Tag Archives: science

“What Is Truth?”

“What is truth?” is a question. You realized that, and you also realized that it is the title of this post. What you may not have fully registered is that the title is in quotes. I am not asking, here, what truth is. I am asking what the question is.

That may seem rather ridiculous. I say it is no more ridiculous than many of the things that people think, and say, and believe are true. At least I am not claiming anything significant. I am just observing that those three words, arrayed in that order, comprise a question.

But if you’d like, I can try to explain why the question would catch my attention. To me, there are two noteworthy things about it. First, it focuses on truth, and truth is commonly considered important. Second, it is the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38).

Pilate’s question has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Wiersbe (2007, p. 303) observes that Pilate may have been either “sneering or sighing . . . we do not know.” Wikipedia, citing Wiersbe, suggests that Pilate could have been implicitly criticizing either the nature of Jesus’s trial or his claim to speak the truth.

Pilate’s utterance is probably why the question seems to be of interest especially to religious people. For example, at this writing, among the first 50 results in a Google search for that question, the large majority are patently religious — mostly Christian, but with a few Mormon entries and at least one that looks Hindu. Christian commentators (e.g., Rolheiser, 2011; Sancto, 2012; A Catholic Thinker, 2012) often consider Pilate’s question ironic, insofar as he seems to have been expressing uncertainty about truth while looking directly at the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

These insights suggest a characterization. “What is truth?” is a question that matters to many Christians because it highlights the contrast between their religion and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. In that tradition, someone like Pilate could (and perhaps Pilate did) snidely or sincerely allude to the complexity of philosophical truth, while completely missing the presence or possibility of religious truth.

Pilate, presumably not stupid, was able to miss the significance of Jesus (as portrayed in the New Testament), just as many Christians fail to understand various philosophical truths, because the alleged answer to the question of truth was not provided in an acceptable form. In that light, “What is truth?” points to the phenomenon, witnessed recently in the polarization of American politics, in which a given event can be interpreted in deeply incompatible ways, depending on one’s prior mental and emotional needs and commitments.

It could seem reasonable to respond to this state of affairs by striving for an open mind, freeing oneself from the distortion of those prior commitments. Unfortunately, while that may make sense from a secular perspective, it could be the exact opposite of what faith requires. In response to Thomas’s doubts (John 20:29), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The greatest faith, within this religion, may be that which is most extremely capable of disregarding or reinterpreting evidence, so as to conform with prior mental or emotional commitments.

From a secular perspective, that may seem like craziness. Playing games with reality is a good way to get hurt or killed — even more so when believers exult in their freedom to behave irrationally, by seeking out endless nonsensical sociopolitical perspectives that have little or nothing to do with faith. You can support the Bush Administration’s counterproductive wars; you can insist on keeping guns in your home as a political statement; you can fight against vaccines and taxes; you can claim expertise in climate science and other fields in which you have no training. But your faith does not require you do to any of that — if anything, it is directly opposed to most of it — and if you insist on looking for trouble, eventually you will find it.

It is neither considerate nor intelligent to behave as if you need not try to make sense to your neighbors. And yet one might say the same thing to the philosophers. At least the believers do have a relatively coherent response to “What is truth?” By contrast, among the results of my Google search, I found these words in the introduction to the Truth entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, Glanzberg, 2013):

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.

So, not a bad start, given 2,500 years to work on it. With religion as an obtrusively irrational counterpoint, it has been easy for the secular types to assume that they all agree on science as a superior alternative. Yet this is not so. Another SEP article (Oberheim, 2013) observes that Kuhn (1962) and Feyerabend (1962) were labeled “the worst enemies of science” because their philosophies supported doubts about the rationality of science. Oberheim says the sociology of science became a recognized discipline as a result of that challenge — and, again citing the SEP (Longino, 2015), research within that discipline has contended inter alia that “philosophical analyses of rationality, of evidence, of truth and knowledge, [are] irrelevant to understanding scientific knowledge.” Going further, Good (1999, p. 186) says that some views held by mainstream philosophers of science “have actually been serious hindrances” to the science of chemistry.

So the philosophers are not consistently on the same page with one another, much less agreeing en masse with the scientists. “What is truth?” thus leads us around to the suspicion that truth may be perceived in multiple ways, depending upon one’s perspective or purpose. And — as if to suggest that we might finally be approaching the actual state of affairs — that sympathy to multiple perspectives may irritate believers, scientists, and philosophers alike, insofar as all seem to think they know a lot about truth, and are prepared to explain it to me in detail.

