How Do We Know the Truth?

Been saving this picture for a while — friend Benny Marr on one of the biggest river waves in the world, N. Quebec

Note — this is not an easy post, and requires familiarity with the larger memetic theory I write about. But it’s an important thing I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

In the hurly burly of political discussions, one of the most volatile topics in play is how we talk about censoring misinformation, or disinformation. For reasons discussed in this previous article, we can expect little help in evolving nuance from the mainstream journalism community. Locked in the paradigm of “reportage”, their job is solely to report what the various experts and authorities tell them — even if what that is goes against everything that is observable.

And this is especially problematic. As Chico Marx once said, “Well, who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?

This surfaces the larger philosophical question — how do we know the truth? And, not surprisingly, how we know the truth must be hooked to how our brains process information. That leads inevitably to our own understanding of how we think and form perspective — which then, inexorably, leads to v-Memes. How we relate in the social structures that we’re given creates in our own mind the truth, because that leads to the basis for coordinated action. A group of individuals sharing the same truth can then functionally coordinate activity — and that leads to, more or less, evolutionary success if, over the long term, that group of truths/information reliably constructs a model of the world that is grounded in reality.

This is a big thought, so I’ll state it outright:

Truth is the reliable and valid representation of information that allows shared coordination of action inside a social network.

This is the kind of statement that opens up whole cans of worms. Nothing in this indicates anything necessarily contact with physical reality, though with the various forms of social evolution, obviously this matters. Truth also becomes dependent on scales of time and space, as well as energetic reach of a given agent. No one can teach us better about this than Winnie the Pooh. Trees may be filled with hives of bees with delicious honey — but without some means of accessing the honey, we rapidly become disinterested in honey as a food source. That doesn’t mean we can’t find modes of spatial enlargement, as Pooh Bear aptly demonstrates in this famous picture:

Seeking out honey from bees high above his head

Where are we going with this? Instead of arguing about truth, what we really need to do is recast this discussion in terms of what I call validity grounding. How do we know things are true? Or really, how do we know things are valid, and grounded to a larger physical reality?

For those with some electrical background, grounding is a familiar concept. It is a way of taking a given circuit, and making sure that all parts of that circuit function off the same base potential. We use the term as well to show someone, in all forms of life, are not floating about in how they perceive the world, dependent on whatever knowledge base they may reference. We’ve all heard statements like:

“He’s very emotionally grounded.”

“She’s grounded in the physics of the situation.”

And so on. From there, it’s easy to expand the concept to all sorts of information. Validity grounding matters because it becomes the reference that all other activities in a person’s social network (or larger society) relate back to. And this is predicated on the two primary types of information in a society: a society’s beliefs, which are integrated aggregates of information, often processed by and through elites; and the accepted observations of other sentient agents (We the People!) who are doing their own thinking on what they see.

This dichotomy of beliefs and independent observations also map to the notion of closed and open systems in how they manage validity grounding. Beliefs are held inside a closed network that almost inevitably sorts into some version of a hierarchy, with the people at the top of the hierarchy being responsible for defining truth for the larger group. As opposed to more open social networks — data-driven observations rely on the agency of the members of that network, which can both form and dissolve, and so are inherently open in nature. Beliefs are low-empathy and dependent far more on how members holding them feel; data-driven observations are dependent on more developed, rational empathy.

Closed and open systems, for anyone that has done any measurement work inside a lab, also behave very differently. Inside a closed system, signal drift , the result leading to arbitrary measures of voltage or current, makes measurement inherently unreliable, as well as invalid. An insulated, closed system cannot self-correct on its own. My favorite example of this was the Aztec Empire, that I write about here. They convinced themselves (through their priest caste) that human sacrifice and cannibalism not only were acceptable, but necessary for the survival of the society. Without killing people on a daily basis on the altars, the sun would not come up. This set of beliefs led to profound, psychopathic drift in validity grounding for an entire society. One of my favorite examples of this was the focus on developing obsidian spears, refined for the technical purpose of solely wounding their enemies, so they could be sacrificed alive later. The Aztecs had so utterly dominated the subservient tribes that they would line up their young people as tribute when the Aztec emissaries came knocking. They were marched up the mountain to have their hearts cut out and eaten.

