On “Truth” and “Falsity” in a Non-Assertoric Sense… A Meta-poetic Polemic


by Harland Hauger

Claiming that ‘claiming that some statements are true is quite common’ is quite common– in my experience.  Debate over whether to eliminate ‘true’ and ‘false’ from our discourse entirely, I encounter less often.  This is not a position I currently support, though I think from time to time I may be misinterpreted as suggesting such.  My current position, rather, is to advocate refinement and precision of language use, to suggest a more active role in memetic evolution, to advocate for argument.  To be clear: I do think that the terms ‘true’ and ‘false’ have a place in epistemic rhetoric, but I also think that the way most people (including most philosophers) use those words a significant portion of the time is irresponsible.

Goran has provided us with a fine example of how not to behave when employing epistemological terminology, and I think if we just take a closer look at his short piece that most of us should be able to agree that my recommendations are both reasonable and even would allow Goran to convey the message that he wants to convey more effectively than his habitual use of epistemic absolutes does.
Goran tells us a (‘true’?) story of a society with what he considers a promiscuous ontology.  They appear to ‘believe in’ space-dragons which devour suns and have sensitive hearing.  [There are many interesting issues as to how to ‘correctly’ ascribe exotic beliefs but I intend to skirt these for the purposes of this response]  Let us stipulate that there is a villager, Drogan, who believes and verbally asserts, on the day of (what our society calls) a ‘solar eclipse’, “Today a dragon attempted to eat the sun.”
Goran writes, “It would be a common and correct thing to say that [Drogan’s] belief was not a true belief.”  Here we have, if I understand him correctly, a use of the word ‘true’ that Goran finds acceptable.  Why does he think this?  Here we ought note at least these things: (1) To claim that ‘Word usage X is common’ is an empirical claim, and that the predication is vague (unless Goran has access to a common-o-mometer that I do not).  (2) Many would argue that ‘bandwagon’ arguments are fallacious, and I think Goran would agree.  Merely the ’empirical fact’ (even if it were established) that ‘it is common to say that Drogan’s belief is false’ is not itself a conclusive reason to think that Drogan’s belief is false.  (3) To say that ‘it is a correct thing to say’ seems to beg the interesting question.  For me, the issue at hand is: Is it ‘correct’ [or ‘responsible’] to say: X is false?
Goran then suggests that we accept, for the purposes of this discussion, the ‘correspondence theory’ of truth.  He defines reality, with Peirce, as that which is objective– and I think he means to define ‘truth’ as language which holds a ‘correspondence relation’ to this objective reality, a re-presentation of ‘that which is the case’.  He thinks that as long as we stick to these definitions, ‘it is quite meaningful to speak of truth…’  Again, I would agree to this if it were refined a bit: With these definitions in mind it can be possible to meaningfully speak of truth, etc.  It does not immediately follow that all uses of ‘true’ will be meaningful just in case they accord with Goran’s semantic suggestions.  Again, I think most people agree with this but the ‘common’ language of ‘it is quite meaningful’ confuses them.  Some of the time, uses of ‘true’ are ‘meaningful’, but some of the time they might not be.
To the issue at hand, Goran asks, “Did [Drogan’s] belief correspond with reality?”  Though he is not as clear on this as we might hope, I think he wants to answer: “No!”  What he actually writes, however, immediately following, is, “Would the same belief by anyone today correspond with the reality of the phenomenon of sun eclipse?” and this is the question which he does answer directly with, “Of course not.”  And then, after the judgment comes the justification passage, “For this reason we are justified in calling such a belief false.” This passage is fascinating, and I find it ambiguous.  It stands in need of some analysis.
What appears to be the most obvious reading is also one of the less charitable.  It seems that one might read Goran as to think that ‘Is X true’ means ‘Does X seem true to a given community?’.  I think some radical relativists might make this claim, however Goran has provided us with evidence that he is a correspondence theorist.  But the way one question follows on another sometimes indicates that the author finds them to be ‘synonymous’ questions.  The content I glean from the second question is, ‘If a given explanation of a phenomenon is acceptable to a given community then they are justified in calling it true.’  The word ‘phenomenon’ here seems to be a single occurrence equivocation between (I) ‘real-world happening’ [the eclipse] and (II)’subjective-perspective seeming’ [Drogan’s sense-experience when witnessing said eclipse], I’m not sure how to read this question univocally.  Correspondence-Goran would mean (I), but the question he answers with “Of course not” employs (II).  I don’t see how you can reason from, or justify on the basis of, a claim about reality from a claim about a perspective.
Goran appears to be, simply, a perspectival chauvinist.  From the perspective of contemporary science and/or common sense; ‘of course’ there are no space-dragons.  Does this mean there are none?  I don’t think so, nor do I think Goran or anybody else does.  From the perspective of our story’s peasant village: there are space-dragons.  Does this mean there are some?  The reason that I think Goran thinks there are no space-dragons is that he thinks that reality doesn’t have any space-dragons in it (or ‘the correct ontology lacks space-dragons’ or what have you).  For Goran, and common sense, what makes ‘There are no space-dragons’ ‘true’ is that there are no space dragons.  For Goran, what makes Drogan’s belief ‘false’is that there are no space-dragons.  Why doesn’t Goran think there are space-dragons?  Because he does not choose to include them in his perspective.
But what Goran appears not to appreciate is: Nobody knows whether or not there are space-dragons.  Why not?  [see: 2500+ years of writing under the term ‘skepticism’, I will endeavor to provide an essay of my own on this topic for this blog at a later date]  Among other reasons because: Every ‘saying’, every ‘assertion’, every ‘speech act’ is from a perspective.
I don’t know about ‘The Skeptic’, but for this skeptic, ontological questions are adjudicated by arguments.  If it is correct that we cannot determine whether or not space-dragons ‘exist’– which the skeptic argues we cannot –but we also do not want to be radical relativists and say, “Well, space-dragons are true for them and syzygy is true for us…” what then do I suggest?  Modify the question from: What is True? to What should we believe?  And answer the latter with arguments, with conversation, with dialectic, with ‘science’, etc.  I do not think that space-dragons cause eclipses, but I also would not assert that Drogan’s belief was false.  To assume that those are the only two choices seems a ‘false’ dichotomy.  I think there is a better argument for the world-view which explains eclipses, broadly, in the way that Goran, and most of the rest of the people in my society explain them.  Does that mean that we have ‘true’ beliefs and the peasants ‘false’ ones?  If ‘true’ means ‘corresponds to reality’, then the answer to that question is: Nobody knows.
And if nobody knows, Goran doesn’t know.  And if Goran doesn’t know, then he ought not say that he does.

