What is Truth?

Mark Pottenger


This was written to clarify a point in an LA-CCRS class discussion.

In conveying the point that we do not respond to the world but to our evaluations of the world I brought up the issue of wrongful convictions and false accusations.

I used a Harry Potter book as an example since the readership of that series is worldwide, but I will add other examples here.

Ideally, the goal of our judicial system should be to discover truth. The system as it actually exists is frequently an exercise in gamesmanship, with the most clever manipulator winning. Despite this, the system sometimes does work.

The Crowe case is well-known in the San Diego area. The brother and friends of the victim were accused after “confessing” during hours-long interrogations during which police lied to them. The recent trial of a drifter police initially ignored cleared the brother and friends.

The OJ case was widely publicized nationally, even internationally.

The Innocence Project and several similar efforts are clearing people by getting DNA evidence evaluated. Some of these people have been in prison for years, even on death row.

In the Potter book, someone went to prison for years for a mass-murder committed by someone else. This is revealed late in the book, so for most of the book the prisoner appears to be a villain. If the reader regards the character as a villain, are they responding to a false evaluation deliberately encouraged by the author? Does the reader’s feeling about (response to) the character change when the author reveals the “truth”?

In the Crowe case, people can have several views of the brother, which can change over time. He is a victim of bad police. There must have been something despite what the jury decided (“where there’s smoke there’s fire”). He is completely innocent.

In the OJ case, some people believe he is innocent and some people believe he is a murderer running loose who got off through expensive lawyers and the race card.

In the Innocence Project cases, most of society accepted the people’s guilt until the old evidence was retested with new DNA technologies.

In all of these examples, how people respond to the individuals involved depends on what stage of the legal/truth process we are discussing and on people’s beliefs about the validity of the process. Have the individuals under discussion changed? (Always, but not in ways relevant to this discussion.) Have the “facts” changed? (Sometimes.) Are people responding to evaluations of the individuals (world) rather than the individuals themselves? (Always.)

Copyright © 2004 Mark Pottenger

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