Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What is Truth?

Hello and welcome. This is a transcript of the Humanity podcast, Episode One: What is Truth?

The Humanity podcast is a show about evolutionary philosophy, in which we discuss the big questions of philosophy through the lens of evolutionary theory.  

What is the meaning of life? What is real and what is not? What is justice? What is God? What did the philosophers say about these things in the past, and what can we say about them today in the light of scientific advances, especially in evolutionary theory. I welcome your comments below.

These are complex topics, but my goal in this podcast is to keep things short, clear, and simple enough to be accessible to the average listener.

This is episode ONE, and I think a good topic to start with would be TRUTH. What is true and what is false, what do we mean by truth, and how do we use the concept of truth in everyday life. I’m going to try to answer the question, “Is your truth just as good as my truth?”

My answer is gonna be: “No.” Truth has to do real work in the real world. It has to work for the task it is being applied to. If it doesn’t, it’s false. You can’t say something is true unless it does the work. And truth doesn’t work for everything - it works only for the things it works for. There’s no such thing as absolute truth. Bear with me on this podcast and I will try to explain.

Obviously, I think this topic is very relevant in the era of “Fake News”, when the man who is the President of the United States at the time of this recording, Donald Trump, arguably the most powerful man in the world, according to fact-checkers spreads falsehoods, half-truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies at the rate of about five per day. Dictators and oligarchs around the world are learning from his example and using misinformation, propaganda, and accusations of “Fake News” to discredit their enemies, attack the media, and consolidate their power. The very concept of truth itself is under attack, and maybe we need to come to a better understanding of what truth actually is and why it’s so important.

So today I’m going to talk about the most common philosophical theory of truth, called the correspondence theory, and then about the approach that I prefer, which is called the pragmatic or scientific approach.

The common-sense view is that a statement is true if it accurately describes reality. So if I say the sky is blue, and you look up and today the sky actually is blue, then what I have said corresponds to and accurately describes the real world – it’s a match - and therefore it is true. This approach is called correspondence theory. Makes sense.

But there is a big problem at the centre of this approach: your reality might be different from my reality. Different people can look at the same thing and see something very different, and both can be correct. What is true for you might not be true for me.

There is an ancient Indian parable going back at least 3,000 years, of the seven blind men and the elephant. Seven blind men come across an elephant, and try to figure out what it is. One feels the trunk, and says “It’s a big snake!” Another feels the leg and says, “It’s a tree!” Another feels the tusk and says “It’s a big sharp spear!” And so on. Eventually each accuses the others of deliberately lying and they come to blows. The parable reminds us that people are blind to things they don’t directly experience. This is a problem when you are looking for the truth!

Then there is the problem of human perception. Human senses are limited, our eyes can deceive us, so are we even capable of having a true and full knowledge and understanding of reality? Is that an oasis we see in the desert or a mirage? Is that stick in the water really bent like that?

Your senses might be giving you a different reading than mine. To say something simple like the sky is blue is confusing to some people who are colorblind to blue. In a famous case in February 2015, a picture of a dress went viral on the Internet because many people with ordinary normal vision insisted that the color of the dress was gold and white, while others insisted it was black and blue. You can look for yourself if you search for #thedress.

When a bee looks at a flower it sees something very different from what we see. A deer might eat the flower, while a cat does not see it at all. What is true for the mouse is not true for the owl. What is true for someone raised in rural Afghanistan might not be true for someone raised in rural Alabama. What is real for one person is not real for another.

The parable of the seven blind men and the elephant reminds us that we all see things differently and we are blind to what we don’t experience directly. We see only a partial reality, never the whole of reality. So the philosophers going back as far as Plato and the earliest Indian thinkers have argued that there are two realities: the thing you see, and the deeper, unseeable reality, which is far more complex than we can ever grasp.

So problem number one with the common-sense correspondence view of truth is this: how can we ever know the full truth of things? Are we even capable of knowing the real deep absolute truth about any aspect of reality, or are we forever doomed to see only partial truths?

