Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Part 2: Absolute Truth



So what do we know, really?  And I mean “really know.” 

Well, I don’t know about you, but as far as I can tell I appear to be a sentient agent experiencing a continuous flow of sensory information.  I don’t know where this information comes from or what the exact, underlying reality may be that governs it, but that’s just a limit I’m stuck with.  I might be a fully functional human being in a real, physical world, or I might just be a brain in a vat plugged into the matrix.  I simply do not know, and what’s more, I can’t know.  No amount of observation or deduction can ever truly differentiate between these philosophical possibilities.  That’s what makes external world skepticism one of the greatest pains in the backside of philosophers to this day.  Yet even with such a profound limitation on knowledge, this continual flow of information still has apparent patterns and correlations to it, and I would like to try and make sense out of them, somehow. 

This is not an easy challenge to answer, and to this very day, many philosophers continually debate back and forth on what exactly it means for something to be “true.”  Part of this confusion is due to the fact that truth itself can come in so many different categories. For example, one of the most basic categories is simply truth by definition, like the classic statement that “all bachelors are unmarried.”  This is essentially “100% certain" in every practical sense, but only because the word “bachelor” in this context has literally been defined as “unmarried man.”  So to claim that all bachelors are unmarried is no more meaningful or insightful than to claim that "all unmarried men are unmarried" - it's a tautology.  The reason the word “bachelor” even exists in the first place is to serve as an encapsulation of a complex series of syllables and ideas, thereby saving time and energy in communication.  The only real measure of a “true” definitional statement is whether or not other people can agree with it and successfully communicate through it [1].

This example also illustrates the key role that language plays in epistemology.  Because it's important to realize that, when you really get down to it, nearly everything we may ever hope to call “truth” must ultimately exist as nothing more than a bunch of linguistic gibberish blathered out into the ether.  That’s because language itself is the primary tool by which we communicate, shape ideas, and generate a coherent train of thought.  "Truth" is then just a label that we assign to those thoughts in accordance with some arbitrary set of rules.  The core purpose of epistemology is to then establish which rules we should use when evaluating the final “truthiness” of a given statement.

For instance, consider a phrase like "stop on red, go on green [2]."  Phrases such as this are called axiomatic assertions, and represent declarations of rules that must be followed in order to engage in some special activity.  Axioms are essentially "true" by default, just so long as they produce consistent outcomes and people can again agree to follow them.  This may seem somewhat trivial at first, except when you realize that the entire field of mathematics itself is purely axiomatic in nature - a bunch of made-up rules based on operations and relationships between elemental abstractions within arbitrarily-defined sets.  Even deductive logic is the same thing: axiomatic rules designed to formalize our capacity for sorting out information and evaluating the final "truth" of various propositions.  So while countless hack philosophers love to brag about the "absolute truth" behind a phrase like "2+2 = 4," they nearly always overlook the fact that this is simply an application of arbitrary rules toward their natural conclusions.  They have no idea that the same principles apply equally well to hopscotch, poker, and chess, likewise producing pure, 100 % certainty.

But what about other forms of propositions, like the phrase “I see the color red?”  After all, I may not know what red is, how it works, what causes it, or what chain of events transpire after photons strike my retina. But that doesn’t matter because I definitely experience a distinct sensory perception that is unique from many others.  The word “red” itself is merely a label that I slap onto the experience as a tool for differentiating it from other similar experiences.  Observational statements of this form are called incorrigible, and are again "100% true” simply by the mere virtue of making them.  The only requirement is that the person doing so is being honest and again uses a standard terminology that others can understand.

Even the expression “I think, therefore I am” is just a combination of sensory experience coupled with linguistic conventions and axiomatic assertions.  For instance, "I think” is an incorrigible statement that labels the distinct experience of experience itself.  “Being” is then a basic verb which we can arbitrarily define in such a way that “things which think must be.”  “Therefore I am,” is finally a deductive statement used to link the observation with its definition according to the axiomatic rules of set theory.  Viola!  You just proved Descartes most famous theorem with complete, 100 % certainty.  Whooptie freakin' do.
  1. I think (true by incorrigibility).
  2. "Being" is a property of things that think (true by definition of existence/being).
  3. I belong to the set of things that exist (true by axiom - If A is a subset of B, and B is a subset of C, then A is a subset of C).
  4. Therefore, I exist. 
Now let's make things a little more difficult and consider a phrase like "all bananas grow on trees" or perhaps "all bachelors are bald."  Phrases such as this are often called synthetic propositions, and represent descriptive claims about the underlying nature of external reality.  But what are the rules now?  How exactly are we supposed to measure the truth of these phrases when there exists a fundamental disconnect between reality, our perceptions of reality, and our linguistic framework for describing reality?

