Mostly True, Not Mostly False

I wrote a post where I effectively argued that any genuine truth in art and in myths (including religious art and myths) could be essentially translated into, and defended in the form of, philosophical propositions.  James counters:

my question regards the notion that myths or art can be “true” or not, and that the way we determine this is if their content can be “translated” into propositions by appropriate experts. I ranted take the position that fiction is, strictly speaking, “false”, but that falsehood is no barrier to epistemic value. Fictions often help us understand our experience even though they are not “true”, and cannot be reasonably “translated” into truthful propositions. This is the case in both the arts and the sciences – many sciences rely on intellectual constructs which are strictly false but which are “true enough” to aid our understanding (the ideal gas law is my adviser’s favorite example).

Nietzsche is also in the habit of talking about art as falsehood, a kind of lying with a good conscience. And he also refers to the use of models and geometric abstractions and all other constructions of ideals and laws in science as “falsehoods” too for their “constructed” character.

So, for a while, under what I perceived to be Nietzsche’s influence, I would have been with you in being shy of the word “truth” or would have been inclined to asterisk every instance of truth and point out the element of falsity, i.e., the element of construction, in every “truth”.

The problem however is that this approach to language actually assumes an absolutist view of truth, rather than challenges it. (Though as we will see, Nietzsche only assumes this view of truth in order effectively to challenge it by showing its incoherence).

The way this language assumes absolute truth is that rather than embracing the fact that our constructs have verisimilitude (that is, a degree of approximation to reality), by calling them essentially “falsehoods” it implies that any degree of deviation that our concept has from the thing in itself it is supposed to be representing makes it essentially false. On this view there are only two options, absolute truth—an absolute identification between the concept and the thing—or some degree of falsehood to the extent there is deviation from the thing in itself. And any degree of falsehood equates to a total falsehood for not being a total truth.

Now the problem is that there is inevitably a gap between our minds and the world. Unless we become some sort of Berkeleyan idealist and believe that there are no external things but all that exists are minds and ideas in minds, our only other alternative is to accept that there is always some sort of separation between things and our perceptions of them and our ideas of them. For the most straightforward example: there is the reflected light wave and then our mental representation of the light wave as a color experience. Our brains contribute to forming images and also concepts, they are not ideas plopped into our minds perfectly formed by God, they must be stimulated and pieced together in a material brain.

There are the physical interactions in the world. And then there is our perceptual interaction with those objects.  And there are our measurements and categorizations of those objects.  Some of these measurements and categorizations happen automatically and without any conscious control and only with a degree of precision, as  when our brain is navigating the world for us in every day tasks like walking through a doorway without hitting our head on the door or reaching the exact distance to grab a cup and then sliding our fingers around the handle to grip it, etc. And then sometimes we make more abstract, deliberate, conscious calculations and categorizations like when we apply geometry or calculus to the objects or like when we discern patterns of formal similarities between objects and, accordingly, we try to build the most consistent, effective, and compelling classifying schemes for categorizing these patterns as indicative of different, interrelated, kinds of beings.

On and on, we can list the ways that our brains actively put a representation and conceptualization of the world together for us in order that we can perceive it and think about it. And only from there can we develop the really sophisticated scientific and philosophical models that create our most coherent, predictive, sense-making theories which are powerfully effective in enabling us to master the world around us and to avoid contradictions in our thinking, etc.

No matter what we do, all of this advancement in knowledge—measured in the practical terms of creating new or improved abilities to navigate and subjugate the world to our purposes, and measured in abstract terms by expanding our repertoire of conceptual distinctions which are consistent with experience and with each other—is dependent upon our brains first mediating the world to us. We can only think within brains and brains have perspectives which color and construct our conceptions of the world for us. We can never have an unmediated communion with “things in themselves”. Every part of reality we engage, we engage through the filters and constructions of our brains. And it is inconceivable that any thinking about external objects could be otherwise.

