Archives for posts with tag: Truth

What does it mean for something to be true? You might be inclined to suggest that it is a factual representation of the world, so sure. Let’s go with that. How do we know that something is a factual representation of the world? Well, we’d have to figure out what it means to know something. The general consensus is that to know something is to hold a justified, true, belief. Let’s examine some controversy.

The Gettier Problem is a criticism of the justified, true belief model of knowledge. It is best explained using an example. A shepherd is tending his flock, and he checks in to see if all are present. He counts all but one, and then sees his last sheep on a hill in the distance, and thus knows that all his sheep have been accounted for. However, what he thought he saw was actually a dog, though his sheep was just on the other side of the hill, out of sight. The shepherd was justified in his belief since he did see something, and his belief was true since the sheep was indeed on the hill, but we would never claim that he knew his sheep was on the hill since he was mistaken in his observation.

Sheep dog

No one suspects the slightest!


I want to examine the ‘truth’ statement of the Gettier Problem, rather than its epistemological connotations. The sheep is only ‘truly’ on the hill because I placed it there as the author of this thought experiment, but in any real life situation completely removed from the abstract, how would we know that it is true? In order for it to be true, we would have to know it to have that property, and in order for us to know about that property, it would have to be true. Truth and knowledge become a chicken and egg infinite regress when we take the lessons of the Gettier Problem and infuse them into real life situations.

There are further problems with truth. Consider counterfactuals. Counterfactuals represent statements that are true, but do not offer a factual representation of the world. For example, if I say, “The cup is red,” and we can all see that the cup is red, it is a true statement because the cup in the world is red, and my statement is a factual representation of that. However, if I say, “If America focused on the popular vote rather than the electoral college, Hilary Clinton would be president,” it is still a true statement, but it is not a representation of anything in this world. Philosopher David Lewis postulated that if we wish to maintain truth as a factual representation of the world, counterfactuals must rely on alternate universes to which these statements must refer. So we either accept that infinite alternate universes exist, or we accept that truth as a representation of the world is an unfounded premise.

Lastly, let’s look at the Liar’s Paradox. “This sentence is false.” If the sentence is true, then it is false, and if it is false, then it becomes true. If something must be true or false (and how could it be both? Or worse yet, neither?), then the Liar’s Paradox frustrates the notion of truth further. However, let’s look at “This sentence is false” in the context of language rather than of truth, and compare it to, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Both sentences are grammatically accurate, and seem to point to things in the world, but both are equally nonsense. Something green cannot be colourless, nor can an idea possess either of those characteristics, nor can an idea sleep, nor can the process of sleep or ideas be angry.

Statements of any kind do not point to things in the world, but to mental imagery. For example, the Nile river is still the Nile river if it floods, if it becomes diverted or dammed, or becomes polluted to the point where there are more arsenic molecules than H20. “The Nile river” refers to our idea of “The Nile river,” regardless of its properties in the real world. “The cup is red” refers to our ideas of cups, redness, what it means to be, and the specificity of “the”. It’s not pointing to the cup in the world at all. This makes the problem of counterfactuals much less relevant, since language, no matter its use, can only ever point to mental imagery. It also negates the Liar’s Paradox, since mental imagery does not have to be coherent to the same degree as real world objects. We are not observing any objective falseness, nor analyzing a sentence in the world; both exist only in our minds.

The truth, then, is not a factual representation of things in the world, since that premise is riddled with problems and ultimately unknowable. Thus the truth is our mental understanding of what a thing means to be true.

There is a common philosophical methodology called reductionism. It’s where you cast aside all presuppositions until you have one, irrefutable fact about life. Then if you’re so inclined, you can build your philosophy from there. “I think, therefore I am” is one such example. Descartes chucked out the entire material world as possibly untrue, because you know what? We could be living in the Matrix with our brains hooked up to a bunch of wires that feed information to our senses. Descartes is suggesting that even if the material world doesn’t exist, there is still the brain in that gooey pod thing being fed information. Because I am thinking, there at least has to be some form of me somewhere to think. Now is Descartes right even on that assertion? Maybe we’re a mindless void being filled with alien television shows. How can we judge the validity of any claim?