This is the point where philosophers really start to butt heads with each other, but a key idea often gets overlooked in the process.  Specifically, “truth” is just a word, and can therefore be defined by whatever arbitrary metric we want.  For example, maybe I want to measure propositions by their power to make me feel comfortable and important.  I could believe that chocolate burns fat or that squirrels invented the moon, and I would be perfectly justified because these beliefs satisfy my definition for truth.  Or better yet, I could define truth as anything which coincides with an authority, like maybe the dictates of a prophet or the writings of holy scripture.  I could believe that the Earth was created in six days or that Native Americans are really descendants of Jewish migrants, and again I would be perfectly justified because that’s what my definition for truth requires.

But let’s face it.  Those definitions are completely arbitrary and useless because they ignore a fundamental aspect of belief itself.  The reason why any of us "believes" anything at all is so that we can eventually use that information as a guide for our actions.  That’s why, sooner or later, everyone has to start measuring the truth of a belief by its power to help us exercise decisions under the expectation of desirable outcomes.  Decisions based on “true” beliefs will therefore manifest themselves in the form of controlled, predictable experiences, while decisions based on “false” beliefs will eventually fail in that goal [3].
  1. N has a desire d.
  2. N has belief b that doing a will achieve the desire d.
  3. If belief b is true, then N’s doing a will achieve d.
It's a brutal, pragmatic view of truth to be sure, but it's also the only one with any functional connection to the real world.  That's why science can very accurately be described as a formalized methodology for explaining and predicting events.  And it works great, too!  No other methodology in the history of human thought has ever come close to what science has to offer.  But who knows?  Maybe there’s something better.  Maybe if I twinkle my nose, pray to Buddha, and wish upon a star then I can beat scientific method at shaping future events.  But remember, unless I can eventually cure diseases, build the internet, and put people into space, then no one is going to give a flying shit about my epistemic methodology.

This one, simple principle is where Christian apologetics consistently fail more than anywhere else.  Because the claim that something like God “exists” is literally a claim that somewhere, somehow, I can interact with it on a physical level and generate a predictable sensory experience.  It's an assertion that if I poke a stick in the right corner, then something is going to poke back.  So let’s suppose we’re feeling generous and decide to grant the entire Christian religion without contentionThen what?  What changes?  What experiments can we perform to test it?  What demonstrative power does this God offer?  What decisions can I now make in the real world with real consequences that will manifest through the idea that a powerful disembodied agent exists somewhere?  Contrary to the wishful thinking of Christians, these are the final arbiters of “truth” when making descriptive claims about reality, and not how well you can formulate cute little arguments.

Bear in mind now that this is just a sampling of the many categories of linguistic propositions one could make, each with their own set of well-established rules by which to measure truth [4].  But it's also important to realize that these rules are completely arbitrary.  It's like standing in a room with two buckets, where one is labeled "true" and the other labeled "false."  If someone places a piece of paper in your hand with some writing on it, how do you determine which bucket to dump it into?  Maybe you want those labels to have a functional meaning with respect to your decision making in real life, or maybe you just don't care and simply think that all statements belong in the "false" bucket no matter what.  Maybe you think epistemology makes better sense if we include a third bucket, or even a fourth, or perhaps an entire continuum of buckets.  Yet no matter how we define the system, nothing is physically forcing us to accept the proposition that all bachelors are unmarried.  If our goal is to effectively communicate with each other through the English language, then it kind of helps if we adopt this convention.  However, if such things don't matter, then nothing is lost by rejecting the whole idea.  Likewise, no one has to accept pragmatic scientific method, either.  But if our goal is to generate a functional knowledge base with the power to shape future events, then science is a methodology that seems to work pretty damn well. 