Now, given this situation, why should we define knowledge and truth as only being when there is no degree of difference between a thing in itself and our perception or conception of it when there is no such thing as unmediated thinking about things?  This is defining knowledge and truth into impossibility. Why accept such an incoherent absolutism as the correct definition of the meaning of truth and the meaning of knowledge such that we wind up saying (when speaking philosophically), “there is no truth and there is no knowledge, only degrees of falsehood”, even though in everyday life and in specialized thinking we clearly can discern that some propositions are meaningfully worth calling true and others worth calling false, and that some things are known and some things are unknown.  Why attack both everyday and refined scientific and philosophical language on behalf of an incoherent, inconsistent, impossible ideal definition of “”Truth” or “Knowledge” which would have us unhelpfully say everything we think is “really false”?

Why not instead define truth and knowledge in ways that are actually consonant with the ways we come to have justified confidence in propositions?  We can identify degrees of truth enough to say that a proposition (or system of propositions) is true when it coherently orders our experience, is internally consistent and also consistent with all other known propositions or sets of propositions, when it can account most convincingly for past experiences and most reliably predict future experiences, when it passes rigorous and highly refined tests of probability, when it is conceptually coherent and logically sound and not contradicted by any of our experiences, etc.

Just being constructed does not mean being false unless absolutism about truth is true, but absolutism about truth is incoherent and impossible. Within both our everyday and our specialized disciplines we have developed highly powerful tools and tests for discovering and confirming truths which have high degrees of verisimilitude even though they are “constructed” and are not unmediated communions with things in themselves. And we can be fairly certain that they are at least mostly true or, from a practical standpoint, we would be entirely dead for being entirely incapable of navigating the world as it is. And insofar as good works of art are able to create situations in which numerous formalizably true dynamics are in play, there are truths in the work of art.

Finally, I think Nietzsche ultimately rejects the absolutist conception of truth, I think when he is writing with its assumptions and drawing implications from them, the value of what he is doing is precisely in the way that he is performatively demonstrating the contradictoriness and falseness of absolutism (and of the conceptions of God and of morality which Nietzsche thinks are part and parcel of it).  Nietzsche explicitly adopts and defends a perspectival approach to successfully acquiring and confirming truths as his own epistemology, which he would have had to say only bring us falsehoods if he really believed in absolutism.  Since he does have constructive confidence in the ability of perspectival truth to bring us greater truth, I interpret Nietzsche’s remarks which assume absolutism as an instance of Nietzsche adopting the perspective of absolutism to see whatever insights it yields and to expose its weaknesses as part of his larger project of thinking and feeling from many different perspectives that he may rank and order them best, for the truest grasp of reality he can achieve.

For more on Nietzsche’s perspectival theory of truth and how I co-opt it for myself, see the following posts:

Evolution and Epistemology

On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account of the Relative Values of Pleasure and Pain

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Robert B.

    I agree with your main point – truth and falsehood, as applied to human statements about real things that happen, isn’t a binary thing – it’s possible to be “partly true” or “mostly true,” and that’s probably even more common than being completely true.

    Still, I think there’s a valid sense in which fiction can be said to be false (or maybe, very mostly false.) The narrative itself, and the people described therein, do not exist; the events described never occurred. Fiction isn’t even intended to be true in this sense. “Any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.”

    On the other hand, since fiction is art, it can be translated into philosophical statements, and it can have an entirely different truth value in that language. Consider, say, a valuable work of fantasy literature, which is very false on a factual level and very true as philosophy. We shouldn’t average the two truth values and call this book half-true. That would be destroying information. Such a description would make our fantasy classic look the same as a philosophically mediocre novel that fictionalized real events, or a philosophically contemptible book of accurate history. Rather, it would be more appropriate to assign the book two truth values, to call it factually false and thematically true. You might say that each truth value is describing a different level or mode of discourse, which modes are both occurring simultaneously and in the same words.

    So I think James is onto something, to an extent, when he tries to call fiction “strictly false.” I don’t agree with absolute truth values outside of mathematics, but there’s something about fiction which should clearly be called false. (The ideal gas law, on the other hand, is a useful approximation, and like all valid mathematical models in science should be classified as “mostly true” – it is not well described by “false” in any sense, any more than Newton’s law of universal gravitation is false.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes to all of that.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    “Now the problem is that there is inevitably a gap between our minds and the world. Unless we become some sort of Berkeleyan idealist and believe that there are no external things but all that exists are minds and ideas in minds, our only other alternative is to accept that there is always some sort of separation between things and our perceptions of them and our ideas of them.”

