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Question of the Month

What Is Truth?

The following answers to this question each win a signed copy of How To Be An Agnostic by Mark Vernon. Sorry if you’re not here; there were lots of entries.

True beliefs portray the world as it is; false beliefs portray the world as other than it is. A straight ruler appears bent when half-submerged in a glass of water. What is the truth of the matter? Truth’s character is both logical and empirical. The logical ‘principle of non-contradiction’ ensures that the contradictory propositions ‘the ruler is straight’ and ‘the ruler is not straight’ cannot both be true at the same time, and in principle observation should settle which is the case. In practice, things are not so simple. The observable truth would seem to change as the ruler enters the water. Perhaps this is to be expected? After all, if true beliefs describe the world, and the world changes, then truth must change too. However, relativists rubbing their hands at the thought that we each construct our own truth, and sceptics finger-wagging that this shows there is no such thing as truth, should both hold fire. As well as the principle of non-contradiction, we are also guided by the empirical principle that nature is uniform and not capricious. Solid objects are not usually deformed by immersion in water. So, we can approach a truth that is independent of particular observations by, ironically, taking account of the observer in looking at the bigger picture: optical effects resulting from refraction of light explain why the ruler appears bent but, really, is straight.

But how can we be sure there is a world to describe? What if reality itself is an illusion, like the bent stick – a flickering shadow on a cave wall? We may never know whether our observations are just shadows of what is real, but we should resist both mysticism and metaphysics when thinking about truth.

Reaching a consensus on an objective description of the world is possible in principle. That is the wonder of science. Consensus on our subjective descriptions is impossible in principle. That is the wonder of consciousness. Truth is the single currency of the sovereign mind, the knowing subject, and the best thinking – in philosophy, science, art – discriminates between the objective and subjective sides of the coin, and appreciates both the unity of reality and the diversity of experience.

Jon Wainwright, London

Let’s not ask what truth is: let us ask instead how we can recognize it reliably when it appears. Four factors determine the truthfulness of a theory or explanation: congruence, consistency, coherence, and usefulness.

• A true theory is congruent with our experience – meaning, it fits the facts. It is in principle falsifiable, but nothing falsifying it has been found. One way we can infer that our theory is congruent with the facts as we experience them is when what we experience is predictable from the theory. But truth is always provisional, not an end state. When we discover new facts, we may need to change our theory.

• A true theory is internally consistent. It has no contradictions within itself, and it fits together elegantly. The principle of consistency (same as the principle of non-contradiction) allows us to infer things consistent with what we already know. An inconsistent theory – one that contains contradictions – does not allow us to do this.

• Alongside this criterion, a true theory is coherent with everything else we consider true. It confirms, or at least fails to contradict, the rest of our established knowledge, where ‘knowledge’ means beliefs for which we can give rigorous reasons. The physical sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy – all reinforce each other, for example.

• A true theory is useful. It gives us mastery. When we act on the basis of a true theory or explanation, our actions are successful. What is true works to organize our thought and our practice, so that we are able both to reason with logical rigor to true conclusions and to handle reality effectively. Truth enables us to exert our power, in the sense of our ability to get things done, successfully. It has predictive power, allowing us to make good choices concerning what is likely to happen.

Does this mean that what is useful is true? That is not a useful question, as it’s not the sole criterion. Rather, if a theory is congruent with our experience, internally consistent, coherent with everything else we know, and useful for organizing our thinking and practice, then we can confidently consider it true.

Bill Meacham, by email

Proposition P is true if P is the case, and P is the case if P is true. Together with all other propositions which meet the same criterion, P can then claim to inhabit the realm of Truth.

But is P the case? P may be a sincerely-held belief; but this alone is insufficient to establish its truth. Claims to truth must be well justified. Those beliefs based on prediction and forecast are particularly suspect, and can usually be discounted. The recent prediction that ‘the world will end at 6.00pm on 21 May 2011’ is an example. There was never any systematic attempt at justification, and without this any claim to truth is seriously (and usually fatally) flawed. If it cannot be shown that a belief either corresponds to a known fact, coheres with a ‘consistent and harmonious’ system of beliefs, or prompts actions which have desirable outcomes (the pragmatic approach), then any claim to Truth becomes impossible to justify.

