Truth vs Falsehood, deception, avoidance, and misunderstanding

"What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms… –Nietzsche"

This quote from Nietzsche makes clear an uncomfortable reality of the relationship between truth and language. Our language, for good or ill, conveys truth (or its opposites).


Daisies are for innocence
True truth
Truth, most people would agree, exists objectively. It sits outside of human interpretation as a kind of untouchable, absolute entity. 

For some, the pursuit of truth is a lifetime event. Philosophers, psychologists, religious scholars, and poets are professional truth-definers. In different ways, politicians, economists, journalists and sociologists also try to uncover truth.

Even though it might be impossible to get all of the truth-pursuers to agree on what truth is, let alone on one example of truth, it's still worth noting that all would agree (most likely) that truth exists.

How can people agree on the existence of something that no one can see, quantify, taste, touch, pin down, hear, or feel? How can there be something in the human psyche that is commonly held but undefinable? The idea of truth should be impossible to talk about, since we can't say what it is. Yet people talk about truth constantly.

Which brings us back to Nietzsche. He notes that we can't communicate without language, and that language is a poor conveyor of the real nature of truth. We resort to approximations or analogies (metonymy, metaphors, anthropomorphisms) to discuss truth. We never use actual truth to discuss truth.

This would be like talking about the temperature in a room by comparing it to ice, or to the sun, or to an ideal temperature, without ever using a thermometer. Our discussions of truth are comically skewed because we have no words that capture it. Our words, in fact, almost make things worse because they are only representations, not truth.


Sun coming in

Falsehood/deception/avoidance/misunderstanding
If we can say now that we have an idea of what truth is (although we acknowledge the difficulties of putting the concept of truth into words), can we agree on its opposite?


Some would say the opposite of truth is falsehood: lies. This seems obvious, but we must use words to agree on what a lie is.

Most people would say that lies are deliberate. Lies take truth and stand it on its head. If "day" is truth, then "night" is it's opposite; if it's day and someone says it's night, that person is lying.

But is this a good enough definition of the opposite of truth? Are all lies deliberate, or are some lies mistakes? If I type a word wrong, it's a typo, not a lie. When does a typo become deceptive?

Language is the weak link in recognizing lies. People may not have the right vocabulary to truthfully express what they mean; they don't have competence in the language they use or sophistication to culturally interpret the situation they describe. Or they may be purposely deceiving, but their hearers are too incompetent or unsophisticated to unravel the deceit. This kind of misunderstanding can be deliberate, inadvertent, or some combination of the two.

One form of deception is to avoid telling the truth until caught in a lie; a more common form is to avoid telling all the truth, tailoring communication to one's own advantage or to avoid harming another person (this is called a white lie, as if it is innocent).

And some lies are well-planned and reinforced:

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. 

One definition of truth; many definitions of untruth
Logic in many cultures is binary: if one thing is this, its opposite must be that. Truth/untruth is often analyzed in this binary fashion. We can't define truth with any precision, so it might be helpful to define it by its opposite, as in the day/night example above.

However, it's easy to see that binary classification is not adequate when it comes to truth. As we have seen, the opposite of truth is even more elusive and dependent on language than truth itself.

So what are we to do? Many people when faced with ambiguity will retreat into their corners (to use a boxing metaphor). If we can't find words we can all agree on to express such basic ideas as truth and its opposite, we may get frustrated and become more entrenched in our own ideas, whatever they may be and however difficult we may find it to express them in a civil way.

Then truth becomes "my truth" and its opposite becomes lies. We cease to communicate and lapse into accusation and distortion. We are vulnerable to propaganda that supports our view of truth.


Most people, I believe, want to preserve at least the concept of truth. It's reassuring and comforting, in the face of confusion and ill will from others, to know that truth is out there somewhere. Truth will justify and vindicate our actions, which may appear a bit deceptive or avoidant.

This is a paradox: we want truth but can only get at it through language, which has no ability to convey it. Our great human gift, language, fails us. Yet we can agree on this: truth is. We just don't know exactly what it is.

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