Objective vs. Subjective Truth and the Human Brain

an optical illusion with either three or four boards depending on perspective.

When we speak of truth we rarely think of that truth in objective and subjective ways. We, as human beings, think of truth in a binary (True/False) way. The reality is that the world in which we live is not actually binary. As humans we think in terms that are expedient to our needs. You can visualize of this as a process of reducing things to the most convenient resolution. This allows us to make decisions quickly. Unfortunately, it also leads us to make erroneous decisions based on over simplified facts that might not be facts at all.

Let us take Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa for an example. If you take a thumbnail picture of the Mona Lisa and show it to someone and say to them ‘what is that?’, and they reply ‘That’s the Mona Lisa.’, is that true? Objectively, the answer is no; subjectively both yes and no. Examined objectively, it is a picture perhaps representing a low resolution version of the Mona Lisa. But what if it is a low resolution representation of a fake? That image could, in fact, be said to be a variety of things. An indeterminate number of these might be true, depending on how you define true. This is a real problem when you wish to quantify and qualify that which is true. Truth is rarely binary. 

Discussing how things move or don’t

Any debate you may have, on any subject,first and foremost, is a debate based on terms. The terms used in any discussion are essential, because if your terms and how they are defined, do not match, you are discussing different things. As I sit here, writing this, I might say I’m sitting still. Is that true? As with many true things yes and no. We live in a relativistic universe. I might say I’m sitting still but that can very quickly devolve into a Monty Python’s Meaning of Life song.


Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the ‘Milky Way’.

Monty Python’s Meaning of Life song

Velocity is one of those things that is currently impossible to determine in anything other than a relativistic way. Even then it is only possible to determine velocity to the resolution of the tools you use to measure it. So next time you get pulled over and the cop asks you if you knew how fast you were going, you can truthfully give him an answer of no, because it is impossible. But I’m not sure it will help. 

Truth and the human brain

We don’t really know facts. We relate to them. You relate certain ideas to another idea, or concept, of ‘factuality’. Subjectively, we relate to facts because constants (those ideas we associate with being factual and unchanging(at least unchanging in the moment)) are comforting. Things that stay the same are comforting in an ever changing world. When I say that we don’t really know facts, we don’t really know things at all. I don’t mean that we should examine how we only know things because our senses tell us… blah, blah, blah. That’s been done to death.  I’m saying that all human concepts are relational. This is how minds and neural networks function. Everything we understand, we understand in relation to something else. We have concepts. Those concepts are things because anything that we can conceive of is a thing. 

Let us, for example, take the vortex. The vortex is a phenomenon that we can observe. One example is the vortex formed in your tub when you drain it. But does it exist? Is it a thing? You might say it isn’t an object, in the sense that it doesn’t meet the criteria we accept for what an object is. The matter making up the vortex is constantly replaced. But it exists and can be described. It’s probably valid to say that ‘a thing’ is anything that can be described. In a sense all things can be experienced in the mind. We tend to define things as real when we can experience them in the world outside our mind. Consider the vortex; formed by forces that shape matter in a particular way. It is a thing made of matter that is not there.

Truth and resolution

Lastly, consider the speed of light. Were I to say ‘The speed of light is one hundred and eighty six thousand miles per second.’ is that true? It’s not precisely accurate. But it is the accepted speed, as it is a close approximation. Things are generally true or false within a frame of reference. We could say that things are true or false subject to the criteria used to validate the answer. You could also say that things are true or false based on the intent of the individual conveying the information or what frame of reference is given. Were I to say ‘The speed of light is exactly one hundred and eighty six thousand miles per second.’is that true? No. The word “exactly” makes the sentence false even though the first iteration of that sentence would be accepted as true. 

Remember, when considering truth, fiction, lies, honesty, one must always consider the frame of reference. What specifications do you have for the truth? Are gods real? This is a truth that is greatly bound within the framework of what gods are. Are gods physical beings who’s whims affect the world? Could they be mental representations of the forces outside of our control representing the chaos of the universe? Are gods the things you pray to when nothing else you can do will effect the outcome? The reality of truth is that when you wish to define truth objectively you can only go so far. You can create a specification for truth and then test a statement to see if it meets that specification. To determine the truth otherwise one must change one’s frame of reference and test again.

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