Vail Law: The definition of truth isn’t as solid as it may seem at times (column)
March 6, 2018
What is the truth?
This one is a bit more slippery than it seems.
What is your truth? What is my truth? What is the truth? And who gets to decide what is the neutral and unvarnished truth? Is truth what we perceive, what we believe, what we think we think? But what if what we think is wrong?
Many years ago, I was telling a story. It was not a great big story nor a particularly interesting one. I was spinning a yarn about a Thanksgiving vacation enjoyed years ago in the South. We had been to Savannah and Charleston and places in between. The story was about one of my sons — who was 9 or 10 at the time — overeating. Overeating understates it. He had failed the admonition to never eat anything bigger than your head.
In any event, as I was telling the tale, I mentioned the restaurant where the gluttony had taken place — S.N.O.B. — which was the acronym for Slightly North of Broad, the restaurant in Savannah.
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Plenty of detail
I was describing in excruciating detail how my son consumed his body weight in turkey, giblets, stuffing, cranberries and all the fixings, groaned his way back to the hotel and lay as prostrate on the couch when my wife politely interrupted me.
"That was Charleston, not Savannah," she offered.
"You're confused," I said. I painted a picture for her. "Remember the room?" I asked, "and the couch he sprawled out on? Remember how it was by the river?"
"Yep. But that was in Charleston, not Savannah."
I thought of challenging her to a duel. Instead, I said, "Let's Google it."
Of course, she was right.
And that's the point.
Had I raised my right hand and sworn to tell the truth and nothing but, I would have testified — falsely as it turned out — that the gustatory deed had taken place in Georgia, not the Palmetto State.
So that made me think; what is the truth? Is it what I remembered or is it something else? And, perhaps less philosophically, why does it matter?
First, let's come up with at least a working definition. Let's try this on; truth is a statement about the way the world or a fact or circumstance actually is.
Kant and the truth
Immanuel Kant — the father of postmodern thought — made the distinction between "objects" of subjective experience and the "objects of reality." He called the former phenomena and that latter noumena. Hang in with me a second.
The noumena for Kant were things "in themselves" that exist outside of and separate from the mind; dare we say, "reality"? But for Kant, at least, noumena were entirely unknowable in and of themselves. However, the noumena are the occasion by which we come to know the phenomena. And phenomena make up the world we know. This is the world of our experience. The way we know reality is through our filters.
Phenomena does not exist apart from our experience.
In my S.N.O.B story, the phenomena was my experience of dining in Savannah, leading my son back to the hotel, and laying him out like leavening dough on the couch. But that ain't what happened. The noumena was different. But I couldn't recognize it. It was as absent to me as the wavelengths of light that stir a honeybee.
Why this matters is because law is based on truth. We swear to tell the truth, try to get to the truth, try to "do" truth in the courtroom. And if truth is experientially spun, then where does that leave us?
Presumably, with the best we can do.
It is well-accepted among lawyers that witness testimony is woefully unreliable. Especially in the stress of the moment, people remember things wrong or differently. And in the retelling, the story spirals out.
Webster's says truth is "the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality." But whose reality is the question.
Where does that leave us? As human, I suppose. Trying to do our best and settling for of what we are equipped.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.