Truth, Language & Reality

 The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

truth anchors language to reality


I hope I am never required, whether under oath or secular affirmation, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I would have to refuse, on logical grounds. If 'truth' is to mean anything at all, it can only mean 'that which is', in other words, reality, expressed in language. And there is the first problem. Reality is infinitely more complex and subtle than any human language, which fact in itself makes nonsense of the phrase 'the whole truth'. There are not enough hours in the day to state the whole truth even about something as simple as entering a room. Nope, 'the whole truth' has to go, as a logically unsound concept. That was easy, but what about 'the truth'?
The problem here is human fallibility in both perception and memory. I can say, "She was wearing a purple jumper". But was she? Maybe it was blue. Maybe it was a cardigan. The likelihood of making an untrue statement is high and gets higher with elapsed time and with the complexity of the described event. I can of course say, "I think she was wearing a purple jumper". That is a true statement even if her jumper was scarlet, in fact, even if she wasn't there at all. However, it is only a statement about what I believe, which might be completely false.
It is therefore unreasonable to require someone to swear to tell the truth since no-one is immune from stating accidental falsehoods. It is, however, perfectly in order to require someone to promise not to lie, i.e. to tell no deliberate falsehoods. This is of course the intent behind the third phrase 'nothing but the truth' which is the only justifiable phrase in the oath.
Some may object, saying the most we can ask is for everyone to speak 'their own truth' but that is a very dangerous road to walk. It blurs the necessary distinction between belief and truth. I started this by stating "If 'truth' is to mean anything at all, it can only mean 'that which is', in other words, reality, expressed in language." The minute we allow the concept of 'personal truth' we blow personal accountability out of the water. We can no more own our own truth than we can own our own sun.
In short: Truth anchors language to reality.

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