Is Truth Really Binary?

People who have hung around me long enough are probably aware that I’m not fond of binaries. I like my game-morality gray, consider my view of gender to be more complex than just masculine vs. feminine, and my usual stance in the inevitable religion-science debates is “This is not necessarily mutually exclusive, let me show you why.” As far as I’m concerned, the world isn’t a bunch of 0-1 switches for people to argue about the positions of or flick both ways.

An argument today about somewhat unrelated topics got me thinking about truth. A lot of people see it as a binary thing—true or false, right or wrong, either one mutually exclusive. As if there’s only room for one person’s truth at a time, and all the arguments are about whose truth to use.

This is an approach I disagree with; as far as I can see it, there’s more to truth than just yes or no, 0 or 1.

Consider, for instance, the Japanese concepts of honne and tatemae. The former is what we’d consider personal truth; it’s what you actually feel, what you’re thinking, how you inwardly react to people. The latter is a more social truth, the kind you project to society. In other words, it’s when you tell the person who asks how you’re doing “fine” when your feet are killing you, the bills are exceeding your paycheck, and your best friend was hitting on your significant other last night. Most of the people I know would consider one of these more true, but as far as the Japanese are concerned, they’re equally, simultaneously true, even when they’re technically mutually exclusive. Binary, not so much.

Consider also social truth. Even the people who differentiate between truth and lies note the difference between some lies and others—the little white lie, the necessary lie, the bald-faced lie, you get the idea. And they do note that some are more ‘wrong’, more unacceptable, than others. But then there’s the gray area between truth and lies. What do you do with an inadvertent untruth, where the speaker is delivering information he believes to be true whether he is or not? At least some of the roleplaying game designers have an answer to that; D&D 3.5’s Zone of Truth will let it be spoken, Exalted’s lie-detecting magics won’t detect it (and there are other ways to trick the magic, a few of which involve things that some might consider lies-pure-and-simple). It’s not treated as one or the other—it’s in that gray patch in the middle, where the binary doesn’t work so well.

In fact, some go so far as to say there’s truth in both sides of any argument. In the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series, Suzette Haden Elgin invokes a principle called Miller’s Law, and recommends her readers use it when in an argument. What is Miller’s Law? “Assume that what the other person is saying is true, and try to figure out what it might be true of.” If everything is either 100% true or 100% false, this wouldn’t be too useful, but it is—it’s often been applied to people misunderstanding each other’s messages, to situations where someone’s logic was fine but the information it was based off of was faulty, and to ones where people’s contexts were sufficiently different that something that was true of one person, like it being dangerous to walk through a dark parking lot to the car, was not true of the other.

And that’s not even getting into what constitutes truth from the fictional or mythical standpoint. My take? Trying to list everything as either 100% true or 100% false, with no middle ground between them, is limiting, not necessarily accurate, and in many cases counterintuitive. What do you think?

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