If I had to venture a guess at this point, I might say that truth appears to begin with those statements that must be true, in order for a certain enterprise to proceed. For instance, you have to start by assuming certain things about Jesus, in order to proceed with the Christian project; and you have to assume things about language or the physical world, if you are to get anywhere in philosophy or science. The assumptions will seem well founded in some situations, less so in others; the assumptions of one project may seem much more solid than those of another; but their basis in reality typically becomes less of an issue, once you roll up your sleeves and get absorbed in the details of the project.

That seems to explain Balkin’s (2003) contention that “law creates truth” — that “[i]t makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.” For instance, what the law makes true regarding taxation is “not true and false from the standpoint of mathematics or natural science” but rather just “from the standpoint of law . . . in ways that matter to us.” The idea seems to be that you start with your own little corner of the world; you say and do things that seem true within that limited physical or mental space; and then, at some point, what you have been saying and doing begins to affect people and things outside of your sphere. As Balkin observes, that can become problematic:

As soon as law creates a category or an institutional structure, it is possible for things to become true or real in the eyes of the law whether or not they are judged true or real from another perspective– for example the standpoint of medical science, religious belief, or political philosophy. . . .

As in religion, philosophy, and science, Balkin observes that legal truth gives people “tools to think with” — “a way of understanding”:

When law “recognizes” a cause of action for sexual harassment, for example, it sees that such a thing exists as a legal wrong. At the moment the wrong becomes cognizable to the law, it becomes real to the law, whether or not it had been real to generations of individuals before that point.

Balkin suggests that other forms of knowledge, behaving in roughly similar fashion, include medicine, psychology, social science, and history. These ways of knowing can conflict because “truth and knowledge are shaped by institutional purposes.” For instance, to a doctor, a person who walks into a hospital’s emergency room is “a set of clinical problems to be tested, identified, diagnosed and cured” but, to a lawyer, that same person is “a potential tort suit.” Both perspectives may be correct, but they can be unrelated or even opposed to one another.

In words that also apply to religion, philosophy, and science, Belkin closes with these remarks:

Law’s construction of a social world and its development of the social imagination can do enormous good. But it always also has other effects. It always also serves other ends, including the empowerment of legal institutions and legal forms of thinking. . . .

My point is to focus on the ways in which legal concepts, legal thinking, and legal imagination colonize moral and ethical imagination. To do this, we must pay careful attention to the many ways in which . . . the moral imagination becomes ensnared by and held in servitude to the legal. Then the truth of law does not necessarily set us free. . . . Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonization of social imagination.

With those words, “What is truth?” takes an ominous turn. No longer are we talking about a familiar conflict between the old antagonists, God and science, each comfortably sealed in its own self-congratulatory echo chamber. Now, much to the contrary, Belkin portrays truth as an aggressive, colonizing force, a weapon with which to take control of what people think and do. This characterization resonates: this is, after all, what religions and philosophies have always seemed to be hoping for.

In such a setting, the question may be whether truth is your friend — whether the world is actually better off when you or I think we can answer the question, “What is truth?” The image comes to mind of two theologians or lawyers, fighting for years on end, to advance their own firm convictions as to the only permissible outcome of some dispute. When people think they have the truth, they dig in their heels. They become angry; they become hardened. This, it seems, is where wars begin.

Yet there is, perhaps, a response to such concerns. This post adopts a God’s-eye metaposition, standing above the fray, critiquing claimants to the prize of Truth. These various special-purpose forms of truth — legal, religious, etc. — do not generally seem so wise and true as to justify ignoring other forms of truth. In other words, by writing about these perspectives, I have implicitly taken the view that these are all just pieces of the puzzle. The heretofore unstated claim is that, approached honestly, “What is truth?” ultimately drives us toward questions and adaptations, rather than answers and verities.

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” We don’t know what he meant by that. And that is fortunate. Because what he achieved, by leaving us in limbo, was to exemplify the nature of the question. The query pushes us to keep asking him, and each other: Why do you say that? What do you mean? If the scripture is to be our guide, in this case it guides us to keep thinking about religious people, like Jesus; and about philosophers, like the Greeks and Romans in whom Pilate may have been schooled; and about the political and legal and other influences at work, in that moment of Christ’s Passion.

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The Fecundity of Life vs. the Parsimony of Science

Scientists and philosophers who discuss theory often say that a good theory has certain traits.  Among other things, a theory is especially likely to provide a useful scientific explanation if it is predictive (i.e., it explains the phenomena well enough to predict what will happen in certain conditions) and unique (i.e., when it uses new terms or concepts, it explains how they differ from terms and concepts already in use).