3 thoughts on “On “Truth” and “Falsity” in a Non-Assertoric Sense… A Meta-poetic Polemic

  1. Will it make any difference if I pointed out that the assumed statement does not concern the existence of space-dragons, but a question of the explanation of what happens to be the case during a sun eclipse?
    My challenge to such an explanation would still stand if the explanation was that, say, planet Mars periodically changes its own orbit and for a time comes so close to Earth to actually cause an eclipse. That would be yet another (of many possible) explanations of what is the case when an eclipse occurs.
    There is an infinity of “perspectives” from which we can make such statements.
    Just to make things clear: I am NOT positing any absolute Truths. I am not sure why that even has to be assumed prior to objecting to the use of the term. There are great many truths about which we can have varying levels of certainty. In the context I proposed I think it is quite meaningful to use the terms “true” and “false” about statements made from ANY perspective as they [statements] in larger or smaller degree accord with whatever happens “to be the case”.
    One can always assume the position of the skeptic and say that we can never know. But we don’t need to know anything with absolute certainty. We don’t have to “have The Truth” in order to have truth.
    Even in most general terms, whatever “reality” really is (or is not) it surely has enough stable features for us to be able to notice and acknowledge them. Our success in accurately acknowledging those features is so evident that it is barely worth mentioning. If I call instances of this success “truth” and instances of failure “falsity”, as long as we understand what is being said, the objection still does not make sense to me.
    It is either an expression of purely linguistic preference, or an expression of extreme skepticism. Did I perhaps miss a third option?

    • “…as long as we understand what is being said, the objection still does not make sense to me.”

      I think my point, were I forced to attempt to distill it to a single sentence, would be: The Goran of “On Truth and Falsity” does not exhibit consistent epistemic behavior. I would say the same thing of your comment. As far as I can see, there is no way to read your posts with any unified interpretation of the word “truth”. So that’s the problem, Goran, I do NOT “understand what is being said” because you equivocate, I can’t find a way to read you because any time you toss out an epistemic term I don’t know which definition you’re using at any given time. So I think that’s at least part of why you don’t get the objection, part of the objection is that we DON’T understand what is being said.

      For example, these are all direct quotes from your comment:

      “I am NOT positing any absolute Truths.”
      “There are great many truths about which we can have varying levels of certainty.”
      “Our success in accurately acknowledging those features is so evident that it is barely worth mentioning. If I call instances of this success ‘truth’…”

      I can’t come up with a definition for “truth” which allows me to consistently interpret your writing. Part of the time you seem to mean one thing, and other times you mean something else. This you even seem to admit in a single curious sentence:

      “We don’t have to ‘have The Truth’ in order to have truth.”

      In order for this to make any sense we have to interpret you as equivocating on “truth”; using the “capitalized essence” style some of the time, and some more “pragmatic success” another part of the time. This is why I accuse you of “epistemic irresponsibility”; you equivocate on your epistemic terminology. As that Bob Newhart as bad psychologist on that old SNL skit advised: “Stop that! Just stop it.”

      • I’m not sure if I can be any clearer then this quote from my response (which is crucial to it, yet was omitted from the list of quotations you used to illustrate the charge of ambiguity):

        “Even in most general terms, whatever “reality” really is (or is not) it surely has enough stable features for us to be able to notice and acknowledge them. Our success in accurately acknowledging those features is so evident that it is barely worth mentioning. If I call instances of this success “truth” and instances of failure “falsity”, as long as we understand what is being said, the objection still does not make sense to me.”

        I don’t think you are reading me fairly. I’d be glad to answer any questions, but I have no means of answering charges of “ambiguity” and “epistemic irresponsibility” when they are supported only by (out of context) quotations.

        I speak of “The Truth” only in answer to the charge of epistemic absolutism, and only to say that this is NOT what I have in mind when I say that some statement is “true”. I don’t even know what “The Truth” means and will never claim to “have it”.

        But I think I know what “truths” are IN THE CONTEXT I DESCRIBED, repeatedly, both in written form and in conversation. So what exactly IS ambiguous in what I have said so far?

        I understand Jack’s objection a lot better, since it comes from a meta-epistemic point of view which questions the very notion of “objective reality”. We can (and will) proceed and perhaps make some progress from there.

        But your objection seems to reside within the same epistemic universe as my claims do, and for that reason I find it puzzling.
        I’m not sure that throwing charges of “epistemic irresponsibility”, “perspectival chauvinism”, “dogmatism”, etc.in response to what I have said is very helpful, nor is it a good articulation of the objections.

        So, again, where IS the ambiguity, not in individual words, but WITHIN THE CONTEXT of what I have said so far?

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