But when the Spaniards showed up with their forged metal swords and horses, it served as a profound validity grounding moment for the Empire. Metal swords are, in reality, much more robust than obsidian spears. And that, along with the revolt of the subservient tribes, allowed a handful of Spaniards to sweep away the battle forces of the Aztecs, which likely numbered into the hundreds of thousands, over the course of only a year. If you’re a closed social system, be careful what beliefs serve as your primary source of validity grounding. Because reality is still out there to bite you in the ass. In the lab, poorly grounded systems that drift are subject to violent arcing between different potentials when those systems actually connect with a larger, more relevant grounded systems. In societies, it can literally mean collapse of empires.

More highly evolved systems can still suffer validity grounding failures. But systems that integrate, in an evolved fashion, more viewpoints, are also far less likely to be surprised. I talk about this concept in the context of design in this post. Regardless of how well we may listen, understand and integrate our various agents/people/sensors inside an open system, though, tragedy can still strike.

Consider this example. We’re all relatively comfortable with planning a picnic on any given day if we can check the weather report. And modern weather forecasting has even given us the ability to plan a bike ride, following a nice wind direction on that same day. Models are made and updated every hour that take into account the winds off the California coast and how they’ll affect the foothills of the Sierras that are tremendously accurate — large, global spatial scales are now routinely integrated into modeling of weather in your backyard. But if an asteroid hits the planet (understand this in terms of much larger-than-comprehensible scales of time and space) it’s still “See you later, alligator!”

Walking up the V-Memes — Validity Grounding for Different Social Systems

Since people need points of synchronization in order to understand their position in the universe — relative or absolute — references are provided for validity grounding dependent on the active social structure of a given social organization, and its needs. The simplest example is perhaps the conversion of time of day from being independent for each city (noon could be easily measured when the sun was directly overhead, and watches set accordingly) to time zones, which were required for trains to run on a single track with passing sidings. Two trains, headed in the opposite direction on one track, was literally a disaster waiting to happen.

If you need to review v-Memes, there is the header post, as well as this post that can explain how shared values a.) can be understood and grouped in terms of connectivity/empathy and scale, and b.) how they serve as compact representations of information. V-Memes come from Spiral Dynamics, and are essentially a stack of the different values as we move up in societal complexity. It’s worth reading this piece over if the material is unfamiliar.

So.. here we go — a list of the v-Memes, with social structure, and primary validity grounding (VG)!

  • Survival v-Meme — (survival band) — conscious acquisition of immediate information (is there a tiger in the bushes?) — VG — You lived to see the next day! Centered on the individual and their immediate senses, with little/no influence of social connection to others around you.
  • Tribal/Magical v-Meme (tribal society with magical beliefs) — old myths and stories provide environmental grounding and allow persistence of a group of people into the future who can carry forward these stories. VG — modest level of reinforcing basic survival information, as well as larger context integrated over time from explorations outside the group and returned to “make sense” of the larger world. More VG in an immutable identity as the same as those in your in-group, but different from other groups around you. (Most tribes’ names are usually a variant of “the people” — which has implications for those in out-groups who are NOT part of that tribe.)
  • Authoritarian — (power structure dependent on those higher in the rigid hierarchy holding positions assigned by people higher in the hierarchy). VG is provided by the person at the top of the hierarchy, with potential sub-assignments by that person to various sub-classes of individuals. “The King Knows Best.” One can see the perils of this type of system clearly — if that one person, in charge of grounding the entire society to reality, is a nut, obvious bad things can happen.
  • Legalistic/Absolutistic — (Stacked hierarchy organized by rules, and organized elites somewhat independent of personality. Position/title matters!) VG — different roles are supposed to be aware of certain inputs outside this closed system, and are responsible for the veracity of information used in decision making inside the hierarchy.
  • Performance/Goal-Based — (Mix of lower social structures, where individuals have some ability to choose who they talk and listen to.) VG provided by a shared goal or purpose, that requires the individual to both observe and facilitate that shared purpose. Additionally, this is the first truly open system. If an individual decides that outside input is needed, others can be added to the social structure (like customers) that can provide fresh perspectives to determine if the system is meeting the needs it proposes.
  • Communitarian — (Mix of lower social structures, where group well-being is assessed both by aggregate means, as well as individual cases inside the social structure.) VG is provided to greater or lesser extent by input and data collection of all members of the social system. Where these systems can stumble is through the assumption of equal input. Everyone owns a piece of system validity — but not everyone owns the same size of chunk. This v-Meme will also be more or less valid and grounded dependent on the personal evolution of all system members. One where only a couple of individuals are truly data-driven, but most members are magical thinkers, will not persist, at least at this level. Much of the problems we are seeing with individuals struggling to validity-ground our own current form of governance is related to this failure of personal development.
  • Higher v-Memes/Second Tier (mix of lower v-Meme systems, with intentionality as part of system evolution — we are designing a system for a combination of functions, both lower and higher.) The big VG shifts in Second Tier systems are two-fold. The first is the addition of reflective practice on a profound scale — are we really doing what we thought we were doing? Can we explore other modes of grounding so we can be sure we’re actually doing what we think we’re doing? The second VG point involves actively understanding what is NOT known, as well as what CANNOT be known. This metacognitive awareness may be experienced to lesser extents lower down in the v-Meme stack, but in real Second Tier thinking, is an active part of the discussion. This as well is a current problem in our social systems. We refuse to accept or acknowledge the fact that we can make our systems more valid, and grounded over time — and demand perfection immediately, without evolved change. Or we accept Authorities at face-value, instead of demanding them to provide prima facie, observable evidence that what they say is true. The lack of VG in, for example, the dietary community is extreme — the US has an obesity rate of something approaching 65%. Yet the nutrition community insists on managing old guidelines that have been shown to be wildly, demonstrably false. This is not Second Tier thinking.

