What is Truth?

By Robert Bernstein   |   February 27, 2020

“The moon is made of green cheese.” Fact or Opinion? This was a question we were given in a high school English unit on telling the difference between facts and opinions. This was a required part of the Montgomery County, Maryland curriculum. It took me many years to learn that it was not part of high school curricula elsewhere.

The answer? It is a fact. Meaning that it is a matter that can be tested, at least in principle. It is a fact which is false, but it is a matter of fact. In contrast “Rocky Road is the best flavor of ice cream” is not something that can be tested. It is a matter of taste for each individual. Before one can even begin a discussion on a topic, step zero is knowing if the topic is a matter of fact or opinion.

Some have claimed that we are in a “post-truth era” and that we are facing dire consequences as a result. The stakes indeed are high, but this challenge to the very concept of “truth” has origins going back much further.

When I was a child in the 1960s, a new generation was challenging standards that shocked an older generation. Men were wearing their hair long and wearing “love beads.” Girls were wearing slacks instead of skirts. And challenges were being made to long-standing institutions like traditional religion and the military.

Conservatives saw these challenges as an assault on “the way things ought to be.” Even as a child I understood there was a mismatch of what each side was claiming. The conservatives were treating traditional customs as if they were matters of fact. As if a boy with long hair was not really a boy and a young person challenging the US war in Vietnam was not a real American. But those are not matters of fact. They are customs.

There was talk of “moral relativism.” Conservatives saw everything that held civilization together as being threatened. If young people could challenge these customs, what is next? Stealing and murder becoming acceptable? This was a misunderstanding of what was seen as “relative” by young people. One could choose a new religion or no religion at all without challenging the true basis of civilization.

And where did this idea of “relativism” come from? For better or worse, many challengers of the status quo turned to new discoveries in 20th century physics to bolster their case. After all, didn’t the brilliant physicist Einstein say that “everything is relative”? Well, no.

Einstein developed a mathematical theory of space, time, energy, and matter that challenged previous understanding of these aspects of reality. These quantities indeed were relative depending on how fast you were going in relation to the reference frame being examined. But those relationships were solidly constrained by the math.

And what about quantum physics? Didn’t it show that everything is random and that nothing is predictable. Well, no. The Apollo program sent human beings to the moon and back with extraordinary precision based on Newtonian mechanics. No relativity or quantum mechanics needed.

A final 20th century challenge came from Kurt Gödel’s surprising mathematical discovery: There are mathematical theorems that are true, yet they cannot be proved. Does this mean that even in math anything could be true? Well, no. Every mathematical theorem is in fact true or false. It just means that it may not be possible to prove that theorem with a specific set of axioms.

For my entire life, our civilization has faced a series of existential crises that are matters of fact: Nuclear war, depletion of critical resources, overpopulation, climate. These are not matters of opinion. One can gather data on these dangers and develop risk analyses for each. It may be impossible to make perfect predictions given our human limitations. But the actual risk is still a matter of fact, not opinion.

There will never be such a thing as a “Post-Truth Era.” Individual humans can be confused or can be in denial. But the truth remains. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

I know followers of Eastern religions who claim that there is no reality outside of what their own minds create. But I notice that they live their lives very much as if there is an outside reality. They earn money. They save money in banks. They buy basic needs and sometimes they buy luxuries.

I am completely open to the possibility that reality is nothing at all like the way we perceive it. In fact, I am quite sure that is the case. But there is still a reality outside of what I perceive.

I am grateful to Gwyn Lurie and the other new owners of Montecito Journal for giving me space to explore a range of issues in new ways. I would like to transcend the usual political divides. Not to avoid being political. After all, society can only function with effective policy making. “Politics” and “Policy” come from the same root. I look forward to using this space to raise issues that are not necessarily part of the current furor in the news or in social media.

If this encourages readers to challenge what I say, so much the better. But please know the difference between fact and opinion. In the words of the mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, if we have a disagreement: “Let us calculate.”


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