Mostly True, Not Mostly False

Mostly True, Not Mostly False September 3, 2011

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

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