As part of a more comprehensive framework model of truth that I am developing, I have identified a set of distinct domains of truth, each of which has its own distinctive vocabulary, meanings, and truths. This informal paper will briefly enumerate the many domains, but not explore them in depth.
The central thesis of this paper is that there is no one, single, universal truth for any particular matter, but that each domain will have its own set of truths that won’t necessarily comport with or be relevant to the truths of the other domains. In other words, in order to access the truth of a particular matter, one must first identify the domain of interest.
One of my main motivations for detailing these domains of truth is to enable a more robust foundation for artificial intelligence (AI) systems, particularly Strong AI. Enabling human-level intelligence in machines requires a deeper understanding of the nature of meaning and truth, at a human level. But such a foundation should help people better understand human meaning and truth as well.
Nature of a domain
Each domain will tend to have:
- Relevant domain(s) of existence. What exactly is the area of interest for the domain.
- Vocabulary. Terminology relevant to the domain.
- Meanings that are significant to those interested in the domain.
- Truths that can in theory be validated or are at least believed by a consensus of experts.
- Expectations for what exists in the domain and what phenomena can occur.
- Beliefs and knowledge that experts and other interested parties assert about the domain.
- Aspects of the domain that may not be known or not known with a high degree of certainty.
- Norms of behavior in the domain.
- Rules and processes in the domain.
- Collection of individuals who have expertise in the domain.
- Collection of individuals who have a significant interest in the domain.
Such details will not be explored in this paper, but are mentioned simply to highlight how or why distinct domains are warranted.
There are really three distinct worlds to be described:
- The natural world. The world of physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, and cosmology.
- The human social world. The world of people, psychology, social interaction, and social systems. Technically, the animal world as well, to a more limited degree.
- The world of man-made artifacts. The world of machines, buildings, structures, infrastructure, everyday objects, appliances, electronics, computers, software, applications, information, and data.
The model of domains of truth in this paper covers all three worlds, with special emphasis on the human social world.
Flat model vs. hierarchy and classes
As will be seen shortly, quite a few of the domains of truth could be arranged in a hierarchy and grouped in classes of closely related domains, but I decided to stick with a strictly flat model for simplicity.
The concept of a domain can be considered synonymous with the concept of context — a domain provides the context for the truth of a matter.
In a larger sense, context can be considered to be a set of domains, each of which has at least some relevance to the truth of a given matter. Some matters may be limited to a single domain, but there will commonly be more than one domain in which to consider a given matter. These can be angles, aspects, perspectives, or points of view in a general sense.
Domains of truth
This enumeration of domains of truth is not in any absolute order, although the first few and last few do tend to serve as bookends of the extremes of the domains.
- The unknowable. If such a thing exists in reality, but at least conceptually.
- Unaware ignorance. The great unknown that we seek to discover. Mysteries to be explored.
- Willful, intentional ignorance. That which individuals and groups declare to be off limits or to be avoided, even as others seek and promote its truth.
- Blissful ignorance. That which is unknown with neither an intent to explore nor an intent to avoid.
- Simple truth , ground truth. Direct sensory, observational fact by sane persons with no vested interest.
- Vested interest fact. Direct sensory, observational fact that may be biased by vested interest.
- Self-deception. Inability to reliably counter bias, vested interest, and conflicting interests in one’s own mind.
- Literal truth, factual statement. Sincere intention that one’s words really are truthful.
- Not intended to be literal truth or factual statement. Casual, flippant manner of speech with disregard to factual accuracy. Common for political speech.
- Obvious. Obviousness. Casual, flippant assertion of truth without any significant justification, even in the face of skepticism. Commonly driven by some combination of laziness, ignorance, arrogance, or a desire to belittle, demean, be condescending, or otherwise disparage another party. Obviousness is frequently very subjective or personal, or particular to a social group or technical or professional discipline. What is obvious to a professional such as a lawyer or doctor may not be so obvious to a layperson. Not to be confused with self-evident truth which is honest, sincere, and based on common ground.
- Self-evident truth. Deeper and more sincere than mere casual obvious truth. Probably could be examined and possibly even justified as reasoned truth, but social and political motives avoid or even preclude the need for that. More of a strong belief or a defined truth. See U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…”
- Connect the dots. Assertion that two or more facts are connected without any significant justification being offered. Two distinct meanings (connected!): the child’s game for drawing pictures and an assertion that the big picture can only be discerned by making intuitive leaps or expert-level judgment or tacit knowledge. The former is an assertion of obviousness, the latter is an attempt to evade the need for justification. Assertions based on connecting dots is not necessarily not true, but is risky and healthy skepticism is warranted. Popular in the intelligence community where information is frequently incomplete and sketchy.
