On how to use the term “truth”


by Jack Flynn

I want to expand and modify my discussion to bring it more in line with Goran’s and Harland’s positions. I owe my ideas on this to James and Rorty and by way of the latter to Davidson.

I do not believe that there are mind independent descriptions of the world or of “reality,” if this implies that we are given a pure apprehension of reality without the intervening structures of language and mind. Or in other words, that “we may define the real as that whose [characteristics] are independent of what anybody may think them to be.” I do not know what this could mean and I find it more or less unintelligible as stated for a criterion of the “real.” If it affirms that there are things which exist and that these things have properties that are what they are independently of what anyone may think or affirm about them, I take this as a statement of some variety of realism which I cannot accept. This view of ontology is supported by an epistemological theory of correspondence based on the dualism of subject/object or knower/known. Central to correspondence theory is a theory of representation in which some form of mental representation is found to, in some way, correspond with the object of interest outside the subject – I find insuperable difficulties with each of the key interlocking concepts in this theory: the concept of the “real,” of “correspondence,” and of “representation.”

My interpretation is that Harland, with a few reservations, supports Goran’s realism and correspondence theory, but criticizes his “perspectival chauvinist” views, his “bandwagon” argument, as well as his use “epistemic absolutes.” My approach to the issues raised by Goran’ example of the primitive village of peasants response to a solar eclipse by telling a story of a dragon who devours the sun until all the villagers bang on pots and scare the dragon away thus saving the sun, is based within the pragmatic tradition. Instead of saying that the peasants’ belief was false because it did not correspond to reality as such, I would say that this belief as an account of an eclipse does not fit with any of our current understanding as contained the science of astronomy and physics and therefore should be abandoned except for historical or anthropological inquiry. This way has certain advantages as I see the matter. It avoids the awkward attempt to say what the representation of the event might be and how a mental representation would correspond (or copy) a physical object, assuming that there would be an attempt to explain this theory from the perspective of the villagers.

From our current perspective another advantage is that it allows a charitable account of the villagers’ explanation and behavior. Given that their noise making was always (presumably, by this knowledge being passed down through generations) followed by the reappearance of the sun, their actions were rational. Then we have the explanation which out of context is fantastic but from within their point of view, that is, from within the traditional stories of their culture, satisfied their need for an account of what was happening. I agree that calling their story false smacks of chauvinism.

The pragmatists and James in particular looked upon “true” as the expedient in the way of thinking and without any explanatory use. James wanted to dissolve the traditional problematic about truth and offer a pragmatic one in its place. These are the uses he saw for a notion of truth: (a) an endorsing one, or one of praise, e.g., a hypothesis; (b) a cautionary use as in “Your belief that S is perfectly justified, but perhaps not true.” – reminding ourselves that justification is relative to, and no better than, the beliefs cited as grounds for S, and that such justification is no guarantee that things will go well if we take S as a rule for action; and (c) a disquotational use; to say metalinguistic things of the form “S is true iff____. (quoted in Rorty 1991).

I would hold that there is a limited use for the concept of “correspondence” in relation to inquiry or knowledge. In so far as our beliefs undergo continuous change as a result the active testing of new hypotheses, the acceptance of a new hypothesis can be viewed in a broad sense as “corresponding” with experience in the sense that a new tool corresponds with the task it performs – it “fits” with an immediate experience but, more importantly, it coheres with the larger body of previously tested and accumulated knowledge that ideally increases our survival chances.

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.

On Truth and Falsity


by Goran Markovic

Claiming that some statements are true and some statements are false is quite common. We say “true” and “false” non-reflectively and we say it often. What is less common is a debate over whether terms “true” and “false” ought to be used at all.

The story begins long ago in an ancient village. The peasants there were quite aware of the occasional phenomenon of the sun eclipse. It was a frightening thing for which they had both an explanation and a means to avoid what seemed like a certain catastrophe. The explanation was that a vicious dragon was trying to devour the sun. The means to resolve this problem was to gather every man, woman and child, bring out pots and pans and any noise-making device available, and create a racket loud enough to chase the dragon away. Each time they did this the sun came back. The dragon seemed to retreat.

It would be a common and correct thing to say that the peasants’ belief (that a dragon was trying to eat the sun) was not a true belief. The reason for saying this could be summarized as follows.

In the broadest sense, when we speak of ‘truth’, we have an idea of some correspondence with reality. For reality, again in a very broad sense, we can use the account C.S Peirce gives in his essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”: “Thus we may define the real as that whose [characteristics] are independent of what anybody may think them to be.”

Having clarified the meaning of “truth” and “reality” it is now quite meaningful to speak of truth, reality, fiction, falsity, etc. as a set of relations of correspondence.

Did the peasants’ belief correspond with reality? Would the same belief by anyone today correspond with the reality of the phenomenon of sun eclipse? Of course not. For this reason we are justified in calling such a belief false.

Our basic ability to navigate our environments safely is based on the fact that reality has certain features that are relatively stable and that our beliefs about those features can be true or false as they stand in relation to it. All of science is based on this. Truth, seen as a form of cognitive success, is indispensable. “Truth”, the word, which describes this cognitive success, is also indispensable.

The objection to using words “truth” and “falsity” is thus difficult to comprehend. It is an extraordinary objection and it requires and extraordinary justification.