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What is True ?

May 11, 2014

In many different fields of human endeavour, from science and the arts to philosophy and religion, there have been attempts throughout history to discover and express truth.

What we believe to be true has a profound impact on our experience of life. So how do we distinguish justified belief from mere opinion, and how do we create skillful patterns of behaviour ?

The 20th Century philosopher Karl Popper attempted to find a method for establishing the strongest possible conclusions about knowledge and truth, specifically within the field of science. He proposed the idea of ‘falsificationism’, a fundamental principle being that if we can find even a single, contradictory instance to any theory, then that is sufficient to falsify that theory, regardless of how many positive tests or examples appear to support it. {Popper, Karl (2005). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London and New York: Routledge}

Popper claimed that we should always attempt to test theories and find flaws within them because it is simply too easy to justify our ideas about knowledge. He claimed that ideas in fields such as psychology or economics cannot be properly tested because if an expected result does not occur, further explanations can always be found which explain that failure, and thus the basic theory can always be upheld regardless of the evidence.

A practical problem with Popper’s approach is that many fields of enquiry contain so many variables or background differences that it is very difficult to establish a clear and definitive falsification or confirmation of a theory. Furthermore, we can view the same issue from different perspectives (ie subjective or collective) and cultural, political and commercial influences are often at play when any idea is considered for enquiry. This all increases the possibility of confusion, disagreement and misunderstanding in a world where we continue to receive more and more information to process.

In fields such as ethics, politics, ecology, social justice, medicine and the law, we often struggle as a society to weigh up complex dynamics as we attempt to uncover flaws and false beliefs in the system.

However, sometimes we test a theory and the results do consistently confirm rather than refute that theory. This suggests that the evidence is significant, that the theory is (at least) more likely to be true and that any refutation of that theory must also explain all the observations that previously confirmed it.

An example from science would be Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. This was tested rigorously and presented a radically different view of the universe that further developed Newton’s Theory of Gravity, although Newton’s theory still operates for many practical purposes.

It seems clear that our understanding of life is often based around our best available probabilities and judgements rather than absolute certainties or realities. Our human experience is very complex and our understanding is often flawed and incomplete.

Many traditions of self development and spirituality from the East and West recognise these issues and offer the suggestion to combine a deep enquiry into life with a compassionate approach. We are encouraged to work in the world, to strive for kindness and creativity, to test and expand our knowledge and to express ourselves. But equally we are advised to become more conscious by slowing down the mind, allowing thoughts and emotions to pass without judgement, and becoming aware of our experience in the present. This state is sometimes known as meditation.


Spencer Joseph


From → Consciousness

  1. Dear Spencer. Yes, Popper’s proposal was actually that the difference between art and science is that if you want your statement/theory/proposal to be considered as science then, ” It must be able to be presented in a disprovable form”. In other words, ” All swans are white” is an artistic statement, and ” There are no swans that are not white”, is a scientific statement. If we cannot test the falsity of the statement it is not scientific. I love Poppers work but I have not had much use for it in the realms of awareness. This was not his area. More science and politics. Pure awareness can only be experienced when the choice making movement of the mind ceases and then concepts such as art and science disappear. Truth is easily recognised by the soul which has no interest in convincing anyone else of any truth. A Yogic perspective on life might appear like this. When you know who you really are, your soul, then when you look out into the world of people and nature you just see facts. Knowing who you are there are no choices but only one thing you could possibly do or not do in that moment. This ends confusion in relating to the matters of the world, nature and people. While we view the world through mind we will be caught up in endless misery, confusion and pain. Nobody has a better experience by making a better choice next time, just more misery. As you point out, meditation and self enquiry is the classic way out of the pain.

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