Is there One Truth or Are There Many? – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” Andre Gide (1869 – 1951)

I remember that I began to question if there really was such a thing as the “one truth” at an early age. As a young child born of two cultures, I went to protestant Sunday school, the faith of my Anglo-American father, and catholic catechism, the religion forced on my Ojibwe mother in an Indian boarding school.

2000px-Zoso_Robert_Plant_feather_symbol_svg

Image: Feather Symbol of Truth 

I was curious and inquisitive, and a bit of a rebel even then. Each teacher had repeatedly assured us that only their religion was based on the one and only truth. When they asked us to repeat the “facts” we were supposed to memorize from the lessons of the previous week, I decided to test the “truth.” In Sunday school, I would repeat what I had memorized for catechism class. And in catechism class, I would eagerly raise my hand to share what I had learned in Sunday school. Needless to say, neither one was pleased with my answers – perhaps they merely thought I was a little slow.

“Truth persuades by teaching, but does not teach by persuading.” Quintus Septimius Tertullianus (160 AD – 230 AD), Adversus Valentinianos

By the age of eight, I realized that I needed to learn more before I decided what truth was for myself. I’m still exploring this question more than sixty years later.

What is truth? According to Webster’s dictionary (1989), truth is “conformity with fact or reality…; a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like” (p. 1521). This definition only leads me to ask more questions. What are “facts” and “reality?” These are foundational questions I needed to deal with as a researcher. Interestingly, the answers differ depending on who you ask.

Research paradigms in academia have become a different type of religion. Adherents of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies believe their approach is the only legitimate way to discover what is true.

“On the ontological issue of what is real, the quantitative researcher views reality as “objective,” “out there” independent of the researcher. Something can be measured objectively by using a questionnaire or an instrument. For the qualitative researcher, the only reality is that constructed by the individuals involved in the research situation. Thus multiple realities exist in any given situation: the researcher, those individuals being investigated, and the reader or audience interpreting a study. The qualitative researcher needs to report faithfully these realities and to rely on voices and interpretation of informants.” (Creswell, 1994, pp. 4, 6, emphasis in original)

Is truth knowable? One of the examples that struck me in graduate school was a metaphor that Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972) used to describe the importance of one’s position when trying to discover reality. Imagine we are all seated in a large circle. If we place a multifaceted object in the center, say an elephant (drawing on another example), each of us would only be able to see what was in our frame of sight. What we see is tangible and “real,” but it’s only a small part of the whole. Now, take a concept like mental health and place it in the circle. Each of us would interpret what it is differently based on our culture, experiences and education. The version of reality that is accepted as true is almost always that which is held by those in positions of power in any given society and era.

“Say not, ‘I have found the truth,’ but rather, ‘I have found a truth.'” Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931)

Why is it so difficult to accept that many truths are possible? So many lives have been lost or destroyed throughout history because people needed others to accept their deeply held notions of truth. I end with the quote by Rumi that inspired this reflection. I believe the world would be a different place today if people had heeded his wise counsel.

“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.” (Rumi)

In Storm’s example of the circle and Rumi’s metaphor of the broken mirror, all perspectives and fragments are necessary if we are to understand reality, the first step in discovering truth. It’s also the first step in building peace.

Works Cited:

John W. Creswell (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hyemeyohsts Storm (1972). Seven arrows. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Webster’s encyclopedic unabridged dictionary of the English language (1989). New York, NY: Gramercy Books.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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44 Responses to Is there One Truth or Are There Many? – Writing 101

  1. Interesting post. I really like Rumi’s version of the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. desilef says:

    I love your agitation in Sunday School and catechism class! You started using your voice from the margins very early! I think there must be truth and many truths hard as they are to recognize because it comes more easily to recognize the many lies we hear.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I realize that I failed to mention why I felt it was so important to respond as I did in these classes on religion. Both claimed that theirs was the one true path, all other faiths and paths would lead to hell, even for those who were innocent or of good heart. How could I fail to challenge eternal damnation for such a silly reason?