The realm of Truth may contain those arising from mystical convictions, which are more difficult to justify than those based on observations. Although attempts are made to pragmatically justify religious beliefs, the many competing claims leave us in confusion. As regards Truth in the Art-World, Aquinas identifies Truth with Beauty, and defines the truth in art as ‘that which pleases in the very apprehension of it’.

So, Truth is the realm populated by well-justified beliefs. To a certain extent truth is subjective, although a belief gains greater currency by its wider acknowledgment.

Truth is not constant. Some beliefs which were held to be true are now considered false, and some for which truth is now claimed may be deemed false in the future, and vice versa. Truth is good for helping us decide how to act, because it serves as a standard for making some sort of sense of a world populated also by half-truths and untruths.

Ray Pearce, Manchester

Our ancestors did themselves (and us) a great favour when they began using noises to communicate. They probably started with “Hide!” “Wolves!” “Eat!/Don’t eat!” and “Mine/Yours!” The invention of language enabled us to do many things. We could use it to describe the world as we found it; but we could also use it to create things, such as boundaries and private property. As John Searle has argued, the vast structure of our social world, including our laws, businesses, politics, economics and entertainments, has been built out of language.

Telling the truth is just one of the uses of language. Telling the truth is complicated by the fact that we live in a hybrid world, partly natural, partly invented. “Earth rotates” is a true account of a natural given. “Earth rotates once every 24 hours” is only true within the language community which imposes that system of time-measurement on the given reality. Another complication is that we ourselves are physical objects which can be described using objective terms, but we are also social beings, in roles, relationships and structures which are all man-made.

Classifications are a key component of language. A sentence of the simple form ‘X is Y’ can locate an individual within a class (‘Socrates is a man’) or one class within another (‘Daisies are weeds’). Some classifications are givens in nature (the periodic table, biological taxonomy, physical laws) while others are inventions (social roles, types (uses) of furniture, parts of speech). Sentences can mix natural classes with inventions: ‘daisies’ refers to a class of plant given in nature, whereas ‘weeds’ refers to an invented class of ‘dislikeable plants’. In their search for truth the natural sciences seek to discover natural classifications, as distinct from social inventions.

True descriptions are like maps. Some descriptions map objective reality, as the natural sciences do, which is like a map of physical contours. Other descriptions map our socially-constructed world, as journalists, historians, novelists and theologians do, like a map showing political borders.

We have made great progress since our ancestors first grunted at each other. Language was essential to that progress and it provided the true/false distinction which enabled us to analyse and understand the natural world which sustains us.

Les Reid, Belfast

I would like to say that truth exists outside of us, for all to see. Unfortunately, humans can be stubborn, and so the actual pinning down of what a truth is is more complicated. Society plays host to two types of truths; subjective truth and objective truth. Subjective truth is given to us through our individual expe riences in relation to those around us: in short, it’s the truths we have been raised with. Objective truth is discovered by a search which is critical of our experiences until sufficient evidence has been gathered. The subjective truth is not always in opposition to the objective truth, but it does depend on the subject valuing their worldview more than others’.

Our preference as a society is, I believe, revealed through our use of language. If we say: “Look, the sun is going down” we are speaking from our subjective viewpoint. It is true from our individual standpoint, but it is not a truth in the objective sense. The truth, in an objective sense, is that we live on a planet which spins on its axis and it orbits the Sun. So in fact what we should say is “Look, the earth is spinning away from the Sun and will soon obstruct our view of it.” This may seem a pedantic point to make; however, if our language does not reflect the objective truth, it must mean that truth stands firmly in the subjective camp. Based on our use of language in the majority of situations, an alien may then well judge us to be very ignorant, and that our truth is self-serving.