    This is precisely the sort of move the epistemologists I most respect have made. Goodman’s “irrealism” and Scheffler’s “plurrealism” seem to me to be in this sort of mode, although the caveat is instead of doing away with an idea of “external reality”, “reality” itself is defined precisely as the constructs we make. Goodman’s “Ways of Worldmaking” is a good introduction to this position.

    You ask “why should we define knowledge and truth as only being when there is no degree of difference between a thing in itself and our perception or conception of it when there is no such thing as unmediated thinking about things? This is defining knowledge and truth into impossibility. Why accept such an incoherent absolutism as the correct definition of the meaning of truth and the meaning of knowledge such that we wind up saying (when speaking philosophically), “there is no truth and there is no knowledge, only degrees of falsehood”, even though in everyday life and in specialized thinking we clearly can discern that some propositions are meaningfully worth calling true and others worth calling false, and that some things are known and some things are unknown. Why attack both everyday and refined scientific and philosophical language on behalf of an incoherent, inconsistent, impossible ideal definition of “”Truth” or “Knowledge” which would have us unhelpfully say everything we think is “really false”?”

    Good questions all. The simple answer is because this is the notion of “truth” we have been saddled with by centuries of philosophical discourse. When you speak, for example, of “truths which have high degrees of verisimilitude”, you are not technically speaking of “truths” in the way many philosophers throughout time have spoken of “truths” – this risks confusing the discourse. Rather than trying to entirely redefine truth and knowledge, I think better to admit that in a strict sense we don’t really get either, and instead what we have are “true enough” constructs, despite their flaws.

    There are other benefits to this approach. First, it keeps us humble – we are forced every time we make a claim to remember the claim is in some way limited or contingent – in EVERY case. This is epistemically virtuous. Second, it enables a far richer understanding of the similarities between different areas of epistemic endeavor. For example, the arts are often seen to deal with “beauty”, while the sciences deal with “truth”. By recognizing that the sciences don’t really deal, strictly, in “truths” we can begin to recognize that the arts work epistemically in similar ways to the sciences, and bridge the historic gap between them.

    Third, and most important in this discussion, we can then dispense with the idea (still bizzarre to me) that a thing to do with art is to seek “formalizably true dynamics” or “translate” works into “philosophical statements”. I think it highly unlikely, given the different symbolic languages used by the discipline of philosophy and the artistic disciplines, that such “translation” is impossible much of the time (for example, semantically dense symbolic systems like dance cannot be rendered accurately using a syntactically discrete symbol system like language. As Isadora Duncan is supposed to have said, “If I could say it–I wouldn’t have to dance it!”). We can simply accept that the arts do not work through the presentation of translated propositional statements, and that that’s OK because they aren’t trying to provide “truths”, but “understandings” (which are epistemically looser – what I would call your redefinition of truth in this post, actually).

    As for Newton’s law of universal gravitation, I would say that it is indeed false, in the sense that it is stated as a universal and in fact is inaccurate in many observed cases. If, when you work through an equation to solve a problem, the answer received does not in fact match the observed results, we do tend to call the equation false, I think, if we are being strict. The interesting question, for me, is that GIVEN its falsehood, how come it is so useful? This leads us into the sort of epistemic territory I’ve been exploring above.

    This said, I do recognize that the route outlined by Prof Fincke is a legitimate way to go. I just prefer to phrase it in a different way.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Forgive a reply that does not address all the interesting things you said but I am eager to recommend you read this post: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2009/08/25/disambiguating-faith-faith-in-the-sub-pre-or-un-conscious/ and see what you think of the account of artists’ meanings I lay out there. That’s closer to my overall view of the value and nature of art and I think it’s closer to what you are saying than what I wrote earlier today.

