Discerning Truth

This essay describes the process that must be applied to discern truth effectively.  Since we do not and cannot know everything, truth may never be known with certainty – but it can be known with a high degree of accuracy.  The process of finding the truth is often iterative, repeatedly approximating truth ever more closely with each iteration.

The Detective

Three men were arguing in a dark alley.  One of the three drew a knife and stabbed another.  The other two ran away and scattered, leaving the wounded man for dead.

Upon arriving at the murder scene, the detective investigating the case found a dead body with two names scribbled in blood on the ground.  He used this information to identify two possible suspects.  One was a drug dealer with a long history of arrests and violence.  The other was an upstanding citizen and official of the town.  Both claimed innocence.  Neither suspect had an alibi; nor did either suspect have any clear connection to the victim or motive for the crime.

Based on past experience with other drug dealers, the detective immediately focused on the drug dealer and began to build his case.  He collected much information but could find no evidence directly supporting his hypothesis.  Nevertheless he continued to pursue the drug dealer, ignoring the upstanding citizen as a possible suspect.

One day he obtained some information potentially absolving the drug dealer of the crime, but still had no reason to suspect the upstanding citizen.  After all he had known that man for many years, and he could not be a killer.  So the detective continued to pursue the drug dealer.  The case remained unsolved for many years.

One day the detective received an anonymous package.  It contained a bloody knife.  He sent it to the lab.  The blood type matched that of the victim, but the fingerprints did not match those of either suspect.  He was perplexed; the knife seemed to point to neither of the suspects!

The detective found this situation hard to accept.  It was contrary to all his past experience.  He didn’t know what to do.  Was the new evidence true, or a fabrication?  Should he continue pursuing the drug dealer, or focus on the upstanding citizen, the man his experience had already exonerated?   Should he abandon his experience and follow the evidence wherever it may lead?

He struggled but finally chose to pursue the truth.  He developed a new hypothesis with a new prime suspect.  Then he devised a plan to confirm his new suspicions.  The plan worked; he obtained a confession from one of the victim’s co-workers.  Truth found.  Case closed – but not yet completed.

As a result of this case, the detective developed a different perspective on drug dealers.  He successfully applied that new perspective to solve his next case more quickly.  Case closed and completed.

Discerning the Truth

If we’re searching for something in the dark, we need a flashlight so we can see.  If we’re searching for something to fit into a 30 inch space, we need a ruler to measure the object we want to place in that space.  If we want to ship an item that must weigh less than 5 pounds, we need a scale to measure the weight of what we’re shipping.  Similarly if we’re searching for truth, we need a reliable tool to help us separate truth from falsehood.  Only one such tool exists:  the scientific method.

The objective of the scientific method is to construct an accurate picture of reality.   Reality is truth.  Therefore the objective of the scientific method is to construct an accurate picture of truth, and the cornerstone of the scientific method is the Reality Check.

That is exactly what the detective was doing in the story above:  He was using the scientific method to identify the killer.  The process the detective used can be diagrammed as follows:

Scientific Method

Fig. 1 – Discerning Truth

Step 1) Reality Check #1

When the detective first heard about the murder, he visited the scene and made observations.  He combined those observations with some assumptions he made, some theories he had about people, and perhaps other factors from his “Analytical Toolbox”.  Since he did not discern the truth of what had happened, the first Reality Check “failed.”  (Had he known the truth at this time, the killer would have been identified immediately and the case closed.)

 Step 2) Create hypothesis #1

The detective compiled his assumptions and observations, performed some analysis, and quickly focused on the hypothesis that the drug dealer was the most likely suspect.  (As it turns out, some of his assumptions were inaccurate, as was his decision-making process.  These errors led to an incorrect hypothesis.)

Step 3)  Prediction

The detective “predicted” to himself that he would find evidence to prove the guilt of his suspect; then he went about gathering that evidence.

Step 4)  Verification

Unfortunately, the evidence he collected did not verify his hypothesis.  At first he refused to accept the evidence because he was too heavily invested in his original hypothesis.  Ultimately, the receipt of the knife brought him to another Reality Check where he had only two options:  To accept the knife as true or false evidence.  Once he accepted the knife as true evidence, he had to admit that the verification process had failed; he had to reexamine the situation; and he had to reevaluate and revise his hypothesis.  He proceeded to do exactly that.

