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.

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