      My point, as you will see in that post, is not that the primary value of art is to be translated into propositions and I agree with the remark “If I could have said I wouldn’t have danced it” in my account of why there is no “decoding” Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

      My main concern is not to allow the religious to lean on an endlessly unspecifiable “understanding” felt in interaction with religious myths/symbols/worship, etc. on philosophical issues where clarity is possible and what responsibility requires.

      Finally, I find your interest in tempering confidence in science and increasing confidence in the ability to “understand” in non-specifiable ways to be not only counter-productive to the uphill climb of getting the average person to actually accept science over common sense confusedly “spiritual” intuitions, but I also think it is not the route to epistemic humility. Epistemic humility would emphasize the limits of our understanding through myth and the power of raw, cold, myth-deflating probability and double blind experiments and logical analysis for attaining actual truths, the best we can.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Yeah, I think the post you linked is closer to my view, although with significant differences. I think the project of expanding what counts as “rational” is a very important one – David Best is very good on this, in “The Rationality of Feeling”, as well as my stand-bys Goodman and Elgin. I do think there’s something problematic in saying “It is possible that [artists] sketch out plans in normal, non symbolic terms but I imagine it’s rare”, because this overlooks the fact that “normal” communication is not at all “non symbolic” but simply a particular form of symbolism we tend not to see because we swim in it like the fish in the ocean. It’s partly by recognizing the affordances and constraints of the symbolic media of written or spoken language that we can see how other symbolic languages function, sometimes offering us expanded methods for rational discourse that written or spoken languages cannot provide.

      I entirely agree that we must not “allow the religious to lean on an endlessly unspecifiable “understanding” felt in interaction with religious myths/symbols/worship, etc. on philosophical issues where clarity is possible and what responsibility requires.” I would say we should not allow ANYONE to do this, including scientists and others who sometimes obfuscate in this way. At the same time we must allow for the possibility that real developments in understanding can be generated through symbolic mechanisms that are not exactly clear. To say “I understand something better about my life after watching this production of Hamlet” is neither a meaningless nor irresponsible statement, although it requires some explication. Given the nature of the constraints of language, however, we may not ever satisfactorily clarify precisely what it is we mean within that medium. This is no excuse, though, for cavalier epistemic whimsy, though, as I think you’d point out!

      On the nature of “understanding”, I wouldn’t want to be seen to be advocating some sort of “foggy epistemology” which gives succor to the pseudoscientist and the spiritualist. However I think it important to note (and intellectually honest) that the findings of science are as a matter of fact contingent, limited, flawed and likely (if history is any guide) to be refined and even overturned. We shouldn’t seek to avoid this for broadly pedagogical reasons, but rather find creative ways to convey this. Further, the dichotomy you establish between myth and science seems to me to suggest there’s more thinking to do on the symbolic tool which both science AND myth use to generate understanding. My point has been precisely that they function in similar ways through a similar set of mechanisms (though not identical), and that understanding this gives us a richer view of human cognition and a broader sense of the many ways in which we seek to understand our experience.

    • Robert B.

      As regards confusing the discourse, your definition would require us to say things like “science has never discovered anything true,” in your philosophical sense of the word. I understand exactly what would be meant by that, and I agree with it – every observation has a margin of error, and whether or not there will ever be a “final theory of everything” we certainly haven’t found it yet. I also agree that it’s laudable to keep these things in mind. On the other hand, I think “science has never discovered anything true” would be a very confusing and misleading statement to those who haven’t heard your explanation.

      It seems to me that academic discourse already accepts that the word “true” has at least two meanings – the absolute truth you refer to, used in mathematics and formal logic, and the “mostly true” of science and practical observation, referring to things known to a small margin of error with a high degree of probability. Since philosophy has common interest and cause to communicate both with abstract disciplines such as logic, and with factual disciplines such as science and history, it seems short-sighted to discard or dismiss either meaning.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      These are good points :)

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    Damnit! That should be: “I think it highly LIKELY, given the different symbolic languages used by the discipline of philosophy and the artistic disciplines, that such “translation” is impossible much of the time” =P

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