      Yes, there are so many lies to wade through. I hope we can sill find the way to see the many options we have to live in peace.

      Like

  3. Rajagopal says:

    What is truth? Pilate’s question of long ago has been pondered over by many before and after him, and continue to remain a subject of ongoing search. By the time one feels like having figured out the hieroglyphics of it all, life is over and out. At best it may be another piece of Rumi’s metaphorical mirror. The only consolation, Carol, may be that death is not the end but beginning of another cycle, assuring the process of bringing us back with clearer vision for the next evolutionary journey…best wishes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • tubularsock says:

      But is there death? And cycles are just a construct. Tubularsock says the ride is in process before you even get a ticket.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for raising such thought-provoking issues about life and death, Raj. I think these are questions each of us must ponder for ourselves. Maybe will we find answers toward the end of this earthly existence – dreams I’ve had make me think that we will – that we will ultimately judge ourselves dispassionately based on realizing the impacts our thoughts, actions, and failures to act have had on others. But I won’t know for sure (maybe) until I get there, and won’t be able to share what I learn…

      Like

  4. Debra says:

    I think the emphasis on measuring truth comes out of an enlightenment kind of ethos and as a result is strongly connected to oppression. Those insisting on one truth tend to be selling something or insisting on obedience. Science and Math do have their uses and are great for describing some things but they just fail miserably at describing humans if you care at all about depth. I once had a professor who asked us as a thought experiment to design a psych study where the outcome could be quantified and in every case we had to make some crazy contortions to make this happen. By the time we had something that could be measured the study itself became absolutely trivial. When I started reading peer reviewed studies it became obvious just how silly quantitative analysis can become. As a result, I’ve I come to believe strongly in the value of the arts and humanities. Expressions like a play by Shakespeare or an ancient myth are far more likely to hold meaning than something that tells me that under a certain set of conditions on a certain college campus most students -tend- to prefer a certain colour. haha I mean — yeah I suppose you could incrementally build up a data set about people doing this but it could take literally ages.

    Liked by 2 people

    • (Let me try replying again. I had to exit and turn off my computer because of a serious thunderstorm that just passed through.)

      I love your discussion of quantitative research – it’s so true to life! And even if data gathering goes on in your example, the context will certainly have changed, making any findings even more irrelevant. 🙂 Still, I do rely on quantitative studies for some information, even though I wonder about the usefulness of knowing “norms” and what percentage of people deviate from the norm…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Debra says:

        Discovering norms in a sick society has its own problems. hahaha I shouldn’t have left the impression that I think it is all a waste of time. As someone else mentioned sometimes study is informed by qualitative values. And sometimes numbers -are- needed to help us get a better picture of what is real. Take 911. A terrible thing. Billions of dollars have been spent for Homeland Security against terrorist threats that never quite materialize yet more people die every year from getting shot by police officers. More people are sickened or die from food pathogens every year. Industry and its watchdogs are the real threats to homeland security.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Great discussion and example of the importance of basing policies on objective facts rather than fabrications, Debra, although I’m sure the facts were available to those who crafted the lies!

          Like

  5. nicciattfield says:

    It’s so interesting that qualitative and quantitative research can be seen as so separated. I say this, because we had quite a lovely lecturer who taught us to use the grounded theory of qualitative research to set the questions for quantitative research. Interesting how even teaching or sharing on how to research offers up multiple perspectives though.

    I like the story telling, immersion and subjectivity of qualitative research though. Particularly in humanities.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Nicci! I’m grateful to hear that you had a rather rare opportunity to study under someone who realized how important it is to have the population of interest help develop the questions of interest.

      Quantitative research works best if you want to know norms and how many – a matter of breadth. If you want to explore depth and meaning, qualitative research is best. It’s also crucial to be honest about the assumptions you are making about ontology, epistemology, and axiology with either methodological approach.