- Reasoned truth. A robust sequence and set of rational arguments can be made in favor of a belief to assert or conclude its truth. Does depend on truth of assumptions and strength of arguments, and limitations of any knowledge used by the reasoning. May commonly be conditional: “If X, Y, and Z are true, then… is true”, without full knowledge about whether X, Y, and Z are necessarily true. Alternatively, “Assuming X, Y, and Z are true…”
- Conditional truth. Reasoned truth based on assertion or proof that some proposition must be true if some other propositions happen to be true, without any knowledge whether those other propositions are necessarily true. Such as “If X, Y, and Z are true, then P is true”, without full knowledge about whether X, Y, and Z are necessarily true. Alternatively, “Assuming X, Y, and Z are true, then P is true.”
- Technical fact. Observation or measurement by devices or unbiased individuals with technical training and expertise, such as professionals.
- Scientific fact , ground truth. Technical facts as observed and measured by scientists.
- Scientific theory. Attempts by scientists to describe relationships in phenomena. Theories evolve from being speculative to being validated by real-world experiments.
- Scientific model. Attempts by scientists to mathematically recreate phenomena.
- Scientific knowledge. All that scientists know and both believe to be true and can prove to be true by dint of real-world experiments. Knowledge also includes speculation about what might be true, but that is a provisional truth, not an actual truth. The gray area between provisional and actual truth is quite vague, telling us only what is more likely to be actually true, or not.
- Scientific narrative. Attempts by scientists and science communicators to present scientific fact, theory, models, knowledge, and speculation in plain English that can be comprehended by non-scientists. May or may not accurately correspond to 100% of the underlying science.
- Emergent properties. Based on appearance and perception rather than physical existence.
- Defined truth. Arbitrary but useful assumptions. For example, our units of time and distance. No justification is required to prove their truth since they are by definition arbitrary. They only need to be useful and practical and widely accepted.
- Assumptions. A strong belief lacking a strong technical justification. A close cousin to defined truth. Not as arbitrary as defined truth, but the strength of belief in an assumption may not be matched by an equally strong justification as should be sought. We may have good reason to believe, but there may still be plenty of room for skepticism.
- Statistics. Numbers don’t really tell a story — that requires interpretation and assumptions on the reader’s part.
- Mathematics. The rules that mathematicians use to construct mathematical systems, such as how to prove theorems.
- Mathematical systems. The specialized rules that mathematicians use to define particular mathematical systems.
- Social science fact. Discrete, observable features of social systems.
- Social science study. Collections of social science facts and analyzed relationships.
- Social science theory. Attempts by social scientists to describe relationships in social phenomena.
- Social science model. Attempts by social scientists to mathematically recreate social phenomena.
- The past. Events and conditions of the past. The historical record may be incomplete or a matter of dispute and interpretation. See also: speculation.
- The present. Events and conditions as the currently are, as they are happening. Ability to observe, sense, and measure current events and conditions may be limited. We may and generally are able to sense the present only after it has become the past.
- The future. Events and conditions in the future. Some possibilities may be predetermined, but other possibilities might not be knowable until they actually come to pass. The future is its own truth, distinct from claims about the future — see also: forecasts, predictions, speculations.
- Speculation. Wondering what might actually exist or be true. The world of scientists, police detectives, nosy neighbors and coworkers, astrologers, futurists, pundits, and parents with children. Concerns the past, present, and future. See also: forecasts, predictions, and the future.
- Scientific speculation, speculative theories. The categorically distinct subset of speculation that has science as its foundation, guide, and agenda. But, even given its very high-minded intentions, even the best of scientists can sometimes come up with theories or objections to theories that are just wrong. As consensus firms around speculative theories, they come to be regarded as truth. Validation through real-world experiments confirms a shift from scientific speculation to validated theory.
- Experts, expertise. Catch-all domain for all domains where recognized or self-proclaimed authorities assert that they have a special claim to knowledge that significantly exceeds that of laypersons. That said, experts are frequently wrong and knowledge is frequently revised.
- Laypersons. The knowledge of individuals armed only with non-expert educational background and experience. Laypersons don’t have the advantages of experts, but they still have access to general knowledge and experience, including common sense.
- General knowledge, common beliefs. Knowledge that is readily accessible to all persons, including and especially laypersons. That said, common beliefs are not always necessarily true. There is still the prospect that different social groups may not share the same specifics of general knowledge.
