The nature of truth #1

2012-10-29 -what is truth

A few years back I had some friends over for dinner. One of my guests was a long-time friend, an Ayn Rand objectivist libertarian. He found my motto that I was displaying in my e-mail signature at the time objectionable. Here is the motto:

Truth is in the mind of the beholder
Reality is just an excuse
Only integrity matters

I created it as a reminder to myself, a statement asking for humbleness when trying to understand reality, not as an attempt to glorify any kind of relativism.

We got into a heated argument over the nature of the statement, the nature of truth itself. His position was (and still is) that truth is absolute and we should strive to find it. A statement is either true or false and there is no third way about it.

The evening did not end well, I wrote the following as a peace offering. The reason why I am sharing it with you now, is that it is missing a third part I want to write which will be a preamble trying to answer some ‘practical’ questions such as how do we chose a political stand? Why we think what we think, why we think the way we think? Why do I feel compelled to do what I do? What is the source of personal fulfillment? It all starts with how we perceive reality.

Dear A,

Even though we both agree that your reaction that ended our argument was uncalled for, I think I understand why our argument upset you so much. I am writing to you now because I find it very important to make you understand where I stand and why. I know that you are upset because my motto offends both your sense of morality AND your intelligence.

I understand because you are not the only one who would take both the meaning and the intent behind my motto to be the opposite of what it really is.

The important part of my statement is the moral aspect, but I cannot really expect you to understand its morality unless we can agree on the science and the philosophy behind it. That is what I am going to start with.

The classical views of science are under attack from every possible direction from Wittgenstein and Heisenberg to the emerging science of fuzzy mathematics.

Wittgenstein and by now whole schools of linguists are taking apart the positivist ideas of the Viennese school. You must be familiar with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. All these changes in science are dealing with the same issue: questioning the precision of our observations, the value of our statements. Not because they want to make statements without values, not because they do not care about what the truth is. Quite the opposite. All of these new approaches are seeking ways to make better statements. Statements that are more true than the ones claiming an absolute correspondence to the reality they describe.

Theories of coherence, reference and correspondence

Coherence

Let’s take the example you came up with to prove your point. You picked up two glasses and stated that you are holding two glasses.

The coherence theory states that the statement you make have to be coherent, meaning that it have to apply the rules of the system you use to communicate them in a coherent manner. The statements  “the sky is table” or “1=2” are not just false but meaningless as they do not have the coherence to convey meaning. Language is an arbitrary system, the rules of it most definitely are. There could be a language where the proper form of the statement would be “Glasses 2 in my hands that I hold” in which case your statement is not true, because it does not conform to the rules of communication that I would expect. A non-English speaker cannot evaluate your statement because he would not even understand it. A Neanderthal would not know what a glass is. The first element of uncertainty in your statement is language itself.

Reference

Before I can judge your statement, we must have an agreement about the objects we are talking about. When you say that you hold 2 glasses in your hand, we have to agree that we will refer to the objects in your hand as glasses. I call everything with a stand a chalice; therefore your statement is not true. Actually, one of the two objects that you were holding could be the sacred qwertyu of the uytrewq religion who’s faithful followers wow deadly vengeance on anybody who dares to insult that holly object by calling it a glass.

The Eskimos have 16 different nouns for snow. Can you make a true statement to an Eskimo about snow? A glassmaker can also have hundreds of criteria to describe glasses.

Snow and glasses are the same for them as they are for us, but since they are a more important part of their reality than they are of ours, aspects of reality that may seem irrelevant to you could be essential to them.
When you make a statement, you dismiss everything that YOU consider irrelevant to the ‘truth’ of your statement. Every statement involves a certain level of simplification, every category we use involves a judgment as to what to include. These judgments have nothing to do with the reality of the snow or the glasses.

Correspondence

You yourself quoted the correspondence theory. Let’s take a closer look at that.

You say that you hold 2 glasses in your hand and there is an objective reality in which there are glasses in your hand that number 2 and that is an unquestionable truth. Is it? One of the glasses is chipped. You do not hold 2 glasses in your hand only 1.99999999578 glasses. I can say that a chipped glass is not a glass therefore you are only holding 1 glass in your hand. Or at best one whole glass and one chipped glass. And don’t say that this is absolutely true because I can still take it apart further. I am splitting hair you said, somehow conveniently overlooking the fact that as long as I am able to do that, I am right and you are wrong, because all I want to prove is that truth is not absolute, that its correspondence to reality is not absolute. I am not trying to say that if you are holding two glasses then the statement indicating this fact is absolutely wrong. I am not saying that you were holding plates. All I am saying is that whatever statement you make it will involve some personal decisions and therefore their correspondence to reality cannot be absolute. Your statement may be true for all practical intent and purpose, but it is not absolutely true.

Whatever you say can never have an absolute correspondence to reality.

Let me give you another example:

R raises her hand and says “I have five fingers. How can there be any doubt about the truth of this statement?”