This post focuses on another trait of good theory:  parsimony.  This is often expressed as the view that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.  In a well-known phrasing, the principle of parsimony says, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.”  This principle is often used in support of atheism:  basically, if you can explain the world and everything in it without using the concept of God, then it seems unnecessary to invoke or invent that concept, and doing so will probably lead you to incorrect conclusions.

The principle of parsimony has some things in common with the principle of noncontradiction.  According to the latter, something cannot be both true and false.  More precisely, says Wikipedia, “contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.”  Either the cat is white or it is not white, but not both simultaneously.  Seems obvious.

The problem is that things in the real world rarely occupy “the same sense at the same time.”  Life and philosophy part ways in these regards.  In philosophy, you don’t need redundant entities; but in life, you have redundant entities all over the place.  Life has no problem whatsoever with repeating itself in endless, idiotic duplication and near-duplication.  You already have a cockroach?  Here, have another!  and another!  Nor does life hesitate to contradict itself, at least for human purposes.  Yes, if you were able to pry apart every peccary, peccadillo, and pecuniary propensity, you would perhaps be able to characterize them in black-and-white terms:  fat, not thin; significant, not trivial.  But in real life, as soon as you look away for a minute, another version of the damned thing turns out to be just the opposite of what you expected.

There is a reason for it, of course; there is always some explanation for why something like a bumblebee can’t fly but, in fact, the bumblebee can fly but, in this case, the bumblebee cannot fly, but you were right when you said it could, because it could then.  Just drag everything back to the laboratory, dissect it, and you can explain it all.  Except that, of course, you can’t.  There aren’t enough of you to do it, and besides, you won’t live nearly long enough.  In theory, there are no violations of the principle of noncontradiction.  In reality, much of life is devoted to discovery of and reaction to things that weren’t supposed to be contradictory, but in effect are exactly that – and so they will remain, for the most part, because there aren’t nearly enough of us to sort them all out.

We have, in the principles of noncontradiction and parsimony, a set of abstractions from life.  Within the abstracted spaces of the philosophical armchair and the scientific laboratory, they carry weight.  Within the grand sweep of life, they don’t necessarily.  Mere redundancy, by itself, does not violate parsimony; but as just noted, it’s often not a case of mere redundancy, but rather of endless refinements on the original proposition.  The cat is white, except when it stands in a colored light, unless by “white” you mean . . . and so forth.  The words we use to explain things aren’t so much the neat stack of parsimonious constructs imagined by antique philosophers as they are a continuing dialogue in which people have to keep trying to distinguish cases in order to mimic verbally (in extremely limited form) the endless subtle permutations of life.

As an agnostic polytheistic fundamentalist, I’m not deeply invested in the question of whether the abstracted nature of parsimony shoots holes in atheists’ dismissal of God – for purposes of real life, that is, as distinct from the armchair, where we can sort out a small and artificially structured interpretation of reality in our heads.  People may differ in their willingness to accept that the universe confounds expectations.  I’m less interested in God than in life – in its eagerness to spew forth copy after copy, many mutating slightly from the original.  However useful parsimony may be for the formulation of abstract theories, it is not very helpful in characterizing existence.  Parsimony yields the conclusion but ignores the steps to it – giving us, say, the survival of a species with superior reproductive capability, but without the drama and the adventure, the struggles spanning months or eons that such victory required.  Parsimony is a reviewer who tells us how the book ends but not how it got there:  by definition, parsimony trims out everything it considers extraneous.  You can force it to come to the microphone and recite the progress of the marathon, but it will do so in plodding fashion, without imagination; it really just wants to state the outcome and be done.

In this post, I have parsed parsimony because it gets misused.  There are people who think they have provided an especially cool explanation when they make it as cryptic as possible, as though one dare not risk the wastage of a word.  This mentality, conducive perhaps to certain kinds of activities (e.g., the drafting of statutes), is in considerable conflict with the nature of life.  Life demands and practices constant, florid elaboration (in e.g., the interpretation of statutes).  We are closer to life’s spirit when we postulate not zero, not one, but a thousand gods, a dozen theories, a score of scenarios.  Closing down the options is a concession to our limits and/or our preferences, not to what may be.

As part of life, people indulge deliberately and indifferently arbitrary and superfluous thoughts, actions, and characteristics.  There is always much more to know, even within a rigorously parsimonious scientific mindset; but in fact there is vastly, overwhelmingly much more to suspect.  Principles of parsimony and noncontradiction can help us to think about things, but can be overindulged to the extreme of blinding us to possibilities that life has probably already recognized.

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