• Justin McBrayer

There's No Such Thing as Your Truth

Some people talk about truth as if it's personal. They say things like "Speak your truth" or "That's my truth." US officials say that Putin has his truth about Ukraine. Oprah claims that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool you have. It's nonsense.


I don't mean to imply that everyone talks this way. There are voices in the wilderness who protest this confusion. For example, in a recent interview the British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard flags this mistake and notes that society can't survive on the assumption that truth is a social construction any more than science could. Despite this, I hear someone personalize truth at least once a day on campus.


Truth isn't an array of options at a cafeteria. You can't just slide your tray down the line and pick the dishes you'd like. My truth includes the view that God exists. Yours doesn't. You have your truth, and I have mine.

The problem is that personalizing truth throws our intellectual worldview out of tilt. On the one hand, we want to say that truth us up to us (it's ours), and on another we want to say that truth is what we discover. It can't be both.


Most of us are committed to the idea that truth is out there in the world. Things were true before humans arrived on the scene. Things will be true after we're gone. Truth is what we look for. That means it's logically prior to us. It's not something that we construct or build or choose.


That's not to say that we can't sometimes get the truth. Sometimes you get it right. And when you do, there's a sense in which you have the truth. But that doesn't make it yours. There's a world of difference between saying you learned something and you built something.


What is personalized is belief. You have your beliefs, and I have mine. What we believe is person-relative. But you don't have to be a Jepardy! contestant to know that believing something and being right about it are two very different things. Some of our beliefs are true. Some are not. In neither case is the truth itself personalized.


A philosopher would put it this way: truth is objective. That means that truth is like an object in the universe--it's there whether we like it or not. We come into the world thinking that what we see is all there is. In fact, it takes kids a while to figure out that objects persist even when they aren't looking. That's what it means to be objective--it's existence doesn't depend on us. The cup on the desk is objective.


On the other hand, beliefs are subjective. You have your beliefs, and I have mine. Our beliefs are real, but their existence is relative to subjects and depends on those subjects. If you disappear, so do your beliefs. That's why beliefs are subjective things rather than objective ones. Beliefs are unlike cups.


That means it's a mistake to talk about objective truth and subjective truth. There aren't two different kinds of truth. Truth, by its very nature, is objective. It's conceptually confused to talk about subjective truth and redundant to talk about objective truth. There's just what's real and what you think. If you're trying to talk about someone's perspective, don't call it their subjective truth. Just call it their belief.


The lesson is that while our perspectives on the world are diverse, the truth is not. In fact, if you think it's worthwhile to listen to the perspectives of others--particularly those who are different from you--that's best explained by the fact that truth is objective, not subjective. If there's one truth out there and yet our perspectives on it differ, you have a good reason to listen to what others have to say. In a delightful intellectual twist, the intellectual importance of diversity depends on the idea that truth is objective. Giving up the latter pulls the rug out from under the former.


So, don't be afraid to let go of your truth. It wasn't really yours to begin with.

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