Her statement was – of course – false. She does not have five fingers, she has four fingers and a thumb. But even then, I have questions. What sort of unit is one finger? If I say one finger, how do you describe it? They are all different. Shorter, longer, stronger, weaker; with different prints etc. How can I refer to them as if they were all the same?
Before making her statement, R made a unilateral decision to include her thumb in the category ‘fingers.’

These differences are often cultural. The English language finds it important to differentiate as they see the functional difference between the thumb and the rest of the fingers to be significant enough to use a different noun to describe it. We, Hungarians, do not have toes, we have ‘foot-fingers’

There is no such thing as “THE FINGER” in reality. There are examples of the category ‘finger,’ some better some worse, but no objective standard against which to measure. When we talk about our fingers, we perform a mental exercise of categorizing. The exercise does not happen in reality, it all happens in our mind, and that is where the truth is.

Language judgment and reality

Language

Language is not reality. Language is an arbitrary system that we use to communicate about our reality.

If we are lucky enough, the statements we make are true enough for us to have meaningful communication but we always have to be mindful of their limitations.

The inherent nature of reality is complexity, while the inherent nature of language is simplicity.

What I tried to demonstrate to you above was that even the simplest; even apparently obvious statements involve judgments. You decide to talk about them in correct English sentences, you decide that you will refer to the objects in your hand as glasses (and not as a chalices or cups,) you decide to disregard the characteristics that you consider irrelevant when talking about them.

What you do not seem to understand is that I do not try in any way to deny the existence of an objective reality or the value of our experience. We COULD get into a serious discussion about our ability to observe this reality, about our perceptual limits, about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but never mind that (for now.)

I do not claim that reality is subjective; I do not claim that the tree does not make a sound falling if I am not there to hear it.

The world is what it is. It is not true or false; it has no quality on its own; it just is. Our mind can reflect on it but it can only be just that: a reflection. What you see in a mirror can never have an absolute correspondence to the objects it reflects. The image is two-dimensional, no matter how smooth the surface is there is always a little distortion and colors are slightly shifted.
We can communicate about the glasses without language. I can stick two glasses into one of your hands, a bottle in the other and point to someone. You will most probably understand that I want you to fill them and take them to that person. Would that action be true? Of course not. It is not a statement, and only statements can be evaluated as being true or false.

Reality has an infinite complexity. If you think about it you will see that it is impossible to communicate infinite complexity. Whenever we talk about our reality, we have to cut corners. Every statement we make is limited.

I like the examples we used, because they show that even apparently obvious statements can be dissected. Most of the statements we make, however, are not that obvious.

Judgment

Our great king, László I. was a tall man. He was a head taller than anybody in his army. He was 160cm tall. I am 180. Am I a very tall man? Is the glass half full or half empty? Do we pay to much tax or too little? Is grass green? What if it has one yellow blade? What if 10 % of the grass is yellow? Are you a reasonable man?

The truth-value of any statement that involves a judgment, any statement that involves an adjective can be questioned.
The truth-value of the statement “I hold two glasses” is easier to evaluate than the one stating “I hold two full glasses” or the one stating “I hold two glasses full of fine wine.” According to the approach you represent there is an objective quality in this world that defines what a “fine wine” is and my statement can be evaluated based on its correspondence to that objective quality. Just think how pathetic that claim is! It is straight out of !@#$-ing György Lukács! He spent half of his life (the one in which he was not busy kissing Stalin’s ass) trying to prove that beauty (quality) is an objective attribute of the arts. Please stop reading now and meditate for a few seconds about the stupidity of this oxymoron. OBJECTIVE QUALITY. How can anything that involves a judgment be objective?

Most of the statements we make are referenced not just to reality but also to other statements. “The earth is round.” — Is it? It is a little flat on the top and the bottom, it has several over 5,000m bumps on it, it is anything but a perfect sphere. If our point of reference is geometry, than the statement is false, if, on the other hand, our reference is the Flat Earth Society, than it is definitely true. Such differentiation in your world is impossible. The statement is either true or false.

I do not understand how can you claim that you believe in an objective reality while vehemently rejecting the idea that it is independent from your mind?!?!? If you claim, that there is an ABSOLUTE correspondence between reality and a construct of your mind then in fact you deny its independence.

 Reality

The first step toward overcoming our limitations is recognizing their existence.

You can spit on me, you can kick me, you can despise me, but I still think, that my motto represents a higher level truth and a higher level of morality than the bivalent logic and rigid morality that you are so desperately trying to defend.

Truth is not a switch that is either on or off. Truth is a scale going from an extreme to another without a chance to ever reaching either. If you replace the runner and the distance in Zeno’s paradox with truth and knowledge, you will see what I mean.

Fuzzy machines work better. You may not like the philosophy behind them but you cannot deny the practical value of their existence.

Fuzzy mathematics is a step forward. It describes the world better than math based on bivalent logic.

One of the criteria of a scientific theory is that it has to explain and in a way encompass all existing theories. It has to be more than what it wants to replace.

Just as quantum mechanics replaced the Newtonian physics, it is expected that a new theory will replace the one the whole scientific community of the world lives by today. When this will happen, as it inevitably will, will you start looking at Einstein and Heisenberg as liars and idiots?