It could be said that subjective truth isn’t truth at all, more belief; but because as a society our values give more strength to the individual and to personal experience, we must bow to the power of the individual belief as truth, as we seem to do through our everyday use of language.

Anoosh Falak Rafat, St Leonard’s on Sea, East Sussex

Everyone knows perfectly well what truth is – everyone except Pontius Pilate and philosophers. Truth is the quality of being true, and being true is what some statements are. That is to say, truth is a quality of the propositions which underlie correctly-used statements.

What does that mean? Well, imagine a man who thinks that Gordon Brown is still the British PM, and that Gordon Brown was educated at Edinburgh (as he was). When he says “The PM was educated at Edinburgh”, what he means is clearly true: the person he is calling the PM was educated at Edinburgh. Therefore, if (somewhat counter-intuitively) we say the statement itself is true, we’re saying that what the statement actually means is true: that what anyone who understands the meanings and references of all the words in the statement means, is true. Nonetheless, it is perfectly natural to say that a statement itself is true; people who think this would say that the above statement, as uttered by the man who thinks Gordon Brown is PM, is false (even though what he meant by it is true).

However, to generalise, it is not really the statement itself that is true (or false), but what is meant by it. It can’t be the possible state of affairs described by the statement which is true: states of affairs are not true, they just exist. Rather, there must be some wordless ‘proposition’ nailed down by the statement which describes that state of affairs, and which could be expressed accurately in various forms of words (in a variety of statements); and it is that proposition which is either true or false. So when we say that a particular statement is true, that must be shorthand for “the proposition meant by someone who utters that statement, in full knowledge of the meanings and references of the words in it, is true.”

Bob Stone, Worcester

I dilute my solution, place it into a cuvette, and take a reading with the spectrophotometer: 0.8. I repeat the procedure once more and get 0.7; and once again to get 0.9. From this I get the average of 0.8 that I write in my lab-book. The variation is probably based upon tiny inconsistencies in how I am handling the equipment, so three readings should be sufficient for my purposes. Have I discovered the truth? Well yes – I have a measurement that seems roughly consistent, and should, assuming that my notes are complete and my spectrophotometer has been calibrated, be repeatable in many other labs around the world. However, this ‘truth’ is meaningless without some understanding of what I am trying to achieve. The spectrophotometer is set at 280nm, which – so I have been taught – is the wavelength used to measure protein concentration. I know I have made up my solution from a bottle labelled ‘albumin’, which – again, as I have been taught – is a protein. So my experiment has determined the truth of how much protein is in the cuvette. But again, a wider context is needed. What is a protein, how do spectrophotometers work, what is albumin, why do I want to know the concentration in the first place? Observations are great, but really rather pointless without a reason to make them, and without the theoretical knowledge for how to interpret them. Truth, even in science, is therefore highly contextual. What truth is varies not so much with different people, but rather with the narrative they are living by. Two people with a similar narrative will probably agree on how to treat certain observations, and might agree on a conclusion they call the truth, but as narratives diverge so too does agreement on what ‘truth’ might be. In the end, even in an entirely materialistic world, truth is just the word we use to describe an observation that we think fits into our narrative.

Dr Simon Kolstoe, UCL Medical School, London

Truth is unique to the individual. As a phenomenologist, for me, that I feel hungry is more a truth than that 2+3=5. No truth can be ‘objectively verified’ – empirically or otherwise – and the criteria by which we define truths are always relative and subjective. What we consider to be true, whether in morality, science, or art, shifts with the prevailing intellectual wind, and is therefore determined by the social, cultural and technological norms of that specific era. Non-Euclidean geometry at least partially undermines the supposed tautological nature of geometry – usually cited as the cornerstone of the rationalist’s claims that reason can provide knowledge: other geometries are possible, and equally true and consistent. This means that the truth of geometry is once more inextricably linked with your personal perspective on why one mathematical paradigm is ‘truer’ than its viable alternatives.

