Friday, 7 October 2016

The Great Ideas ~ How To Think About Truth

How To Think About Truth

Heavens, start with a light one, why don't you, Adler!  And it honestly wasn't a long essay at all but it was dense.  Dense, as in tons of relevant information packed into a small space.  Dense, as in my brain hurts.  Let's see if I can untangle some neurons and launch into a coherent explanation.

Truth Stolen Away by Time Beyond
the Reach of Envy and Dischord
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikiart

Truth is associated with the pursuit of knowledge which encompasses all earnest endeavours or investigations.  False knowledge does not exist, therefore, what you have in your mind about the object you are trying to know is "knowing the truth".

However, there are problems with the pursuit of truth and Adler summarizes them:

Scepticism - the sceptic either believes that nothing is true or false, or that everything is equally true or false.  We are unable to distinguish or know true or false, have knowledge, or possess truth.  Freud spoke against sceptics, saying, "If it were really a matter of indifference what we believe, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gram of morphine into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take teargas as a narcotic instead of ether; but the intellectual anarchists themselves (the sceptics) would strongly repudiate any such practical applications of their theory."

Relativism - Relativists believe that what can be true for one person, can be false for another and vice versa, or what was true in one point in history may not be true in others.  The opposite view to relativism is that truth is "absolute and immutable, the same for men everywhere."

Pragmatism - Pragmatists believe truth is only truth if it bears fruit in action --- it is only truth if it works.  The opposite view to pragmatism is that practical verification is unnecessary for man to have an awareness of truth.

Adler splits the problem into smaller pieces, now asking not only "what is truth," but "what is true?"

Philosophy Unveiling Truth
Louis Jean François Lagrenée
source ArtUK

Truth Defined

The easier question of the two is:  What is Truth?

Within oneself, one knows the difference between the truth and a lie.  There is a correspondence between our own words, speech and thoughts.  Between two people, using words, we develop a truth of communication or a truth of understanding between each other.  However the third case is more problematic: finding truth within reality ....

The Easy Problem of Truth

The generally agreed upon definition of truth in European thought is the "correspondence between the mind and reality."  From the ancient to the Medieval to the modern world this definition holds true.

Plato:  A false proposition is one which asserts the nonexistence of things which are or the existence of things which are not.

Aristotle:  To say of what is that it is or of what is not that it is not, is to speak the truth or to think truly; just as it is false to say of what is that it is not or of what it is not that it is.

Aquinas said that truth in the human mind consists in the mind's conformity to reality (that which is)

John Locke:  Though our words signify nothing but our ideas, yet being designed by them to signify things, the truth they contain will be only verbal when they stand for ideas in the mind that do not agree with the reality of things.

William James was a pragmastist who maintained that the successful working of an idea signaled truth, meaning the truth of our ideas have an agreement with reality.

However, this definition is only the starting point and many problems remain.  It is more difficult to tell how something is true or false.

As mentioned above, it is relatively easy for the mind to directly correspond with its own thoughts or indirectly with the thoughts of others.  This brings us to our very difficult case.

The Difficult Problem of Truth

How does one test the correspondence with my own mind with that of reality?

We express our thoughts in statements or propositions; reality is the facts about which we're trying to make the propositions.  The problem?  It is impossible for us to grasp the facts except within our own propositions, therefore we have no direct way of discerning whether the propositions correspond to the way things are.  Likewise, we have no indirect way of discerning either, because we cannot ask reality questions and reality cannot answer back.  We cannot have correspondence between what we know and what we are trying to know.

The Endearing Truth (1966)
Rene Magritte
source Wikiart

Consistency Is Needed For Truth

Some say a test of truth is noncontradiction.  For example, the propositions a is b and a is not b cannot both be true; one must be true and one must be false.  Consistency, coherence or absence of contradiction is a sign of truth for if reality were full of contradictions, then the presence of contradictions in the mind would not be a sign of falsity.  Descartes propounded the idea that when our ideas are clear and distinct and contain no contradictions, then we know truth.  Likewise, Spinoza said, "What can be more clearer or certain than a true idea as the standard of truth?  Just as light reveals both itself and the darkness, so truth is the standard of itself and of the thoughts."

