Tuesday, December 9, 2008

the whole truth

There's been an interesting discussion about the "What is truth?" question over at the other post, and a school of thought has appeared in the comment threads that deserves to be addressed: is truth simply binary, not admitting of degrees? Commentor Bob Koepp puts it this way:

"2+2=4" is true. "2+2=4 and 2+3=5" is also true, but not more true, or true to a greater degree than the former. There's an important difference between 'more truths' and 'more true.'

BTW, I think that people preparing to testify in court should agree to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth -- leaving the whole truth to the gods.

Later, he writes:

..."partial truths" are not "partly true"; they're "wholly true", but not the "whole truth".

Malcolm adds, riffing off my "light as wave/particle/wavicle" example:

"Light acts as a particle" is true. "Light acts as a wave" is also true. "Light acts as a wavicle" might pick out some finer-grained properties of light, and be a more informative description, but it isn't "truer".

So let's once again set out the three propositions:

P1: Light acts like a wave.
P2: Light acts like a particle.
P3: Light acts like a wavicle.

If we define "truth" degreelessly, i.e., as a binary of yes/no or true/not-true, it becomes impossible to distinguish which of the above three propositions comes closest to describing what light actually is. The only conclusion we can draw is that all three claims about light are equally true. This problem crops up in other areas as well. A person who testifies in court might make nothing but true statements in response to a lawyer's questions, but still manage to avoid telling the whole truth (or, if not the whole truth, at least as much truth as is relevant to the case). It does us no good to think of the deceitful witness as 100% truthful (which, according to the simple binary way of thinking, he is); without some notion of degree, we are unable tell liars from the sincere.

So while I can understand how

2+2=4

and

2+3=5

might be called "equally true" according to a certain view of truth, I think that truth, if we take it to be the relationship between propositions about reality and reality itself, has to admit of degrees.

If I insist on defining truth this way, however, one uncomfortable implication may be that the above equations shouldn't necessarily be thought of as "true," per se, except as descriptors of something tangibly real. As long as the equations aren't referring to anything in the real world, they aren't true: they're correct. Think about the difference between valid and sound arguments in syllogistic logic:

All borogoves are mome raths.
Mimsy the Tentacled Hamster is a borogove.
Therefore, Mimsy is a mome rath.

The above syllogism points to nothing real; it can be called "valid" or "correct"... but is it true?

The equation 2+2=4, then, isn't true except as a descriptor for something real, such as when we add apples together. Truth must be relentlessly linked back to reality, or we aren't talking about truth.

Addofio added something interesting to the discussion. In my first draft of the original "truth" post, I'd actually mentioned something similar to what she wrote about, then I deleted what I'd written. Later on, Addofio apparently read my mind:

Truth as simply a property of language? Or even of ideas and concepts, which aren't always entirely captured by language? Somehow, that always seems to lack a level of profundity that "truth" ought, at least, to have. At the very least, it leaves out "Truth is Beauty, and Beauty Truth"; beauty is definitely not always a matter of language.

The passage I had written and deleted dealt with the idea of "nondiscursive propositions" such as, say, a work of art. There's a sense in which art "speaks" to us and says something about reality. What the message is might not be discursively available, and yet we feel its resonance, as when a poet describes a "black whiteness" or a "round square." These are ideas that might be logically incoherent, yet might nevertheless orient our sensibilities toward something valuable, something about reality that can't be captured in words. I would hate to think that all reality can be rendered as text; this would strike me as too much of a concession to the paleo-Derridean school of differential postmodernism.

Anyway, for the moment at least, I remain unconvinced that it's useful to speak of truth as a simple binary. It's not enough to point out whether there is or isn't a correspondence to reality; it's also important to realize that greater and lesser degrees of correspondence are possible. Not to do the latter is to have an unnuanced view of truth, and that, in turn, opens the door to needless relativism.


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18 comments:

Charles said...

I always end up getting lost in these sorts of threads, but I'll take a swing at this one, since no one else has posted yet. I'll start with a quote from the post:

P1: Light acts like a wave.
P2: Light acts like a particle.
P3: Light acts like a wavicle.

If we define "truth" degreelessly, i.e., as a binary of yes/no or true/not-true, it becomes impossible to distinguish which of the above three propositions comes closest to describing what light actually is.


Why does it become impossible to distinguish which proposition comes closest to describing what light actually is? Isn't this why we have concepts such as accuracy, descriptiveness, etc.? All of the propositions above are true, but the third proposition is more accurate, more completely descriptive, than the other two.

In your example of the insincere yet truthful witness, again I don't understand why truth and sincerity can't remain separate concepts. Why does it do us no good to think of the witness as 100% truthful? Can't we simultaneously think of the witness as also being 0% sincere?

I did read the other post and the subsequent comments, and I have to admit I'm still having a hard time understanding why "truth" has to cover degrees of accuracy, descriptiveness, and sincerity as well. These other concepts easily admit the idea of degrees, and should suit our purposes fine. I realize that I haven't really said anything that hasn't already been said... I'm just still not convinced.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Well, it's a matter of definition, then.

