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Two kinds of truth

As a scientist, I’ve regularly been taught that there is only one kind of truth: the truth of facts and scientific proof. I don’t want to pretend that this kind of truth isn’t powerful, because it absolutely is. To my mind, scientific truth has contributed to innumerable discoveries and inventions that make my life easier and the world a better place.

But I don’t believe that scientific proof is the only kind of truth. I believe there’s a second kind of truth, a truth that has little to do with logic and reason and facts. I believe that we call this truth “wisdom” and we don’t need proof to know it’s true; when something is wise we can feel it is true without needing proof.

Sometimes, as a scientist, I find that this second kind of truth fills me with what Martha Beck calls “Yeah-buts”. “Yeah, but you don’t really know that.” “Yeah, but you have no proof!” And yet, the larger (perhaps the wiser) part of me usually can’t be bothered to care. At the end of the day the truth that really matters to me is that which I feel to be true.

Which is why I’ve decided on a new standard for truth in my life, and it’s not “can I prove this scientifically”. Instead, it’s simpler and usually more elegant: “does this help me?”

The elegance of “does this help me?” is that it allows for a much richer experience of the world. Science, for all that it has generated many discoveries that taught us the universe is wilder and more beautiful than we could have dared to imagine, cannot reliably probe the mysteries of the human experience.

It is why disciplines like psychology remain “soft” sciences and though there is hope that someday neuroscience may explain the vagaries of the human mind, I remain unsure that a scientific theory can ever really capture the full breadth and complexity of the human experience (indeed, a part of me hopes it cannot).

In biology, we are taught that living systems achieve “emergent properties” — we are more than the strict sum of our parts. My body at it’s most basic level is a loosely aggregated bundle of cells and molecules and yet I experience a sensation of being that no single molecule or cell could likely achieve.

And I cannot help but think that though science may be able to explain why and how we acquire these emergent properties (though the study of anatomy, neurobiology, physiology, etc.), I’m not sure that science can ever fully account for the felt experience of a human being.

This is why we require wisdom: because there are elements of human existence that seem to escape logic and reason. I can be aware of my own vagaries, my own irrationalities, my own inconsistencies — but this knowledge doesn’t make them any less real. And, ultimately, it is not science that gives me my answers or devises strategies that help me live with my own inconsistencies.

There is no way in which science can help me accept (or even relish) the fact that I am irrational and falliable and blind to “truth”. Instead, science teaches me that these things are my faults — that I should be more rational, that I should be more perfect, that insignificant things should not bother me so unreasonably, that when I say something that is scientifically untrue this makes me a bad person, a victim to sloppy reasoning, rather than a person with an unalienable right to her own opinion.

My conclusion is that unadulterated scientific truth teaches me to be unkind to myself. It teaches me to hold myself to a standard of being and existence that falls not an iota short of rational, robotic perfection because to be anything less would be to fall short of the ideal.

And yet, what kind of life is this really? To my mind this belief only makes living life more painful. I can do little to change my irrationalities except to honor them with the fullest depth of my compassion.

I can do nothing to better understand my own existence than to learn the wisdom of the world’s traditions, hold each idea up against myself, and ask “does this help me understand myself? does this help me understand my experience in the world?”

I would like to invite you to do the same (but, of course, only if you find it helpful!).


I’d love for this to be a conversation, not a dialogue! Tell me how you define truth in the comments below.



  1. phillip says:

    I have come to the conclusion that truth, like traveling at the speed of light or cooling something to absolute zero, is a state which cannot be achieved. To determine the truth, you would need to have all the facts. No one ever possesses more than a small fraction of the facts, so to think that you know the truth is necessarily delusional. If you accept this, then I think that you must also accept that two people can disagree without either of them being wrong. They just are experiencing different truths. I find that this outlook encourages me to embrace “wisdom” as a meta-truth. It may not be based on scientific evidence, but it has been vetted by a lot of folks and found to be useful.

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