So the next time some hack philosopher tries to ask you if "absolute truth" exists [5], the answer is obviously NO.  Because it's one thing for an individual to be "absolutely certain" of a given proposition in accordance with well-specified rules, but it's another thing entirely for that certainty to transcend all time and space across all linguistic and cultural barriers.  "Truth" is not a physical entity unto itself, but simply a label given to ideas in accordance with made-up goals.  No proposition can ever be "absolute," in this sense, because no epistemic system is universally binding us to consistently label a given proposition as "true."  Absolute truth therefore absolutely does not exist [6].
 
Notes:
  1.  Logical positivists called these types of statements analytic propositions.  Quine also wrote a famous paper criticizing this distinction that’s supposed to be one of the most brilliant things ever written.  I even read it myself, and frankly, it was awful.  He spent far too much time over-inflating his jargon and not enough time understanding the role that language plays in epistemology.
  2. Or, more precisely, "If the light is red, then you must stop; if the light is green, then you must go."
  3. Alexander Bird, “Philosophy of Science”
  4. Consider some of these phrases and ask what rules we should use to measure their truth:

    "She ate nine hamburgers."
    "Where is the bathroom?"
    "Go to sleep."
    "Blargh snibble rumk flib."
    "The sun will rise tomorrow."
    "Paco tiene hambre."
    "This statement is false."
     
  5. The idea of absolute truth crops up in various religious philosophical contexts.  For example, Sye Ten Bruggencate begins his “proof that God exists" with this question.  Eric Hovind does the same thing sometimes.  See, for example, 

    http://www.creationtoday.org/absolute-truth/
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6D6S2_3H7w
     
  6. Or, to say it more precisely, statements that must universally be labeled as "true" by all people for all time, certainly do not exist.

8 comments:

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I might be a fully functional human being in a real, physical world, or I might just be a brain in a vat plugged into the matrix.

No. the second "possibility" is as far as we know impossible.

Or, to say it more precisely, statements that must universally be labeled as "true" by all people for all time, certainly do not exist.

2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples.

AnticitizenX said...

"No. the second "possibility" is as far as we know impossible."

So we're in the matrix, and there are not other possibilities?

Yeah, thanks for playing. Please go away. You're literally too stupid to even try talking too.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I am serious, I was not playing.

By the way, your comment suggests you are somewhat biassed, and I don't mean the normal so called "cognitive biasses".

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I might be a fully functional human being in a real, physical world, or I might just be a brain in a vat plugged into the matrix.

Once again: being a brain in a vat plugged into the matrix is not the kind of doubt about one's sensations one would normally have.

I accept the kind of philosophical doubts which a normal man if neither informed nor indoctrinated about scientific fact would entertain normally, but not this wildly unrealistic scepticism.

Or, to say it more precisely, statements that must universally be labeled as "true" by all people for all time, certainly do not exist.

2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples.

What kind of people at what kind of time could find what kind of exception to or what kind of negation of the "2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples" theorem?

You mentioned a certainty that "2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples" is as little as any other thesis to be held by all people at all times to be universally true.

Give some kind of explanation even of possibility of such a thing.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"So we're in the matrix, and there are not other possibilities?"

Did you get it wrong between "second 'possibility' " and "first"?

Not My Name said...

What kind of people at what kind of time could find what kind of exception to or what kind of negation of the "2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples" theorem?

Besides the obvious answers of situations where `2`, `4`, `+`, and/or `=` might be defined differently (remember that they're just symbols), you are assuming an interchangeability of apples that doesn't always hold.

If i have two rotten apples and two fresh ones, for example, i can't honestly sell them as "four apples". The mathematical proof that my set of apples contains four members is irrelevant.

utilityadder said...

I far as I know, Quine put forward several argument against the Analytic/Synthetic distinction in the paper named "two dogmas of empiricism", you think is awful because it spends not enough time understanding the role that language plays in epistemology. I personally think that you should elaborate on the flaws of Quine's arguments.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

If you have two good apples and two rotten ones, you cannot honestly sell them as four apples - unless you overlook the rottenness inadvertently and it isn't pointed out to you.

However, selling and buying is not the test of all truth.

They may not be four salesworthy apples, but they are nevertheless four apples. If a chemist wants to buy two good apples and two rotten ones to study speed of rotting, you are free to sell him these four, even if you may think you should not charge for the rotten ones.

So, 2 apples plus 2 apples still mathematically make 4 apples, the truth is still exceptionless.