Saturday, August 02, 2008

questions about Truth in endlessly astounding reality

Truth was defined in the previous entry as nothing more than the measure of correspondence between specific ideas and reality. This (singularly unoriginal) stance provokes follow-up questions, whose answers serve to clarify what I meant. I wish I could properly categorize my concept of Truth, but I don't have sufficient technical knowledge and/or scholarship; pragmatism's seems similar.
  • Q: For someone to accept this definition of Truth, isn't he or she forced to assume the truth of the definition itself? A: Yes, but all definitions of Truth have the same "shortcoming". All definitions of Truth are statements, thoughts, etc., whose truth cannot be accepted except on "their own terms". Truth definitions can't be logically derived. However, one can assume the truth of the Truth definition and then apply it to itself. In my encounters with reality, to define Truth as the measure of accordance with reality is to define Truth in a way that has a high measure of accordance with reality, i.e. this definition of Truth hasn't been misleading. Hypothetically defining Truth as what Simon Says would fall apart as soon as Simon said something impossible, such as a self-contradiction (bad Simon!).
  • Q: What about the truth of "32 - 15 = 17"? A: That exact statement is neither true nor false. It doesn't correspond to reality--it's about "mental realities", symbols, generalizations. A remarkably similar statement like "separating 15 pennies on this table from the original grouping of 32 pennies will result in a grouping of 17 remaining pennies" is either true or false, but my reason suggests it is true. The utility of math, or any other formalized system of reasoning, is thanks to a human discovery: the assumption of an exceedingly small set of true statements and (formal) rules for truthfully combining statements enables an explosion of creative proofs of other true statements, "theorems". As long as the formalized reasoning system's symbols and rules indeed correspond to reality, the theorems produced should, too. The ideas known as quantities happen to correspond so easily, so well, so unambiguously, and so consistently to reality that we forget their existence is purely mental.
  • Q: Can't a proposition be true, and therefore part of the Truth, regardless of whether anyone is convinced it is true? A: Nope. If truth is the measure of correspondence to reality, that measurement (or judgment, etc.) must be executed and evaluated by someone who comprehends both reality and the proposition! No individual truth is "substantial", since it's a characteristic of the relationship between an idea and reality. Reality is "substantial". Reality is. In other words, reality doesn't "depend" on propositions. Reality's "realness" isn't contingent on the thoughts of humans. Truth is the extent by which people's thoughts succeed at agreeing with reality, not the extent by which reality succeeds at agreeing with people's thoughts.
  • Q: Given that Truth is this flimsy, and the people like us who judge it are known to make so many mistakes, how can any belief have "solid" truth? A: Quite right. This question has no easy answer, but that's expected in the face of endlessly astounding reality. The fact is, both the observation of reality and the accompanying checking of truths proceed using a plethora of methods and degrees of reliability. (A few are in wikipedia is not an epistemology silver bullet, the 12th blog entry.) As a result, some truths are more "solid" than others. The criteria to rank them is a procedural matter, not a philosophical or foundational one. Just as children learn to be skeptical after playful adults tell them lies for amusement, people continue gaining (heuristic) expertise at weighing truth. Even those who say they rely predominantly on reason to obtain truths aren't immune to making mental mistakes or starting from the wrong premises.
  • Q: To define truth's domain as the combination of thoughts and reality, doesn't that presume thoughts must be distinct from reality, i.e. thoughts are unreal? A: The terse answer is that, yes, thoughts are unreal, regardless of how true. The more elaborate answer is that although thoughts are unreal, thoughts that more closely correspond to reality (more truthful) are more "real", figuratively speaking. Note that thoughts that are at least somewhat true can still be useful, through analogy. True thoughts can act as close "simulations" of reality. In the most extreme case, thoughts that prove to be very true are what people designate as reality.
  • Q: Hey, wait a minute, now you're double-talking--if people's experiences of reality are thoughts themselves, how can people ever really determine the truth of all their thoughts versus "reality"? A: This is a variant of the age-old question "How can I know for sure that all of my experiences aren't illusory?". The absolute answer is "You can't". The practical answer is "Thoughts you can't ignore, thoughts that are most consistent, are the most true, i.e. the closest to being real and the most deserving of the convenient label 'reality', if only temporarily". Essentially, thoughts are the unreliable messengers of reality, and all people can do is compare the messages, assign degrees of truth, and in so doing compute a semblance of reality that's meaningful and usable. Think of it this way: if one thought is of a winged horse while a much more vivid second thought is of a computer screen, the second thought is likelier to be more true and "real". If turning one's head causes the thought of the computer screen to shift position, then the thought is considered still more true--among thoughts, direct sense perceptions are usually treated as true representatives of reality. But not all sense perceptions are true, and even the least ambiguous require significant interpretation...which reemphasizes the point that the heuristics of judging truth can't be simple and free of exceptions, due once again to reality being endlessly astounding.
  • Q: By defining truth as secondary to reality but refusing to unequivocally define reality, in what way does this scheme clarify what Truth is? A: Er...huh. The thinly-veiled motivation behind this standpoint isn't primarily to pronounce Truth's composition, but to promote reality through demotion of other philosophical items such as Truth. Reality is real; to be true (and figuratively "real") everything else must be based on reality. That which bears no relation to reality shouldn't be thought of as true--perhaps beautiful, good, even "correct" according to some standard, but not true. And reality itself needs no underpinnings.

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