Summary — How Do We Know the Truth?

I know the text above is complex. And while it is possible to reason through the above validity grounding points, I thought I’d add this section for those that want to beat me over the head so I just get to the point! The list below is how we get to the truth for the various social structures/v-Memes/stages of development that are all linked together! No justification is given — that comes from above.

·  Survival v-Meme — did we live another day? The information we reflect on will let us figure out what was true or not if we think back on the day’s events.

·  Tribal v-Meme — did our immediate group last another year? Did our myths of how the world works hold up in the face of any larger changes?

·  Authoritarian v-Meme — This one’s easy. The boss tells us what the truth is, and it’s our job, regardless of what we see around us, to believe it. 

·  Legalistic v-Meme — The rules are the truth, and we better follow them, as well as make appropriate sacrifices to our own personal well-being to conform.

·  Performance/Goal-Based v-Meme — The truth will get us closer to both our personal goals, as well as goals shared by a more compact community. The big transition here — we, as individuals, get to contribute to the truth. Our observations matter.

·  Communitarian v-Meme — the truth is reflected in actions that promote aggregate member well-being, which can be measured as those circumstances change. 

·  Second Tier v-Memes — the truth is reflected in larger Guiding Principles of the Universe (we’re not going to argue that the Law of Gravity is The Truth, for example) as well as a deeper understanding of where we cannot possess the truth.

I’ll close with this thought. Validity Grounding — the process of evaluating whether what we believe and act on matches reality — is one of the most important exercises a society can engage in. It’s why science, well-done, is one of the most important functions of a modern society. But as I’ve written elsewhere, it cannot be separated from personal and societal evolution — both in the creation of more complex knowledge, as well as the ability of people in that society to correctly apply it. We will always need authorities as part of validity grounding. But they cannot be, nor should they aspire to be absolute Authorities. We have to come far more deeply to terms with the fact that many outcomes cannot be known with certainty, all the time. 

And that is the current peril with the most recent advocacy movements for censorship. It’s easy to look at the polis and declare certain parts of the information space “untrue” — like QAnon. But there are always going to be controversial shades-of-gray discussion in any modern society. For example, as the pandemic has shown, and will continue to show, many initial assumptions about various prophylactic behaviors involving Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions are false. I wrote a sense making piece myself on mask efficacy here, early on in the pandemic before widespread adoption. I believe that the data I evaluated was true, and the reasoning solid. 

But it has turned out, in hindsight, through simple time series analysis to be NOT true. 

