The many faces of truth

In my previous post, I discussed why I think there is no such thing as “the” truth, a single truth valid for all intents and purposes. Truth is much more complicated.

Consider the oath administered to a witness at trial. It binds them to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” (exact phrasing varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction), but nobody seriously expects them to tell what actually took place, in a correspondence-theory sense. For one thing, a witness is, of course, restricted by the fact that they are but one person at the scene, and can observe the event from only one place at any one time. Further, a human being is not (with few exceptions) a mere recording machine, able to relay the exact image they saw or the exact sounds they heard; instead, they interpret their observations and store those interpretations (instead of the observations) in their memory, and then relay those interpretations (likely with memory-induced corruption) in speech. Finally, human memory is fallible, and it becomes more unreliable as time moves on, away from the event itself.

Let us imagine a court conducting a criminal trial. This one is a Finnish court, where a witness is always directed to tell what they know of the event in their own words; questions from the lawyers, if any, come later.

THE FIRST WITNESS is a 19-year-old woman, active in the leftist environmentalist movement. Her examination goes as follows:

PROSECUTOR: Are you aware of what event is at issue in this trial?


PROSECUTOR: Please recount in your own words what happened. How did you come to be at the scene, what events did you observe?

WITNESS: Well… We held an anti-nuclear demonstration at the construction site of the new nuclear plant. It was a peaceful event, of course. We carried signs and sang songs. Some troublemakers I had never seen before started throwing stones and perhaps some other things toward the construction site. The police patrol who had been standing nearby ordered us all to leave. My friend Petri went to talk to them, quite peacefully, and suddenly the police started beating him, threw him to the ground, handcuffed him and dragged him to the police van. They did all that to him, without any provocation! All the while the troublemakers continued their activities. That’s all, I think.

PROSECUTOR: By Petri, you mean Petri Suuro, the accused?


PROSECUTOR: Did you see what Petri was doing before the police came to him?

WITNESS: I’m sure he did not do anything justifying their brutality.

PROSECUTOR: Nothing further for the main examination, President.

PRESIDING JUDGE: Anything on behalf of Mr. Suuro? (Advocate shakes head.) All right, any cross examination? Prosecutor?

PROSECUTOR: Thank you, President. (To the witness:) Where was your attention directed to just prior to the police coming to Petri?

WITNESS: I was looking at everything, I believe.

PROSECUTOR: So you saw what the troublemakers were doing, and also what Petri was doing?

WITNESS: Yes, absolutely.

PROSECUTOR: Was Petri standing still, or walking? Did he have anything in his hand, perhaps?

WITNESS: He was standing still, but shouting to the troublemakers. I think his hands were in his pockets; that’s what he usually does with his hands.

PROSECUTOR: Do you know, did Petri carry a knife in pocket?

WITNESS: Absolutely not. He’s a peaceful guy; why would he carry a knife to a demonstration?

PROSECUTOR: You did not see him take a knife out of his pocket?

WITNESS: What knife? He did not have a knife to take out. No, I never saw any knife in his possession.

PROSECUTOR: Nothing further.

PRESIDING JUDGE: On behalf of Mr. Suuro? All, right, let’s end the examination.

THE SECOND WITNESS is a 60-year old man, in charge of the nuclear plant construction site.

PROSECUTOR: You are aware of what events we are discussing today?

WITNESS: Yes, I am.

PROSECUTOR. Please tell us what you know of the events leading to the police arresting Mr. Suuro, sitting there. How did you come to be there at the time, and what did you observe?

WITNESS: Very well. I am a senior manager of the company building the new nuclear plant, and I am in charge of the construction site. We knew, of course, of the planned demonstration; it was fairly well publicized by the demonstrators. We also received information we believed to be somewhat reliable suggesting that the demonstrators intended to set fire to the construction site. I contacted the police and made sure they were present in force. I also attended myself, just in case.

The demonstration started peacefully enough, but soon the demonstrators started throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails through the outer fence. Some did in fact manage to get fires started, and it was difficult for our fire crews to do their job due to the flying rocks. I went to the police to demand action, but they were faster, and were already taking action. My attention was grabbed by shouting near me; it was a young man, I believe Mr. Suuro here, having a loud argument with two police officers. I noticed particularly that Mr. Suuro started to take a knife from his pocket, at which point the officers quite properly restrained him and put him into one of the police vans.

PROSECUTOR: Did you observe the behaviour of Mr. Suuro before the argument with the police?

WITNESS: For me, he was just one of many, and I did not pay him any attention before the argument. I was not even particularly aware of him.

PROSECUTOR: Nothing further.

PRESIDING JUDGE: On behalf of Mr. Suuro?

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Cross examination only, President.

PRESIDING JUDGE: All right, cross examination, then. Prosecutor?

PROSECUTOR: Nothing, President.

PRESIDING JUDGE: On behalf of Mr. Suuro?

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Thank you, President. (To the witness:) Did you see the knife well?

WITNESS: I saw it was a knife.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: What sort of a knife?

WITNESS: A normal kind. Shiny.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: A butter knife? A puukko? A bread knife?

