Sunday, February 20, 2011

Truth vs. Non-truth

There is a tendency to view the term “true” to be equal to “fact” whereas “false” would equal “fiction.” I have no debate with this use of the words but I have noted a tendency to deviate from this usage in common parlance. Specifically, in many faith-based systems, the word truth no longer means a fact but instead means “a presumed fact based on belief.” In many ways I do not have issue with this use of the word truth either, but I have noticed that an appropriate opposite term does not seem to exist in this situation.

Let’s work this out a little bit so we can have a deeper understanding of what I am trying to state. All synonyms of the words “true” or “truth” refer to a fact based on knowledge, perception or experience. None of the synonyms actually address the usage of “a fact based on a belief” leaving the terms to be somewhat incomplete. This is problematic because a fact that is based on a belief and not on an actual fact only has a chance of being true and by definition cannot be a fact! Thus, in modern usage stating that something is true really only means that it might or might not be a fact. Talk about a useless word!

Whether it is a useless word or not it is still a word used with a great amount of frequency and good intentions. My real issue with this word is that all of the antonyms to true or truth seem to point to an exact opposite of fact and do not take into account the actual meaning of the word. I have searched all over the web and through stacks of reference books including all of the major dictionaries and have been unable to find an acceptable word to express the proper negation of “true” or “truth.” Due to the lack of an appropriate term I began using the expression “non-truth.” It occurred to me that someone must have beaten me to the conclusion that a non-truth would be the proper cancellation of truth but in all my research I have been unable to confirm this. The only use I could find of this term was in mathematics whereas certain quantities might be considered truths and their opposites would be non-truths. Outside of mathematics it would appear that this term is not in common usage and I may take it into use without any fear of rebuttal.

Before going forward I do feel the need to address the word “lie” which is often used as an opposite of truth. When a lie is presented the person stating the lie knows before hand that what they are saying is not true. Thus they are intentionally giving false information and this is not the same as a non-truth.

The correct usage of the expression “non-truth” would be in situations where the person believes they are stating a fact when in fact they are stating something false. The intention is to be truthful and they are sincerely stating what they know to be a fact. Here are some examples:

1)      Charlie was raised in school system where he was taught that the land which we currently refer to as The United States of America was freely given to the Europeans as the native inhabitants of the land didn’t want to keep it to themselves. This union between the natives and the adventurous Europeans was one filled with love and hope and today we still celebrate with a holiday called Thanksgiving. When asked about the founding of America Charlie is telling his version of the truth when he says “Thanksgiving is a joyous time where we celebrate the friendship of natives and Europeans in the new world.” He is not telling a lie, but he is telling a non-truth as today we accept that the Europeans were conquerors and the natives were chased out of their homes and eventually relocated into reservations.

2)      Sarah was raised in a church where it was believed that drinking the blood of snakes would bring her closer to God. To dismiss this belief would be the worst sin she could possibly commit and would result in her living an eternity being raped by demons. When she leaves her community and relocates in small town America she finds that none of her friends drink snake blood. She is appalled by this and scared for her friends. She loves her new friends and is sick at the idea of them being raped for eternity by demons. Due to her good nature and love of her friends she works hard to convert them to her belief. It is only out of love and compassion she takes on this mission. Sarah is telling her version of the truth when she says “drinking the blood of snakes will bring you closer to God and will allow your soul an eternal peace.” She is not lying – she honestly and sincerely believes what she is saying. She is stating a non-truth, not a ridiculous fantasy as most Americans would view it.

3)      Albert wrote a report on how the buffalo which grazed the plains of America had been hunted almost to extinction by the cowboys as they claimed land to farm and live on. His 7th grade teacher gave him an A as he was able to write a well rounded argument and support his claims. Several years later Albert used the same report with some minor edits as a thesis at college. He received a D and had to make an appointment with his instructor so he might understand why he performed so badly. It was pointed out to him that several factors were incorrect and he needed to perform better research before writing a report. Some of the factors were: A) No buffalo have ever existed in America, only bison. Buffalo were creatures living in Africa, Asia and some parts of Europe but never brought to the new world. The Europeans called the native animals “buffalo” as they assumed them to be the same creatures that were back in the old world. B) The bison were hunted almost to extinction in the Great Plains by the natives, not the immigrating Europeans. The natives were dislodged from their homes and had to rely more on meat and less on plants for food and over hunting occurred. Albert was not lying or even trying to bullshit his instructor, he simply had learned a non-truth as a child and accepted it as a truth as an incorrectly educated adult.

Now that we have a term to act as a proper opposite of truth when needed we might be able to put information into perspective as we think about it. Whenever you are presented information do not automatically assume it is the truth. I am not saying you need to assume everything is a lie, just keep in mind that when something is said to be true it could be a non-truth or a lie. With some research one should generally be able to sort out the truths from the non-truths, though our current education systems, faith-based systems and government will generally do their best to discourage you from doing so. The next time someone tells you “this is the truth and if you question it you are a bad person” then it is pretty safe to assume they are giving you intentional non-truths, or lies as we call them in layman’s terms.


  1. I wanted to make a few points about what you wrote.

    I suppose that's somewhat obvious by the fact that I'm leaving a comment.


    Re: "Fact". My understanding of the word "fact" is that it is a point of data. So, "Earth is flat", "Earth is spherical", "Earth is an oblate spheroid", and "Earth is a lopsided oblate spheroid" would all be facts. Those facts get progressively closer to the truth, but their wrongness does not stop them from being facts.

    Mind you, oftentimes people say, "it's a fact", and it's shorthand for "it's a true fact". So, when someone says, "It's a fact", the proper response if you think it's incorrect is to say, "No, that's not true.", not, "No, that's not a fact.".

    I'm not sure how that differing definition changes your argument, as religious arguments would still be facts, they're just facts of questionable true-ness.

    Secondly, "non-". "Non-" is great. It's like there's this giant circle that's everything. A pie piece is taken out for whatever word, then "non-(word)" fills in the rest of the pie.

    So, comparing a truth to a non-truth is great, and perfectly accurate -- by calling it a "non-truth", you're not saying it's a lie, or anything other than that it doesn't qualify as "truth".

    So, I don't know whether it's a "proper opposite", but I think it's awfully useful, and your argument illustrates why. Honestly, a "proper opposite" would likely be more confusing. Consider something like "love". Both "hate" and "indifference" would (I think, anyway) be proper opposites, but non-love would encompass them both.