Recently I read a book that tried to present itself as being a true story of a particular person whose name is not necessarily well known but who had an important role in bringing a particular animal to the consciousness of the West and simultaneously provoking the native inhabitants of that country to value the animal higher because of the intense interest of the West in it. The book itself seems to have been based largely on documentary evidence, and appeared to conflate three different things as being truth, each of them with somewhat different truth values. It appears as if these are not uncommon ways to view the truth in a broader way than is justified by the actual truth content of one’s understanding. Given that after reading that book I came across another situation where someone has conflated agreement with them in something that appears to be a political dispute with doubt about truth, it appears as if this is a much more widespread problem than it ought to be. Let us therefore distinguish between that which is all too often conflated.
There were three elements that the book and the discussion over the communication shared in common that were viewed by the writers of each as being the truth. The first of these was something that was in fact true, such as the nature of their feelings or certain objective facts such as the identity of people involved in the dispute as well as some level of understanding about their feelings and opinions and behavior. There is, after all, objective truth in the world that we can know on some level to the extent that our skills of reasoning and observation are sufficiently accurate. One step removed from the truth, such as we happen to grasp it, there is that which is recorded by others which they believe to be true. So it is that we can read a letter and appeal to what is said in the letter and have at least some claim to be presenting something according to the truth as others see it. And then, one step removed from that, is our own reasoning and that which we believe to be true which is founded on nothing more than our own intuition or our own calculation or our own interpretation.
In theory, at least, all of these can be distinguished. We may be convinced that there is some sort of truth that exists about a given situation with a high degree of confidence, and yet finding out the truth may be difficult. It may be difficult to understand the truth, however, because of the limits of survival of material evidence, of the contradictory nature of that which is written or that which survives about a given event or society or group, and of our limits in understanding the evidence that comes to our attention. Yet for a variety of reasons we tend to find certain sources and certain perspectives to be more accurate than others which may provide systemic biases in the way that we see reality, thus leading us to miss the truth because we disregard the messenger of that truth. And then on top of that our understanding of the truth is further skewed by the fact that we do not merely take up the truth in its raw form, but interpret it and then conflate our interpretation of something we see or read or hear with that which we happen to have seen or read or heard. And we view our interpretation as containing the same truth value as that which we partially obtain through sense data, and then view the conflation of the truth that we happen to know or observe with reporting that we believe which may or may not be true and then our own interpretation which adds potential sources of error on top of that.
The fault is all too often that we are too critical of evidence we do not happen to like and not nearly critical enough about our own biases and our own interpretative schemes. As is so often the case, we are beings with a strong predisposition towards double standards that are able to recognize where others go astray in judgment without being self-aware enough to see that these same faults and flaws exist to a great extent in ourselves as well. We consider ourselves to be exemptions to the rule that the world is made up of people who foolishly leap to conclusions based on biased and mistaken interpretations of that which they only imperfectly understand. And yet we are not exemptions to the rule, but our belief that we are leads us into predictable errors that demonstrate we are ourselves as human as those whom we disrespect and even hold with contempt because of their own obvious human failings. We all too often lack the self-awareness to consider that just as we may think less of others because of their human foibles that we possess our own that others may view equally uncharitably, to our hurt. It is hard to be just, and the need to be just in order to live peaceably with God and with other people, to say nothing about the world and its creatures as a whole, continually pokes and prods us and weighs us and finds us wanting.