Musing: Truth and Motorcycles

I think Truth is a slippery concept. Here are three statements commonly held to be true with little debate:

  • 1 + 1 = 2.
  • The sky is blue.
  • What goes up must come down.

The first statement is true as long as there is agreement about the meaning of the symbols “1”, “+” and “2”, and you are talking about counting things. But, it isn’t true if you use it to predict what happens when you add two drops of water together: in that case you end up with only one drop of water.

The second statement is not always true, for example at night, on a cloudy day or if you are standing on the moon. The last statement is not true for the two Voyager space craft which will never return to earth.

These examples are my feeble attempt to show that “context” is very important when you are looking for the truth. Truthfulness exists within a context. You can fall into a “truth trap” if you blindly assume truth in one context is a universal truth for every context.

Since truth exists in a context, you have to look for and understand the context surrounding a statement about the truth and then evaluate if a different context is sufficiently the same before you can can conclude if the statement will be true in the new context. That’s not so easy. I think the ability to judge how similar two contexts are when looking for the truth is one hall mark of “critical thinking”.

Defining a context is not so easy. This is often due to unspoken, or unconscious, assumptions you have which do not apply in a different context. The three true statements I made above all had hidden assumptions about context which leads a casual reader to agree that they are true. It’s very hard to see your assumptions about common experience.

I point this out because when I work on motorcycles there are times when I can’t find the cause of a problem. Every test I try indicates nothing is wrong, but yet, the truth is, something is wrong.

I’ve learned that when I find myself in this situation, it’s time to write down all my assumptions. Often I have to do this more than once because the hard part about assumptions is you don’t recognize you have made them. Then I test every one of them. Every time I have used this meticulous listing of assumptions and testing, I’ve found one that isn’t a valid assumption in the context of the problem.

I hope this helps you solve problems that are too slippery to get a grip on.


6 thoughts on “Musing: Truth and Motorcycles

  1. Absolute truth is something that is true at all times and in all places. It is something that is always true no matter what the circumstances. It is a fact that cannot be changed. For example, there are no round squares.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thank you for your post and observation. To summarize, you believe there is an absolute truth, “… true no matter what the circumstances.”

      I believe that the General Theory of Relativity contradicts your view. There is no absolute truth (true in all places at all times) even in physics. Instead, what you observe depends on your relative velocity and acceleration compared to what you are measuring (aka, observing).

      Said differently, the main difference between Newton and Einstein is that Newton believed in an absolute, unchanging reference frame while Einstein showed there is no such thing. So your context affects what you observe, aka, your truth. Therefore, your truth is locally defined, and is not absolute in all places at all times.

      This article may convince you that in a certain context, a square can look like a circle, meaning, you can’t tell the difference between them.

      This suggests that what you observe about the differences between a square and the circle at non-relativistic speeds can disappear at relativistic speeds. At the speed of light, both shapes appear to be a line due to complete contraction of the length of a line in the direction of motion at the speed of light.

      Your observation about the absolute difference between a square and a circle is true only in the context of Euclidean geometry, which assumes that the relationships of two dimensional objects on a flat surface (the context) are universal for all contexts. Without jumping into relativity, on earth, which is approximately spherical, the sum of the angles of a “triangle” add up to more that 180 degrees and the sum of the angles of a “square” add up to more than 360 degrees. So that aspect of their “universal truth” is violated. So you end up with acknowledging that the context affects truth even at non-relativistic speeds.

      Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with relativistic speed differences, nor spherical geometry when working on our airheads. But, there are context and assumption traps waiting for us nonetheless šŸ™‚


  2. Hello Brook,
    a really interesting and smart thought!
    I’ll try to have it in mind for next “difficult” problems.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge, experience, and thoughts

  3. Good post, along with correct context there’s also perspective to be considered in the search for truth. One’s perspective is molded within the highly individual context of one’s upbringing, beliefs taught and accepted, environment, experiences and such.

    A situation is viewed by one through these filters and “the truth” derived at accordingly….

    To paraphrase another saying: Truth is in the eye of the beholder

    • Dom,

      Yes, your points are in line with what I was getting at. We have very strong tendencies to see in a way that confirms what we know. In a subtle and unobserved way, we tend to filter what we see so as to remove the “minor” differences in what we observe compared with what we know. This causes our perceptions to conform with what we “know” rather that let the minor differences suggest a new understanding of what we observe. Said differently, we will impose a context to act as a filter so we only perceive what we already know. That can get in the way when you are trouble shooting.


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