What is Truth?

Truth, perhaps ironically, has a number of meanings. Traditionally, “true” applies to a statement that accurately refers to something that is. In this view, truth is absolute; a perfect, complete description of some aspect of the universe, with no possibility of improvement. This is the religious definition of truth, and it is the definition that caused so many twentieth century philosophers to stumble into the fallacy that truth does not exist at all. It is far too weak a definition for our purposes, so let’s divide truth into more manageable categories.

Linguistic Truths

These are also called “definitional truths.” They are things that are true within the context of a specific system of language, and are absolute in that context. Deductive logic is an example of definitional truth in human thought. Take the following:

1. All Europeans are white.

2. John is a European.

C. John is white.

The conclusion, based on the given premises, is definitionally true — the logic follows. The premises, though, depend on observation, and the terms are somewhat arbitrary, leading to uncertainty in “real world” description. That is the limit of deductive logic.

2+2=4 is also a definitional truth. Mathematics is the language humans have developed to describe an orderly universe, but mathematical truths are only absolutely True in the abstract. When put into practice, they can be very, very accurate, but can never perfectly describe any given aspect of the universe — for the simple reason that any perfect description would be in effect an identical copy of our universe (more on this in a future essay on information theory).

There are a number of other truths that fall into this category, including the logical absolutes, laws of identity, and various rules of language use. They are useful, as long as we remember that they are only “true” in the context of their respective languages.

Prior Truths

Prior truths are subjective statements which have and need no supportive reasoning behind them. Every human’s personal mind-model of the universe (paradigm) is based on priors, to varying extents. Descartes famously tried to eliminate all such prior truths, relying only on that which seemed inarguable: “I think.” That was, at least according to him, his only prior. Most of us have more than one, some much more, but they still operate on the same principle.

Beauty, for example, is a common prior belief. To say that a mountain range is beautiful does not require reasoning, though that perception may be explained, neurologically or otherwise, by reason. Many of our biological imperatives and inputs function the same way. We all place values, unfounded by reason, on things like taste, smell, sound, touch. Sex can be good or bad or in between, as can be music, conversation, friendship, even love. None of these likes and dislikes are founded on logic or evidence; they simply are.

In all of these cases the prior really only regards the perception, and not the thing perceived. It may be prior for some people to believe in God, but that only means a sense of the spiritual is part of their brains (instinctual/prior), not that a God actually exists. Likewise, a nearly universal concept of some kind of morality (also instinctual/prior) does not mean things like “moral right” or “justice” exist in the fabric of the universe outside of human experience.

Priors, then, are truths that exist unsupported in our brains. They have no authority on the nature of the universe external to our minds. I will argue in future essays that greater freedom of action can be attained by eliminating some of these priors.

Observational Truths

These can also be thought of, in modern cultural terms, as “scientific truths” or “empirical truths.” These are the things that we perceive about the world through observation and reason. All observational truths are descriptions of reality that vary in degrees of accuracy. These range from individual data (the number of people in the United States, for example, or the equatorial diameter of the sun), to comprehensive models of explanation, such as Darwinian evolution in biology or supersymmetry in physics.

This is also where a number of philosophical hangups generally appear, usually due to misunderstanding of terms. Amateur relativists, for instance, often confuse scientific truths with Absolute Truth, and conclude that our concepts of molecular biology or relativistic time dilation are simply “meta-narratives” akin to various religious origin myths. A slightly less intelligent version of this misconception is the idea that faith in science is as fundamentalist and unfounded as, say, faith in the need for a violent Jihad, or faith in the invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster (can I get a RA-men?).

This is not the case, and you don’t have to be non-religious to understand that. Observational truth, by definition, only covers observation. The only faith needed for personal observation, then, is the faith that your senses and mind actually work. Pragmatically, this is the only useful assumption to make, as I mentioned in the prelude.

“Science,” of course, meaning the consensus of our fellow observers, needs a little more faith. The thing that distinguishes scientific faith from more traditional concepts of faith is that the more one observes or knows, the less faith one needs. The whole point of scientific rigor is that all observations, all experimental results, can be independently verified. It might take you a lifetime of education to qualify for work on the LHC, but you could theoretically do it, and check the findings of the scientists working on it now. I’ll write a full essay concerning the role of science to a euthorian in the future. For now, consider the scientific world as simply a communal extension of observational truth — recorded experience related to others through language.

True or False?

When we’re asked if a thing is “true,” then, let’s examine what sort of truth the statement would be. Linguistic truths can be proven true with simple logic and sufficient knowledge of linguistic context. Euclid’s Geometry is an example of this on an unusually complex scale. Prior truths can’t be proven true or untrue, by definition. They simply are. If you have a prior truth which seems as though it might be possible to prove one way or the another, consider that such a belief shouldn’t be prior.

For observational truth, though, the simple binary True or False is misleading. Observational truths are never entirely certain (though they can be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”), they evolve, and they can be used. Rather than asking if a given statement is “true,” ask how useful it is for prediction and influence. Newton’s theory of gravity was so profound because it predicted perfectly the orbits of the planets around the sun. Newton’s theory broke down where its predictions failed, and Einstein’s theory stepped in to bridge the gap. In the biological realm, Darwin’s theories predicted genetics, meiosis, and mutation.

Newton’s gravitation is useful for influence in “normal” circumstances, or those in which we interact on a daily basis. “Influence” comes in when you find a way to use observational truths to do things — in this case, establish orbits for communications satellites, or set up a gravitational slingshot around Venus. Einstein’s theories are only now coming into the influence realm in some interesting applications, such as time synchronization for GPS satellites.

What about beliefs that don’t aid your ability to predict or to influence, but serve some psychological or sociological purpose? It is my opinion that such beliefs are at best ineffectually harmless, and at worst cause social stagnation and repression. More on that in a future essay on social ethics and law.

There is a final type of truth, which I call “philosophical” or “methodological” truth. I’ll cover that in depth in my next essay.

One Comment

  • [...] In my last post, we looked at truths that deal with what is. There’s another kind of truth, though, that deals with “ought“–with what we should do. That’s “philosophical truth,” and because philosophical truth deals with action, we can also call it “methodological truth.” [...]

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