Nothing is true

Nothing is true - image for article by Greg Alder

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

When I first read it, my instinct was to dismiss it. Surely some things are irrefutably true. I could think of dozens of statements of fact that are supported by rock solid evidence. Surely they are true.

Then I thought a bit more. I thought about those who refused to believe that Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe when Galileo claimed to have evidence that the planets revolved around the Sun. His statement displeased astronomers, philosophers and clerics. The Catholic Church labelled his claim false. He was jailed as a heretic.

At any time in history there are those who refute what others take to be true. Earth is flat. The holocaust never happened. Man never landed on the moon. When presented with what the rest of us take to be evidence, they claim that it has been faked. Nothing that we can do or say will change their minds.

How many times have you seen the neighbour of a mass murderer interviewed on TV and he or she has said, “He was always such a pleasant young man. Always smiled and said hello. I can’t believe he killed 20 people and dissolved their bodies in acid.”

Whenever a dispute takes place, each of the combatants presents his or her side of the story as the truth. Each presents their version so convincingly that their audience takes it to be true.

When ‘friends’ defrauded us a few years ago, we couldn’t believe it. “Friends don’t do that to friends”, we kept saying.

When we saw evidence of fake bank statements, we didn’t believe it. When we learnt of a secret bank account, we didn’t believe that either. These were truths we couldn’t permit ourselves to accept as true.

After the whole thing blew up, we know that they were telling a version of events that deviated dramatically from what we knew to be true. In the absence of a second version, their audiences accepted their story as true.

When a loving husband runs off with a younger woman, the wife refuses to believe it.

When an apparently solid investment company makes off with pensioners’ savings, investors refuse to believe it.

When a happy daughter commits suicide, parents refuse to believe it.

When a politician is found to be corrupt, voters refuse … no, hold on. We believe that.

Evidence or not, there’s simply no way to force someone to accept our own truths against their will. If we like someone we will only accept truths that support our positive impression. And vice versa.

Right now, chemical companies are spending a fortune to convince us that genetically modified foods are safe, and that glyphosates aren’t killing bees. Miners spend a fortune convincing us that coal seam gas fracturing doesn’t harm aquifers. Will we accept their truths? Unlikely, because polls suggest that most of us have already accepted a different truth on such matters.

There are currently 12,000 lobbyists in Washington. In Australia there are 600 registered lobbyists – four for every member of the House of Representatives. Really, wouldn’t the money would be better spent just slipped directly to the politicians who draft and approve the laws? Cut out the middle men?

So truth is really anything that we are told that we accept to be true. Even if it’s a lie. That’s true for our partners, friends, family, employers, brands, news readers, politicians, magicians, lawmakers and lawbreakers.

Remember this when you’re trying to explain your way out of a sticky personal situation or persuade your way into someone’s shopping trolley.

If your audience has your trust, then they will permit your explanation to be true.

I started this blog post with a philosophical statement. I’ll leave you with a philosophical question. Is anything I have written here true?

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