How do you know something to be true?

Take a moment to reflect on that.

Make sure you have YOUR answer before you continue on.

Write it down, even.

Take all the time you need to be confident of your answer.












The answer is: You know something is true because you feel it to be true.

This is the unsatisfying reality at the heart of the human experience.

We know something to be true because we feel it to be true. Which means: we feel something is true when it resonates with us. And what we feel to be true is dependent upon all previous associations we have made… the existing “map of meaning” that we operate from, having accumulated over the course of our lifetime plus the lifetimes of our ancestors, culture, land.

Generally we just accept this and live out our lives.

It’s not the most ideal situation.

...Or is it?

The Process of Knowing Truth… and Getting Closer To It

Many philosophers, ancient and contemporary, have asked: “How do you know what you believe is true?”

To answer this inquiry, we must factor in cognitive biases, epistemologies, existential questions, and the glaring likelihood that most of what we think we “know” is not actually true and rather is comprised of meaning as we’ve attributed it.

Can we know what’s true?

Here’s the process of attempting to truth-make and truth-know as I see it.

When we encounter new information, we either filter it out or adopt it (that is, incorporate it into our body-mind’s modus operandi) based on whether it seems viable, and whether it seems viable is based on the existing matrix of assumptions that we have already adopted.

Our minds indeed accumulate and “layer up” in this way. From numerous exposures and experiences over time, we define and refine the analogies we use to interpret and make sense of our world. Keep in mind that, for practical purposes, “truth” is about whatever has the most explanatory power—meaning, the power to effectively explain what is happening. (Check out Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter for a profound description of how who we think we are is really just a recursive array of analogies and associations that we have built up since infancy.)

Therefore, what we already believe functions as a pretty strong filter to what we are liable to believe next.

Much of this is occurring at subconscious levels. When we encounter an idea that’s appealing to us, we feel it. It has consonance with our existing ideas or with our experiences of the world. It is felt like the information agrees with the existing information we have previously adopted into our self-system.

If observed carefully within oneself, encountering an idea that seems true is felt as “resonance”—this reverberation or subtle vibration cascading throughout our body-minds. The same spontaneous chill as when we recognize or remember something, like the face of a long-lost friend. It is like “Ah… THIS piece of information has explanatory power. THIS will help me live my life.”

This is where it gets juicy. This is where the potential for transformation resides. It is natural and evolutionary that, if we encounter something that seems to possess the power to effectively explain our experiences, we are attracted to it.

However, this phenomena of “resonance” and information-uptake gets exploited constantly by media that’s designed to manipulate our emotions for quick reaction without providing us with complex answers. There’s intrinsic incentives for the media to supply us with shallow notions that merely reaffirm existing internalized myths. Those of us without adequate training in discriminating and skeptical thinking are prone to automatically accept such manipulations. And sometimes, subscribing to such disinformation puts a person at a survival disadvantage, though that may not be immediately clear or always the case.

What To Do When Something Is True… And Is Hard to Accept

There is a chance for transformation that occurs when one encounters new but dissonant, non-reconciling information. Meaning, when a piece of real information emerges that conflicts with one’s existing mental map of the world. The desirable transformation resides in the potential for the reorganization of a person’s mental map of meaning in order to include and transcend the new information–that is, to make sense of it.

I believe we have much more capacity for reorganization, for radical incorporation of truth into our worldviews, than we give ourselves credit for. Even rigid identities are inherently fragile, as they are built from a set of analogies and assumptions. Perhaps they are meant to break down and be re-formed into breakthroughs. A breakthrough is the spontaneous or gradual formation of a higher order worldview, capable of incorporating more information and of effectively explaining the world. Beings who have refined their worldviews through such breakthroughs are generally more evolutionarily adaptive to the world.

Sadly it seems that the current cultural trend is to become even more rigid and aggressively defiant of incorporating new, real information—as though denial or insulation from the truth will do anything but prolong suffering. It is sad to witness how many people may never have had a breakthrough because they believe they could not risk a breakdown at any cost. It is sad how many people fear these natural processes of cognitive and cultural reorganization.

Is there something wrong with this system of making sense through feeling? Not necessarily. It is evolutionary. That is, things evolved to be this way. Our bodies actually provide us with tons of raw information and potential insights about the operations of the world at large. If we incorporate it effectively, we develop a mental map that allows us to effectively navigate the world. This system was adaptive for millions of years when our ancestors lived off of their interactions with the land.

I imagine people may think that this ancestral wiring is surely maladaptive today, now that we inhabit a much more complex world where survival is displaced into social and economic systems far beyond the influence of an average mortal. I argue, however, that it may still be adaptive if people learn how to master the method of generating intelligence from the rich information available to us through experience, introspection, and careful study and analysis of phenomena.

What’s Best to Believe?

The most elegant explanations are the most intuitively appealing because of how they conserve energy (efficiency). Ockham’s Razor is a heuristic principle that states, “The most elegant explanation is the one most likely to be true.” Consider the power of this as a filter. Given that we may not ever know what is “objectively” true, could we instead believe what’s more likely to be true? In a quantum universe, a probabilistic guideline like this can serve us exceptionally well.

Besides being intuitively attractive, there is an evolutionary argument for why this principle holds up. Adopting Ockham’s Razor principle can be very helpful in effectively make oneself more immune (i.e., inoculated) against potential infection by low quality or malicious information (disinformation or misinformation). Just like we protect our computers from malware, or we protect ourselves from infection by vaccination, we really ought to think about how we protect our own minds from malevolent ideas that could harm or kill us or others!

I adopted Ockham’s Razor as a suitable principle and filter for “what is to be believed” almost 15 years ago. Doing so has fundamentally shaped everything else I’ve internalized in that time. I think it has served me well. I can personally testify to the liberation that can be felt from letting go of energy-intensive explanations, no matter how attached I am to them, when encounter with new and quality information indicates to me that I must ADAPT.

More on Ockham's Razor coming soon. Stay tuned!


What was your answer to how you know something is true? Drop it in the discussion thread.

And, what do you think of my answer? What feelings and thoughts arose as you read?

If you were to adopt Ockham’s Razor as an operational guideline for what to believe, how do you think that might change your thinking and your life?