My first letter to ‘A’ received a lengthy response (that I am not able to locate). This was my response to his. I am planning for a long time to write him a third piece which will pull it altogether revealing the nature of absolute truth then tying truth to feelings (absolutely).
I think the most difficult arguments are the ones we have with people we basically agree with.
Before I get on with the refutations, I will try to summarize our conjunctions.
- We are both very firmly materialists. We do not believe in gods or disembodied entities.
- We both find the search for truth an essential human preoccupation, and
- We both detest falsehood, misinterpretation of reality, BS for short, which is very funny considering that it is in the center of our argument.
What we disagree on the most is which approach lends itself more readily to the formulation of what we consider the truth to be. The approach to reality that sees truth as static or the one that sees it as dynamic.
Our discussion in many ways is a classic problem about the chicken and the egg. Since the question cannot really be decided, all I am trying to prove is that my approach is better because it is more practical and honest than other possible views.
The essence of reality or where the truth is
The essence of reality is that it has no essence. The pattern is not out there. The pattern is in our head, and every time we relate to reality, we reevaluate the pattern. When you look at a dog, what you see is a piece of reality. You have to find a concept that fits what you see. It has four legs so it is not a bird. It is alive so it is not a table. It says woof, so it must be a dog. You ask the owner what the name of the breed, and then with this new knowledge you put back the modified concept into your memory. You did not get the breed information from reality; you got it from another person’s conceptual system.
You are not extracting the concept from reality; you are applying it to it. The better the pattern, the easier it fits. As you pointed it out, our ability to survive depends on it. If you do not have a concept already, you have to create one so that you can apply it in similar situations. You could be like Funes from Borges’ story who can remember each dog he ever saw with each instance he saw it, but that wouldn’t be very practical. What truth referenced to is not just reality, but also our previous observations of that reality.
“The truth and falsehood of our statements are ultimately rooted in the actual observable patterns that realty brings about through our senses. Yes, the pattern is (formed) in the mind of the beholder but the only choice the beholder has is to recognize it or not”
You have to help me out with this one. Is the pattern formed in our mind, or we just have to recognize it? It is either formed in our mind and we just apply it to different complex objects of reality with varying success, or we can just recognize their objective nature. You cannot have it both ways.
I find the idea that reality has concepts (structures, patterns, whatever we call them) embedded in them rather strange. Not a particularly materialist concept. It has a touch of metaphysics to it.
While it is true that reality has “observable patterns,” we always have to keep in mind that the pattern are defined by us and the ultimate measure is not really reality, but the consistency of our observations. We do not care about the exact path an electron takes going around the proton of a hydrogen atom. It does not matter what is exact size of a sunspot. For all intent and purpose hydrogen atoms behave in a similar manner. The sun may have spots, but it will rise every morning (allow me not to get into the “rising” business)
I picked these two examples because both can be disproved. Remember how important scientific discovery isotopes were? And the realization of the effects of increased sunspot activity on human behavior? As our observations improve our ‘truth’ change. Reality does not. But truth does not have to be absolute it just have to be good enough. You look at your thumb and say “finger” Is it true? Under most circumstances it is true enough to work with.
“…However, fuzzy definitions and imperfect observations by humans does not warrant elevating the issue to a universal status and claim self-contradicting statements like:
“There are no absolutes” — (this statement sounds like an absolute to me)
“Nothing is certain” — (is this statement uncertain too?)
“Everything changes” — (how about the meaning of the concept ‘change’?)
“Be humble since you can make mistakes” — (compared to whom?)
Omniscience and infallibility are unreasonable standards to expect from humans. “
I have some problems dealing with your examples:
- These statements do not make sense to me the way YOU use them. With your approach they are either true or false. For me it is good enough if they are mostly true because I do not expect them to be absolutely true. I do not think that they can be. If they are true for all practical intent and purpose, they are true enough for me.
- These statements are not about reality but about the way we chose to formulate concepts about that reality. These statements are all pointing to the direction of the observation I make. They point to the improper fit of our concepts to reality. They are the statements proving my case.
It is a fairly common understanding among mathematicians that there is a serious separation between math and the real world. Math can be either precise or it can refer to the real world. Never both at the same time.
- If you say that infallibility is unreasonable to expect from humans, than why do you? Why can you not accept the fact that even if the truth was out there, we are not good enough to find it? All I expect from us is integrity when searching for the truth. I expect that precisely because I DO UNDERSTAND, that I cannot expect much more.
Let me try at this again.
The value of our concepts depends on their utility.
What is the world? The world is a piece of land sitting on the back of a turtle. Is that a workable concept? Of course it is. To a primitive hunter-gatherer the precise shape of the planet or its exact distance from the sun expressed in units he cannot relate to are irrelevant. “This land goes on forever” can be true enough if your concept of forever does not extend beyond two day’s walking distance.
Primitive concepts work fine until we need better concepts to move around. Picturing earth as something on the back of a turtle doesn’t really help with celestial navigation.
I am certain that we have concepts that would look equally silly from a more advanced perspective that we cannot yet comprehend but that does not really matter because we either do not need them or cannot use them.
One of the most fascinating concepts of fuzzy mathematics is the inverse relationship between precision and relevance. The more precisely you describe something, the less difference it makes how precise your description is. When you buy a bag of sugar it is completely irrelevant whether the actual weight is 2.0023222 or 2.0023223kg. Saying that you have a 2kg bag of sugar in your hand may not be true absolutely (it cannot be) but it can be true for all practical intent and purpose. And that is what matters.
