“The eyes believe themselves; the ears believe other people. ” – Chinese fortune cookie. Often, what other people tell us is what we believe to be true. Even history is just a story told by other people. It is not possible to determine what has happened hundreds of years ago through empirical observation. Therefore we have to believe that what has been told is what is true. Most of our knowledge concerning certain specific classes comes to us from authority particularly since it is not possible for us to perform each experiment to determine whether what we have been told is true.
But in other cases, just because someone tells us something three times or perhaps three people tell us the same thing, it does not mean that it has to be true. However, this does not stop us from believing that it is. Therefore what other people tell us does determine what we believe to be true, but it does not affect whether it is true. What is truth? “Truth” is “the state of being the case; the body of real things, events and facts; a judgement, proposition or idea that is true or accepted as being true”.
There are three tests to determine whether a statement is true or false. These are the correspondence test, the coherence test and the pragmatic test. The correspondence test, developed by Bertrand Russell, states that a concept is considered to be true, if the subjective mental concept is checked against a real object/event and corresponds to it. For example, if someone tells me that there is a car parked on the street, I can go outside and look and if there is a car, then the statement will be true, otherwise, it will be false.
According to the coherence theory, a claim can be accepted as true if it harmonizes with other facts that have already been accepted as true. If someone states that he saw a cow jump over the moon, we can immediately dismiss his claim as being false since we know that it is impossible for that to happen because of the presence of gravity. The pragmatic theory of truth depends upon the subjective experience. It states that those concepts, which are proved to be worthwhile or useful, are true. For example, a person would accept his or her religious beliefs on a pragmatic basis.
There are also three characteristics of truth – truth is public, and applies to everyone; truth is independent of anyone’s belief, that is, something may be false even if everyone believes it to be true, or it may be true, even if everyone believes it to be false; and finally, truth is eternal. Therefore, a statement would have to satisfy these criteria for it to be true. Even if every single person in the entire world told me that the sun revolves around the earth, it would not make it a fact.
Truth and belief are totally different concepts. Even if it is not true that the sun revolves around the planet, and everyone told me that it did, I would believe that is true and would justify it by the fact that the sun appears at different positions during the day. “Belief” is “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence”. 1 To say that “this is true” is different from saying “I believe that this I true”.
Belief in something could be a result of our own personal experiences, or it could be from what other people have told us. For example, superstition is a form of belief. I believe that I will have seven years of bad luck if I break a mirror. I do not believe this because I have broken a mirror and had seven years of bad luck, but because these superstitious beliefs have been passed on to me from other people. This also applies in the case of religious beliefs. I believe that God exists and I believe that this is true.
But this does not mean that my statement can be proved to be true by applying the three truth tests. Unlike truth, belief is relative and differs for different people. When I believe something to be true, it applies only to me and other people do not have to believe it too for it to be true to me. Thus, we can believe something to be true, even if, in actual fact, it is not. Therefore, as in superstitions and myths, what other people tell us does determine what we believe to be true.
The statement “What I tell you three times is true” is self-defeating. If Lewis Carroll did intend for us to believe that it is true, then he would have repeated it three times. However, it does apply to our everyday lives where we are guided by what we are told. This is apparent when comparing different cultures. Different people with different cultural and religious backgrounds will not hold the same beliefs. For example, a particular culture may condemn the consumption of alcohol and this may lead to the person believing that it is wrong to drink.
This does not necessarily mean that it is true but that the person believes it to be true. Everything that we are exposed to – the environment, the media, culture, religion and society – will determine what we believe to be true. And it will be possible for us to justify our beliefs but it will not make it true. The best example would perhaps be war where either side in the war will believe that what they are doing is right and will be able to justify this but neither will accept the other’s opinions.
The soldiers have been repeatedly told that their cause is the right one by the government and military propaganda. And eventually they will come to believe it. This is also true in the case of what the media tell us. We have heard so many times that refugees are all illegal immigrants and do not have legitimate claims, that we come to believe that it is true. However, this does not mean that we believe everything that we are told as long as we hear it often enough. We also have to be willing to believe it.
If a person makes a statement, which is contradictory to our own previous beliefs and experiences, then we will refuse to believe it. But if he same person makes a second statement, which we do not disagree with, then we would be more willing to accept it as true. Our own perceptions and emotions affect our judgement, and so for us to believe that something is true, it will have to agree with our own opinions. In conclusion, what we believe to be true may be determined by a variety of factors, the most important of which is what all those around us have told us.
Our society constantly tells us what we should and should not to, and so we believe that it is right or wrong to do certain things. For us to believe something, it does not necessarily have to be true. Truth and belief are different so we may believe something to be true, even if, according to the truth test and the characteristics of truth, it is not. Our willingness to accept it as true is also important, as even if someone repeatedly tells us something, we may not believe it to be true, if in our own opinion we judge it to be false.