In the end, humans are both fallible and unique, and any knowledge we discover, true or otherwise, is discovered by a human, finite, individual mind. The closest we can get to objective truth is intersubjective truth, where we have reached a general consensus due to our similar educations and social conditioning. This is why truths often don’t cross cultures. This is an idea close to ‘conceptual relativism’ – a radical development of Kant’s thinking which claims that in learning a language we learn a way of interpreting the world, and thus, to speak a different language is to inhabit a different subjective world.

So our definition of truth needs to be much more flexible than Plato, Descartes and other philosophers claim. I would say that a pragmatic theory of truth is closest: that truth is the ‘thing that works’; if some other set of ideas works better, then it is truer. This is a theory Nietzsche came close to accepting.

The lack of objective truth leaves us free to carve our own truths. As in Sartre’s existentialism, we aren’t trapped by objectivity; rather, the lack of eternal, immutable truths allows us to create what is true for ourselves. Truth is mine. My truth and your truth have no necessary relevance to each other. Because truth is subjective, it can play a much more unique and decisive role in giving life meaning; I am utterly free to choose my truths, and in doing so, I shape my own life. Without subjective truth, there can be no self-determination.

Andrew Warren, Eastleigh, Hants

Truth is interpersonal. We tell each other things, and when they work out we call them truths. When they don’t, we call them errors or, if we are not charitable, lies. What we take as truth depends on what others around us espouse. For many centuries European Christians believed that men had one fewer rib than women because the Bible says that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. Nobody bothered to count because everyone assumed it was true. And when they finally counted, it was because everyone agreed on the result that the real truth became known. Even when we are alone, truth is interpersonal. We express these truths or errors or lies to others and to ourselves in language; and, as Wittgenstein pointed out, there can be no private language.

But the most essential truth, the truth by which we all live our lives, is intensely personal, private. We might call this ‘Truth’, with a capital T. Even though each of us lives our life by Truth, it can be different for each person. Shall I believe and obey the Torah, the New Testament, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Zend Avesta, the Dhammapada? Or none of the above: shall I find my own Truth in my own way?

We thus need a community of seekers with a commitment to meta-Truth, recognizing that personal Truths are to be respected, even though any Truth will differ from someone else’s. But even in such a community, some beliefs would be acceptable, and others not: my belief that I am exceptional and deserve preferential treatment, perhaps because I alone have received a special revelation, is not likely to be shared by others. From within the in-group we look with fear and revulsion on those who deny the accepted beliefs. From outside, we admire those who hold aloft the light of truth amidst the darkness of human ignorance. And in every case it is we who judge, not I alone. Even the most personal Truth is adjudicated within a community and depends on the esteem of others.

Robert Tables, Blanco, TX

The word ‘true’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘treowe’ meaning ‘believed’. ‘Believe’ itself is from ‘gelyfan’, ‘to esteem dear’. So etymologically, ‘truth’ would be something believed to be of some value, rather than necessarily being correct. ‘Believe’ is still used in the older sense, as in “I believe in democracy” – a different sense to ‘believing in Father Christmas’. Such ambiguity facilitates equivocation – useful to politicians, etc, who can be economical with the truth. One function of language is to conceal truth.

In an experiment by Solomon Asch, subjects were given pairs of cards. On one were three lines of different lengths; on the other card a single line. The test was to determine which of the three lines was the same length as the single line. The truth was obvious; but in the group of subjects all were stooges except one. The stooges called out answers, most of which were of the same, obviously wrong, line. The self-doubt thus incurred in the real subjects made only one quarter of them trust the evidence of their senses enough to pick the correct answer.

Schopenhauer noticed the reluctance of the establishment to engage with new ideas, choosing to ignore rather than risk disputing and refuting them. Colin Wilson mentions Thomas Kuhn’s contention that “once scientists have become comfortably settled with a certain theory, they are deeply unwilling to admit that there might be anything wrong with it” and links this with the ‘Right Man’ theory of writer A.E.Van Vogt. A ‘Right Man’ would never admit that he might be wrong. Wilson suggests that people start with the ‘truth’ they want to believe, and then work backwards to find supporting evidence. Similarly, Robert Pirsig says that ideas coming from outside orthodox establishments tend to be dismissed. Thinkers hit “an invisible wall of prejudice… nobody inside… is ever going to listen… not because what you say isn’t true, but solely because you have been identified as outside that wall.” He termed this a ‘cultural immune system’.