Step 2) Hypothesis #2

He recognized that the killer must have been a third person whom he had not considered in constructing the first hypothesis.  The real killer was neither the drug dealer nor the upstanding citizen.  Therefore he had to create a new hypothesis based on this third person, using the evidence he had gathered so far.

Steps 3 and 4)  Prediction #2 and Verification #2

Using his new hypothesis, the detective made a new prediction (that he could get the evidence needed to convict the new suspect).   He created a plan to gather the necessary evidence, and executed the plan successfully.  Thus the confession he obtained verified the correctness of his hypothesis and uncovered the truth.

Physical and Sensory Toolboxes

Sometimes detectives miss the truth because the verification step failed due to limitations in evidence gathering.  Perhaps a detective doesn’t observe a critical detail at the crime scene.  Perhaps available forensic tests aren’t sophisticated enough to provide the required verification.  In such situations, a detective may be forced to re-examine the crime scene more thoroughly, perhaps even enlisting the aid of additional people to do so.  Or a detective may be forced to conduct specialized tests and analyses to gather additional information.  These situations are represented by the box on the right hand side, “New Sensory Toolbox, Physical Toolbox”

The Analytical Toolbox

The Analytical Toolbox includes tools labeled “Assumptions”, “Theory”, and “Law.”  What do these tools represent?


An assumption is something that we take for granted as truth, based upon our own authority.  Assumptions are generally accepted as true without proof.  They are least reliable of all knowledge and are frequently incorrect; thus they demand close examination.


Theories fall into a gray area in that they can range from conjecture to proven statements about reality.  Whereas an assumption is generally a single statement, theories are organized, systemic statements regarding reality and often carry an unsupportable perception and aura of truth.  Theories are easily misapplied and subsequently lead to fallacious conclusions.  For example, a theory about the behavior of liquid water can be absolutely true all the time over a range of temperatures from freezing to boiling, but fail when applied outside that range.  Theories are useful and powerful tools in our search for truth, but they must be used with care.


Laws are our most reliable tools for describing reality.  Laws generally have been proven to be reliable statements of truth; they have withstood robust scrutiny and testing.  We can depend upon laws to comprise principles and rules that accurately describe reality.  Laws, however, are not infallible.  They are subject to the same limitations as theories in terms of application.

For example, Euclidian geometry requires that the sum of the angles in a triangle must always equal 180 degrees.  However, the sum of the angles formed by the following triangle is approximately 270 degrees:

  • North Pole
  • Singapore
  • Galapagos Islands

How can that be?  Euclidian geometry, or planar geometry, is a special case of three-dimensional geometry.  The Earth is spherical; therefore we must use the laws of spherical, or three-dimensional, geometry instead of Euclidian geometry to determine the truth.  Euclidian geometry will provide a false answer!


Learning includes the process of revising and improving the Analytical Toolbox.  The detective learned, among other things, that his assumptions about the drug dealer were wrong and that he needed to be more thorough in evaluating possibilities before jumping to hypothetical conclusions.  These new pieces of information were incorporated into his Analytical Toolbox ready for use in the next case.


Singularities are by definition unique and different from all else.  Infinity, nothingness, eternity, alternate universes, etc. are examples of singularities we cannot experience directly – and often cannot even comprehend within the bounds of our reality.  Therefore all our assumptions, theories, or laws must be carefully evaluated for applicability when dealing with singularities because all is not as it looks.  We may have to apply different techniques in our search for truth.  A detailed discussion of singularities is outside the scope of this essay.

For definitions of terms see http://www.thefreedictionary.com/assumption

Reality Checks in the Process

We all love detective stories because they are always about seeking truth, about the victory of truth over falsehood, about righteousness conquering evil.  They contain elements of mystery, suspense, deception, perseverance, and brilliance.  In short they distill all the conflicts of our life into a simple, tangible story.  Well told, they rivet our attention.

The detective of our story experienced several interactions with truth; some positive, others negative.  Each interaction with truth (reality) is a Reality Check.  Some Reality Checks are part of the larger loop described in Fig. 1; others are internal to the “Verification” step.  The detective’s Reality Checks are examined in the Table below to show the relationship between “Reality Check” and “Discerning Truth.”

Reality Check

Detective Reaction

Truth and Consequence

1 Detective sees body of murder victim with names nearby The detective immediately focuses on only two of three possible options. Truth:There are 3 possibilities:

1) The drug dealer is the killer

2) The upstanding citizen is the killer

3) Someone else is the killer


Erroneous Decision-Making:

Incomplete analysis makes detective completely dismiss (3) out of hand.

