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“Truth Isn’t Truth”

“Truth isn’t truth”  —  Rudy Giuliani, NBC “Meet the Press”,  August 19, 2018.

(About a 4 minute read)

In Western philosophy, the notion truth is relative dates back at least 2,400 years to the sophist Protagoras, who is stated by Plato to have said, “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.”

In the East, the notion goes back perhaps another 100 years earlier to the Jain teacher Mahavira, who seems to have been the first to teach Anekantavada, a doctrine that has been described as advocating religious pluralism.

Despite relativism’s ancient roots, at the start of the 1960s, the idea was confined to the lunatic bin.  That is, the notion was espoused only by a small handful of marginalized intellectuals, and it was generally considered a crazy idea.

That decade, however, saw it uncorked and released upon the masses — mostly the young masses.  Today, the notion rivals McDonald’s hamburgers both for popularity and for grease.  For the fact is, the notion cannot be rigorously defended.

Or, at least, I myself have never seen more than confused defenses of it.  Usually defenses that boil down to saying all truth is relative because people have different opinions about what is true or about what is factual.

It’s curious to me that anyone can look at the fact people have different notions about what is true or factual, and conclude that means truth is relative.  I used to think people were kidding me when they said they thought that way.

I suspect much of the notion’s popularity today is due to the relief it seems to provide some people — relief from needing to take the sciences seriously.

Of course, to many of us, the sciences have been quite a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, they have spun off technologies that both comfort and amuse us.  But on the other hand, they have kicked around quite a few of our fondest notions about how the world works — or at least ought to work.   Declaring truth is relative allows us to emotionally and psychologically escape the death of our unicorns.

When Rudy Giuliani recently stated that “Truth isn’t truth”, I quite doubt he had in mind the history of the notion that truth is relative.  In fact, I even doubt he had in mind any philosophical augments or justifications for the notion.

Instead, I think Giuliani was simply acknowledging the fact that millions of Trump supporters today — and not merely Trump supporters — are at the very least untroubled by being lied to, and untroubled by lying to others.

I don’t assume they all hold the philosophical position that truth is relative.  I would assume most of them do not.  But I do think they have caught on to the “atmosphere” of relativity that has existed in the West since the 60s.

Now, Trump himself lies on an average of somewhere between four and six times a day.   His press secretaries have each of them established themselves as exceptionally blatant liars.  Huckabee in particular is willing to lie even when her lies are easily found out.  Most of his cabinet isn’t much better. Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase, “alternate facts” in defense of Sean Spicer’s lies.   And — capping it — Trump’s  hard core followers couldn’t give a damn.

Perhaps that’s because so few of them stray beyond their echo chambers.  Surrounding oneself with the faithful does mean in practice that your lies — and theirs — are seldom if ever reality-checked.

In my opinion, about all that can be done about this mess is to not allow this sort of thing to defeat you.  We should not cease to call out the lies.  Nor should we cease to identify the liars.  To give up would be to turn the county over to the likes of Trump himself.

Questions?  Comments?

17 thoughts on ““Truth Isn’t Truth””

  1. It’s curious to me that anyone can look at the fact people have different notions about what is true or factual, and conclude that means truth is relative.

    I have trouble seeing why different opinions of truth does not mean a relative truth. I can definitely see your point as these “relative truths” are creating a breeding ground for all sorts of absurd ideas like “alternate facts”, but isn’t the truth relative? Isn’t what i see different to what you see? Or are there limits to this, like it being impossible for two people to see the same tree as different species of tree?

    Hope i can gain some insight into how different notions does not mean truth is relative.


    1. Good questions, Teresums! I’ll see if I can answer them.

      First, we should sharply distinguish between opinions and facts. There are a lot of things in life that are opinions — usually because they involve value judgements. But facts are facts (are the case) regardless of our opinions about whether they are the case.

      For instance, can you see how 2 + 3 = 5 does not change in truth value just because some people might not think it is true?

      There is a tree in my yard. You might like that tree, and I might not like it. You might think it’s pretty, and I might think it’s ugly. Those are opinions. They are relative.

      But the fact the tree is in my yard – that is a truth, and it is not relative. The tree is in my yard even if I say it is not in my yard.

      Does any of this help?


  2. Interesting topic, truth, what is it and how far back are we all willing to go to find it? Truth being relative I believe is more of a reference to how honest are we truly willing to be. To get to the truth, all bias must be set aside, or else the blame has already been established before the investigation begins.

    I noticed you used the tired “trump lies an average of X a day” I wonder why this is constantly regurgitated? Is it true, maybe, but why only trump? Is he the only liar in government or business? Just like Clinton’s “what is the meaning of is, is”. This is all forgotten now that trump is in office.

