Our basic framework (Particles, People and Purpose) divides all of reality into three parts: physical, social and spiritual. This enables us to talk about each part in a constructive way, because each one requires us to use different techniques and disciplines.
But while the laboratory and the law court search for the truth in very different ways, there are some basic principles which are applicable, for the most part, whichever area you are looking at. In a way which is analogous to the framework, there are six key questions, which can be divided into three distinct issues - the abstract proposition, the human perspective and the practical priority.
Sometimes the search for truth is a purely academic activity (such as research into pure mathematics), but most of the time we are looking for truth so that we can convince someone (perhaps ourselves) to take or avoid a certain course of action. Truth matters because the truth is what works in the real world.
Truth is expressed as a proposition, but it is understood as a story. Stories are often fictional, but good fictional stories contain a kind of truth. Other stories claim to be true, and we often need to work out whether this claim is valid. The most important strategy is the obvious one: to look for the evidence. This gives us the two most basic questions.
- What is the story?
- What is the evidence?
These are always the basic questions, whatever we are seeking to understand - whether it is String Theory, voting methods or free will - if we are seeking to discover the truth. We want to know and understand what is true; the story tells us not just the bare bones, but also the implications and consequences.
We are generally presenting the story with the aim of persuading people, so we have to consider the question of perspective. A story is not just a set of propositions: it is told by someone, from a specific perspective; and it is told to someone, who will probably want to evaluate it - who will want to consider its relevance and plausibility. This provides two more key questions.
- What are the assumptions?
- What are the alternatives?
Every story exists within a social context: even if it is a story about subatomic particles or mathematical theories, it is told to people who will have their own perspective, and their own reasons for wanting to understand and believe what is being said - or not. So we must recognize the importance of understanding who is telling the story, and who is listening to it.
Finally, if we want the story to motivate someone to action, it must be sufficiently important - to have a greater priority than the other things which could be done. It often needs to be placed within a wider context, which helps us to understand the significance of the story. This gives us two more key questions.
- What is the context?
- What is the significance?
There are often multiple contexts within which we can view the story, each one of which will have its own significance. They are all important if we wish to understand where the story fits into the world. The story will have real world implications, but we need to understand the significance in order to decide what priority we should give to the story.
So if we want to properly understand the truth, we need to understand three things (the proposition, the perspective, and the priority) and ask six questions.
- Proposition. What, precisely, is the proposition being put forward here?
- What is the story? What are the details? What are the implications? Is it coherent? Do I understand it? How does this story differ from the other stories people tell?
- What is the evidence? What is the evidence for and against this story? Are there other stories the evidence could support? Is there other relevant evidence which should be considered?
- Perspective. A story is generally told from a specific perspective, and making a certain set of assumptions.
- What are the assumptions? What direction are we viewing this story from? Who is telling it, and why? What does the story assume?
- What are the alternatives? What other directions could we view the story from; what other assumptions are possible? How do these alternatives change the story?
- Priority. The story exists in a wider context, alongside other stories, giving it a significance.
- What is the context? What else do we need to understand to fully grasp this proposition? What range of contexts might it be relevant to? How does changing the context change the proposition?
- What is the significance? How important is this proposition when we look at the bigger picture? What are the implications and consequences - all of them? What other issues are related to this one? And how are they related - in what direction does cause and effect flow? Does it always flow in just one direction?