We may remember our experiences and relate them accurately; but as to complex things like history, politics, peoples’ motives, etc, the models of reality we have can at best be only partly true. We are naive if taken in by ‘spin’; we’re gullible, paranoid or crazy if we give credit to ‘conspiracy theories’; and, with limited knowledge of psychology, scientific method, the nature of politics etc, the ‘truth’ will tend to elude us there too.

Jim Fairer, Kirriemuir, Scotland

As I gather amongst my fellow lovers of wisdom for another round of coffee, debate and discussion, I try to filter in the question I am trying to answer: ‘What is Truth?’ With many a moan and a sigh (and indeed a giggle from some), I try to wiggle out the truth from these B.A. philosophy students. I think it is interesting to examine why philosophy students should hate the question so much. It seems that the question itself is meaningless for some of them. “Really?” they asked, “Aren’t we a little too postmodern for that?” Actually, I reminded them, the question itself can be considered to be postmodern. Postmodernism is not the opposite of realism. Rather, postmodernism only questions the blatant acceptance of reality. If postmodernism did not ask the question of truth, but rather, assumed that [it is true that] there is no truth, it would be just as unassuming about truth as realism is.

“But wait,” said one crafty little Socrates, “You mentioned, realism: so are the questions of what is true and what is real the same question?” Then it became terribly frightening, because we entered into a debate about the relation between language and reality. We agreed amongst ourselves that it certainly seemed that both questions are roughly treated as equal, since when one questions certainty, one questions both truth and reality, and postmodernists certainly question both. The question then became: If Truth and Reality are so intimately connected, to what degree do we have access to reality, and what do we use to access this reality and come to truth? We perused the history of philosophy. It seemed to us that from Descartes to Kant (and some argued that even in phenomenology and existentialism) there has been an unhealthy relationship between us and reality/truth. Indeed, you could argue that a great deal of the history of Western philosophy was trying to deal with the problem of alienation, ie, the alienation of human beings from reality and truth.

Abigail Muscat, Zebbug, Malta

‘Truth’ has a variety of meanings, but the most common definitions refer to the state of being in accordance with facts or reality. There are various criteria, standards and rules by which to judge the truth that statements profess to claim. The problem is how can there be assurance that we are in accordance with facts or realities when the human mind perceives, distorts and manipulates what it wants to see, hear or decipher. Perhaps a better definition of truth could be, an agreement of a judgment by a body of people on the facts and realities in question.

I have indeed always been amazed at how far people are willing to be accomplices to the vast amount of lies, dishonesty and deception which continuously goes on in their lives. The Global Financial Crisis, the investment scandal of Bernard Madoff, the collapse of Enron, and the war in Iraq, are familiar stories of gross deception from the past decade. The Holocaust is another baffling case of a horrendous genocide that was permitted to take place across a whole continent which seemed completely oblivious to reality. And yet even today we find people who deny such an atrocity having taken place, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

Discovering the truth will be a hurtful and painful experience when the facts or realities turn out to be different from what is expected. Yet there ought to be no grounds for despair if we accept that the ideal of truth, like all other virtues, can be approached rather than attained. This ideal truth can be glimpsed if we manage to be sceptical, independent and open-minded when presented with the supposed facts and realities. However, in searching for the truth, precaution must be taken, that we are not trapped into a life overshadowed by fear, suspicion and cynicism, since this would suspend us in a state of continuous tension. One might easily conclude that living a life not concerned with probing for the truth would perhaps after all yield greater peace of mind. But it is the life that continuously struggles with the definition of the truth that will ultimately give scope and meaning to human existence.

Ian Rizzo, Zabbar, Malta

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: How Can I Be Happy? Demonstrate the route to happiness in less than 400 words, please. Easy. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’, and must be received by 25th October. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.

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