There’s a common idea of what truth is. That common idea is in most senses, incorrect. I’ll save time by telling what I’ve found it to be; a word, a stamp of approval that something believed is worth believing for different reasons, the marriage of belief and justification. Truth is what we believe is “the case with x”.
We want truth to be objective. Some think that if truth is not something independent of ourselves, then whatever we say “is true” will be relative. We want to be certain and feel that truth must be absolute. This is the general feeling about what we want from truth, in saying something is true.
Philosophical epistemology has demonstrated precise problems with that casual desire, and, that in the end, truth can be objective, but it is never mind-independent; certainty has nothing to do with truth but everything to do with psychology.
I would recommend two books to anyone interested in what I bring out in conversation here. They discuss some of the fundamental problems of “the truth we want” and, “the truth we can have”. They are downloadable here:
There are literally centuries of thought on what truth is and as much reading material as a person would want on the topic. There are many ideas from the past that are still interesting ideas. What I tend to do is look at what our present notions are, given that all previous conversations on truth have lead to the refined ideas we have today.
And, where are we today? It seems there is an ideological battle to demand what truth is and means and it has little to do with any real engaging discussion of what we’ve learned or ought to think, given what we’ve already discovered. For many, truth is on whatever “side” of some answer a person wants. That’s generally a problem of fundamentalist thinking. There is no “side” nor view of the world one could hold where there are no fundamentalists lurking about among a group of otherwise very intelligent people with great ideas.
There are two kinds of people today who often take sides in the battle of truth. One is the religious fundamentalist. The other, a person whose view of the world doesn’t include religious dogmas or beliefs, but, has a dogmatic and belief-based ideology akin to religion all the same; their foundation not being science itself, but “scientism”. Discussing truth is a fantastic way to tell who is whom.
For instance, tell someone like Frank Turek, Lee Stroble, R. C. Sproul that truth is mind-dependent and see what happens! Each has their own intellectual tricks to avoid having to think about the fact that it is. Tell someone like Richard Dawkins or Laurence Krauss that science cannot address all human concerns, or that “evidence” and “fact” are interpretations rather than the Universe’s attempts to speak for itself; that “evidence” is merely any good “reason to assert” and that “empirical” has other definitions such as “by way of experience” that make “scientific evidence” no more meaningful or valid than any other “reason to assert” any proposition in any other field of inquiry. See what reaction is had there!
It remains today that there are beliefs, and, there are justifications for them and when sufficiently justified, truth is born. Historically speaking, all truths have a lifespan; a definitive birth and an equally undeniable death. Neither religion nor science has produced any other kind of truth outside of a justified, meaningful thing to say.
Here’s one idea: Thank you for being pithy, Richard.
Here’s another from “The Grand Design” by Mlodinow and Hawking:
(Model-dependent realism) is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such amodel is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth.” (p.7)
There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality.” (p. 42) … it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation, like the goldfish’s picture ( of the world, through the distorted lens of a spherical fishbowl ) and ours ( without this lens distortion ), then one cannot say that one is more real than the other. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration. … Model dependent realism applies not only to scientific models but also to the conscious and subconscious mental models we all create in order to interpret and understand the everyday world. There is no way to remove the observer – us – from our perception of the world, which is created though our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception – and hence the observations upon which our theories are based – is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains. (p. 46)
And here is a view from arguably the most contemptible philosopher in the eyes of both Science and Theology alike on the topic of truth (Richard Rorty, “The Consequences Of Pragmatism”):
Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the True or the Good, or to define the word “true” or “good,” supports their suspicion that there is no interesting work to be done in this area. It might, of course, have turned out otherwise. People have, oddly enough, found something interesting to say about the essence of Force and the definition of “number.” They might have found something interesting to say about the essence of Truth. But in fact they haven’t. The history of attempts to do so, and of criticisms of such attempts, is roughly coextensive with the history of that literary genre we call “philosophy” – a genre founded by Plato. So pragmatists see the Platonic tradition as having outlived its usefulness. (p. 2)
… there is no pragmatic difference, no difference that makes a difference, between “it works because it’s true” and “it’s true because it works” any more than between “it’s pious because the gods love it” and “the gods love it because it’s pious.” … there is no pragmatic difference between the nature of truth and the test of truth, and that the test of truth, of what statements to assert, is (except maybe for a few perceptual statements) not “comparison with reality.” (p. 17)
Rorty would, and did, continue on to say there is no conceivable test in which we can determine how our vocabularies would be associative with how the world is (similar to Kant’s problem of “ding an sich”, the thing itself). This leads, or should, to truth being a practical matter. Over the past few decades, it indeed seems Science has begun to see its task in this light; especially given “Model Dependent Realism”, which is the very notion of pragmatism; a “Thank you” there to Mlodinow and Hawking for both soothing our minds that “Philosophy is dead” while reviving it a few pages later, articulating a very old idea first brought forth by C. S. Peirce!