While it is difficult to make true statements about a fuzzy reality, it is nothing compared to the difficulties of evaluating statement with fuzzy definitions. A few weeks ago, after I got your reply I picked up the book I once lent to you, “Women, Fire And Dangerous Things.” I opened it to find this:
“…the kinds of examples that philosophers of language like to cite as justifying objectivist semantics, sentences like:
The cat is on the mat.
The boy hit the ball.
Brutus killed Cesar.
All involve basic-level categories of objects, actions and relations.”
I had to laugh thinking how you avoided dealing with any of my ambiguous statements. It is easy with the cat and the table, but what if it is about a wolf and a dog? It is easy when the boundaries are clear. A giraffe is definitely not an elephant, but can you tell apart a kangaroo from a wallaby? A big husky from a small malamute?
And again: am I a tall man? (Not according to ‘R’) Where is the “objective observable pattern” of tallness in reality? It all depends on what do you decide to consider tall.
I would venture to say that the overwhelming majority of our statements involve non-basic-level categories. Your approach may serve you with basic concepts, but fails miserably when you try to apply it to somewhat more complex aspects of reality. I think that my approach works better. I can get closer to the truth if I do not look at it as something that has to be static.
Please do me the favor of looking into the ideas of fuzzy mathematics. You may not be as receptive to them as I was, but they still can make a significant difference in the way you look at the world.
The politics of reality or what’s in a fact?
Enough about philosophy, let’s talk a little ethics.
You are probably just as incensed as I am about the abuse of language. The other day I was looking at a job advertisement for the position of “relationship manager” closer scrutiny revealed that they are looking for a salesman. The very essence of political correctness is the idea that language can change reality. Some people (like Heisenberg and Schrödinger) claim that the very act of observation changes reality.
I came up with the idea of my motto some time before I first met you. I cannot remember exactly what prompted it, but it was definitely something that involved the manipulation of facts to advance some idea.
The best example is the headline that I noticed some ten years ago in NOW saying “There is arsenic in your apples!” It was based on a news release from Greenpeace commenting on some new instrument with a greatly improved ability to scan for substances in organic matter. From a previous ability to detect (let’s say) 1 part in a million the new instrument could detect 1 part in 50 million. Was the statement in the headline true? Of course it was. Does it really matter? Of course it does not. What does matter is the message. The hidden, implied insinuated message would be something like this:
“The big meanies are lying to you. Those rotten capitalist farmers (the kulaks) are poisoning you. The corrupt government does nothing to protect you from harm, but we at Greenpeace are vigilant, we want to inform you and protect you from those bastards who try to hide the truth from you. Even if the danger in this particular instant is not that great, our mission is to uncover all deception you are subjected to. “
What matter to me the most is that the answers you get are presupposed by the questions you ask. What you see depends on what you look for. Cyanide? I am sure your apple has that too. To some extent. The amount is insignificant but it is there. Then the question becomes whether factual truth is good enough for you? Not for me, but I will get back to this later.
When you say that: “What we should expect from ourselves is consistency (or non-contradiction) in our statements with regard to our own definition of the underlying concepts,“ you are making my case. That is exactly what I am talking about when I emphasize the need for integrity.
Truth, and communication in general involves a tremendous amount of trust. When you make a statement about something that I do not have sufficient information to evaluate myself, I have to trust you. Not only do I have to suppose that you will not deliberately lie to me, I also have to trust that you are not deceived or deceiving yourself, that we use a common language and a more or less similar perception of reality.
Value only comes into my motto when I say that reality is just an excuse. What that means to me is that I am just as interested in your motivation and perception as I am in the facts you may use to make your case. Factual truth is not good enough for me. I want to know how that ‘truth’ is to be used.
The practice of reality or what really matters
I must admit that I am getting a little weary of the argument above. Not because I do not believe in it or because I cannot defend it, but because that is not what matters. Whatever concept I chose to deal with my reality is nobody’s business, and it isn’t that important either. If going to a church service every morning makes you both happier and a better person, who am I to say anything about it? The only thing that really matters is not what you think about the world but the way you act in it.
Truth does not really matter (now you can flip out.) What matters are the decisions we make. It does not matter what the wine is like, what matters is whether I will or will not pick that brand when I go to the store next time. What matters is not whether communism is a good or bad idea but what is most likely to happen if we try it again.
Our search for the truth is, and should be a practical quest. My motto is just as much of an action plan as it is an expression of my philosophical views.
Maybe I am misunderstood you, but your basic statement sounds like “my truth is as good as your truth, it doesn’t matter whether one is based on rigorous, systematic observation of reality while the other is based on a dream, a wish, a whim or mystic revelation. It’s all the same. ” What happens if we have a disagreement? How can we settle it? With a gun?
I think we can settle it with a good old-fashioned discussion, and yes, you most definitely misunderstood it.
My motto makes no claim to value. None whatsoever. Saying that “truth is in the mind of the beholder” has no value in it. It means that truth is not objective, that it cannot be taken for granted because it depends so much on the perception of the people formulating it. On the question that was asked. On the way it was formulated. On the way the answer was interpreted. It represents a fundamental disagreement with you who says that “the only choice the beholder has is to recognize it [the truth] or not” as in my views the person making the statement is an integral part of the statement. It has to be so because the statement is also loaded with his understanding of the world.
To close this part of the argument, try to consider this variation:
“Absolute” truth is unattainable
Expecting people to find it is unreasonable
Pretending that it is possible is immoral