Look how young they are.
Its true. Rush is the Best Band EVR!
This is what I was thinking yesterday when I was working in the garden, cleaning up after our trees were trimmed. You see I had been raking away when a neighbor vbehind our house yelled from the alley that he liked our yard. We chatted for a bit about this and that, you know, the kind of conversation you have with someone you don’t know well. Water-cooler topics like the weather and such. Then he said something so out of the blue that it really stopped me. We were talking about ISIS and the English guy they call Jihadi John who is their spokesman/executioner (talk about unique job titles), when my neighbor informed me that this John guy wasn’t even a Muslim.
What exactly do you say to someone after that? It was such a disconnect from reality that I wondered if my neighbor was mentally ill. The thing is, he said this to me with all the confidence in the world. As if this statement were true: Jihadi John is not a Muslim.
So when he drove off, I got to thinking. Not about whether Jihadi John is a Muslim or not, a topic that is not up for debate, but about the nature of truth. And more importantly, how relative truth is.
In English we banter words like “truth” around as if they were universal, and the concept of truth is central to faiths like Christianity. Truth in this sense means something like the bible is true. By that we mean true for everybody all the time. But we also toss around other kinds of true just as readily. We’ll say, “the President is wrong,” or on a more local level “the City Council has failed,” or even on the smallest of scales, “that girl likes you.” All of these things may be true, or not true, but they are spoken as if they are true. And here’s the kicker, from the point of view of the speaker, they may well be true. At least true in a limited sense.
Which brings me back to rock bands. When I say, “Rush is the Best Band EVR!” This is an actual “true” statement, at least to me. While this may be true, it is a very local kind of true, one that is specific to an individual or a small group. Not all things can be true like this, but when it comes to things like art, in which there is no definitive measure beyond one’s own preference, then opinion and truth are essentially one and the same.
Its when you get beyond the individual that this kind of truth runs into trouble. So while the statement, “Rush is the Best Band EVR,” is true to me, it is not true to my wife. She would probably say something like, “Led Zeppelin is the Best Band EVR.” Her statement would be just as true as mine, which is to say they are true only within the narrow confines of personal opinion. If we want to create a “truth” about bands that encompasses both of us, then we need to find a way to measure “Best Band EVR” beyond the realm of personal opinion.
So this is how we get to quantifiable truths. There are truths we can back up with numbers. For instance the band with the most number of songs on Billboard’s “Top 100 hits of all time” is the Bee Gees. So obviously they are the Best Band EVR! Except the band with the most number of “Top 10 singles” is the Beatles, so they are the Best Band EVR. Except the band with the “Most weeks with a song at number 1” is Boyz II Men, so they are the Best Band EVR.
As you can see, the “truth” is getting quite a workout here. All of the statements above are true, but they are true only within the very narrow range of their measure. While truth has gone from personal opinion to one of quantifiable fact, it is still a slave to whatever way we quantify it. So we’re past the personal, but still not universal.
So are there any universal truths (what a philosopher would call universality)? The answer is a definite maybe. For instance most people will tell you there’s a universal set of ethics, and perhaps one of the most universally adopted ethical points would be, “Thou shall not kill.” Ironically almost every country where practitioners of ethics reside, also has a standing army whose sole purpose is to kill others. Apparently killing is relative (the same is true for irony as well).
Okay if ethics are relative then how about something simple like gravity. Well it turns out that’s not so simple either. While the formula that determines gravitational attraction is in fact universal, that doesn’t mean gravitational pull is. If two people on different parts of the Earth were to jump out of a window from the 47th floor of a tall building, they would hit the ground at slightly different times. This is because the gravitational pull of our planet is not consistent over its surface. But we can be sure a fall from that height would certainly kill them, except when it doesn’t.
Okay, lets make it real real simple. 1 + 1 = 2. Surely this is universal. Right? Well it is, as long as your number system is anything but binary. In binary 1 + 1 = 10. “Yeah, but who uses binary anyway?” you say. Well every computer, EVR. Right now the number of computers in use (that is binary math users) is probably over 1.5 billion, which is less than the total number of decimal math users like us humans. But by 2025 or so, that number is going to change. In the not too distant future the number of binary math users will become the majority. So yeah, it is important. To them.
So apart from a few math formulas, almost nothing is universally true. Which is kind of a bummer, but that’s how universal truths tend to be. That is, unless you don’t ascribe to the quantifiers I’ve used to measure universal truth. In which case, its not a bummer. At least for you.
So later that same day, not long after my conversation with my neighbor, I ran across someone on Facebook who opined that the Great Society had lead to a group of people with entitlement mentality, and that socialism has never worked. I was tempted to correct him, after all anyone with a few minutes of time could pull up numbers off the internet which would stomp all over his statements. But then I realized what he said was the truth. Truth in a very localized meaning of the word. That is, truth as opinion. While I hold a different meaning of truth than he does, and could happily bring up many quantifiable ways to support “my” truth, I didn’t. You see, quite by accident I had inadvertently stumbled upon a universal truth: Once something has become a truth, you can’t untruth it.
When someone says, “Jihadi John is not a Muslim,” or, “Socialism has never worked,” or even, “There’s no way humans can cause global warming,” there is nothing you can say to sway this person. To them this is a truth. And while you may hold a different “truth” or even a truth that can be supported with numbers, it is still not going to make any difference. You can not replace someone else’s truth with your own. That’s not how it works. The only only way to change the “truth” for a person is for them to do so themselves.
Perhaps the only universal truth then is that each of us are the sole arbiters of true, but only to ourselves.