Philosophers who find the correspondence theory of truth to be inadequate have gone in two directions. One group that had a lot of influence in the past decades concluded that there is no such thing as objective truth. All truths are subjective. What is true for you might not be true for me. It all comes down to your individual point of view. These philosophers are often referred to, not always accurately, as the post-modernists, but OK, let’s just call this the post-modernist viewpoint.

The post-modernists had a great insight. They saw that when people come together in various ways, whether in geographical locations, through their occupations, through their fields of interest, or through social movements, whatever, they tend to create a common story that works for them and gives them a group identity they can get behind. These big stories are sometimes called “discourses” or “narratives”. Christianity is one narrative that explains the world in a certain way and helps you feel good about yourself. Islam is another narrative. Fascism is a narrative, nationalism is a narrative, as is liberal democracy, socialism, environmentalism, and so on.

Patrick H. Caddell, a Washington political consultant and formerly a media strategist for Jimmy Carter, summed it up: "In Washington, D.C., facts don’t matter; people have narratives, including the media, and they just ignore anything that doesn’t fit that. Why should the American people punish him [Trump] when they think the entire political culture" is like that?

We know that people can get lost in their own narrative, in their own little world. Even if a lot of it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter, being self-identified as Christian or a Jew or a Mormon helps you to understand who you are, how you should behave in the world, who is on your side and who is not, what is right and what is wrong, and so on. Getting behind a given narrative seems to satisfy our primal instincts for tribalism and allows us somehow to believe that we are better than those other people.

What some of the post-modernists suggested is that you should look deeper into the dominant narrative critically to see the power structure behind it. Who benefits from this narrative? Whose interests does it serve?

Right now in the United States we can see the value of the post-modernist interpretation. Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the millions of voters who support them seem to live in a different reality than the Democratic Party and their supporters. Trump and his base promote obvious falsehoods, claim to have “alternative facts”, and denounce anything they disagree with as “fake news”.

They have created a narrative.

The purpose of the narrative is not to accurately describe reality. In fact a few years ago a Republican in the Bush administration denounced what he called the “reality-based community”, and celebrated what he considered one of the great strengths of the Republican Party: “We create our own reality.” The purpose of the Trump narrative is to reinforce tribal bonds of race, religion, and nation among Trump supporters, and create an alternate reality in which Trump is making America great again.

And let’s be clear, the Democrats also have a narrative. And while it’s all good to look critically at the power structure behind any narrative, some post-modernists went one step further and said there is no such thing as truth per se, it’s all narrative, and it’s all just a power struggle over who controls the narrative. This is why some people are calling Donald Trump the first post-modernist president. It’s doubtful he knows what post-modernism is, but for sure he is living it!

It’s a powerful analysis, but one critique of post-modernism is that it can sometimes fall into what is known as truth relativism. Truth relativism is the idea that what is true is relative to the context and circumstances it applies to. In other words, what is true for me might not be true for you. What is true in one place might not be true in another. What is true today might not be true tomorrow. And so on. So the concept of truth itself might be meaningless.

The problem with truth relativism is that truth actually does matter. It matters because false narratives eventually collapse. And we will see that soon enough with the Trump narrative. Or should I say, it will never be soon enough…

Which brings us to a different way to look at truth, which I think makes a lot more sense – the pragmatic approach. Instead of saying truth must be an accurate description of reality, because forget it, you will never get there, pragmatism says truth only needs to work. A truth claim only needs be good enough for us to get the job done.

Now let me unpack that. Because this approach is both very simple and very subtle. It’s very important to understand that for pragmatism truth does not exist outside of getting a job done. It’s very practical. Truth is a tool in our toolbox we can use to fix a problem. So truth is not just relative to the circumstances, it is directly relative – in fact it is inseparable from – the problem or objective it seeks to solve.

Therefore, when assessing a truth claim, we must always ask, true with respect to what objective?

