Why the truth matters…

As a warmer for any of you planning to hit Derry next weekend, for the debate about politics and journalism. Excellent review by Jerry Fodor in this week’s Times Literary Supplement of a dense but pertinent philosophical argument by Simon Blackburn in favour of using the relatively simple semantic concept of truth rather than weighing every statement in only terms of its presuppositions, origin and bias. It may hurt the head a bit, but worth persevering with.

Nice little parable, on how irresistible it is to tell the truth, and how impossible it is to get it perfect:

“You say there’s nothing that you know for sure? What about whether you have a nose? No? But what’s that thing just south of your eyes and north of your mouth? And what’s holding your glasses up?” It is a characteristic relativist claim that, in principle, we can always make up alternative versions of the stories that we tell about the world. But one finds, if one actually tries, that it is surprisingly hard to do so. “Maybe it’s all just a dream?” Well, maybe; but how would that explain what holds your glasses up? Explaining, in any detail, why things are as they appear to be is hard; science is our best try so far, and it generally succeeds only under extreme idealization from much of the data.

He goes further on the irresistibility of fact:

Blackburn is, pretty much, an absolutist about scientific truth. You might thus expect that he would also run a “correspondence” theory of what such truth consists in: on the one hand, there’s the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun; and, on the other hand, there’s the theory-independent fact that the Earth does revolve around the Sun. And it’s the fact that makes the theory true. But this kind of account of what truth is has become unfashionable of late. It is argued that, since we must always approach the world with some or other theory in mind, we couldn’t, even in principle, know about how the facts are “in and of themselves”, independent of our theories. Blackburn treats this line of thought with some respect, but it seems to make the same confusion between semantics and epistemology scouted in the previous paragraph. Furthermore, such arguments must be unsound; it is precisely the virtue of Scientific Realism that it shows how we can come to know about facts that aren’t theory-dependent. It is the main point of Scientific Realism that only their correspondence to theory-independent facts would explain why our theories are successful.

After some mind numbing mental (ontological, epistemological and semantic) gymnastics, he concludes that:

Not only is truth a semantic notion (rather than an ontological or epistemic one) but, together with reference, it is the semantic notion par excellence. Go ahead: try to build a theory of mental or linguistic representation without it; I’ll bet you’ll find that you can’t. The consequence is that, pretty inevitably, philosophers who claim they can dispense with a robust notion of truth are required also to claim that they can do without robust notions of mental and linguistic representation; hence without the sort of common-sense psychological explanations that attribute what people do and say to the contents of their beliefs and desires.

  • spirit-level

    The review makes you a bit dizzy, with its inevitable slide into Logic, and Truth Tables.
    Schiller, Satre and others were more concerned with the dread,the angst, the void: the “Being and Nothingness” and how to experience truth, which all get a bit mystical, but might explain falling churh numbers, the rise in interest in Eastern Religions.
    When Keats wrote:
    “Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth” that pulls you in more than endless Logic.
    The mouse is under the sofa, is only true so long as the cat is outside.

  • Mick Fealty

    Romantics versus the Enlightenment? Now there’s an equation worth working out!

  • ch in dallas

    Mick, I read the entire thing and I”ve been rocking back and forth mumbling Latin ever since! It really is the Romantics vs the Enlightenment. Descartes started all that “I think therefore I am” but it really should be “I am, therefore I think.” I’ll take Shakespeare to Voltaire.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m not sure there isn’t a tension between the two – ie, it’s not either/or, but both.

    Shakespeare’s line on this is in Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet:

    “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man”.

    This covers an individual’s intention and purpose – which is important. Then again, as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) said, “Hell is full of good intentions or desires.”

    I’m all for poetic truth. But in the mundane sphere of politics, economics, and social ideas, one man’s poetry can be another man’s lie.

    Scientific method may be flawed, and far from the perfection some believe it expresses. But earnest striving towards veracity beats entertaining flights of learned fancy every time.

  • spirit-level

    One example of the over-lap between Romanticism and the Enlightenment is in the court-room.
    The counsel uses the utmost exactitude of scientific method in planning the cross-examination; but the delivery is often dandy, theatrical , romantic, having one purpose in mind and that is to expose the lies. The counsel has to set traps by innuendo, suggestion , manipulation, badgering.. that is an art from, requiring wit, charm, personality.

  • Mick Fealty

    Going back to the article, it’s worth repeating the last para I’ve quoted:

    It’s this robustness that’s important. Clearly such robustness was at the bottom Orwell’s concern when he wrote:

    He goes on to argue that this is not the sole concern of professional writers, but of the citizen concerned with getting at the truth in politics.

  • spirit-level

    That is compelling.. “robustness” .
    A tidy and disciplined mind has that clarity.
    Accuracy is beautiful too. Hmmm.
    Never thought that before.
    Eureka I found it!
    I’m converted, expect higher standards of excellence 🙂

  • ch in dallas

    I read somewhere that the greatest distance in the universe is between man’s mind and heart, and I would add soul. If you’re mind heavy, you become the mad scientist, soul heavy the fundamentelist, or heart heavy the dreamy do-gooder flailing about in all directions. Man needs balance between the three. And accuracy in language is vital. You want the judge in you’re court case to be “Disinterested” but not “Uninterested.” Mick, your quote from Orwell sounds like it could have come from “Why Orwell Matters” by Chris Hitchens. Great read! If you’re walking around with only one oar in the water so to speak, any huckster of a politician can convince you of anything, or tangle you up with what the meaning of “is” is.It is true that one man’s flowery language can contain a foul lie. I’m sorry, I don’t know how to make paragraphs, or cut and paste, stuck on the roundabout here! So I would say balance, mind, heart, soul. Father,Son, Holy Spirit. Electron, proton, neutron. Einstein, Shakespeare, Shelley.