Friday, July 16, 2010

What is Truth?

It seems that one of the things that has taken a beating in recent years is the concept of "truth"--what is true and what isn't. One of the warnings about "post-modernism" that some were making a few years ago concerned the view of "truth" supposedly at the root of PM thinking. Personally, I'm not sure that what Postmodernism really is has been that much settled and cast in concrete yet; "modernism" which PM is replacing (supposedly) took a century or more to really come together, and PM is going to need at least as much time to settle down.

I think what we really have is two things related to "truth": a lot of fuzzy thinking by some people about the nature of "truth" on one hand, and a lot of other people playing fast and loose with the truth when they find some truth inconvenient (this is part of the moral breakdown in our society that I've blogged about elsewhere). The fuzzy thinkers want to have "my truth" as something separate from "your truth"; the trouble is, sooner or later you have to accept the fact that the only place we can live in is the real world. Sooner or later you have to face the fact that this "my truth/your truth" fuzziness does not work reliably in that real world; and the longer you put off facing it the worse mess you'll be in. The second group has always been around, often in professions like politics and used-car sales. There's a good old-fashioned, Anglo-Saxon word for them: liars. And the trouble with being a liar is you need a very good memory; the more you lie, the more you have to keep track of what you said, who you said it to, and when. And the odds are really against the liar; sooner or later he slips up and gets caught.

I know there are plenty of books out on this subject (I saw one of them a few weeks ago at my in-laws' house). But I keep going back to a simple working definition of "truth" that I learned in a class on "Philosophy of Education" many years ago. The professor passed away long since, but some of the things I learned from him have lasted all this time, and here's the relevant one for this post:

"Truth" is the correspondence between what is and what is said about what is.

In other words, you look at what is being said and compare it to the real world, or a particular item in the real world.

He also told us, "Absolute truth" is an absolute correspondence between what is and what is said about what is.

Let's unpack some of this. You've got two things: "what is" and "what is said about what is". And it involves a comparison, a checking up to see if "what is said" is valid or not. And I like it because it is rooted in the real world, the place we actually live in day after day. If "what is said" conforms substantially to what is in the real world, and works in that real world, we can regard it as substantially true. And if it does not, we do not regard it as true. If we can't tell, then the best thing may be to put it on hold and leave it undecided for a while. We can look at the source for this "what is said" --have its statements been reliably true before? Do its other statements work in the real world or not?

And what about "absolute" truth? I know it has been fashionable in some circles to say "There are no absolutes." I see two problems with this: in terms of logic, the statement itself is made as an absolute, therefore according to its own content it is false (any argument that undercuts its own validity loses). And it does not work in that pesky "Real World"--have you ever tried to convince a math teacher that under some circumstances two plus two might equal five? Mathematics is certainly one area where the Real World does have some absolutes, and a case can be made that it is not the only area.

The "fuzzy thinkers" can stay in their academic ivory towers and cook up their fancies all they want. As long as they stay there out of the way, not much harm is likely to be done. Make-believe worlds can be fun, as long as you remember they are only make-believe (science-fiction and fantasy writers do this all the time). The problems start when these fuzzy thinkers and their students come out and expect the rest of us to take them seriously and act according to their ideas in the Real World--and their ideas don't work in the Real World. All too often, they themselves do not live consistently with their own ideas when they have to deal with the Real World. A classic example was the composer John Cage, who tried to make everything in his music random and non-patterned rather than following the traditional ideas of harmony and tone in music (at one of his performances the orchestra themselves hissed at him at the conclusion). But when he developed a taste for wild mushrooms and started collecting them personally, he learned all he could about identifying them properly; he knew if he picked up mushrooms randomly as he wrote his music, he would end up dead! The Real World won.

I think that could lead us to another Absolute: Sooner or later, the Real World is always going to win. I suspect one advantage of the current economic distress is that it reminds us of the Real World and its importance, and that indulging the fuzzy thinkers and the liars is at best a luxury, a luxury that maybe we really cannot afford.

1 comment:

ded said...

Thanks, Phil. Great post!!