in the classical philosophy of science approach. Rather than asking ‘is it true?’, ask yourself whether you’ll make bets on future based on it.

7/ I wrote about it earlier in my thread: there is no such thing as common or generally accepted knowledge. Everyone must make their own bets.

8/ There’s another interesting subtlety about truth-seeking. There are two extremes: religious fanaticism and extreme skepticism. The former seeks an expansion of an already assumed truth. This includes seeking positive examples that support an existing truth. The latter seeks to destroy every truth s/he comes across by finding a negative example. The latter person is usually a philosopher.

9/ Of course, finding someone at the very extremes is improbable but everyone who is a ‘truth-seeker’ lies somewhere on the axis. In a debate about truth (of something), it’s useful to clarify / understand where does your opponent lie.

10/ Finally, my recommendation is to be suspicious of truths about complex systems. In my experience, most debates about truth happen because two people are using different definitions of ‘truth’. Goddam these words.

11/ It’s pretty insane to make a broad-strokes statement about a system with interactions and influences from so many places. This leaves a window of ambiguity that’s exploited by writers in business, politics, psychology, economics and other popular genres classified under non-fiction.

12/ This is why perhaps the business bookshelf is bigger than the physics shelf. (No, the fact that business helps make money doesn’t account for it. If there were absolute truths in business, a few books would have sufficed.).

13/ The real test of truth is in prediction, and most theories of complex systems (rightly) avoid it. So, when it comes to business / startup theories, the proof is in the pudding and but the pudding gets stale fast.

14/ So is there nothing to be learned from the hazaar books in the non-fiction category? Of course, there is, something to be learned. Take such ‘truths’ as data points to build your own understanding. Read them like history books and then update your mental models accordingly. Nothing can substitute critical thinking.

15/ So, I ask once again, what is ‘true’? But more importantly, why do we care about the ‘truth’ so much? Why can’t we go about our life with a bunch of heuristics that are useful? Why do we have to alchemize heuristics into ‘truth’?

That, my friend, is a topic for another time. (And something to do with our evolutionary drive to build models of our environment).

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