The question of what is real versus what is true may seem strange. In English, we often use these words interchangeably for convenience, and usually there isn't much issue with that. However, there is a small but distinct difference between the two. The next question you might ask is: who cares? Well, it turns out that the difference influences how you see yourself, how you see the world, your internal narrative, and much more. It's time to strap in and put your philosophy hat on.
According to many philosophers, something is real if it has actual existence and substance. Something that is real does not need to be proven. Your computer, your chair, and your table are real. These are things that exist and do not require explanation. It is reality.
On the other hand, something that is true must derive from evidence and reason -- however good or bad that evidence and reason is. Mathematics is a concept that is true but not real. The number ten, for example, does not exist in the real world. The only way to explain the concept of the number ten is by using real things (e.g., lining up ten bottles and saying "look, ten!") or by explaining the concept of the number ten. Something that is true attempts to reflect and interpret reality.
Where it gets interesting is when "what is real versus what is true" enters our daily lives.
Real but not True
Many things in your life are real but not true. The main ones are the stories in your head and the feelings in your body.
Most people at one time have felt a cascade of thoughts, falling through their heads about themselves, other people, or some specific thing that seems to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, you feel like a bystander in your own head -- helpless as you wait for the storm to eventually subside on its own.
Most people have felt some sort of anxiety in the physical form. Nausea, gut-wrenching pains, headaches, or even trembling.
Your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations in your body are all real, but they are not true.
What this means is that, while thoughts are really happening and there is a real biochemistry that accompanies them, they are only representations in our mind. They are not the experience of this living moment. Just like a map is not the territory it represents, our thoughts are not reality.
Our thoughts and feelings -- more often than not -- create a veil between us and reality. This veil prevents us from seeing the truth, and most of the time, we don't even know the veil is there. This is what happens when you call yourself a bad person for a fleeting thought that you had. It's what happens when natural gurgles in the stomach before a big performance turn into a mini-breakdown. The real and the true frequently get mixed up in a hot mess.
Our thoughts and emotions are real -- they exist inside of us -- but they don't tell us anything about who we are or what truth actually is. We tend to think of thoughts and emotions as both real and true, but they are only real.
In other words, things are true only to the extent that we believe them to be -- whether that be belief in a capitalist or socialist system, belief in what our weight means, or belief in the type of person that we are.
Things that are real are set in stone, but when it comes to our own minds and bodies, it is up to us to discover what the truth actually is.
Some would say we are already in a “post-truth world”. With organisations and actors with a political agenda deliberately spreading false information, all the while accusing mainstream media and others of reporting “fake news”, and with troll farms in rogue states churning out misleading propaganda at a ruthless pace, judging what information online or in print is true is already made more difficult than it was only two decades ago.
Trust in mass media in the US has fallen from an all-time high of 72% in the late 1970’s to an all-time low of 34% in 2022 (Gallup), with a whopping 38% of respondents claiming to trust no mass media outlet at all. In Sweden, a new government agency has been set up with one explicit goal being to educate Swedish citizens to understand the importance of critically review information, and vetting information sources. We are already in a cyberwar over truth.
It is difficult to predict how the development and use of artificial intelligence (AI) will impact society in the future. Some experts believe that AI has the potential to enhance our ability to access and analyze information, leading to a greater understanding of the world around us and potentially contributing to a more informed and evidence-based society.
However, it is also possible that the increasing reliance on AI and automation could lead to the spread of misinformation or the manipulation of data, potentially contributing to a "post-truth" world in which personal beliefs or agendas take precedence over objective facts.