So, what’s to fear in what we’ve learned so far about truth? It seems to me that the fear isn’t so much about relativism, nor about letting go of our desires for truth to be something it clearly is not. We fear – that is to say, “some” fear – not being absolutely sure of what we believe; it’s the fear of being wrong and having so much at stake to lose in what we do hold as true. This is not a problem that plagues theologians nor one that concerns scientists. It is a concern, however, for the religious and those of scientism.
At my second mention of “scientism”, it may help to understand what that means, what I mean by it. Here’s is a great paper on the subject by Philosopher, Susan Haak. She does a wonderful job of doing just that.
To allay fears, we have to remind that “objective” is not the opposite of “subjective”. I can, in fact, have an objective opinion and it is completely still a subjective matter! “Objective” means any rational person would generally conclude the same as any other, given a problem or question where each of us experience the same conditions, have the same information available, and we understand that information. In other words, “objective” assertions are those that are publically available to interrogate. The conclusions are “objectified” in intersubjective agreement. The “truth” of “the case with x” lay not in the opinion of an individual but in the agreement of those who would assert it.
It would seem almost a joke for us to debate what truth is where one person would assert that truth is absolute; all the while, him having to argue in order justify his claim and get a number of people persuaded to believe him, that absolute truth exists and is mind-independent. It would almost seem, however, there are many that would do just that and are dead serious about it!
Likewise, it would also seem a joke for a person to argue that science gives us truth and, that all previous versions of it are replaced by something simply more accurate; all the while, not noticing that this implies the target (ie, what “the thing itself” actually is) is actually known, so we are currently just flying arrows at it for no real reason … since we know where and what the mark is to begin with!
“Are you certain what you’ve said so far is true, Steve?”
Well, certainty has nothing to do with truth! I believe what I’ve said thus far is true, because I’ve got good reasons to think it is. Moreover, they’re objective.
“But Steve, it is a fact that I’m having tea just now!”
Well, if you mean by “fact”, a belief about your actions or experience being described in no better way than how you’re describing it, fine! Otherwise, you’ll be left to argue not so casually with Cartesian maxims that never lead to any justifications for that belief; no certitudes, no “obviousness” of “having tea just now”.
When I look at the summer sky in the Northern hemisphere and I see that “the sky is blue”, and when I assert “the sky is blue”, it is objective. it is a fact. it is something I know. I know it certainly. However, it is also not a fact, not something I know, not something to be sure of. All at the same time! Color doesn’t exist “out there” in the world, at all! Color exists “in here”, a perception of external input; the frequency of light, to be exact. However, it is a fact, an objective fact, that when I assert “the sky is blue”, it is not my mere opinion, and, we all understand what I mean in saying “the sky is blue”; intersubjective agreement on the meanings and the “facts” of the matter. Even to say it in the more precisely “true” form of light frequencies does not change the truth of the assertion. In fact, it would seem absurd to try and reduce all language to such other terms; especially given that the “fact” of light frequencies is justified in the same sense rather than an external “truth” that light tells us about.
“Ah, but absolutes do exist! 2+2=4 and, ‘you can’t come from where you haven’t been’! I exist!”
Great! The axiom that gives us 4 is only true by definition. In “addition”, it’s not absolutely true! Aside from the fact that we have the presumption of precision, we are also presuming the base of the operation itself; which is a contingent context and not universal then as a result! 2+2=10 (base 4)! As far as us not coming from somewhere we’ve not been, that is a truism, and may just be something we can’t see any way around believing (much like we used to feel about color, or in the same way some felt about science being able to correspond ideas to reality rather creating models instead). With existence, again given Cartesian maxims, “I exist” is simply more work to doubt than believe. “I exist” is a tautology and that’s all there is to say there; but there is no grounding tautology! “It is what it is” doesn’t express anything which can be true; no more than adding “[it] is true [that]” to any proposition, whether as a prefix or a suffix.
The entire battle over what truth is is not fought with axioms, truisms, or tautology. It is fought any time there is an idea which must be justified in order to be believed. Science is the perfect tool for justifying any material explanation of reality, the physicality of the world! Science cannot however, answer all of the questions we have about the world. Theological notions about existence can be logically grounded, necessitated, but the empirical (“by way of experience”) understanding of God or humanity is never “objective” and then, never certain in any public sense. We rely on faith that Science has done its work in telling us what the latest model of reality is. We rely on our experience of faith in God in seeing faith has bearing in reality. Both ultimately have the same idea in mind of understanding truth, whether physically or metaphysically. Ultimately too, we can only ask ourselves if the justification and the beliefs proposed by either are useful, meaningful, ask “does this work?”.
Truth is at best, a word we use to describe what thoughts, what ideas, what problems face us, how we address them at this current moment, in the conditions we are in; it is where we have currently stepped as we continue to walk into the mystery of a million x-es with many cases for each; our justified beliefs about the mystery of being.