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As the battle between science, religion, and many other fields is growing, distinguishing between your beliefs and your knowledge is becoming increasingly important. Not even mentioning all disputes within each of these areas. How do we as humans, as well as individuals, figure out fact from fiction, truth from lies, and yes, belief from knowing? This is not to say that each of these three pairs directly parallel each other. Rather they form three of many axes along which we travel as we try and grasp points of contention in our complex array of understanding.

Absolute or Universal truth – Does it exist?

The discussion of truth takes on all kinds of angles. It does not matter whether we are discussing absolute or universal truth, conclusions vary from “yes”, to “no”, to “well, it depends”. Indeed, it comes down to our understanding of what truth is. If we flip open a dictionary to study this seemingly simple word we find definitions such as the following:

  1.  (the truth) [sing.] The true facts about sth, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed. (…)
  2. [U] the quality or state of being based on fact. (…)
  3. The fact that is believed by most people to be true. (…)

“Truth.” Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English: Sixth Edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 1394.

The words that jump out are fact, belief and quality. We might think that truth is set in unyielding stone, but we should consider that it stands in relation to other concepts and the observer(s). We thus look at a statement to consider its quality, how it relates to what we know and whether we can accept it.

But who is the person making these decisions? History is full of examples where science or experience changes our perception of truth, e.g. Copernicus’ and Galileo’s research regarding the solar system. Likewise, researchers have studied what some consider pure biblical fantasy and found possible scientific explanations, e.g. the Santorini volcanic eruption ca. 16 century BC causing what are considered miracles in the exodus story line (cf. research by Dr. Stanley et al).

Truth can thus shift when the points of reference change. It builds on understanding and experience. What is true today might no longer be in a couple of years. Because of this, not all discoveries make their way into mainstream knowledge. At times it concerns a detail only of interest to a small group. Or it is but a stepping stone in the development of new knowledge. Maybe it does not resonate with enough people to gain public status. With some things we might have discovered the full truth, with others, we might still be miles away. In some cases, there are those who are closer to the solution than others.

Believing vs. Knowing

You meet someone who lives near the equator and strike up a conversation. You soon realize that this person has never experienced snow. They might have seen it in movies, in pictures, or on Christmas ornaments, but they do not have a full experience of what it is. Their relationship to snow is similar to a belief, based on the limited sources and second-hand accounts they have had access to. It is only true to them in a theoretical, mental sense. There is no body of experience or combined input from all the senses and memories. It is the interaction with the snow that really brings it alive to us. How it takes your weight when you step onto/into it. The many grades of density, slipperiness, and colors it can display. The more you interact with something, the more your understanding of it develops and deepens, continuously refining your knowledge and thus your truth.

Yes, “your” truth: if you talk to people who live in wintery conditions most of the year you might be amazed to discover completely new characteristics discussed, with terminology to match. So whilst your equatorial acquaintance is more in the believing realms of the mind, you have crossed the line into the knowing territory which incorporates your bodily experience, whilst even deeper in the snowy knowledge lands we find the snow specialists, fully living the experience of snow on a daily basis with heart and soul.

While snow is not a contentious subject, science and religion can really dig deep or throw up walls, as emotions are involved. A scientist’s career is at stake if you question or even offer evidence against their work and beliefs. Indeed, even science has a belief system as they stick to approaches and systems which might have been handed down through many generations of scientists. While religion is not linked to career, there is just as much investment involved as quality of life and afterlife is at stake. In either case, there is a sense of saving face, as the individual might have invested decades of their life in what they hold true. Often this leads to consciously avoiding subjects, or “agree to disagree” situations. Sadly, at times insults even start to fly. In many cases, the problem is that our society and school system have taught us to divorce the mind from our experience. The mind does as it is told, based on training and/or faith passed down from others, i.e. second-hand experiences. Even if first-hand experience questions this, it is ignored rather than investigated.

Static vs. Fluid

A belief offers something to hold onto – a truth that offers you a foundation to walk and build on. Many are scared that in accepting a little detail that does not fit into the construction of their belief, they are to throw away all they know or believed in. However, true knowledge offers the beauty of fluidity. You puzzle with the “believe” and “know” pieces. The game is to discover where new tidbits fit into your bigger picture and how they relate to, support, enhance or alter your understanding.  We do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the contrary, we offer ourselves a new experience, just like we’d give the child a rubber duck to play with. If it likes the toy, it will integrate into the scene enriching the experience of taking a bath.

So next time you find yourself experiencing or learning about something new, take a moment to observe your reaction. Are you coming from a belief or knowledge driven background? An either-or or an incorporating approach? An emotional response or curiosity ? Are you “stuck” in the past or exploring a possible future? Are you on a static plane or riding the waves of fluidity?

Ask questions to explore if it fits into your truth, rather than shutting down another’s truth. You do not know how far they live from the “snowy territories” in comparison to you. And even if this tidbit of information does not fit into your truth after all, you might discover something hidden along the way. Or at the very least you have strengthened your knowledge and truth.

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