There's the philosopher's binary truth, and then there is the fuzzier kind of truth you are yearning for: a poet's truth, or an artist's or a lover's. That sort of truth is, to me, more like understanding.

The philosopher's variety comes in two subspecies, broadly speaking; there are empirical or synthetic truths, which relate propositions to contingent, "truthmaking" facts about the world; and there are analytic truths - like your borogoves, or the truth of statements like "a triangle has three sides".

But I don't think - no Platonist I - that there is any Truth "out there" in the world. The world just is. Truth requires minds.

Kevin said...

Charles,

"In your example of the insincere yet truthful witness, again I don't understand why truth and sincerity can't remain separate concepts. Why does it do us no good to think of the witness as 100% truthful?"

For me, in the case of the insincere witness, I have a hard time reconciling "100% truthful" with "sincere." It seems like a legalistic dodge, the sort of thing children might do when questioned by their parents.

Family camping scenario: Johnny's little brother walks away behind a boulder; a few minutes later, the little brother gets eaten by a bear and Johnny hears the horrible sounds. Johnny's mother later asks, "Did you see your brother?" Johnny, who knows he was supposed to watch over his brother to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening, looks his mother dead in the eye and says, "No, I didn't see him, Mom."

I have a hard time viewing Johnny's response as 100% truthful.


Kevin

Malcolm Pollack said...

The difficulty in your example about the bear, Kevin, is the vagueness and imprecision of the propositions under examination.

Kevin said...

Whoops-- I should have written:

I have a hard time reconciling "100% truthful" with "insincere."


Kevin

Kevin said...

Malcolm,

I think a workable concept of truth is going to have to handle the fuzziness inherent in human interaction. There's a sense in which the boy spoke truly when he told his mother he didn't see his brother, but it's also obvious the boy, despite having made a completely "truthful" statement, is also being evasive. I don't find "truthful" an apt descriptor here, whereas "partly truthful" affords us a better picture of the reality of the situation.


Kevin

Kevin said...

To be clear, I'm applying "partly truthful" to the boy's statement, not to the boy himself. I don't think this is an imprecise move.


Kevin

Malcolm Pollack said...

Sure. I'm just pointing out that the word "truth" means many different things, depending on the context.

But if we want a clear answer to "what is truth?", we first have to choose which context and usage we are talking about. Otherwise we are just having fun, and making a nice breeze.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Sorry - that came out sounding rather snotty, which I hadn't intended.

Kevin said...

I didn't take it as snotty: I was, in fact, thinking of writing a fart joke in response.


Kevin

Malcolm Pollack said...

True to form!

Charles said...

I think it does come down to what Malcolm said up top: the difference between a philosopher's truth and an artist's truth. I don't see the two really coming to any sort of compromise.

I still don't have much of a problem with "100% truthful" and "insincere" (or even "deceptive") existing side by side. I do understand what you're saying, I just don't think we need to extend truth in this fashion.

bob koepp said...

Kevin says:
"All borogoves are mome raths.
Mimsy the Tentacled Hamster is a borogove.
Therefore, Mimsy is a mome rath.

The above syllogism points to nothing real; it can be called "valid" or "correct"... but is it true?"

The problem here is that there's no such thing as a true syllogism. The above syllogism is valid. It is not sound, because its _premises_ are not true.

As for the wave, particle, wavicle example, all three statements about light are true. The third is not more true, even though it is closer to expressing the "whole truth" about light. (The reason I leave the whole truth to the gods is because I don't think finite minds like ours can grasp a proposition that expresses the whole truth about anything -- for the not so simple reason that the whole truth about anything is probably equivalent to the whole truth about everything.)

Malcolm Pollack said...

"...the whole truth about anything is probably equivalent to the whole truth about everything.

Excellent aphorism, Bob.

Kevin said...

Lady (only one so far in this discussion) and Gentlemen,

Like the Virgin Mary, I'll take these things and ponder them in my heart. When I wrote the original post, I put my own thoughts out there because I didn't have a clear idea of how to define truth. I'm still not clear on that, but I'm going to think over this notion that truth is a yes/no answer to the question, "Is there a correspondence between a proposition and reality?"

I admit I'm not convinced that this is the case, mainly because such a stark way of defining truth robs the concept of most of its explanatory power. I should also say that I'm aware of the distinction between analytic and synthetic truth, but again see analytic truth as not really true unless applied to something tangibly or experientially real.

Will continue to ponder. On this question, I am persuadable.


Kevin

Malcolm Pollack said...

I should also say that I'm aware of the distinction between analytic and synthetic truth, but again see analytic truth as not really true unless applied to something tangibly or experientially real.

So much for mathematical truth, then!

Kevin said...

M,

Well, that's the point I made earlier: those equations don't mean much unless they're applied to something real. Otherwise, they're off playing in their untouchable apodictic world.


Kevin

bob koepp said...

But Kevin, the world of mathematics is "touched" all the time by people -- that's how we know (in a very strong sense of that word) a fair bit about maths. Granted, the "touching" involved here isn't quite like getting hit in the face with a rock, but somehow or other an "impression" is left.