Sunday, December 7, 2008

what is truth?

[Inspired by Addofio's comment-- it all depends on what one means by "true"-- at Malcolm's post.]

I'm partial to the notion that "truth" represents the nature of the relationship between a proposition and brute reality. Truth might be thought of as a property, the way "blue" doesn't exist in itself but is found always associated with (or inhering in) something else: blue paper, blue light as one of the forms of light radiating out of a prism, etc. You never find "blue" all by itself, and the same goes for truth.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is the king of France" is not true (i.e., does not possess the property of truth): the statement doesn't match reality. Truth might also occur in degrees: "A horse is an animal" is true, but that doesn't tell us much about horses; "A horse is a mammalian quadruped" is truer than the previous statement. The greater the correspondence with reality, the greater the truth. Of course, whether one can ever reach a "complete truth" is debatable. Can an individual horse be described completely in terms of its molecular structure, the path it takes through space-time, and whatever inner life it possesses? Perhaps we'll never have fully true descriptions of horses.

We have to distinguish this form of the word "truth" from the different, arguably nonphilosophical ways in which "truth" can be used, such as when a carpenter looks at the verticality of a wall and determines it to be true (i.e., perfectly straight/vertical). When someone asks, "What is truth?", it's the term's philosophical valence that concerns them.

Many things we call true might not, by this philosophical reckoning, be true at all. We talk about "human truths," for example -- patterns of behavior that seem consistent both synchronically and diachronically... but if we find there are many exceptions to the patterns we think we've discovered, those patterns are at best only partly true.

I'd say that some truths, such as the truth about horses, can never be fully expressed because the statements we make about such phenomena can never fully reflect their dynamic reality. When dealing with things that change, things that can be approached from an infinity of different angles, one cannot hope to speak totally truly of them. In that sense, most truths are necessarily inexpressible truths, if by "truth" we mean complete truth.

Your thoughts on truth?



Anonymous said...

Jacques - "How dare you suggest that truth resides anywhere in language! Begone, hypocrite lecteur!"

Anonymous said...

Please forgive my pedantry in advance.

"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.

Kevin Kim said...


Is that Jacques, as in Derrida? He's the one who (in)famously wrote, "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte," i.e., "There is nothing outside of text." Which to my mind is bullshit. I'd say that most of our experiences are incapable of being put into words. There's plenty of nontextuality in human experience.

I also think there's a distinction between what's true and what's real. Reality simply is what it is; truth is the correspondence of a proposition with reality. Derrida, postmodernist that he was, would have had difficulty with the idea of there being an objective reality-- in his world, we're always digging through a field of textuality in the vain search for a "transcendental signified," some ultimate meaning-maker, but we can never find it.

The chapter "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" in Derrida's Writing and Difference goes into this whole critique of the so-called "metaphysics of presence," Derrida's term for what, according to him, most Western philosophy has been constructing over the past two millennia. "Presence" is again shorthand for the transcendental signified, the ground of being from which all meaning springs. I'm definitely not in Derrida's camp. At the same time, I see ultimate reality as dependently co-arisen, intercausal, so it's not a simple ground of being.


Yes, there's the whole question of truth as it applies to the apodictic realm, where we can probably deal with truth in a simple, binary manner-- true/false.

Apodictic truths and I have a strange relationship, though. I'm not a Platonist and don't see these truths as logically prior to empirical reality (though I realize strong arguments can be made in favor of their priority). 2+2=4 is a meaningless proposition until applied to something tangible. Once we see that two kids added to two kids will give us four kids-- and that this can be applied to eggs, cars, etc.-- we can then go back to 2+2=4 and say that it works. With that established, we can rely on math for our engineering feats: math is a system that, in areas like physics, correctly describes reality, which brings us back to my original take on truth (well, it's obviously not original to me; I'm not that creative a thinker).


Anonymous said...

Kevin - My point wasn't about apodictic truths -- you can substitute whatever non-apodictic truths you want in the schema to see that "partial truths" are not "partly true"; they're "wholly true", but not the "whole truth".

I do tend toward Platonism when it comes to mathematics, and I think you are wrong about maths "working" when applied to tangible objects. In fact, the Pythagorean theorem (e.g.) doesn't "work" when applied to any tanglible "triangular" object -- it only "works" for the ideal sort.

Kevin Kim said...


they're "wholly true", but not the "whole truth"

Interesting. I think I see what you're saying. But in this way of looking at things, there are no degrees-- no "true, truer, truest"? That would seem to make it hard to compare different explanations of phenomena and would open the door to a perhaps unnecessary relativism, wouldn't it?

"Light acts like a particle" is wholly true, but not the whole truth. "Light acts like a wave" is wholly true, but not the whole truth. "Light acts like a wavicle" would seem to be truer than the previous two claims: it corresponds more closely to the reality of what light is.