WITNESS: An average knife. I can’t remember what kind exactly.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: What was your attention focused on when you saw the knife?

WITNESS: I was looking at Mr. Suuro and the police officers.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Not the knife specifically?

WITNESS: I noticed the knife, particularly how it shone.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: But you were not looking at Mr. Suuro’s hands or pockets when you noticed the knife?

WITNESS: Not specifically. I was looking at the three people involved. But I did see the knife.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Apart from the knife, did Mr. Suuro behave aggressively toward the police officers?

WITNESS: He was clearly agitated. Used a loud, angry voice.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Just words, no action?

WITNESS: The kife was action. But otherwise no.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Do you remember what Mr. Suuro was saying to the officers?

WITNESS: He was, I think, telling them to stop pestering him and go after the real troublemakers.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Was Mr. Suuro one of the troublemakers in your estimate?

WITNESS: He made trouble to the officers, and he was one of the demonstrators.

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: Other than the altercation with the police, and his presence at the scene, was he a troublemaker in your estimate? Did you see him throw stones or Molotov’s cocktails, for example?

WITNESS: Not when he was arguing with the officers. Before that I had not paid him any attention,

MR. SUURO’S ATTORNEY: And afterwards he was under arrest. Nothing further, President.

PRESIDING JUDGE: Prosecutor? (Prosecutor shakes head.) All right, this examination is closed.

Mr. Suuro is, in this fictional court case, charged of several offences. Relevant to these two witness examinations are that he allegedly carried a knife illegally in public, and that he attempted an assault of police officers with that knife. Since these are fictional examinations, and I created these two witnesses myself, I can authoritatively say that neither lied. Both complied with the oath they had taken (the local phrasing goes “[…] I shall testify and state the whole truth in this case, without concealing it, adding to it or altering it”). Yet, they tell a completely different story.

The first witness was acquainted with Mr. Suuro and thus had a measure of his character. From her point of view, what happened was an unprovoked attack on a peaceful protestor by the police. This is, of course possible. The second witness reports having seen the knife, but it is possible that he mistook something else for it, or simply imagined it, being undisposed to believing the police taking such action without provocation.

The second witness was predisposed to think ill of Mr. Suuro; not out of personal malice but simply because Mr. Suuro and he were on different sides of a confrontation, and held deeply divergent political views. His account is also plausible; the first witness may not know Mr. Suuro as well as she thinks, and she may not have paid enough attention to him during the demonstration.

It is notable that the first witness does not profess to have seen the absence of a knife; she merely states she knows it was not there. She could be right, of course; she might actually have seen that there was nothing in the pocket, but she only remembers a deep conviction, not the details. She could be wrong, as well; she may have been positioned so that she did not see that pocket and the hand where the knife was, and her strong belief in the absence of the knife, and the haziness of memory by the time of the trial, might make her think she saw its absence.

Now, I deliberately wrote these vingettes to be ambigous; even I do not know who is right. I would have to decide, were I to write a complete story about these fictional events; but for the purposes of this blog post, we do not know.

A court, of course, is obligated to decide the case. Given these two testimonies and no other evidence, it has no choice but to choose who is more believable. If more evidence is presented, it of course may become easier to decide the case. In either case, however, the court does not decide what actually happened. What it decides is whether using the power of the state against Mr. Suuro is warranted given the evidence it has heard. The English translation of the Finnish Code of Judicial Procedure (Chapter 17 Section 2 Paragraph 1) puts it this way:

After having carefully evaluated all the facts that have been presented, the court shall decide what is to be regarded as the truth in the case.

Note that the court is not tasked to determine the truth but what is to be regarded as the truth. What actually took place may be something different. For example, in a criminal case, the standard of reasonable doubt applies: everybody may be convinced that the accused did it (and it even may be that the accused really did do it), but if the court cannot justify to itself why a minority theory must be disregarded as unreasonable, then what is to be regarded as the truth is that the accused did not do it.

We have here already two faces of truth: the truth required of a witness, and the truth required of a court of law. A witness’s truth is that of honesty, not of correspondence to reality. The truth of a court of law is that of justice and of the moderation of the power of the state; again, not of correspondence to reality.

There is at least a third face of truth. When a medical scientist says that a particular treatment is efficacious and safe for the treatment of particular class of patients, they are predicting the future. The scientist’s truth is a best guess derived from studies already performed, and any competent scientist will acknowledge that they might be wrong; there certainly are lots of historical examples of a scientist’s well-backed prediction not corresponding to the reality. Sometimes it is misconduct (but then it’s not well-backed); sometimes it is the application of research methods thought to be correct but later revealed to be faulty; and sometimes it is simply that our research methods, while still considered valid, are not 100 % reliable. But in many many cases, the prediction appears to be correct.

The scientist’s truth is, I think, the most complex. It is partly the same as the witness’s: it is truth of honesty. But it is also something more: the truth of competence, and the truth of expertise. And, like all faces of truth, sometimes it turns out not to correspond with the reality.

I think the best way to see truth is in this way: not as correspondence to reality but as an obligation of a human being. Truth is about honesty, justice, moderation of power, competence, and expertise, mixed as appropriate.

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