The Unknowable Truth

Posted 11th of June 2019 by Bay Whitaker

What do you do when you are troubled by memories that you question, and cannot be verified?

Years ago when I was a student, two friends of mine had a sudden and unexpected falling out.  Let’s call them Holly and Ivy.  I wasn’t present at the time, but shortly afterwards each of them separately wanted to talk to me about what had happened. 

“We were just chatting and then suddenly she accused me of shouting at her!” said Holly. 

Ivy said “Out of nowhere, she just claimed I was being aggressive!” 

Both friends felt a strong need to understand what had happened, to know who had started it and who was in the wrong.  But how?  There was no camera footage of the interaction; no time machine to back and see what happened.  And I had a feeling that even if there had been such a way to revisit the argument, we’d still have been none the wiser. 

Years later, when I started working a counsellor, I realised that this strong desire for knowledge and truth about things that are in the past can be quite a powerful block for some clients.  Generally, people who come to counselling are troubled and wish to change.  And sometimes (not always) the wish to know “what really happened” can be a red herring that actually prevents us from growing.  There is a concept from the philosophy of knowledge, that I find helpful when confronted with this red herring.

This is an approach called “Verificationism”.  Put simply, if you cannot say how you would verify the truth of a statement, then you may as well treat is as neither true nor false, but just an idea – an unprovable hypothesis.  Holly’s statement that “Ivy accused me of shouting” is unverifiable (since the only two witnesses disagree, and there are no time-machines to go back and check). 

In counselling we often explore past experiences – sometimes from long ago – with clients, as a way of understanding how they come to feel, think and act as they do.  And there are sometimes events that the client is troubled by, unsure if they are remembering it correctly, or perhaps if it even really happened at all. 

In these cases, it may be possible for the client to find out more evidence, for instance by talking with other family members or even looking at old photographs or papers.  At times it feels appropriate to encourage clients to do some detective work if they are able to.  However, in many cases, there is no way to verify the truth or falsehood of a memory.  And if so, the appeal to “Verificationism” can be a way to help the client accept that she will never know for sure. 

This does not mean that the event cannot be discussed or thought about.  It is not an invitation to just bury the thought and not think about it.  Rather it is putting the thought into a new category.

An unprovable hypothesis is still interesting and meaningful, even when we have accepted we will never KNOW its truth for sure.  A statement doesn’t have to be true for us to explore it, play with it, imaginatively and logically.   Clients sometimes find that accepting the unknowability of some item very freeing, as this gives them permission to think more deeply about what might be the implications if it WAS true, or if it WAS false, yet without the necessity of committing to any one version of the unknowable truth.

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