The concept of truth in civics needs to be kept separate from the related concepts of faith and from authority. There is no such thing as the official truth or the authorized truth or the literal truth, written down by a holy person.
- Faith is a personal belief that something is true - it is not dependent on others.
- Figures of authority make claims of truth, or vouch for something ase true, and we can defer to these authorities.
What is Truth? The most simple definition of truth is a claim that is (unconditionally and absolutely) valid for all observers at all times. This is a tough test to pass. There are certain situations where some claim could be provably true, but these are actually rare.
In the real world, the word truth gets used in a lot of places and ways and unfortunately the concept is a lot squishier than people would like it to be.
Some people like to say "the truth is relative" - baloney. They just can't tell the difference between the truth and their opinions.
True or False question: "I will get a parking ticket if i park here"
Trick question. Both are wrong, obviously the answer is "it depends". Not everyone who parks there is going to get a ticket.
The easiest way to get truth is to put your claims into a tightly controlled system, where all the facts are known or we can look it up if need be. For instance, a lot of things can be truth if you are talking about baseball statistics. We know all the teams, there are lists of all the players, and every game is recorded. There are no teams, games or players that were "maybe"
in or out.
In closed systems, where everything can be known, and uncertainly is not a problem, a true statement is one which can be proved not to be false or otherwise "not true". Proof is a concept that arises only a closed system, one abstracted from the real world. e.g. mathematical proof.
The use of truth values in logic reflects closed system of rules and assumptions, even where there is no excluded middle, i.e. where the only value of "not true" is "false".
This definition does not apply in most general discussions of social, scientific, philosophical or political issues. One can construct athought experiment where all things normally unknown are disposed of by "suppose: this" statements or definitions.
Truth in a messy world.
A more functional definition of truth has to accommodate that uncertainty exists: in a free society, at any given time, a substantial number of people will be questioning their personal faith and/or challenging the authorities on any issue. This is similar to the approach used in the scientific method and the practice of law. Allowing for uncertainty does not destroy the concept of truth, but makes truth an "evolving" truth - one that allows for change over time.
This leads to a definition of "truth" in an open system, where uncertainly always exists.
In open systems truth is: the commonly held and (relatively) undisputed view. In politics, the most certain we may be able to be is that most people who have deliberated on this issue hold that such is true.
To go into more detail you can define those words that make up the definition.
The definition of "deliberate" "most", of "person", of "hold" can all be contested, and reasonably so:
- to deliberate discuss with the object of learning, rather than convincing. It included scholars and excluded fanatics
- "hold" implies belief, but it may not imply willingness to do what that belief implies, there may be hypocrisy
- "most" will be an arbitrary measure, for practical reasons, 96% should be the threshold for things that are politically "true".
Great, we have a definition, but what is the point? The point is, for democracy to function you have to have some things that should be uncontestible (e.g. humans are changing the climate); and some things that fail the truth test and should be contested (Saddam had weapons of mass destruction). At some point the dissenting fringe has to shut up and deal with something the rest of society has recognized as "true", but that same dissenter should not be shouted down until the thing they oppose it proved to be "truth".
But it has to be tested. Truth doesn't come about by proclaiming freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry. Thinking is a skill. The tyranny of structurelessness may apply, groupthink take over, rhetoric can swamp our judgement. Societies that had freedom of speech and inquiry such as ancient Athens would often fail to examine some popular "truths" or fail to follow its own principles of avowed truthfulness. To get truth you have to be disciplined.
In general discussion, without making reference to any authorities, "truth" is understood to be "the almost universally held view". That definition is appropriate for instance to collaborative editing technologies such as wiki, where any disputed view may simply be changed.
Few statements should be described as "true" or "proved" without a reference to a specific source and authority (the one that did the homework).
Most of these statements will be empirical statements of fact and so will require also some evidence that the source quotes and authority "backs".
Example: According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is true that "Lake Baikal in Siberia is the largest freshwater lake in the world (by volume)".
This statement then should not be edited or corrected by anyone unless they have looked up the source and found the quotation to be incorrect.
The existence of "higher" authorities who have complete knowledge (beyond human capacity to comprehend) can neither be proved nor disproved. Those who wish to ascribe "truth" to higher authorities need only to specify which source is being quoted. All quotations of truth that are accurate and appropriate to the issue, should be left to stand by other editors.
The principle of the separation of church and state essentially means that what you or I believe to be true is not what we (the state) must believe to be true. See also who's we on the general issue of inclusion or exclusion from any group that may debate.
While absolute truth may not exist, claims that either everything is true, or nothing is true are philosophical blind alleys that serve no purpose to decision making useful to life.
In the real world, truths exist as things we rely on, and while they may not endure forever, they can be held for quite a while until something better comes along, thus we have a concept of relative, or useful truths.