2 Detective gathers cursory information by researching names Based on information gathered and heavily biased by personal experience, detective quickly homes in on (1) and develops a hypothesis Truth:There were strong signs to indicate that neither the drug dealer nor the upstanding citizen was the killer, but the detective ignored those signs.

Erroneous Analytical Toolbox:

Faulty Assumptions drive detective to completely dismiss one suspect without examination; lead to faulty hypothesis

3 Detective collects much irrelevant information on drug dealer Detective collects information that supports hypothesis; neglects information that may contradict hypothesis Truth:Additional alarms indicate hypothesis is incorrect, but detective ignored them.

Dishonest Reality Check:

Failure to recognize potential flaws in “Analytical Toolbox” and “Decision-Making” reinforces misconceptions and keeps detective focused on faulty hypothesis

4 Detective receives information potentially absolving drug dealer Detective, focused on proving his hypothesis true, ignores contradictory warning sign Truth:Additional alarms indicate hypothesis is incorrect, but detective ignored them.


Erroneous Reality Check:

Failure to recognize potential flaws in “Analytical Toolbox” and “Decision-Making” keeps detective focused on faulty hypothesis; drives case goes into “unsolved murders” pile.

5 Detective receives knife Detective reexamines and abandons (improves) erroneous assumptions and hypotheses Truth:Knife is the murder weapon.

Successful Reality Check:

New hypothesis developed with plan to verify

6 Detective gets confession Truth uncovered; case closed Truth identified! 

Update Analytical Toolbox:

Detective’s assumptions about drug dealer behavior modified and used to solve next case.

Typical Mistakes

The detective made a number of serious mistakes we all commonly make tin discerning truth.  This is not an exhaustive list of such mistakes by any means, but these are typical mistakes we will encounter as we examine truth statements about the nature of our reality:

Faulty Assumptions

Faulty assumptions are always untested and frequently unstated.  They are just “understood” to be true.  A subtle variation of this error is to use an assumption that is true in some situations, but is false or inapplicable in the situation under examination.  The same can be said about Theories, and Laws.

Faulty descriptions

Faulty (incomplete or inaccurate) descriptions of the situation and the circumstances surrounding it are extremely prevalent.  Since we cannot know everything, and what we do “know” is not with 100% certainty, it is impossible to perfectly describe any situation.  But we can capture the salient points, the points that impact our analyses.

Going back to the detective story, we don’t know when the murder occurred, whether it was raining or not, what kinds of clothing the various people were wearing.  In this situation those facts are irrelevant – but may not be irrelevant in other situations.  Therefore it takes a great deal of skill to discern and seek out that which is important from that which is unimportant.  Doing so improperly will likely result in erroneous understanding of truth.

Mis-application of tools

Previously we addressed the importance of having a good set of tools to apply in our search for truth.  But that is insufficient.  Have you ever watched someone try to drive a screw into a piece of wood with a hammer?  …or a nail with a screwdriver?  It simply does not work.  Similarly, it is essential that the tools we have at our disposal be applied correctly and skillfully; otherwise we will arrive at faulty conclusions like the detective did.

Faulty verification

Words are cheap; action is what counts.  Ideas, models, theories, and designs are plentiful.  Most of them never get off paper; they fail the verification test or the reality check.  A thorough, honest, reliable verification test is crucial to finding truth; it must be conducted with integrity.  Any significant statement of truth that has not been subjected to thorough and rigorous Reality Checks is suspect.

Lack of Integrity

Can one rely on the story of a liar to be true, even if there is purported evidence?  Is not the evidence itself tainted by the character of the liar?  Does it not require extra care?

Integrity in every step of the process is essential to discernment of the truth.  Truth is as far from falsehood that is only 60% accurate as it is from falsehood that is 99.999% accurate.  The latter may be a better approximation of truth, but it is still only an approximation – and in some situations the .001% difference could be the difference between delusion and reality!  Integrity is our only defense.

The Sniff Test (Ho-ho test, Sanity check, etc.)

Reality is consistent.  It is what it is.  The story about the blind men and the elephant demonstrates this:  The elephant is an elephant no matter how the men describe it or define it.  The elephant’s characteristics do not change, although they may be misperceived or incorrectly defined by men.

