Saturday, August 07, 2010

working truth

Whether or not my overall standpoint qualifies as bona fide pragmatic philosophy, I appreciate and appropriate some of its postulates . Unfortunately, one in particular has attracted both informed and ignorant criticism. Expressed in its shortest and most recognizable form: "the truth is what works." If this doesn't mean "anything that can make me rich must be right", as some allege, then what does it mean?

As I understand it, the intended meaning of "the truth is what works" is simply that the bestowal of the label "true" is the product of physical or mental action. True is reached, earned, assigned, verified, measured. People set criteria, and then they employ those criteria to divide true from false. True (or false) is a conclusion.

And the vagueness of this definition of truth is intentional, in order to cover an unbounded expanse. The operation of determining when something "works" is tightly coupled to the object and the goal, each of which could vary. What also varies is the threshold for delineating "does work" and "doesn't work" in the operation's results.

Clearly, some cases are self-evident. For the proposition "The battery is missing", the object is the battery, the goal is to confirm that it's missing (but that goal is probably a sub-goal to something larger like "force my camera to start responding again when I press the power button"), and the operation is removing the cover to the battery chamber to look inside. The threshold of the operation is seeing the uncovered battery chamber with or without batteries; "The battery is missing" works and is therefore true on the condition that one observes a chamber without batteries.

But other cases are more difficult, like the proposition "Person X is trustworthy." Eyeballs aren't sufficient to detect trustworthiness, the object. Which operation and how stringent its threshold depend greatly on the importance of the goal. Is Person X a candidate to house-sit for me, or just someone whom I'm asking for directions to the nearest location of engine fuel? Someone will likely use not only their senses but their reason, creativity, emotion, intuition, and so on, in conscious and subconscious double-checks upon double-checks.

No matter what they tell you, people frequently "feel" the truth, although it may act as a starting point rather than the entirety of the procedure. Such factors illuminate the muddiness of separating objective and subjective truth in many routine instances. Thus all the ways in which a truth "works" form a unity, fused together by the person, within the context of the person's other truths, whether those be sensations or reasonings or any variety of "mind-stuff".

However, these personalized unities-in-contexts don't imply solipsism or relativism, at least not in crude terms, because of two manifest and natural meta-truths that are normally left unstated. 1) It works to assume that some contents of experience have independent (albeit malleable) existence apart from one's thoughts. When someone writes a reminder, he or she is explicitly relying on the reminder to not be dependent on, or as flighty as, human memory. 2) It works to assume that, based on communications and empathy, other people interact with the same thought-independent contents of experience. To take an early example, a group hunting a mammoth could hardly coordinate the attack without this working assumption.

Put together, what one could call "the two meta-truths of objectivity" outline a common area of endeavor for people, a ground for discussion. And the recognition of its predominance characterizes a mature perspective. A person's uniqueness lies in the combination of "ingredients" that are individually unremarkable and pervasive. Other people have lived on the same planet and nation and culture and city, have experienced similar personalities and feelings and upbringing and education and traumas, and according to an evolutionary/genetic analysis are not much different (though the differences can have vital implications in society and health). Hence, the humble person, aware of his of her startling non-uniqueness, will exploit all the many applicable truths found and transmitted by other people, after winnowing out irrelevancies and mistakes. Of course, the secondhand truths are subject to the rule: do these reports work, evaluated by whichever mental/physical operations? If direct verification isn't possible, as it often isn't, then the operation of trust is unavoidable.

Trust is doubly (or triply) necessary for truths that are universal. By definition, a universal truth is intended to hold true not solely for example Q or group X but for all actual and hypothetical N that meet the truth's conditions. Universal truths are special in that no (finite) number of confirmations is enough. To invoke a universal truth in the execution of an activity is to engage in a pre-sumptive, pre-emptive "confirmation" of it. For universal truths aren't exceptions: truthfulness isn't inherent but confirmed time after time. In fact, each one owes its very existence to how well it works in acting as a tool or shortcut in summarizing, predicting, etc. in the midst of the unities-within-contexts previously explained.

Admittedly, the confirmation can be a perfectly unsurprising formality, especially for inarguable formulas or other patterns undergirded by rigorous "airtight" experiment/proof. The proof's effect is to demonstrate impersonally that the end is substitutable for the start, without doubts or gaps between. Afterward, nobody needs to rework or review the "guts" of the proof to use it, as long as a person trusts the correctness of the proof like any other secondhand truth. (To be sure, people could and do rework or review proofs for a wide range of valid reasons.)

On the other hand, there is a category of universal truths whose correctness isn't quite provable but elicits strong commitment regardless: ideals. An ideal is zealous desire embodied by a universal idea. It "ought to be". In some sense, it's a fiction made real via its connection to a person's irresistible sentiments. It could be elaborate or fragmentary. It could be solitary or part of a complex. It could be structured or incoherent. In any case, the ideal's impact on behavior is precisely how it works; that's its level of truth. People who pursue an ideal are witnesses to it.

Therefore people who ignore an ideal thereby mark its truth as flawed or incomplete. But they could nevertheless use the ideal by feigning their devotion. Even ideals claimed by no one to be "true" might still work as interesting fodder for conversation or as imagined adversaries to rally around. Just as ideals come in varieties, so do reactions to ideals. Objections to "the truth is what works" might be objections to uncreative or minimalist definitions of works. I don't think it's always synonymous with "profitable". If people seek to "maximize a payoff", then realistically speaking the payoff, options, and factors must be churning like a turbulent flow in endlessly intricate directions (e.g. affected by psychological priming). Part of the reason for the unpredictability is that ideals may conflict and the ideal that "wins" in one situation can "lose" in another. Altruism and self-denial are unprofitable, but all that's necessary to uncover the "mysterious" rationale is to ask the participant which ideals were the motivation. A lack of obvious profit surely doesn't prevent the ideals from working for the participant in some way.

Truths are real, not ethereal. And a truth is known by its real consequences on real people who perform real actions.