So for example, some of Trump’s supporters might say that it is true that torture is effective. In the pragmatic approach we must ask, “Effective for what?” It has been proven that torture is effective at extracting confessions. However it has also been proven that people under torture will lie and confess to almost anything. So we must ask, is torture an effective method for solving crimes? Is torture effective in enhancing America’s image abroad? Is torture effective in supporting respect for the rule of law? Does the fear of torture deter criminals from committing crimes? Or is it perhaps true that torture gives some people the sweet taste of revenge?

Many Christians will tell you that prayer is effective for calling upon God to intervene in the real world. Scientific studies have shown however that controlled prayer sessions with fervent believers have no effect whatsoever on the target of their prayers. However, prayer does help the true believer feel that they have some small influence over circumstances over which they have no control whatsoever. It helps them feel they at least did something in circumstances in which it is impossible for them to do anything else. Sometimes, as the Christians say, all you can do is pray. So it seems that it is untrue to claim that prayer can change external events, but it is quite true to say that prayer can help some people feel like they have some control over uncontrollable events. That’s why people believe in prayer.

Pragmatism starts from the assumption that we are creatures born on this earth and shaped by evolution to make our way, to survive, to reproduce, to avoid suffering, and in general to get things done that allow us as individuals, our families, and our communities to flourish. We are goal-oriented by nature.

In the pragmatic approach, you cannot assess the validity of a truth claim unless you clearly identify the goal or objective that the truth claim seeks to address. The truth of the power of prayer or the effectiveness of torture depends upon the goal or objective achieved.

The pragmatic approach to truth is the same as the scientific approach to truth. In the scientific method you don’t waste a lot of time looking for absolute truth. Instead you look for what works to solve a problem you think needs solving.

First you come up with an idea for a solution – a proposal; a hypothesis. You don’t know yet whether your hypothesis is valid or your proposed solution will work. But you have reasons to believe it might. So you test it out experimentally and eventually under real world conditions. If it works to solve the problem, bravo, you have discovered an important truth.

We use the scientific method every day in life for the most simple tasks.

I wake up in the morning and at some point I want a cup of coffee. In order to my way to the kitchen, I make several assumptions, which are propositions about reality. Here is one assumption I make:

Proposition one: The floor will support me as I walk to the kitchen.

This is just a hypothesis. But the floor has always supported me in the past, so I think this hypothesis has a high degree of probability.

But of course I cannot be certain about this! For reasons unknown to me the floor might suddenly give way beneath my feet. There may come a strong earthquake that collapses my building. There may come an airplane crash. You never know, it has happened to others before.

Nevertheless I go get my coffee. I take it on faith that my proposition about the floor is valid, because the probability that it is not seems very low. But the only time I can call my proposition true and valid is in the act of walking across the floor to the kitchen.

Until a truth claim is verified under real-world conditions it is just a hypothesis with a greater or lesser probability of being valid.

So understand that for my specific objective, let’s say, getting myself a cup of coffee, I am not interested in the absolute truth of the floor, I’m not interested in the unseeable deeper reality of the floor, and I’m not interested in the essence of what it means to be a floor. The only truth I am interested in right now is whether the floor will support me as I walk to the kitchen.

OK, I’ve spoken enough, let me summarize:

  1. Truth is a proposition about reality.
  2. There is no such thing as absolute truth, only propositions with a greater or lesser degree of probability.
  3. Truth is a tool that we use to help us get through our day, to achieve goals, and to accomplish the things we need to accomplish.
  4. Truth always has a goal or objective.
  5. Truth cannot be separated from the goal or objective it serves.
  6. A truth claim can only be validated in the act of achieving its objective.
  7. Finally, to answer the question, “Is your truth just as good as my truth?”, the acid test for a truth claim is whether it achieves its objective. If it doesn’t work, it’s not true.

This is why a narrative like Trump’s, full of lies, falsehoods, and wishful thinking, will fail. The test will be: “Did the Trump narrative meet its stated objective of making America great again?” At the time of recording, the probability for this claim actually working out and coming true looks pretty slim…

Thanks for listening. If you want to see a transcript of this podcast with links to research, please visit me at www.Humanity.ca.

Bye for now!