It does not matter what lengths you go to make a true statement (such as the entire life’s work of the above mentioned gentlemen,) the result will always be limited. Scientists today live by the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics but they all know that it is bound to be replaced by a theory that has a slightly better correspondence to reality.

Truth is not absolute, but it has a tremendous practical value. The greatest flaw of your approach is its impracticality. If truth is absolute, then once we found it, we do not have to look for it anymore. If truth is relative, then it can always be improved upon.

An approach to truth and reality that recognizes its own limitations is superior to the one that refuses not only to accept but even to acknowledge them.

And now about morality

I hope it is clear that my motto is a moral statement. Although I hope I was able to demonstrate that it has a substantial philosophical foundation, it is still essentially about morality. In your interpretation, it is an immoral statement, an anarchistic free for all where anything can be said because nothing can be judged.

In my interpretation it is a commitment to keep my mind open, to accept responsibility for my statements and to be honest toward the subject of my investigation, whatever that may be. Let me elaborate.

Truth

… is in the mind of the beholder. Is this statement arrogant or humble? Is saying that the truth is outside of me arrogant or humble?

I say that claiming to know THE truth is arrogant while acknowledging my limitations making that claim is humble. You may say that denying the existence of objective truth is arrogant while seeking the truth that is definitely out there is humble.

What is without question is that saying that truth is in the mind of the beholder is a statement of responsibility. Saying that means that my responsibility goes beyond a mere comparison, it says that I am responsible for its very essence. If truth is objective, then I am not really responsible for it.

I find the views you are defending not only incorrect and immoral, but outright dangerous as they represent the intellectual foundation of all bigotry.

“I do not have to think about morality, it is all in the Bible!”

“Negroes are inferior and well suited for slavery”

“We communist do not fight individuals, we eradicate the oppressive classes. You don’t have to ask who that person is, just which class does he belong to”

The worst crimes in history were committed in the name of the absolute truth. Millions were killed in its name. Every religion claims to possess it. You may say that they were all wrong, that their claims were all false, that all this does not mean that there is no objective truth. And I say sure, that is what they all say about the others. This is still the line of the die-hard communists. “It is not true that communism doesn’t work, it has not been really tried yet”

Closer examination of every “true statement” (including yours about the glasses) invariably reveals that reality is only used as an excuse to increase the value of the statement and to lift it out from the realm of personal responsibility. Not particularly noble reasons.

Excuse

I’ve seen a lot of sloppy science. When it comes to social sciences, it is difficult to find something that is not. We live in a world where theories abound. Where everybody is trying to say something noteworthy, something new something that will set him or her apart (and above) all the other talkers. In this world of vanity where most thinkers try to assert their ideas over those of the others’ truth and objectivity are the first victims.

You of all people should be able to appreciate that.

Marx came up with a very clever concept of history. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Great round concept, subject of hundreds of scholarly works. You should know. You learned them in school just as I did. Whatever Marx said is true. Did he invent history? Did he falsify historical records? Of course not. He just ignored every piece of reality that did not fit his theory.

He was not the first and definitely not the last to do that. Every social theorist, every activist every politician uses reality as an excuse to justify their actions, to advance their ideas, to assert their ‘truth’ over those of the others. They would all talk about an objective truth, an objective reality where their role is no more than recognizing that truth and acting on it. What we have in our heads are opinions. The moment we can correspond them to elements of reality they become TRUTH. Then we become humble servants of something that is bigger than us. The moment we do that we also free ourselves from responsibility. We are not just voicing our opinion; we are serving THE TRUTH!

I find the irresponsible use of ‘facts’ to prove half cooked theories or to justify self-serving political actions appalling, but I must realize that I am also bound by this truth-reference limitation. By my own definition, whatever I say about this world is only an excuse to assert my own perception of what truth is.

For me, the way out of this dilemma is full recognition and disclosure of this fact, making this way my first step toward what I call integrity.

Integrity

Integrity in this context means intellectual honesty.

It means that:

  • I will not pretend to know THE truth
  • I will not manipulate information to make my ideas more acceptable
  • I will recognize the limitations of my statements and theories leaving myself open to changes and criticism.

And since nothing else really can, to me this is the only thing that matters.

In short, my motto is my commitment to try to be humble.

If you reflect on all of the above, you may find that I am not as bad as you think.

Q.E.D.

5 replies on “The nature of truth #1”

  1. Oresztesz says:

    In his mind he WAS holding two glasses. In your mind he was holding a pair of wrong arguments. Problems start when people get too heated in having to convince the other that THEIR reality is THE reality.

  2. zorkthehun says:

    The point I was trying to make is that we have to understand and accept our limitations. Talking about your reality as ‘THE’ reality means that you see it in absolute terms which in turn means that you will be less flexible when negotiating anything concerning that reality. To put it in another way: perceptions of reality are not right or wrong, but better or worse. Once we understand this, on the other hand, I see nothing wrong with getting ‘heated’ about it.

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