Thursday, April 25, 2013

Supertruth, a definition

Joseph Goebbels famously said, "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth."

This statement isn't technically accurate, of course, but it carries heavy meaning. A more accurate rendition would read: "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes a supertruth."

I've been using the word "supertruth" for a few months now, and to my knowledge, I made it up. It's a very useful term, and my purpose in this short post is to define it. So...
Supertruth, n.: A proposition held as true regardless of its actual validity.
Immediately upon reading this definition, we see what Goebbels was getting at in his famous utterance of how propaganda works. He was stating that uncritical acceptance, even to the point of defending a falsehood, is something that humans are prone to, and indeed something we are so prone to that we can be manipulated into doing it rather easily.

Supertruths form the bases of religions, political ideologies, and, indeed, much of how we get around on a day-to-day basis--as they close the gaps between our lack of actual confidence and our self-assuredness. Dogma, for what it is worth, is a class of supertruths--those that proceed from an authority. The connotation, generally, is "propositions held above any examination of their truth-value." Another popular word related here is that supertruths possess a certain amount of "truthiness."

Supertruths, it should be noted, can actually be true. For example, to draw from a popular political topic currently, "firearm ownership prevents crimes." This, no doubt, is true in many cases, but that's usually not why many people accept it. It also, of course, sweeps an awful lot under the rug, oversimplifying a complex issue, because the sense of control provided by accepting the statement is worth more than the actual validity of the statement. No doubt, many people would still maintain this supertruth even if it were demonstrated to be entirely false.

Another class of realms in which we will find many supertruths that may actually be valid are those where we cannot have complete knowledge due, usually, to complexity. Significant examples of such realms include economics, health/well-being, nutrition, and morality--fields that are still at least significantly arts, even if science is making inroads upon them.

On the other hand, supertruths, of course, need not be true, and often they are not. "Jesus lives (or saves)!" for example, is sheer nonsense, and yet billions maintain it. "Islam is a religion of peace" is another good, relevant example with massively significant consequences.

The examples of supertruths are myriad, so I don't intend to elaborate more on them here. This piece is merely intended to be a definition of a term I'm finding very useful. Therefore, I also do not intend to delve into the complex psychological and social reasons that human beings are so ready and insistent upon holding (and failing to re-examine) supertruths.


  1. I love it!

    You are right, that old quote really doesn't mean it becomes truth, but supertruth fits in perfectly.

    It also has the same feel as words like doublespeak from 1984.

  2. Supertruth is an interesting word, but you're definition and the amended Goebbels quote contradict each other. Your definition conveys some uncertainty about the truth value of the proposition, but the quote indicates that a supertruth is a repeated false proposition.

    Supertruth seems to be synonymous with belief. Properly basic beliefs such as the belief that the world exists outside of my mind or that other minds exist are foundational propositions that are held as true, even though they can't be empirically verified, until a defeater is presented.

    You wrote, "'Jesus lives (or saves)!" for example, is sheer nonsense, and yet billions maintain it." I found this sentence to be strange because I don't see how the phrase "Jesus lives" could be nonsensical. The fact that we could discuss what this sentence means to us indicates that it has some meaning and so couldn't be nonsense. Can you please explain what you meant here?

  3. If you haven read it already I recommend the book "Fast and Slow Thinking" by Kanneman (sp?). I think that you are approximately correct but that psychological research probably has located and named this kind of bias (I think it might be related to confirmation bias and also framing, btw).

    I think your idea of supertruth is interesting, but I do think that you might be conflating too much with the Goebbels quote. I would suggest you consider modifying your definition for supertruth to mean something more like "a belief that we refuse to modify despite good reasons to do so." I think that we all hold supertruths -- the most obvious being these: 1) we are "better" (more productive, moral, valuable, etc.) than most people; 2) we know/understand more than most people; 3) we are successful because of talent and hard work, and unsuccessful due to bad luck/unavoidable circumstances; 4) the world is a better place because we are in it;, etc.

    In other words, I find it very uncomfortable (impossible?) to really delve into these questions rationally. And I guess that supertruths (religious convictions, yes, but many others as well) are deeply tied to these supertruths.

    Btw, enjoy your comments on Debunking Christianity -- seems as if we're interested in similar things. Thanks for taking the time to comment and write.

    1. Thanks, Tony. I've had that book recommended to me before but haven't made time for it yet.

      I don't mean to name "supertruth" as a bias. It is a type of proposition held for a particular reason. Any proposition could be a supertruth. I simply want the word to convey the idea that the person holding that proposition as "true" isn't particularly interested in whether or not it is true.

      Therefore, while I like your suggestion for an alternate definition, I think it might fit best as an "especially" added to the tail of the definition. Otherwise, we start essentially overlapping with "dogma" too much to be of much use, although I think both the denotation and connotation of "supertruth" carry more pertinent information than does "dogma."

      And certainly we all hold many supertruths. Indeed, I noted that it would probably be impossible to navigate life without holding them. As to your examples, yes, I think so, but I don't want the word to get too tied up with biases, e.g. optimistic bias or solipsism.

      I've considered writing a follow-up post to this one that elaborates on a particular example I came up with after posting this piece. I may do so. Of course, I'm still willing to let the word take shape in terms of its meaning and don't intend to claim ownership of the term--implying it may end up having its own meaning different from my original intention if it ever gets wind behind its sails.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!