Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Psychology of Truth: Feeling It

What if truth is really a collection of feelings and attitudes?

Eric Dietrich
Source: Eric Dietrich

What if truth is really a collection of feelings and attitudes? Is there anything to truth over and above truthiness? Everyone thinks so. But then why isn’t there more agreement? If all truths that we know seem true (and this is true), then how can we distinguish between seeming true and being true?

Truth versus Appearance

What is the difference between “X looks right” and “X is right”? The answer, we say is: “The former is compatible with X being wrong, the latter isn’t.” That looks right. Furthermore, not only is “X looks right” compatible with X being wrong, but it is usually possible to find out that X is in fact wrong, if it is. Here’s an example: “Water is a fundamental element.” This was something that seemed right and hence was believed for millennia — water was one of 4 to 5 fundamental elements, along with fire, earth, air, aether and possibly some others. But it turns out to be incorrect. Water is not fundamental: it is made up of two gases: elements hydrogen and oxygen. So water is a compound. We found this out by discovering and doing chemistry.

The trouble with this analysis is that today “Water is a compound” is felt to be just as true as “Water is a fundamental element” was felt to be true over 200 years ago. And since feeling true is really, at the end of the day, both why truth matters to us and how we judge truth, then then it is obvious that our knowledge of water as H2O lives under the threat of complete defeat, just as did our knowledge that water was fundamental.

Truth and Feeling

Why do I say that feeling the truth is the real way we judge truth? It is undeniable that feeling the truththe conscious experience of knowing the truth — is a big part of how we know we are in touch with truth. Look at your hands. You know that they are hands and that they are your hands because you can feel it. I mean you can feel this truth, not just your hands. Consider something abstract: 2 + 2 = 4. Again, you know this is the truth because you can feel it. Yes, you can cite chapter and verse of the proof of this theorem of arithmetic, but that would be meaningless if you didn’t feel the truth of 2 + 2 = 4.

But don’t math and science, scientific evidence, quotidian evidence, good intuitions, arguments, and rationality supply us with truth? Doesn't our knowledge of the truth derive exclusively from them?

Of course it does. But this is not how you know you have grasped the truth. You know that because truth feels like something to you. And truth feels very different from how falsehood feels or how uncertainty or doubt feels.

In fact, our conscious experience is the only way we have of knowing that we are in contact with the truth. This is one of the many jobs of consciousness.

Try this: Imagine saying and truly believing something as true for which your feeling of truth is utterly absent. Try 2 + 2 = 7. This feels wrong, doesn’t it? Suppose you are a robust Christian. Trying believing — knowing — that atheism is true (or try vice versa). You can’t do it. Without the feeling of truth, all you can do is imagine imagining being an atheist. You can’t actually enter into an atheistic frame of mind.

Let’s go further. Imagine an individual who utterly lacks the feeling of truth, even though this individual knows (“knows”?) many truths. This individual lacks all conscious psychological states that go into feeling the truth. This individual could know things, e.g., 1 + 1 = 2, but would never feel like she knew things. This person would be like someone suffering from Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP). CIP is a very dangerous ailment: the sufferer can severely injure him- or herself and yet feel nothing. Normal people use pain to learn about and avoid dangerous situations. But CID sufferers cannot do this.

The same sort of situation would occur with our Lack of Feeling the Truth (LFT) sufferer. She would know things, but wouldn’t feel that she knew things. So, then, could she use her knowledge? Perhaps, in some thin, slow way. The LFT suffer would be in as great a danger, minute by minute, as the CIP sufferer.

And now, since consciousness is exactly the essence of personal experience — your conscious experience is yours and yours alone — we have a great and terrible recipe for disaster, a disaster which we experience several times everyday.

Consider just one case. Some know the truth that flying a plane into a building is a supremely moral act that honors a just and perfectly powerful god. Those that know this truth know it because they feel this truth. Meanwhile, others think such an act is a height of depravity, and evil in the extreme. Those that know this truth know it because they feel this truth.

I understand that you are saying “But obviously X is the truth here.” But depending on who’s reading this (who and where), the X will vary considerably between the moral act and depraved act sides.

The most important immediate consequence of the fact that we feel it is true that feeling the truth is essential to truth is the personalization of truth. Close upon that comes the demotion of science. Everyone shops at Science Mart, walking up and down the isles, buying what they feel they want and rejecting what they feel they don’t. And everyone uses rationality, the irrational and the rational alike. And, lastly, everyone agrees to these last two sentences. Everyone knows the truth. Their truth. How? They feel it.

The deepest thing we know about truth is that we feel it. Our consciousness

Eric Dietrich
Source: Eric Dietrich

is key to our being able to learn, think about, and use what we feel is the truth. The deepest thing we know about consciousness is that it is completely mysterious. We have no good theories of it whatsoever, and no way in the future of finding such theories. In particular, we have no way to ground consciousness in brain processes.

So , we know two things:

Thing 1:

Our conscious experience is crucial to our grasping truth, to our knowing that we know the truth.

Thing 2:

Thing 1 explains why everyone knows the truth, but nevertheless disagree vehemently, like say, over religion or what it means to be a human being. Put another way: Thing 1 explains the personalization of truth — which is a fact of our modern lives.

Often Psychology Today bloggers offer good advice to readers for how to lead better, happier lives. Philosophers don’t do that, and I’m a philosopher. Socrates is, if you’ll pardon the pun, the Platonic ideal of this. He so upset the powerful in Athens that they exiled him, knowing full well that he couldn’t abide by that exile and so would choose to die instead . . . which he did. Today's blog is somewhat depressing. But I can close with some good advice: we can’t deal with the problems of personalized truth by pretending they don’t exist. Now that we feel that we know the truth of the problems, we can perhaps do something about them.

More from Psychology Today

More from Eric Dietrich Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today