    How many times did obama lie, what about Hillary, or Bernie, what about Bush and the “bad intel” it just seems kind of convenient that Trump lies and those are the only lies that everyone is concerned with. Not our own lies, or anyone else’s lies.

    The truth being relative refers to the bias we all have.


    1. Good to see you again!

      It’s an interesting thought that the notion of truth being relative refers to the bias we all have. Now that you mention it, I suppose for many people if does, although I wouldn’t think everyone sees it that way.

      It is an even more fascinating question — at least to me — to what extent we can “set aside” biases. Given that it’s now well established a number of biases are innate — genetically programed ways in which we tend to think — I suspect that we can never entirely set aside such biases. We’d pretty much need to rip out our DNA to do so.

      However, I do believe that we can be trained to cope with our biases in such ways as to ameliorate their effects on our thinking. It somewhat alarms me that kids are not usually taught such skills from a young age.

      Also, I think it’s key to have a few close friends you can run your reasoning by for a reality-check on it.

      I would suggest that in arguing we are only concerned with Trump’s lies, you flirt with the tu quoque fallacy. As you most likely know, the tu quoque is an informal fallacy of presumption, that is also known as “the appeal to hypocrisy”. It takes the form of excusing one person’s mistake or flaw by pointing out that someone else has made the same mistake or flaw. Of course, the fact that the mistake or flaw is made by more than one person does not negate that it has been made. Hence, it amounts to a fallacious mode of reasoning.

      I do not think you actually commit the tu quoque here, but it seems to me you stop just short of it. Were you to argue that the fact “everyone lies” excuses the evil of Trump’s lies, you’d be committing a full blown tu quoque.

      As for acknowledging that “everyone lies”, I think two things. First there is indeed some truth in that statement. It is human nature to lie, and it requires exceptional self-discipline not to. Over the past six or so years, I have made a fairly well sustained effort to root out lying in myself, but I cannot say I have succeeded. It has been a long, hard-fought, uphill battle.

      Second, I think it is demonstrable that Trump lies more frequently and more blatantly than most people — in or out of politics.

      You always say the most thought provoking things. I can tell you have a very analytic mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahahah, why thank you, I don’t believe I am that analytical, just a half decent shit talker at most!

        I’m not attempting to excuse any lies or bad behavior. I was just trying to point out that for some reasons Trump’s lies are the easiest to talk about, I’ve never looked at the research devoted to exposing or even counting the lies that they say Trump says on a daily basis. It seems more or less like the 500 million straws number that people seem so eager to quote.

        The only reason there would be a number or a daily average only seems to aid the other side, and we all know the constant battle to win at any cost in business and politics.

        Is a lie the same as an exaggeration? If so, then what about all of our resumes? We use select words and sentences to detail what we think are good and will stand out to a possible interview. All we need is a foot in the door, and the smiling and agreeable laughter and nodding begin. Whatever it takes as most of us are 100% results driven. We all have a means to an end and we may hate office politics and passive aggressive interactions and corrective action, but with a smile we all participate. Is it a lie to not speak up when you have something to say, yet you remain silent (go along to get along)?

        I’m not trying to say two wrongs make a right. I just don’t know where this data came from in the first place and what was the true motivation behind publishing it.

        There is a chance, that we are being lied to by Trump, but many others as well, and to only focus on Trump’s lies would mean that we are preoccupied with him, rather than attempting to focus on everyone. To say trump lies is akin to saying that trump is the only rich old person that paid for sex or that he is the only person ever who paid to keep people quiet about sex.

        Sure, we all lie in one form or another. And that doesn’t absolve any of us. But to focus solely on Trump or any one side, just reminds me of gossip, plain and simple.

        I enjoy your articles, they are quite interesting and fun to participate in. Keep it up, you’re a good writer.


      2. I think it’s difficult for most of us to grasp that the motive for establishing a fact does not change the fact (assuming it is a fact to begin with). The motives people gather stats on Trump’s lying might be nearly anything, but whether the stats are accurate are not determined by the motives.

        There are a few sources now tracking Tump’s lies. I have only taken a close look at one of them — the New York Times. At the time I took a look at it (Which was last year), they were not tracking merely ambiguous statements — statements that might be true — nor were they tracking mostly true statements (i.e. mere exaggerations). They were only tracking mostly or wholly false statements.

        I think it is virtually indisputable that Trump is an extreme liar. He’s not normal. He’s not even close to statistically normal. He is an outlier.

        To me, his position as president makes his behavior of special interest and concern. The president, even an unpopular one, sets an example that millions follow.

        At least that’s how I see it.

        Liked by 1 person

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