Wednesday, August 9, 2017

--- Notes on truth ---

... in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all as to what is particular, but only as to the common principles; [whereas in speculative matters, concerned chiefly with necessary things,] truth is the same for all men, both as to principles and as to conclusions.

Thomas Aquinas

My naive model for truth is what-is-out-there, but when people are talking about "truth" they are generally talking about something that is known. What-is-out-there, would accurately be called, "reality". In other words, if there were no conscious organism, no "knower", then there would still be reality but there would be no truth. So truth is knowledge that happens when what-is-known matches what-is-out-there. Truth is knowledge of reality.

At the surface, that sounds okay but just a little consideration will bring up an immediate problem. How do we know - how can we know - that what we think we know actually matches what-is-out-there. This has always been a problem for philosophers (and scientists, for that matter). If you don't believe it, watch The Matrix and ask yourself, "How do I know that the movie isn't the way things really are?" It can drive you to a real existential crisis.

Descartes tried to resolve this problem. He asked how he could know that what he thought of as reality was not just some sort of delusion caused by a demon. It's at the center of many religions. Hindu and Buddhism both speculate that there is a principle in the world called Maya that creates the delusion that what we perceive is real but that only a universal mind is real. Christian Gnosticism proposed that the material world is a delusion created by an evil demiurge to entrap the spirits of people in a servitude of material existence and that only spirit was real. But Descartes' answer was that, although he could never be sure about the reality of other things, he could nevertheless be sure that, since he was thinking, a thinking agent must at least be real and that, because he was thinking, he must be real.

People quickly noticed the flaw in Descartes' thought. Do character's in an author's mind think? Perhaps we are all just characters in someone else's mind. So how can there be truth if we can't even tell if there is even a what-is-out-there?

The conclusion that I come to is that we can, at least, be certain of a continuity. We have tools to test what we can all convince ourselves is the case and has always been the case as long as we have had records to archive reality. Replication, triangulation, experimental control, historical constancy all allow us to test what we might know to see if it is valid and reliable knowledge. We can at least say that, if what we believe to be the truth is not reality, then we have a common and consistent perception of reality that might as well be truth because it is the only truth we can have and, indeed, it has always served us well for truth and must be relied on to serve us in the future as truth.

It might not be completely satisfying as an answer but I'm not so sure we can do any better. Truth is the truth we have.

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