- Common sense, general wisdom. Wisdom that is readily accessible to all persons, including and especially laypersons. Generally tends to be true or at least true most of the time. There is still the prospect that different social groups may not share the same specifics of common sense.
- Estimation. Approximations of technical facts. May simply be a shortcut to save time, money, and resources, or may not be practical to make a full and accurate observation, measurement, or count.
- Forecasts. Speculative approximations of expectations for future events. See also: predictions, speculation, and the future.
- Predictions. Assertions about the future. As if the future had already happened. See also: forecasts, speculation, and the future.
- Discipline, branch of knowledge, area of interest. Each area of interest tends to have its own concepts, terminology, rules, standards, processes, principles, practices, beliefs, and knowledge, such that truth in one area does not necessarily imply truth in another area. For example, physics can’t say much about biology, and biology can’t say much about physics.
- Social constructs. Agreed upon beliefs of individuals or groups. They are not necessarily real or true outside the individuals or groups that constructed, defined, or agreed upon these beliefs.
- Social group fact. Something that members of a social group collectively believe is factually true. A social group could be a community, neighborhood, region, nation, ethnicity, demographic group, family, couple, or affinity group of unrelated individuals with some common interest.
- Social group theory. Beliefs by members of a social group as to how some social phenomena operates. What is true for one social group may not necessarily be true for another social group.
- Social networks. Really just specialized forms of social groups, but individuals may be members of any number of social networks, despite their main social group. (“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”)
- Subjective. No ultimate truth for all individuals and all groups. Each group or even each individual may have their own truths on some matter. This is a catch-all domain to group all truths of all domains that have some subjective aspect — the subject (observer) has their own agency with regards to what they consider the truth of a matter.
- Schools, schools of thought, birds of a feather. Selective or self-selective groups of people who consent to share certain beliefs as truths. This is a general, catch-all class of domains, each sharing this common thread of consensual agreement to share beliefs as truths.
- Culture. Social group truths (facts and theories) common to society as a whole for an entire country or other large swath of society as a whole. What is true within one culture is not necessarily true in another culture.
- Narrative. Social group theory couched to be especially compelling and persuasive. Combines otherwise discrete facts and technical theories into a flowing and seemingly coherent narrative that is readable and compelling to laypersons. May concern the past, the present, and/or the future. Not necessarily completely true or based wholly on provable fact. There is a distinct intent to honestly convey truth to the degree that is possible or practical, although a variety of biases may subvert the absolute truth. May have an agenda distinct from a raw recital of underlying facts. May tend to be abstract or aggregated rather than concrete and personal. Intended to represent the big picture. What may be true in one narrative for one group may not necessarily be true in another narrative for another group.
- Story. Narrative that is particularized to an individual or small group so that people can relate to the narrative and underlying social group theory through human relation to the human details.
- History. An account of the chronology of events, their perceived causes, and their perceived effects. May or may not have a narrative quality. The intent is to be as objective as possible, but there are usually biases at work. There may be multiple, competing, and even conflicting accounts of the same time period.
- Consensus. Some fact or theory that a compelling majority of individuals believe to be true.
- Group consensus. Some fact or theory that a group of individuals believe to be true, typically with great conviction and passion, despite any evidence or strong justification that individuals outside of the group would find compelling.
- Human nature, genes. How much of what we do or believe is driven or even compelled by human nature and our genetic makeup? Even if not driven in a hard deterministic sense, at least strongly or significantly influenced. But how does one accurately or even roughly tell or assess the impact of human nature and genes on the one hand and mindful, willful mental intent on the other?
- Meaning. The implications or consequences of a fact or truth, most especially for individuals and social groups. A fact or raw truth may elicit strong emotional feelings in some people. In technical disciplines a simple fact may be an indicator or clue about some larger process, a cause, or an effect to be expected.
- Intuition. That which we know or believe to be true even if we cannot articulate why. Gut feeling.
- Judgment. Experience combined with intuition proven over time. May not be able to clearly, plainly, and completely articulate a robust justification. Besides experts and professionals, even laypersons can achieve good judgment, although not all laypersons or even all so-called experts or professionals necessarily achieve a significant degree of good judgment.
- Tacit knowledge. Judgment of experts or professionals in some relatively narrow technical or professional domain.
- Propaganda. Politically or socially motivated narrative. Some mixture of fact and fiction, but the truth is less relevant than the compelling nature of the narrative.
- Imagination. Mentally visualizing what one would like to bring into existence.
- Fantasy. Letting imagination go wild, unconstrained by what could actually be brought into existence according to the laws of physics and social norms.