      Like

  6. This line of thinking has merit, but we must guard against over-generalization. There is often a huge difference between what we as subjective human beings believe to be true, and what can be empirically verified as objective fact. When we devalue all knowledge to the status of opinion, we enter the dangerous realm of false-equivalences and nihilism to which philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned would lead to dysfunctional skepticism and a dystopian world devoid of all meaning.

    For example, followers of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) believe their concepts of an omnipotent universal god as truth. However, these claims completely lack any empirical proof whatsoever. From an objective point of view, they must be considered as “beliefs” and not “knowledge.”

    Conversely, that bright, hot yellow thing in our daytime skies which warms our planet and allows plants to grow through photosynthesis is known scientifically as an averaged-sized star of which there are countless billions in the observable universe. Accepting this as an objective fact must be considered as “knowledge” and not as a “belief.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • I don’t disagree with your point about objective “proof,” Robert. Religion is based on belief or accepting what others tell you – sometimes without opportunities to consider other options. But even science recognizes that the best we can do is merely develop hypotheses to explain “truth” based on observable, countable phenomena. There are so many questions I can’t answer about “that bright, hot yellow thing in our daytime skies” – things like origins and purpose for its existence – that are still only matters of speculation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, that’s exactly the kind of over-generalization I and others have warned about.

        WHAT the sun is and WHY it exists are two completely different questions. Furthermore, I doubt you could find any scientist who would agree with your characterization of science as being limited to hypotheses. Scientific THEORIES, supported by demonstrable, repeatable, and exhaustively peer-reviewed observation and experimentation, are the polar opposite of speculation.

        We’ll have to agree to disagree on this.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I value your friendship and perspective, Robert. I suspect we will need to agree to disagree on this one. I should have used the word “theory” rather than “hypothesis,” although to me theories still represent our best guesses for explaining and predicting the behavior of what we’re studying. As physicists and biologists have found, the very act of studying things by removing them from their environmental context or subjecting them to testing often changes behavior in unpredictable and inexplicable ways. The same could be said for the Hawthorne study (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorne_effect), or Zimbardo’s prison experiment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Zimbardo).

          As someone who has been part of quantitative research projects, I have become skeptical of the trustworthiness and real life relevance of the theories they claim to support. Often, researchers are not as objective as they claim to be, and try to prove that their theory “works, despite troubling unexplained observations that don’t fit (like placebo effects).

          But, that’s all I have to say on the subject. I value your friendship more than the need to be understood, and certainly more than the need to be “right” about something I am still trying to understand and clarify for myself.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. susurrus says:

    I always have difficulty with certainty. I like Keats’ idea of ‘Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties’. And I’m pretty sure the universe isn’t infinite.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for adding to the range of perspectives on “truth,” Susan! I like Keats’ notion of “negative capability.” I think even scientists – the good ones – know that the best we can do is develop and test hypotheses, not certainties.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Very thoughtful post! I like Rumi’s version! Thanks Carol!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. dolphin says:

    This just bears repeating: “Those insisting on one truth tend to be selling something or insisting on obedience.”
    In my own search for truth, I’ve been to several churches and in each the preacher was saying that their church was the TRUE church and they alone had the truth. It was disheartening as well as disturbing that someone of the cloth was actively trying the divide-and-conquer strategy of “us” versus “them”…even between Protestant churches.
    It thwarts spiritual growth of knowing God, so I’m at a loss of why someone would deliberately interfere with that growth….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing such important experiences, observations, and insights, Dolphin. To not see all as our family despite differing beliefs is puzzling…

      One of the things I forgot to mention in this post was the comment made in both settings – that anyone who failed to follow the one true faith would assuredly go to hell, even if they were otherwise innocent (babies) or “good.” That was the last straw. Living with such limiting views on earth was unacceptable – hell. I decided to take my chances on an afterlife I couldn’t confirm until I died rather than accept a life constrained by rigid judgmental views of others.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. dolphin says:

    Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    This just bears repeating: “Those insisting on one truth tend to be selling something or insisting on obedience.”
    In my own search for truth, I’ve been to several churches and in each the preacher was saying that their church was the TRUE church and they alone had the truth. It was disheartening as well as disturbing that someone of the cloth was actively trying the divide-and-conquer strategy of “us” versus “them”…even between Protestant churches.
    It thwarts spiritual growth of knowing God, so I’m at a loss of why someone would deliberately interfere with that growth….

