Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Pondering Truth – Discussion (or extended rant)

Carla, on Facebook, asked a question that led me to elaborate at length on my 10/12 post “Pondering Truth”.

“Are you asking,” she asked, “If I don't like beets, and you do like beets, is there any truth about the taste of beets in my experience of the taste of beets?”

My response: Most simple, practical questions can be resolved pretty easily by adjusting the semantics. For instance, we can say: "'David likes beets' is true; 'Carla likes beets' is not true; and, 'Beets taste good' is a subjective statement that only reflects the tastes of the speaker, and there is no objective truth in the matter."

Even this can get complicated, though. Suppose your biochemistry fluctuates so that sometimes you would like beets if you tried, them, but most of the time you wouldn't. You've tried them only seldom (because you "know" you don't like them), and the probabilities worked out so that every time you did you were in your "don't like beets" state. Or suppose you don't like beets because of some terrible beet experience in your childhood, and with the right therapeutic breakthrough, you would come to really love them. Exactly what is the truth of the statement "Carla doesn't like beets", then?

You could come up with semantic tweaks to express these thoughts, but if we have to drill down to that level in every utterance in order to reach the truth of it, exactly what is "truth"? Can we EVER really say that we've drilled down far enough to reach the absolute bottom of it?

Then there's also the question of the difference between "truth" and the data that justifies a belief. I believe I have money in the bank. I confirm that by checking my balance, asking the teller. Suppose the teller lies to me, and has embezzled my money? Suppose he has embezzled some of my money but left a lot of it. I have no direct connection to the "truth" but only to data that (I believe) confirms it. I could go on for a long time acting as though all of my money were there. If I keep depositing more money, and spending less than I deposit, I could conceivably NEVER discover the embezzlement. Truth, it seems, has the POTENTIAL for operational impact but, unlike data and belief, does not NECESSARILY have any operational impact. Doesn't this seem weird? Shouldn't TRUTH somehow be inherently MORE important than "mere" belief?

Money, actually, is an interesting example because it turns out that I "have money" ONLY because everybody involved believes I do, which is really kind of strange, isn't it?

I should point out that, relative to the "beets" example, that I am comfortable saying something like "Carla doesn't like beets". I do NOT fee that you ACTUALLY have to drill down through all the actual or potential details of complexity to say something meaningful, useful, or (yes) true. I just don't feel that I know how to understand or express exactly what this quality or relation we call "truth" truly is.

Mathematicized science gives us the notion of "true within a context". I can describe the trajectory of an object in a way that is "true within Newtonian theory" and that may adequately describe the actual trajectory of the actual object for whatever present purpose I have. But for a different object and trajectory, I may need a description that is "true within the theory of General Relativity", and the description that would be "true within Newtonian theory" may be totally inadequate for my purpose. And General Relativity may not be the ultimate end of the progression, either. This is a relatively precise concept of "truth", but it doesn't necessarily help us, for example, in trying to decide if a given theory is "true"

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