- Fiction. Acceptance of propositions which are independent of truth in the real world, for purposes of entertainment, diversion, or education. Novels, plays, movies, TV shows.
- Fairy tales. A specialized version of fiction, typically targeted at children, frequently to teach a lesson or values, but sometimes purely to entertain. The term is also applied to adult stories that have the style, tone, or lack of credibility associated with a fairy tale rather than a wholly truthful story.
- Fables. Analogous to fairy tales, but for adults and usually to teach a lesson or moral or values rather than purely for entertainment.
- Parables. Analogous to fables, but realistic so that the reader can more directly relate to the figures in the story.
- Myths. Narrative that tends to be a combination largely of contrived fantasy plus some kernel of factual truth. Similar in purpose to fables and parables.
- Dreams. Are they fiction or fantasy, or what? But they do have a truth of sorts.
- Metaphors. Attempt to draw a parallel or analogy. Not literal truth, but can be confusing or vague how much of the analogy is honestly and sincerely intended. In the final analysis, only a minimal amount of the analogy needed to be intended to be truthful, but that is only a rough characterization. A metaphor is a helpful explanatory technique, but should never be construed as a full and accurate description.
- Memory. The human memory is an incredible phenomenon, but is all too frequently recall of memories is not as reliable or accurate as we would like. An individual is entitled to believe the truthfulness of their own memories, but others are equally entitled to treat recalled memories with at least some degree of skepticism.
- Suspicion, doubt. Tentative beliefs that seem justified, but lack any solid justification.
- Confidence. A strong conviction or feeling of self-assurance whose strength belies whether or not it is based on a solid justification.
- Religion. The world of deities, theology, spirituality, dogma, heaven and hell, sin, and the promise of redemption and grace. Beyond the scope of science, by definition.
- Ideology. Any belief system. There may be a truth within a particular ideology, but it may not comport with or be relevant to truths outside of that ideology.
- Moral framework or theory. A high-minded belief system concerning values, obligation and duty, beyond mere civic duty. Each moral framework may define its own truths.
- Ethical framework or theory. A set of values and code of conduct, typically of a professional nature, such as political office, law, medicine, business, and other professions. Each ethical framework may define its own truths.
- Values and virtues. Defined truths as to what one believes (or should believe from a social group perspective) to be important in life. Tend to have some survival value for society or the individual.
- Personal moral and ethical framework. Each individual chooses their own moral and ethical framework, such as be joining a religion or profession or professional organization, or making a personal commitment.
- Personal values and virtues. Values and virtues specific to a particular individual. May be due to a conscious choice, cultural influence, or accident of birth (DNA, gene expression.)
- Legal system. A defined social contract for justice.
- Law enforcement investigations. Leads can be followed with a fairly low bar for provable truth.
- Court trials. Adversarial, posturing, diametrically opposing claims, special rules. The verdict and judgment must follow the rules, but won’t necessarily be in alignment with the real world. The goal is to approximate the truth of the real world, and may frequently succeed in doing so, but in the end it is still only an approximation, whose veracity may be limited by the rules, if not practical issues.
- Subjective court judgment, judicial discretion. The law and facts may be clear, but two different judges or courts may come to divergent judgments on comparable or the same matters. Some of this may be due to subjective personal issues, differences in education and training, differences in experience, or subtle or dramatic differences in situations. Even when judges or courts are equally skilled and equally experienced, they may still come to divergent judgments. And sometimes it may be merely a matter of whim, time pressures, or personal temperament or interactions of temperaments between participants in the courtroom. In some cases the differences may be warranted while in others they may be noisy distractions from an overarching desire to achieve a more objective judgment.
- Government intelligence. See also connect the dots. Questions of what constitutes a fair inference. Questions of where the bar should be for justification as truth. Questions of the role of political motivations.
- Subjective personal. For any phenomena relevant to a range of individuals, each may perceive a different truth. The truth of a matter varies across the group. In contrast with social group fact. See also polls and opinion surveys.
- Objective personal. What intellectually, emotionally or viscerally feels like truth to each particular individual, regardless of the truth for other individuals. Truth to the individual. Their authenticity.
- Private personal beliefs. Beliefs that an individual holds, independent from whether anyone else might share that belief. Also key to an individual’s authenticity.
- Personal beliefs. All beliefs that an individual holds, both shared with others and privately. This includes any objective or scientific knowledge, objective personal beliefs, and subjective and private personal beliefs. It may not be easy for an individual to sort out or quickly recall where particular beliefs originated.
- Con. Designed to simultaneously mislead but seem true. May in fact be true but misleading.
