The life of every person is an exploration of truth, meaning, and value. But we also know that the truths of one person can sometimes contradict those of another. How is this reconciled? Is there an absolute truth to rule out all others? Or are our truths more like personal preferences?
I propose that all members of homo sapiens share a common mechanism for acquiring and evaluating truth. The details of any one human being’s experience of truth is therefore dependent upon one’s development, one’s particular culture, and one’s place in history. The historical factor in particular is crucial for us to understand our contemporary arguments over what is true or false, but a brief look at the other factors will help us put the influence of history on truth into perspective.
Before anyone’s opinions or truths can be formed, we must all first grow and develop. Once our nervous systems are capable of receiving sensory input and initiating movements, it becomes possible for us to infer regularities or patterns in our environment, and also to learn which of our motor behaviors can be beneficial, harmful, or neutral for any given environmental context. Some regularities are more important to us than others, like the sound of our mother’s voice over other voices. Eventually, our learning experiences are guided by our caretakers, who increasingly impart their wisdom to us by means of verbal labeling. We jump at opportunities to infer relationships and patterns (such as calling a cat “doggie” because it is a small, furry animal), and we look to our elders to determine if our behaviors are right or wrong. From their guidance, we learn that right is good, and that wrong is bad. Right leads to rewards, to happy parents, and to a feeling of control. Wrong leads to obstacles, frustration, and a feeling of lost control.
Our childhood experiences serve as the foundation for our own articulated notions of truth as adults. This includes basic certainties with regard to our surroundings, such as the effect of the earth’s gravity on object movements. It also includes moral certainties and declarations of faith, which are heavily informed by the communities to which we belong, but also by personal experience. Just like when we were children, something that we label “true” feels important to us; we feel confident in its existence, but we’re also comforted by this regularity over chaos.
Yet if this is the case for all humans, what accounts for the differences in our experiences of truth? If we all share a basic human truth mechanism, variations of the truth experience will depend on the social and cultural environments in which we happen to develop.
It shouldn’t be surprising to know that we are are all products of our respective cultural environments, but stop and ponder this for a moment. How similar or different a person would you be if you were born in the slums of Harlem, or in a palace in Istanbul? It’s quite likely that your basic understanding of gravity for object movement would be the same, but do you really think your moral certainties and declarations of faith would be similar if you were raised in a completely different environment? Hopefully, your answer is “probably not,” and we can acknowledge the somewhat arbitrary nature of some of our cultural truths, even ones that feel extremely important to us.
While this acknowledgement seems to support the idea of truth as mere personal preference, it’s important to consider how our access to truth has changed across the centuries. As we shall see, historical factors have shaped the human truth experience in enormous ways.
(see Part 2 for Historical Factors and Final Thoughts)