Because reality is consistent, it is possible to identify potential untruths by conducting a quick cross-check against independent data to make sure a statement does not violate other known facts or laws.  These quick cross-checks are lightheartedly referred to as a “sniff test” (Does it smell rotten?) or a “ho-ho test” (Is it so outrageous that it makes you laugh?), or a “sanity check” (Is it so outrageous or insane that it requires you to suspend other known truths?).

For example, the President of a company might know from experience that the company sells 10,000 ± 1,000 widgets annually.  This has been the case for the past 10 years.  During these 10 years the company has experienced good economic times and bad economic times; it has varied advertising levels and strategies; it has even redesigned the widgets to make them more appealing.  The result:  No significant impact on sales volume.  Revenue from widgets, by the way, produces less than 10% of the company’s total sales volume.

An aggressive young marketing manager, recently hired, presents a business plan to the President to double company profits.  The plan looks convincing.  It is worked out in exquisite detail; every product is included; sales, costs, and profits are calculated by month and so forth.  Everything is worked out and presented in beautiful charts and voluminous tables.  It looks beautifully polished.  It feels solid.

The President decides to conduct a quick sniff test.  He asks the young executive to provide the projected sales figures for widgets.  Lo and behold, the plan includes a sales projection of 20,000 widgets annually – something that is highly unlikely based on past experience.  If that projection conflicts so clearly with past experience, can the rest of the plan be considered reliable?  The President rejects the plan because it is not consistent with reality.

Surprisingly few people apply sniff tests to fundamental statements of truth they use to order their lives; they simply accept various statements of truth as being indeed true.  The results could be catastrophic.

So What?

The question arises:  “So what?  What has been accomplished?  What does it matter?  This all seems like a lot of theoretical work for little return.”

Not exactly.  First of all, much of the “work” is done subconsciously and automatically once we have trained ourselves to be truth-seekers.  Second, we must understand the process and consciously apply it whenever needed.  Like an athlete, the more we exercise our gifts of truth discernment, the more effective we become at it, the better our tools and processes become, and the closer we get to understanding reality and truth.  If the detective had truly understood the reality of the murder, he would have gone to the truth immediately and solved the case much more quickly.  But he didn’t; he wasted much time and effort unnecessarily.  We are the same way.

The truth of the matter is that inaccurate discernment of truth can and will destroy our lives.  Here are a few examples at the personal level:

  • If a man walks into oncoming traffic, he will be immediately killed.  Assuming he was not trying to commit suicide, his death is the immediate result of his not comprehending the true danger presented by oncoming traffic.
  • If a man incorrectly comprehends business and personal financial situations, he will likely end in bankruptcy, which is financial death.
  • If a man incorrectly comprehends the truth about his symptoms of illness, he is liable to die an early death from an uncured disease, which is physical death.
  • If a man incorrectly comprehends the truth about life, death, and spiritual reality, he is liable to die a spiritual death.
  • …and the list continues.

Here are a few examples at the social (national) level:

  • If a nation fails to comprehend the true threats posed by its enemies, it will be conquered and destroyed.
  • If a nation fails to comprehend its true moral state, it will continue to slide into anarchy, violent upheaval, and destruction.
  • If a nation fails to comprehend its true financial status, it will go bankrupt, be conquered, and be destroyed.
  • …and the list continues.

So it pays us as individuals and as a nation to pursue truth relentlessly lest we be destroyed.

But there is an even more compelling reason to be concerned:  Our ability to discern Truth may have consequences way beyond this lifetime, consequences we cannot even comprehend today.  How, you ask?  It’s simple:

Jesus claimed that after we die we will spend eternity in one of two places:  With Him in eternal joy if we believe in Him now or without Him in eternal torment and despair if we reject Him now.  He provided no other options.  Was he telling the truth when He said the following?

I go to prepare a place for you.
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.
Because I live, you will live also.
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.
He who does not love Me does not keep My words.
 (John 14:2, 6, 19, 23, 24)

We are in grave danger if He was telling the truth and we ignore it!

So, the question is:  Can we discern if His claims of truth are valid?  Our decision may have eternal consequences if we discern incorrectly.  What good is it to gain the whole world and lose eternal peace and joy?  Would it not be better to gain eternal peace and joy even if we have to lose this short-lived world?  That, my dear friends, is why it is absolutely critical that we discern the real Truth while we still have the opportunity.  That is the goal of this web site.

All is not as it looks.  So let us diligently search for Truth, let us diligently apply a rigorous methodology and let us be confident in the Truth because the Truth will set us free from the bondage of ignorance and destruction.


© 2012 notasitlooks

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