    Liked by 1 person

  11. cicorm says:

    Interesting article and discussion, Carol! Empircalist, rationalist etc philosophers have been discussing reality for centuries. The dissection of truth, just like the splicing of an atom, can be infinite. Perhaps to get practical results today in an emotional / qualitative world, it might be important to know and propagate the operative truth, rather than a myriad or at the refinement level that confuses.

    An analogy is that a lesson in quantum physics (“more refined truth”) may be an overkill and immobilizing to a engineer re: steam engine, electricity etc.. It may be more productive to focus on securing his knowledge and memory of newtonian physics and relevant fields.

    For peace, basic operative “truths” maybe “that it is possible to live in harmony, enough of us want peace”, or “that economic integration and well being = needs catered to and less conflict / radicalization”, or “the world at this technological level has enough to provide for all our needs, but not all our wants” or “we are willing to give up some of our wants for peace” etc

    Conversely, certain propagated information e.g. “who wronged who in which millenia”, actually drives hostility, regardless of whether they are truths or myths, particularly if frequently overturned by new information. Just my two cents. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are such crucial distinctions between “truth” in physical science and social sciences.

      Your elegant discussion about empirical truth in physics, and the inability to ever be certain that we’ve gotten to the core of an issue, is important. You raise a central question about the utility of deeper ever-more finite answers.

      There are also socially “operative” truths that relate to the reality of our interdependence with each other and the environment on a finite world with finite resources.

      Thank you for clarifying these distinctions in such a clear and compelling way, Cicorm!

      Liked by 1 person

      • cicorm says:

        Thank you, Carol for your great patience and clarity. To emphasize, am not against getting a deeper understanding of the universe. As you put it, it is the incremental utility to harmony, vs the great amount of resource that concerns me.

        At this stage of civilization, perhaps the effort and resource can be better focused on working out and sharing the important “operative” truths of interdependence and governance to realize the harmonious and sustainable world which is within our grasp. To create the highest level of collective happiness, and avoid the most probable extinction level scenarios that can befall us.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. kakingsbury says:

    Carol
    I just discovered your posts on writing 101 and love the quotes on truth. I look forward to reading more of your blog.
    Kalen

    Liked by 1 person

  13. In physics, the idea that there’s no one specific truth is summarized in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ernest Hemingway said something like “There is no one truth. It is all true.” It could be ultimate truth is so awesome, like the people who experienced life beyond and returned in NDEs, of which a high percentage describe as “indescribable. beyond the human language, etc.”, that attempts to arrive at truth fall so short of the mark. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for adding to the dialogue, Jerry. I think your thoughts have a lot of merit – truth may well go beyond what we can observe and count empirically. The example of the NDEs certainly supports your position – inexplicable, indescribable, and often life-transformative events. Fascinating things to consider…

      Like

  15. I believe that there is only one truth, through Christ. But that said, I also believe dialogue is really important. Love, listening, and understanding are missing everywhere I look. I don’t find that truth in a building though. I find it in the Bible only.

    Very thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing it and about your heritage.

    Respect seems to be the best word here. Respect and love.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pingback: Is there One Truth or Are There Many? | THE MIX, a weekly look at mixed ancestry

  17. jncthedc says:

    The fun part about the word Truth is the constant flux surrounding it. Truth is a dynamic principle constantly expanding and changing in shape and meaning. I try to share new “truths” about health and disease that many have never experienced or been exposed to. Truth, for me, is temporary knowledge used for growth and development. It is exciting because it constantly needs to be challenged to have meaning.
    I enjoyed your post very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Jonathan. You’ve raised important insights about the many different meanings of truth and how those meanings change depending on time and context!

      Like

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