The deep reality that we will have to deal with is that unevolved Authorities in our society are always fond, through emergent disposition, of controlling the information stream – reality be damned. And those Authorities will also be intrinsically interested in their own egocentric interest — regardless how much they may protest. AND they are far more likely to squelch the voices of Validity Grounding that do not support their position — and turn an open society into a closed one. 

Let’s never forget what happens to closed systems with poor grounding. That arcing thing ain’t pretty.


One of the reasons I’ve always loved whitewater so much is because running rivers (or surfing big waves) hones one’s sense of validity grounding constantly. You under- or overestimate? The river spanks your ass. The picture above of Benny shredding what is known as “The Cheese Wave” is classic. He’s got to find the wave, figure out when the water level is right, and then practice so he can get on the face of that monster. And then, in the moment, has to rip it up. That’s an entire scaling stack of reality that led to that picture.

One of my favorite visionaries was/is Greg Noll, the dude that (on a surfboard) surfed Big Waimea the first time. His famous quote:

“You want to know what it’s like to be a big wave surfer. Grab a board, paddle out past the break, point that board down the face of a grinder, and MAKE A COMMITMENT. That’s when you know The Truth.”

Validity grounding in a nutshell!

10 thoughts on “How Do We Know the Truth?

  1. I only believe in the One and Only Truth—there seem to be 3 possibilities–could be a trinity–

    1. Tarski’s theory of truth. I’m not competent to judge whether its the true one–it involves both semantic and syntactic truth. Kripke and ‘imprecidative’ quantifiers/qualifers might find the truth in this rabbit hole.

    2. the -Pro-Truth-Pledge’ —-

    (its an organization run by an ex-Ohio-state U professor who has a history degree from Duke according to his bio and was basically fired due to various questionable practices at ohio state.

    His view is you get the truth by signing his pledge which says only read the mainstream media.
    Also you should donate to his organization .

    And read and buy his book –he sent me an email copy and asked me to write a review and post my review several places (most likely so he gets books sales–even a bad review is a good review.

    i viewed it as basically a plagiarism of wikipedia aricles on behavioral economics/psychology—.

    I looked at his book–which he emphasizes is ‘peer reveiwed’ and ‘supported by studies;’ (eg they found 20 people who took the pro-truth pledge and never again didnt lied or belived in fake news anymore– and published it i a questionable journal.

    But its quid pro-quo –he’s connected with some powerful and wealthy people and gave me an opportunity to connect with this power source-i had a personal invitation— if i gave him a review. I declined the offer.

    This person couldnt even give me a straight answer on exactly where in Ohio U he taught—he said he taught at main campus but actualy it appears he taught at a community college asscoaited with OU until he was fired.

    His claim is he was fired because he had the ‘mental illness’. ‘Its not my fault’.

    3. So we are left with ‘the Undisputed Truth’ (see youtube –smiling faces tell lies). classic song. (They seem’ to have done songs in ‘white face’.

    (There are more recent rap songs in similar genre by Daylyt–‘what if’ (breaking fox news ) and Pharcyde (‘cant keep runin away’ )—youtube hasnt deleted these

    you call these ‘self-inverse functions’


  2. In your definition of truth, why does truth need to be “valid”? Reliability is enough for coordination inside a shared network. What do you mean by “valid” anyway?


    1. Validity is basically a sensory reading on some scale that is physically observable. Just for your own edification — I don’t answer questions that are easily searchable on the blog. I write a literal ton on validity, and I don’t exist to re-answer them in comments. I’ll just delete your comment the next time. I consider it a form of ‘sealioning’.


  3. No worries. More pedestrian (but relatively accurate) explanations of validity vs. reliability are available in Roger Martin’s book ‘The Design of Business’. I highly recommend Roger’s books, as they are springboards for my more complex explanations. Here’s a piece I wrote with the basics.

    Things get more complicated, though — the premise of the Theory of Empathetic Evolution is that thought process reflect key relational patterning. So ‘validity’ then has to flex with personal development. What does that mean? For a child, having an adult authority tell them Santa is real is perfectly valid, and therefore a real source of information. For an adult, though, they’d need a higher level of sensory input.

    The McDonald’s example in the above link is a more easily ground-able example. It is overall a very powerful concept.


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