Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pondering Truth

When we speak of “truth” do we describe some single entity or quality in the world?  Or is “truth” hypostasized to simplify a complex of relationships between the inner and outer worlds that we do not (cannot?) understand?

Is “truth” an operational concept?  There is no operational difference “now” between a justified belief and a justified true belief (a.k.a. “knowledge”, at least in many philosophers’ systems).  I make the same choices, take the same actions either way.  But there may be an effect on the outcome (or not).  Is “truth” operational in evaluating outcomes, and therefore, perhaps improving the reasons for future beliefs?

Even in evaluating the outcome of past choices, I still don’t “possess truth”.  I only formulate, and attempt to justify, further beliefs (e.g., beliefs about my past beliefs).  In Dewey’s terminology from Experience and Nature, truth does not seem to be something we can “have directly”.

There is a state of the world, and there is a state of my mind (or yours), which is, itself, part of the state of the world.  The state of my mind includes a simplified, impressionistic “image” (in some neural/synaptic medium) of the state of the world – to the extent it is accessible to my imagination.  In that image, the state of my mind figures under such rubrics as “reasons” and “beliefs”.  Based on my state of mind (at any given time), I will make certain choices, and take certain actions.  Partly because of such actions, at some future time the state of the world, and the state of my mind, will be different.  By comparing the current state of my mind (and especially its world-image) to my memory of its prior state, I make judgments about the truth of my previously held beliefs.  I formulate (reasoned) beliefs about my prior beliefs.

Is “truth”, then, just something we invent to explain our relative satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the outcomes of our past endeavors?  The trouble with that idea is that our feeling of satisfaction may be connected to aspects of the outcome which some mythical unbiased observer would be unwilling to call “truth”.  For instance, a racist may desire to join an organization of like-minded individuals.  His belief that African Americans are genetically inferior to “Aryans” may help him in that endeavor, and thereby lead him to be satisfied, but we would not want to call his belief “true” on such grounds.  Then there is the growing body of psychological research indicating that our brains have evolved so as to readily adopt certain beliefs which are adaptive, but not (necessarily) “true”.  An example is the “confirmation bias”, where by our minds tend to disproportionally accept data that confirms what we want to believe, and reject data that disconfirms it.  Another example is the “hyperactive agent detection” that Daniel Dennett discusses in Breaking the Spell (among other places).  Other examples can be found in various papers in Naturalizing Epistemology (Hilary Kornblith, ed.)

It seems there is something actual about the relationship between our mental states and the world state that we are trying to capture with the concept “truth”, which is related to, but not simply reducible to, our degree of satisfaction with outcomes.  I admit, at this point in my life, to be still wondering (persistently) about exactly what it is.

Postscript on Confirmation.  As with many of the musings on Persistent Wondering, this one pretty much starts “where I am” and doesn’t make much of an effort to relate to an audience that may not be starting at the same place.  I apologize for that… but after all, I am portraying myself as a “wonderer”, and making no claims to be a teacher.  (Lame excuse.)

In this essay in particular, though, it seems to me that many people may wonder why I would feel – at all – that “truth” is not directly accessible.  In many (most?) of our everyday interactions with the world, confirmation of our beliefs is direct and immediate, and seems incontrovertible.  I believe I left my keys on the kitchen counter.  I go downstairs – I either find them there, or I do not.

Other “facts” are not so easily confirmed or disconfirmed, though.  There are the challenges of philosophical skepticism.  How do I know I am not dreaming?  Or hallucinating?  Or a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat, with my neural inputs manipulated by alien scientists?  Then there is the question of “modeling”.  Complex physical or social systems cannot be grasped by our minds in their complete and detailed totality.  We need to abstract from them, simplify them, in order to understand them.  Do concepts like race, class, culture, the national income “truly” conform to some real world objects, and if so exactly what and how?  How do we indubitably confirm or disconfirm them?  Theoretical physics provides examples, also.  Do the objects of modern theoretical physics – quarks, bosons, photons – “really” exist, or are they just a convenient (not necessarily unique) way of mathematizing experimental results?  Are the relatively abstract and indirect confirmations of physics experiments really of the same class as our confirming (by looking) that our keys are on the counter?

But really, ALL of our knowledge involves some such modeling (abstraction and analysis).  All the objects we conceive involve some level of abstraction – focusing on certain aspects of experience and ignoring others.  Something of this is suggested by Heraclitus’s statement thousands of years ago that “You can never step into the same river twice.”  What exactly is a river?  Is it the specific water molecules?  But they start out in a glacier and end up in the ocean.  Is it the banks?  But they shift with time as soil particles are removed and deposited.  Is it some abstract (fractal?) pattern that encompasses changes over time?  What is the “truth” of the matter?

Our mental states (beliefs and so on) consist in synaptic patterns, roughly, stable-yet-changing patterns of chemical interactions between neurons.  The state of the world consists in the interplay of forces amongst patterned matter and energy, extending strongly or weakly between the various points of the entire universe.  It is not clear that some unique and transparent correspondence can be established between those two things and unambiguously labeled “truth”.  On a conceptual, theoretical level, the question of the truth of our beliefs, their confirmation or disconfirmation, is not at all a trivial one.  Although on the pragmatic level of day-to-day actions, it very often is.

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