As for Platonism... well, you know I'm more of an empiricist. I don't see tangible reality as instantiations of Ideal Forms. What we think of as Ideal Forms are what we extract from experiencing reality. The perfect right triangle would be an example of that, and the successful application of the Pythagorean Theorem in, say, engineering would mean that that theorem is an apt descriptor of one aspect of reality.


Unknown said...

I've been wrestling with the question of "what is reality?" I believe in an objective reality, but I'm not quite sure how to define it. Actually, I'm more interested in how you test whether a proposition is in agreement with said objective reality. I'm leaning towards saying that a model of reality is best tested by the technology question. If you can build working technology based on your "model" of reality, than it is accurate. Being unable to build technology from your model implies that it is false.

Of course, this idea seems to negate all religious / spiritual knowledge. More thought on this is required.

Anonymous said...

Kevin - I have no use for the progression "true, truer, truest" -- but I gladly embrace "close, closer, closest, and on the mark." In practical applications, involving tangible objects, we invariably operate as pragmatists, where "close enough to satisfy our practical aims" is all that matters. That's the perspective from which to understand the "aptness" of the Pythagorean theorem as employed by engineers. But ask any competent engineer and you'll be told that they deal only with approximations.

Kevin Kim said...

Mellow Yellow,

I doubt there's a way to demonstrate the existence of an objective reality. I trust it's there, though, mainly because I rely on Occam's Razor: the idea that we're all constructing our own cosmoses gets very messy very quickly. Simpler to say there's one objective reality experienced through a multiplicity of limited perspectives.

I have a friend who went through a "Do I exist? Does anything exist?" phase. My response was to insist that he live up to the courage of his convictions, and step onto the street into the path of an oncoming truck if he really questioned the truck's existence (I'm not the first to handle the problem this way). Of course he never did it: at the gene-deep level, he's as convinced as I am that the truck has its own existence independent of his senses and mentation.

My own point of departure is empirical/practical. I have trouble with classical theism-- the tradition in which I was raised-- because it asks you to believe far too many unprovables. If I often seem partial to Buddhism, it's because of Buddhism's own stress on attentiveness, on both inner and outer empiricism.

Testing whether a proposition conforms to objective reality means, in most cases, using some sort of empirical method. "Nicolas Sarkozy is the king of France" is a claim we can empirically verify. "Objects float away from the center of earth when we release them" is also easy to confirm (or, in this case, disconfirm).

Some propositions will be harder to confirm empirically, and in most cases, we forge ahead in our lives without sufficient knowledge. M. Scott Peck deals with this problem from the psychological perspective by noting that the people most "in tune" with reality are those who are willing to redraw their map of reality when they discover that the territory doesn't conform to the map. Perhaps such constant redrawing is the best we can hope to manage.


Kevin Kim said...


I wonder whether we're arguing over semantics. If "true" represents closeness to reality (where "closeness" is one way to describe what I previously called "the relationship between a proposition and brute reality"), how is the "true, truer" progression different from "close, closer, closest, and on the mark"? Or are you saying that this is how engineers would express the same point of view I'm expressing?


Anonymous said...

Kevin - I don't think we're arguing over semantics. Maybe there's a semantic question about whether to speak of formal properties rather than abstract entities. But however we refer to intangibles, my point is that the clearest instances of truth we have are about such intangibles, and those truths are not approximative, but exact. Even when we speak loosely of approximate truth, it's the exact notion that marks the point relative to which we judge "proximity". Or so it seems to me.

Anonymous said...

Huh. So I guess I'm the only one who thought this post might be about a philosophical remix of Haddaway's famous dance number from the 90s.

Anonymous said...

Think I'll tackle "reality" first.

I think one of the problems with discussions of "what is reality?" or "whatis real?" is that we assume that we always mean same thing. I think there are different kinds of "reality": physical reality, social reality, personal reality, at least. If anyone is interested in more--here's a link to my model (Kevin, if that's OK; I don't know if you allow links in your comments.)

Now for "truth".

I tend to agree with Kevin that truth is essentially a property of propositions. At least, that's the best I've been able to come up with. But that leaves me still somewhat dissatisfied. It doesn't quite capture something that seems to matter. 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.

I'll just add that even as a matter of correspondence between propositions and reality, my more complex model of reality would imply a more complex concept of "truth" as well. It allows for the possibility of (approximations to) objective truths as well as truths that are true for me but not for you--depending on what the propositions under consideration are about.

And we have yet to touch on the relationship of "knowledge" to all this. . . . For example, a given statement/proposition may be definitely true or definitely false, but we don't know, perhaps even can't know, which.

Malcolm Pollack said...

I'm with Bob. Sure, in casual language we can talk about "truer", but strictly speaking, I have to agree that either a proposition is true or not, once defined with sufficiient clarity.

"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".

As for "Do I exist? Does anything exist?" I recall a professor once answering that question by saying "Who is asking?"