- Gossip. Truth is certainly of great interest, but competes with extreme interest in even the most remote possibility of scandal. See also game of telephone
- Affairs/matters of the heart. Truth may be strategically hidden, selectively expressed, exaggerated, or even misrepresented when romance or close relationships are involved.
- Game of telephone. Expectation of loss of fidelity at each stage. No expectation of reliable transmission of factual truth. See also gossip.
- Illusion. Sincere but mistaken beliefs about what our perceptions are telling us.
- Magic trick. Illusion for purposes of entertainment.
- Word games. Implied meanings due to ambiguities and multiple senses for the meanings of words, including homonyms. Speaker and listener may each have a valid interpretation, but they may not be the same.
- Games. Rules, meanings, constraints. Unconstrained by the real world and social norms outside of the game. Winning is the ultimate truth.
- Sports. Games with a physical world, physical contact component. Focus on time, distance, and physical achievements.
- Boasting. An exaggerated manner of speech, not intended to be literal truth.
- Conspiracy theories. Narrative and stories that are believed more for their emotional impact than strict, provable, factual truth. Something can be true within a particular conspiracy theory without necessarily being true in the real world.
- Negotiation. Deception is expected and necessary. Winning is the ultimate truth, although a win-win outcome can be especially valued in some contexts.
- Debate. Emotional impact is more highly valued than literal truth. Exaggeration and promises are expected.
- Sales and marketing. Can be very misleading. Appeals to emotion more than reason.
- Political party. Ideology, values, platform.
- Political campaign. Promises, accusations.
- Political posturing. Once in office. Winning and effect are more valued than honesty, sincerity, and integrity.
- Journalism. Varying degrees of intent for objectivity. Even with sincere intent, practical limitations may limit objectivity. May be biased or slanted, even if not intentionally.
- News. Generally intended to be as factually true as possible, but stymied by many practical issues such as time, resources, and access, as well as bias issues.
- Fake News. Intentionally slanted, misleading, or biased, for political, social, or entertainment value.
- Commentary. Opinion, but generally intended to be a truth of sorts.
- Satire, parody. Intent to focus on limited aspects of a matter to denigrate for social, political, or entertainment value.
- Artistic license. AKA art license, poetic license, historical license, dramatic license, narrative license, licentia poetica, creative license, or simply license. A permissible and laudable intentional distortion of literal truth or outright fabrication of facts in the name of art. Generally considered a good thing, especially in the context of entertainment, but when such art is used within the context of other domains such as science, politics, and various social spheres, it can be very misleading and even harmful. One wouldn’t wish to be treated by a doctor engaging in artistic license — unless it involves cosmetic surgery.
- Media. May have enterprise objectives very different from pure objectivity, such as profit, social goals, or bias and agenda of the owners, executives, and managers.
- Polls and opinion surveys. May be “scientific”, but still many bias issues.
- Evidence. Artifacts that may hold clues to the truth, although may fall short of conclusive, definitive proof.
- Proof. Evidence that purports to firmly, conclusively, and definitively prove the truth of a matter.
- Red herrings. A proposition that is true but misleading or not relevant. We can get distracted by its apparent truth and draw an improper conclusion about its implications.
- Conventional wisdom. The strength of existing beliefs can deter us from accepting that those existing beliefs are insufficient for a particular matter. For example, the assumptions underlying beliefs may no longer be true or as relevant as they once were.
- Art, beauty, aesthetics. There is a very broad scope for divergence of views about what constitutes truth in art, beauty, and aesthetics in general. There are many schools to choose from, each with its own truths.
- Alien civilizations. They’re entitled to their own truths, as well as the truth of the worlds that they live in.
- Ultimate, universal, objective truth. Aspirational ideal, even if not practical for mere mortals. Accessible only to an omniscient deity.
- Eternal truth. Anything that remains true independent of time. It was always true and will always be true. May not necessarily be known or accessible.
- Philosophical truth. May be a synonym for eternal truth, or may be that which philosophers generally agree is true.
- Existence. All that exists, as it exists. It’s mere existence, properties, and state are true by definition, independent of how we may perceive it, if we even perceive it at all. Existence is truth.
- Multiverse. Existence of other universes, each with truths of its own.
- God’s knowledge, God’s truth. The ultimate truth, presuming the deity is truly omniscient.
Other domains of truth
My list of domains of truth is intended to be exhaustive, but I lack the omniscience to achieve that aspirational goal. So, what have I missed?
For more of my writings on artificial intelligence, see List of My Artificial Intelligence (AI) Papers.