A Truthful Definition of Truth

“Two young fish are swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

How can this be? Two fish living in the ocean with no idea what water is? They’re too close – it’s all they’ve known. It’s like grasping the entirety of a forest while inside of one, versus arriving at a mountain peak, far above the tree line, seeing vegetation sprawling for miles in every direction, and finally getting it.

Ideas are the water we can’t see. Culture has evolved for thousands of years to pump increasingly greater volumes of ideas into our minds. We stare at our phones each morning before we even get out of bed to pee. The ocean of ideas is so constant, so infinite, so compelling, so obvious, we rarely scrutinize the physics of it all. It feels as natural and mindless and necessary as breathing oxygen.

But, unlike oxygen, not all ideas are equal. Each can have a radical and non obvious effect on us, our beliefs, our dreams, our attitudes towards others. More often than not, these consequences happens way more covertly than we realize. This gets especially interesting, considering all ideas have varying levels of truth. But what the hell is truth?

What the Hell Is Truth?

If we all agree on something, it’s that ideas can be true or false. Simple enough. But the absolutely wild twist, especially within the past two decades of internet era – is that truth can be whatever people want it to be. And this violates the principle of what truth actually is – a special type of information than we can all agree on. A special type of information that is as close to “universally consistent” as possible, that withstands high degrees scientific or empirical scrutiny. Truth requires truth – honesty, integrity, civility – in order to maintain itself. And, the virality and subjectivity of information propagation today is undermining this, and destabilizing our ability to hold common ground.

Truth Needs Humility, Civility

We can’t run around with a bunch of beliefs in our head, and chuck them like spears at other people who have different beliefs. Even if your beliefs ARE objectively true, the manner in which you present them, and show intellectual sympathy for other’s ideas, is essential to maintain a fabric of a good world – which we all share.

Aggressively proving someone wrong appeals to a deep sense of pride and status. Hitting these buttons in our own minds may feel satisfying, but it’s the same sort of satisfaction you might get eating a mound of sugar. There will be something egoic and blissful about it in the moment, but in the long run, that satisfaction will fade, and contributes nothing in terms of sustaining shared wellbeing.

When our emotional or prideful circuits are revved, our calm rational circuits can’t function properly. Truth needs those calm rational circuits in order to survive over the course of time.

Being a Good Citizen of Truth

Consume and share truth carefully. If someone is being an a-hole towards others while sharing information, that is probably not a reliable source for truth. Sadly, most viral content today, regardless of which “side” it’s trying to represent, usually involves someone dunking on someone else. This would suggest that most content is unreliable.

Similarly, if you are an a-hole towards anyone while sharing information, you are probably not a reliable source for truth, either.

When something doesn’t feel right – sleep on it. If someone makes a claim, even if it appeals to what you WANT to be true, go research it. Trace the roots back to its origin. Look for established consensus from as many reputable people or institutions you already trust. And above all, observe empirically in your own life. Study a claim and test it for yourself, if possible. There is no better source of truth then seeing it with your own eyes, and double and triple checking to see you’re not wrong.

My Vow of Truth

Humans are vast network of information. Each of us has a role to play in influencing the network’s integrity. If the majority of humans alive are scrupulous with their information diet, and how they, in turn, share information, then civilization will on balance be truthful. Lies and misinformation will always swirl, but if the majority of the population are careful consumers, our shared information space can remain resilient.

I vow:

  • To trace information back to its roots
  • To show the roots of information I share
  • To generally ignore when someone is an a-hole
  • To not be an a-hole towards others
  • To seriously try proving myself wrong before sharing
  • To be sympathetic to other people’s ideas
  • To be slow and careful processing information
  • To always consider, what the hell is water?


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