Sunday, January 13, 2013

What is The Truth?

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, and there are lots of things, it’s when someone says they know ‘the truth.’ Let’s tear a page out of one of Plato’s stupid dialogues and ask, what is ‘the truth?’ According to the nearest dictionary, the truth is the state of affairs being in accordance with facts or reality. Mmm, that definition seems about as helpful as Justin Bieber in a bar fight since what you might consider facts may differ wildly from what you believe about reality. For example, facts about the natural world tell us nothing about those things that are supernatural, existing outside of nature, if anything supernatural in fact exists. Of course, you may disagree with me on this very point, believing that if you have enough facts, these facts tell you something about the overall state of affairs; meaning, reality. That kind of thinking means you’re not drinking enough. Alcohol is the only way to make ‘the truth’ any more understandable. Plus, it dulls the boredom.

"All great truths begin as blasphemies." ~ George Bernard Shaw, trying to convince his mother that eating his veggies confers no benefits.

What I’m not going to do is talk about the truth and its relationship to religion since there is none, not beyond self-evident truths, that is, truths obvious to yourself. If you can’t prove other minds exist – and you can’t – then your personal articles of faith do not qualify as facts to anyone other than yourself. So, I’m not going to spend any time talking about so-called religious truths; there’s no such thing beyond the confines of your own mind. Instead, I’m going to do something no one in their supposedly right mind ever does anymore and I’m going to cast a critical eye upon the claims of scientists, because sometimes there’s a legitimate problem with the conclusions scientists make. Here’s what scientists considers to be true – matters of fact; facts being the result of a very particular set of circumstances that are possible for other people – if they exist – to replicate. Now, whatever could be the problem with a scientific fact? Isn’t a matter of fact a matter of fact? Sure, but no one likes a tautology. More importantly, can we not make inferences from the collection of scientific facts, inferences so obvious they too must be factual? This is what scientific theories rest upon. Oh, but inferences from matters of fact are quite a leap if you if you haven’t had enough to drink. When’s the last time you met a scientist who could hold their liquor? Exactly.

"Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad." ~ Aldous Huxley, hearing about the size of black men’s penises.

There are two philosophical objections to the construction of scientific theories I will address here, although there are more: Underdetermination and The Problem of Induction. I’ll start with Underdetermination while you start drinking. Underdetermination basically says that any scientific theory derived from matters of fact may be suspect on grounds that the matters of fact used to establish a scientific theory are not sufficient enough to prove the theory. For example, if a child watches a cartoon about a cat and mouse behaving violently towards each other, then that child goes outside and acts violently towards another child, the matter of fact that the child watched a violent cartoon is not enough to prove that the cartoon caused the child to act violently towards another child. Perhaps other facts we are not aware of caused the child’s violent behavior, or that the behavior was caused by multiple matters of fact, not all of which we are aware of. Underdetermination can be best summed up by that old methodological adage, “Correlation does not imply causation.”

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple." ~ Oscar Wilde, being downright earnest.

Another problem is called the Problem of Induction, popularized by Scottish philosopher David Hume. The problem is that, generally speaking, induction generalizes what will happen in the future based on past events. For example, thinking that the laws of physics will be the same tomorrow as they are today because they have always been the same oh look we left out the caveat, “As far as we know.” Hume’s criticism of induction casts doubt on matters of fact, since all matter of fact are ‘proven’ inductively. That is to say, for any cause, multiple effects are conceivable, and the actual effect cannot be determined by reasoning about the cause. For example, if we shoot one billiard ball towards another, there is no way to guarantee that they will collide. In order to make that kind of guarantee, we would have to know and control every last variable, which, when taking quantum mechanics into account, is impossible to do – as far as we know ha ha ha. The Problem of Induction is further complicated by the Sorites Paradox. Exactly how many times does it take for a particular result to take place before we consider the results a fact? 1 out of 2? 2 out of 3? 3 out of 5? More often than not? If that’s not troubling enough, also consider the application of induction to classes of objects: It might be a fact that all rednecks are white because all we’ve even seen are white rednecks, but all it takes is one black redneck to disprove the fact. Disprove the fact and you abolish the truth. Now, it’s not that Hume believe induction wasn’t useful – it appears to predict what will be the case more often than not – he merely wished to say that facts are not justified necessarily.

"The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths." ~ William James, caught lying about only taking ONE cookie out of the cookie jar.

Now, while it might be the case that a ball falls to the ground every instance you’ve dropped it and this has led us to the theory of gravity – which is surely an improvement over the previous explanation, intelligent falling – the theory of gravity does seem to accurately explain why a ball falls toward the ground when you drop it and the motion of stars and planets. But scientists still don’t know why gravity is so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces of the universe – the strong and weak nuclear forces, and electro-magnetism. Scientist cannot currently reconcile quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity. That said, there is always a certain incompleteness to scientific theories. Evolution, for example, currently does not explain how life began…which is not the same as saying evolution is an incorrect theory, my right-wing nuts friends. There is the possible explanation that there is now or once was a god who was only smart enough to create a single-celled animal capable of replication from which humans eventually evolved, but we don’t currently possess this knowledge. As scientists proceed to collect data about how nature works, theories become revised and more comprehensive to the point it is possible to conceive of a day when future scientists look back upon our modern science and laugh, “Gravity? Oh my, what were they thinking?” Ah, but how much more will our future scientists have figured out about the universe? The collection of data, of ‘facts’, very often seems to lead to more questions. Can science lead us to the point of an ultimate explanation that simply ‘is’ that avoids raising more questions? Even religious explanations raise at least as many questions as they answer, so, what the fuck? What’s that? Somewhere I hear a Taoist laughing. Bastard.

"Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth." ~ Jean-Paul Sartre, mistaking nothingness for being.

Philosophically then, when we say we’re talking about the truth, what do we mean by that word? Is it the state of things being in accordance with facts or reality? The word reality feels like a misnomer since the word ‘reality’ is typically value-laden and tainted by cultural and gender specific lenses. But it does seem that when we’re talking about matters of fact, specific events are seemingly caused by a specific set of circumstances. That said, the truth – that is, a ‘fact’ – seems to be closer to what remains consistent even if you don’t believe it. As the saying goes, the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Hmmm, but are crazy people really crazy, or is it that they totally get the Problem of Induction?! To be clear, I’m not saying Induction is invalid any more than Hume did; it sure seems to work, maybe because events must have causes even if we’re not entirely sure what those causes are. After all, it can’t be that events just happen willy-nilly, can it?! If we can’t connect events to causes, there would be no basis for human logic. Hmmm, yes, judging by the way humans act, there appears reason to doubt the existence of logic.

"Truth has very few friends and those few are suicides." ~ Antonio Porchia, poor lonely Antonio Porchia.

The bottom line is this – the truth, or if you like, the facts, are merely approximation for understanding how the world works; there is seemingly no such thing as completely correct knowledge beyond the self-evident truths of internal observations such as “I am seeing yellow” which I could easily dispute but won’t bother because such truths don’t mean anything to anyone other than yourself anyway. Science, though, does get closer to the truth than religion, for science provides a better method for concocting explanations that other minds find plausible, assuming there are other minds. Remember that science as a discipline does not in principle need to comprehend the entire universe; human beings do that out of wanting to manipulate the world around them in their never-ending quest to avoid death, maybe because religious beliefs aren’t quite getting that job done. You are going to die, that’s the truth, so for fuck’s sake get over it. Oops, did I say that out loud?

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