Truth is truth to the end of reckoning

Truth is an interesting concept don’t you think? In a way, it is an autological word which often prefers to use itself for its own definition: Truth is, well, Truth; it describes what is… Still, there was a time when I thought I understood it as something else -something more…sacred perhaps. But now I’m not so sure. I mean, what if I thought  I knew the truth, but was proved wrong later? What would you call that which I thought I knew, but didn’t? Suppose it was in answer to a question for which I had no expertise; it wasn’t answered as a lie -or at least it was not meant to deceive; nor was it intentionally incomplete, or spoken by mistake; no, let’s say I really believed what I answered. I was trying to be truthful; it was an honest mistake. So, do intentions count…?

Perhaps I have too much time on my hands now that I’m retired, but I think it is an interesting question nonetheless. No doubt I would have made little progress in epistemological matters had I chosen Philosophy for my life’s work, but as a curious, albeit ageing amateur, it’s still a more fitting denouement than playing endless rounds of Sudoku until the lights go off, don’t you think?

And I have to admit that stumbling upon an essay about Truthfulness and its parent, Truth, was serendipitous. Written by Richard V Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution at the time of its publication, the title intrigued me: ‘Lies and honest mistakes’:

‘Most of us probably inadvertently share trivial untruths quite frequently… But even honest journalists and careful scholars will sometimes get things wrong. Honest mistakes are made. Once flagged, these errors will be immediately corrected and acknowledged… But there’s a very big difference between an error and a lie – and between ‘fake news’ and ‘false news’. A fake is always false, and was intended to be. But a falsehood is not always a fake; it could simply be a mistake.’

The reporting by public health officials about the Covid pandemic are illustrative. Science is difficult for non-scientists, and with an unknown entity like a pandemic with a novel virus, guidance often had to be issued with incomplete information. But, as Reeves points out, ‘The most important question for citizens is not whether public health advice is always right, it’s whether public health officials are consistently trying to get it right… Trust is built on truthfulness rather than truth,’ especially when the final ‘truth’ is not yet known.

‘The problem is not simply one of being able to discern true from false. The problem is being able to discern who is even attempting to present the truth, even if they don’t always succeed. The question is not ‘Where is the truth?’ It is: ‘Who is being truthful?’ ’

So, to get back to my questions about truthfulness and its relation to the Truth, ‘The truth of a statement can be empirically tested… But truthfulness is harder to assess, since it requires us to know what the speaker knows… Truth is empirical, but truthfulness is ethical. Truth is the end product; truthfulness a vital element in its production.’

I like the quotation Reeves uses from Bernard Williams in his book ‘Truth and Truthfulness’ (2002): ‘if what one believed turns out to be false, it does not follow that one ought not to have believed it. What does follow is that if one recognises the falsehood, one does not carry on having the belief …’ And further to that, ‘Williams argued that truthfulness rests on two basic virtues: accuracy and sincerity… the authority of academics is rooted in their truthfulness in both these respects: ‘they take care, and they do not lie.’’ 

It’s also interesting to me that ‘As a general principle, being sincere means not holding out on the listener. This is why witnesses are required to swear to tell not just the truth, but the whole truth (at least the whole truth as relevant to the question at hand).’ Pointing out microscopic non-representative truths is like finding an occasional speck of dirt in part of a sandwich; if it was deliberately introduced, the result may not be the discarding of the one piece, but the whole meal. Truthfulness, remember, must be ethical, not malicious; it is something that should help to prove one claim while disproving another -not to cast doubt over all claims…


“Excuse me sir.” A tiny elderly lady wearing an enormous green raincoat tapped on my arm at a downtown bus stop the other day. “What is the number of the bus that goes to the ferry at Horseshoe Bay?” She seemed quite anxious and repeatedly glanced at a watch that kept disappearing under the sleeve of her coat.

I had to think about it for a moment -I hadn’t taken a bus for quite a while during the pandemic. “Well… the express bus is the one that people usually take to the ferry… It takes a direct route, with fewer stops, so it’s much faster…” I added; I was stalling as I tried to remember the number. “It’s… Uhmm… number 250, I think…”

But another woman in a red overcoat standing behind her, spoke up. “Actually the express is the 257…”

But just as she said it, the 250 pulled up and the little woman in the raincoat hurried to board it. I’m not sure she even heard the correction from the voice behind her.

At any rate, I had to withstand the angry glare of the woman in red. “I hope she doesn’t miss her ferry…” she said, scolding me with her eyes as well as her voice.

I have to admit that I did feel guilty, but it was an honest, if careless mistake. Fortunately another bus arrived going to somewhere other than the ferry, and the exasperated red lady stomped onto it after throwing her eyes at me once more.

The 257 Express bus did eventually arrive -although much later- and since I was also planning to catch a ferry at Horseshoe Bay, I got on board.

It really is a quick trip along the upper-levels highway which runs higher up along the edge of the North Shore mountains than the 250’s trip through the traffic on the sea-level Marine Drive. Personally, I prefer the 250’s route because once it divests itself of the city, it travels among lush trees and gorgeous houses along the oceanfront and then eventually wanders into the Ferry Terminal.

At any rate, I soon forgot my blunder and, whizzing along on the highway, and concentrated on the intermittent views of the Lion’s Gate Bridge spanning the First Narrows from Stanley Park, far below. Even on cloudy days, there are also occasional views of the ships anchored in the Burrard Inlet awaiting permission to enter the harbour.

Still, all trips end, and when I exited the bus, I saw the little lady standing outside the terminal and thought I’d better go over and apologize.

“I’m so sorry,” I started, shaking my head as an added apology. “I really messed up the bus numbers, didn’t I?”

But instead of looking anxious, she smiled at me and touched my arm as a kind of peace offering. “Oh, don’t be sorry. It was a wonderful drive wandering past all those beautiful houses and trees. I’d forgotten about that route, you know… ”

Perhaps I still looked guilty because she obviously still felt she had to set me at ease. “And anyway, you were right about bus number 250 going to the ferry terminal… It was just the truth wearing different clothes,” she added, her eyes twinkling playfully. She had clearly enjoyed herself.

I think she managed to answer my questions about truthfulness far better in one sentence than either Reeves or Williams did in all of theirs…

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