The great scientist Niels Bohr, to whom we pay homage when we talk about “The Bohr Atom,” famously pointed out that great truths, such as “Democracy is the best form of government,” are often refuted by “opposite” great truths. Plato, centuries earlier, pointed out that “Democracy is the worst form of government.” Whether great truths are perceived by the one hearing them as true depends on their frame of reference.

Some great-truth pairs that I came up with include:

  • “Our egos get us in trouble” is true.
  • “Our egos keep us safe” is also true.

When we let our egos take charge, we may be able to justify stealing, even if we don’t need to steal. But isn’t it also our ego that tells us we should get up and go to work so we can maintain our lifestyle in a socially acceptable manner? Isn’t it our ego that gets dissatisfied with a boring, self-serving existence? Isn’t it at least partly our ego that wants to do something that others find meaningful or at least helpful?

  •  “All humans are created equal” is true.
  • “Each human is unique” is also true.

Isn’t the first statement embedded in the U.S. Declaration of Independence? Isn’t it something many people try to live by and even fight and die for? If this statement, as the founders of the U.S. said, is “self-evident,” it surely isn’t self-evident to the casual observer. Rather, the second sentence is much more readily self-evidently true!

Almost all branches and sects of Western religious traditions teach that we have free will. Yet who among us has not felt at least occasional overwhelming social pressure? Does that interfere with our free will? What about gravity? If we want to fly, without buying a plane ticket, does gravity interfere with free will?

All of the above great truths are examples of truths about constructed entities: democracy, existentialism, free will, ego and humans. Even, or perhaps especially, the word “human” is not easy to define. We have bodies, lives, stories, thoughts, emotions, senses, ideas, clothing, preferences, families, communities, friends, educations, shelters, etc. We can’t possibly be consciously considering all the aspects of being a human when we are in a casual conversation with someone. If we can’t clearly and straightforwardly describe a human, how can we make simple decisions about the truth of a statement about a human? 

The world around us is always changing. How do we make decisions about right and wrong, truths and lies, and responsibility to family or to hungry people far away? Surely our decision process (of any thoughtful person) changes over the course of our lives.

Statements about constructed realities must be evaluated and re-evaluated in terms of the current, relevant context. This is important in failure analysis too. Failure analysis is often used to assign blame. Failure analysis is a complex human activity. It is not done well without thoughtful preparation. Our most basic statements about the physical situation must be carefully considered from multiple angles, so we are confident that our final statements are both correct and not misleading. If they are correct but misleading, and the wrong party gets blamed, that makes them false by the criterion of being judged by their effects.

For those who are looking for food for thought between now and the next blog, consider contemplating the concept that different types of things require different methods to evaluate their validity.