And there are a lot of claims in this world of ours. There is a God. There is no God. Nobody loves me. Everybody loves me. Paul is a nice guy. Oh wait no, Paul is a dick. Pretty much all of our observations make some kind of claim towards the truth, and there must be a truth, right? Paul has to either be a dick, or  he’s not. These are two contradictory statements, and they can’t both be true. (Note: we’re going to live in a world of black and white here. There is no middle ground where Paul is just an okay guy. He’s either a gigantic prick or a saint, k?)

Say you’re walking down the street, and you see Paul coming down the opposite way. As soon as he sees you, Paul flips you the bird, turns and runs away forever. Heartbroken at realizing that Paul is a turd, you rush home crying to write about it in your diary. It seems the truth is that Paul is a dick.

Next day, you meet up with Paul’s nameless friend, who explains to you that Paul was actually flipping off some guy right behind you, who was about to stab you until he saw Paul’s judgmental middle finger, and spared your life out of shame. As it turns out, Paul saved you from certain doom, and it looks like Paul is a saint after all. The truth comes out for realz this time.

Now, what would happen if Paul’s nameless friend was hit by a bus and was brutally killed before they got around to telling you about this simple misunderstanding? The truth, for you, would still be that Paul is a dick. In your mind, this truth is unshakable. Your whole worldview revolves around the fact that Paul is a douchebag worth hours of indignant rage. You never figured out that other truth, and so your version of reality doesn’t line up with objective events. How many truth claims do you think don’t line up? Reality is experience combined with perception, and both of those things are heavily biased and flawed in many other ways, so I expect there are quite a few.

Now I can imagine you pushing up your thick-rimmed glasses with your index fingers, ahem-ing a couple of times, and nasally explaining to me that science and math prove that there can be an observable truth. 2 + 2 is always 4, and no amount of philosophical bullshit can disprove that. Except math and science aren’t truths, they are definitions. They are a creation of humanity used to observe our universe. 2 + 2 = 4 because one day a long time ago, some Greek dude named Pythagoras had two rocks, and then added another two rocks, and went like, “holy fucking shit, I now have four rocks!” Saying math proves truths is like saying language proves truths. Pointing at a spot on a colour wheel and exclaiming gleefully, “that’s green!” only proves that you have eyeballs and a concept of language and colour, nothing more. The scientific analogy here would be rubbing two sticks to make fire and witnessing the birth of Tom Hank’s movie Castaway. You understand the concept of combustion, congratulations. Science doesn’t make any kind of claim towards the universe, it just tries to define ones that already exist.

It’s easy to say, “Well objectively, Paul is a nice guy. You just were living a lie while you thought of him as a complete asshole.” And maybe that’s true. But how would you ever know? Everything that you had experienced pointed towards Paul being a dick. And the only reason to think that Paul is a saint is because of some claim that the nameless friend made, and what the hell do they know?  Have you ever been so sure of something, only to have some new piece of information come up and explode in your face like a hot load? What if you never got that hot load to the face? Can we as people ever make any claim to an objective truth?

There is a saying in regards to free will that goes something like this, “Even if there is no free will, we must act as if there is.” What this means is that if we are bound by God’s will, or we are part of some great destiny, or we are slaves to our biological impulses, for one thing, we would never be aware of it. We can’t know if our actions are our own, or if we’re being driven by some other force. But we have to act as if we are responsible for our actions in order for society to function, regardless of the truth.

What I’m suggesting is that, yeah, maybe there is some objective reality out there filled with all the truths you could ever want. Maybe we might even catch a glimpse of it every now and then. But there is no way of ever being able to tell what is the truth and what isn’t. If people lived under the rule of “maybe there is no truth” instead of the hard-lined, “I own the truth, fuck you”, society would function just a little better. Maybe you’d treat Paul like he was an okay guy, instead of like he was either a dick or a saint. I’m not saying throw all your beliefs out the window and live in a world filled with crippling doubt, but simply be aware that maybe things aren’t quite the way you think them to be.