Yet Adler does not think this explanation sufficient, for, of the two propositions, how are we to know which is true?  We can only discover truth if we have some measurement or standard with which to measure these propositions.  Aristotle said, "The human mind uses two kinds of principles.  There are the unquestionable truths of the understanding which are axioms or self-evident truths and there are truths of perception, truths which we know, which we possess, when we perceive matters of fact, such as, 'Here is a piece of paper in my hand,' or 'Here is a book, I see a book, I observe a book.'"  If we can test the truth of our propositions against these self-evident truths, we begin to solve the problem.

The Immutability of Truth

Many people can change their minds, but this has nothing to do with a change in truth or what is true.  If the earth is round, it is round no matter how many people claimed that it was flat.  It's fair to say that true is immutable, but human beings do not possess truth immutably.

Truth presenting a Mirror to the Vanities of the World
Northern European School
source ArtUK

Oh heavens, I can already tell that this project is going to take much more effort than I expected.  It's truly an introduction to philosophy.  I just have to keep telling myself that it will be worth it .......


  1. yes. science evades the question, for the most part, by using theories. nothing is absolutely known for sure; it's only regarded as tentatively true if experiment shows that any given fact remains unchanged in the appropriate experimental conditions. the earth may seem to be round, but looked at closely, it isn't absolutely round, and indeed, it's not clear that it's shape approximates a sphere, even... according to our senses, that's the way it appears, but if, for example, we saw things in plane polarized light, the boundary between the air and the surface of the planet might be indistinguishable.. so things are a product of pov, which is mainly determined by the capability of our senses in the analysis of the surrounding environment. truth is ineluctably associated with reality... which also is dependent on pov... looked at from a strictly human viewpoint, the only "real" things are those which we as a species SAY are real... sorry to babble on; interesting stuff which has spawned argument for many millenia... thanks for starting this project, enormous as it might turn out to be...

    1. Oh my goodness, please, babble away ......because now you have me thinking ....... Since truth seems to be there but rather capricious at times, I wonder if it makes if more important to have common standards that people follow in certain areas, not for control but just so we are able to "smooth the edges" and grasp commonalities. I don't know .... perhaps this naturally comes about through discussion ...??? Now I'm babbling. I'll have to think about it a bit more ....

  2. My hat is off to you. You are a braver reader than I ever hope to be now. My philosophy on the issue is sufficiently limited to what Keats tells me in the final lines of "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

    When old age shall this generation waste,
    Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

    1. Ah, Keats! That's the most sensible view I've heard yet. ;-)

  3. I am really interested in this one; I put it on my wish list on Amazon. I'm not usually eager to read philosophical books, but I know it is important to think about these ideas. I once read Adler's Six Great Ideas (or something like that), and my head hurt, too.

    The only think I didn't understand was about false knowledge. Is that the same as incorrect or wrong information?

    1. It's REALLY good but yes, it will make your brain hurt. I had to read everything over twice ..... the more you repeat-read, the more you get it.

      I just skimmed my review ..... did I put "false knowledge" in it? Adler would say that there is no such thing as false knowledge because then it wouldn't be knowledge. However ideas can be false, which just means that they aren't true. Phew! I can't believe that I could answer that! ;-)

  4. I have skipped your review entirely because I am still reading through Chap 1 and I have way too many ideas already. I am sure if I read your thoughts, I will have more ideas and I am really keen on getting to the end first!! But watch out once I am done! Also a big thank you for proposing and introducing me to this boo.....It is really making me think about Big Ideas!!

    1. Okay, I'll be awaiting your thoughts. I've read the next chapter and I think it might get easier as I go. Already my brain hurts less. :-)