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What I tell you three times is true

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Lewis Carroll’s belief that what is known by one person, and then told to another three times over, is true, seems to be highlighting our tendency as a human race to accept the truth of repeated data or actions. This is the basic premise for the science of psychology: indoctrination, or propaganda, where words or gestures are used many times over to convert the person into believing what is supposedly perceived as true. This form of manipulation is extremely powerful, finite and ultimately destructive.

The results of WWII show the truth of this, as in Hitler’s Germany, propaganda of the supremacy of the Aryan race, was a vital element in the state tool of subjugation. For something to be true to us, we have to know and believe in its authenticity. There are many ways of obtaining knowledge; through empiricism, rationalism, intuition and faith. Empiricism is called ‘absolute knowledge’ by Buddhists and is knowledge through the experience of the senses.

Intuition is a delicate kind of knowledge, and Thompson defines it as “direct knowledge, not the result of conscious reasoning or evidence”. Carroll appears to believe in inductive logic and rationalism: that is, that knowledge comes from the mind and that knowledge is based on recognizing patterns and then assuming that the pattern is going to be repeated. For example, if a coin is dropped twice and both times it lands face up, inductive logic argues that it will land face up the next time as well.

Deductive logic, of course, takes into account the fact that the coin is evenly weighted, and so will argue that regardless of the preceding outcomes, the probability of the coin landing on either side is always 50%. From deliberating over this example, one might be scornful of inductive logic. However science, which governs most areas of our lives in this technological era, and which many of us have great faith in, uses this. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief that “People only see what they are prepared to see”, argues that empirical knowledge is not true knowledge as it is likely to be unknowingly influenced.

On the other hand, Lucretius said, “What else can give us surer knowledge than our senses? With what else can we better distinguish the true from the false? “. Considering Emerson’s premise, one might argue that because scientists have a fixed idea of what they want the result of an experiment to be, the outcome itself is affected, whether by subconscious manipulation, as the scientist adds a little more of this mixture or that to the reaction, or simply by their power of thought being so great as to affect the experiments’ result.

Thus truth is elusive because of the independent perception of belief corrupting science, and the capacity of the scientist himself confines the capacity science can reach; it is not science in the form of logical induction that is imperfect, it is the human that wields science as his creator – from his own imperfection. “Science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit” (Feyerabend, 1975, p295). Understanding the nature of truth is important when considering this quotation, and as, unfortunately, we do not know Carroll’s definition of truth we must investigate this complex topic.

The dictionary defines truth as “a state of being true, in accordance with facts, genuine, faithful, exact”, which seems to me to be brushing over the issue in a dangerously ambiguous way, and may lead one to believe that truth is a state of mind. Is it, in fact, simply a state of mind? Is truth transient? Do knowing and/or believing in something make it true? Is there any fact so undeniable that every sane person cannot accept it? There are certain tangible ‘truths’ that most people believe, for example that all living organisms need oxygen to survive.

However it is a fact that only some do, as several bacterii use nitrogen for their means of respiration. Therefore we must be more specific; only mammals use oxygen to survive. The difficulty comes if and when science, that ever-changing ‘constant’, suddenly negates this, which could happen over billions of years due to evolution, or even tomorrow if some new species that did not need oxygen to survive were to be found. Then a truth would become an untruth, and is thus transient, or if one were to be very strict, there never were nor shall there ever be any truths at all.

Additionally, what is true for one person may be untrue for another, for example the concept of ‘freedom’ is something very different in the UK than in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. Taking the previous example of organisms needing oxygen to survive, one gains this knowledge through studies at school, or possibly experience (if one was locked in an airtight container, or observed organisms that were). Can we be certain that the scientific community is not deceiving us in some way?

It is an unlikely scenario, but we cannot be completely sure of this, even if the data is repeated three times. Even if one were locked in an airless container and experienced difficulties breathing, one could not be sure that it was lack of oxygen that was fatiguing one; one would have to question everything about the situation, and what if the answers were false? Consequently perhaps there are no truths, unless one believes that a truth is what is thought to be true today, and this brings us back to our previous dilemma; the definition of truth.

The disagreements between truths in science and religion are many, for example Darwin’s theory of evolution was in direct opposition to the religion of his time, and was therefore unacceptable by the general public and the scientific elite. But because his notion was believed by only a handful in the face of thousands, that does not make it untrue – now Darwin’s theory of evolution is widely accepted. Another example is Aristotle’s theory that the sun did not revolve around the earth, as the arrogance of man believed it did, but that the earth revolved around the sun.

And even though both scientists repeated their belief, it did not become truth to their listeners. Today we are taught that an atom has a central nucleus filled with protons and neutrons, and that around the atom, electrons are suspended along virtual ‘rings’, rather like our sun and the planets that revolve in their orbit. But who has ever seen these electrons? Why do we believe in something that we cannot see? Because it is the easiest thing to believe?

Scientists have found that this is the most plausible theory, and thus schoolchildren all over the world are taught this ‘irrefutable fact’. Truth is a very individual belief. If I believe something, then it is true for me, but it may not be so to everyone else, even almost everyone else on the planet, as in many past scientists’ case. If someone told me that 2 + 2 = 5 three times, I would not – and indeed could not – believe it, unlike George Orwell’s Winston Smith in 1984.

For it is very upsetting to learn that something we thought was true, something we totally believed, was untrue, because most of us need that degree of certainty in our lives. It becomes very hard for us to suddenly turn our backs on one of the pillars of our belief: for example that we need oxygen to survive, and especially so if that untrue belief has effects on other beliefs that we have. Because we are all individual, a truth cannot be true to all of us. We will all have different experiences, levels of intuition and logic, and so truth is a state of mind.

Although Carroll’s formula may actually determine what we believe to be true in that if something reoccurs several times, it becomes a pattern, and over time becomes truth and belief, I think this mostly applies to Science, which uses inductive logic, and possibly to some aspects of religion, for example oral tradition. However it is not applicable in all circumstances, and may even change in the future, although it is an interesting and a thought-provoking reflection on society.

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