Sunday, May 28, 2006

Uses of Truth

So, if any definition of truth is necessarily circular (my definition is true because it meets my definition of truth) we have a bit of a problem in defining the term. I'm taking a roundabout route to grappling with it. First, I said that the medium of truth is language. Now I'm going to talk about how humans actually use and interact with potential truth. I'm not talking about different "kinds" of truth, just different uses for potentially true statements. Then I'll talk about some properties truth must have in order to actually be useful. And as a sidenote, all through this post I am talking about potentially true statements, even if I don't say it. I use "belief" as a synonym for "an accepted, potentially true statement."

I think there are two things humans use truth for. One is interaction with the physical world; both manipulating it through science and technology and explaining it. We not only want to know how to generate electricity, we want to know what electricity is.

Systematic observation and reason (ie, science, informal logic, etc) are the best tools we have to develop and apply truthful statements. We strive for simplicity and explanatory power in order to connect the dots of our world (As a sidenote and an addendum to the "Webs" post, "simplicity" doesn't necessarily mean "easy to understand").

When interacting with the physical world, it can be very easy to discover that statements are untrue. False statements that attempt to interact with the world fall apart and become useless when actually applied. Potentially true statements that are false are are eventually exposed.

Concerning the second use of truth, each of us holds certain propositions that we believe are really, truly important. These beliefs are the ones that are the most useful in our pursuit of our imago (the "me" I am trying to be). Our imago, along with these beliefs, form our personal centre. Others might insist on using the term "religion" here; indeed, I'm borrowing the term from the theologian Paul Tillich. I don't use the word religion, however, because I think that word is better off being used for a specific human activity.

We all need to use potentially true statements to aid us in our pursuit of our imago, and we also use them to justify the value of our imago. There is a difference here from the first use of truth; unlike interactions with the physical world, the statements of our personal centre can hold only a superficial resemblance to truth and still be useful. All that is required is that the person believe these statements.

So we use potential truth for interacting with the physical world, and in pursuit of particular personal goals. What qualities must statements have in order to fulfill either of these goals? There is one common quality, and one quality that is slightly different for each goal.

One, a statement must be universal. Statements about the physical world cannot be true in one time and place and false in another. In order for a belief to be useful in one's personal centre, one must believe that the belief is unconditionally superior to all others. Exactly how one comes to believe that a certain belief is superior can be different depending on what the truth is being used for. One can either encounter something with their senses, or the belief can be "warranted." Warrant is heavily subjective and relative; it is a question of what kind of justification one requires to believe something.

Everyone has beliefs they consider superior to all others, including the most ardent "postmodernist." Discovering exactly what these beliefs are is partly a matter of introspection, partly a matter of watching your own behavior.

For example, I consider the idea that meaning does not reside solely within language to be unconditionally superior to the opposite statement. I consider my beliefs about language to be true for all people in all times.

Two caveats: belief that a statement is unconditionally superior does not mean that one insists others share the beliefs. Insisting that others share your beliefs is a matter of your imago, and sometimes a matter of a lack of power (understood as a kind of metaphysical capital). It also does not mean that the belief must be complete; in other words, one does not have to have complete knowledge to find a particular statement valuable.

The second quality is slightly different for both goals. When interacting with the physical world, statements must be as concise as possible. You don't want meaning to slide around when an engineer is working on your airliner. Statements in historical, scientific and even psychological works must be rigidly controlled by a particular context, or they will begin to lose their value in interacting with the world. For the purposes of interacting with the world, the ideal is a scientific detachment; ie, reducing things as much as possible to numbers.

On the other hand, statements in one's personal centre cannot be a simple matter of numbers and detachment. Such statements are far too cold and grey; they are useless in forming the upper layers of our value hierarchy. Even the most ardent metaphysical naturalist who insists on accepting nothing but scientific findings will repeatedly speak of being in awe of the natural world.

Now, that is not to say that precision and clarity are not always goals in one's personal centre. Everyone, even the most philosophically apathetic person, needs to believe that at least they understand themselves. Being confused by our beliefs is an uncomfortable experience, and we always seek to remedy it. It is only to point out that the beliefs in our personal centre always carry a certain passion with them that a mathematical equation does not. One can find excitement and fulfillment in their study of math, but it is their beliefs about the value of math that are useful to them, not the math itself.

It is that desire for precision and clarity that raises so much ire against so-called postmodernism, because it seems to suggest that precision and clarity are always doomed to failure. The basically academic practice of deconstruction really freaks a lot of people out, because it suggests that something seemingly vital to them is unattainable.

I would insist that an unmediated expression of truth is not necessary for one's personal centre. It is the very richness of potential meaning that language slides on that offers us the ability to have a personal centre to begin with.

I'm writing down ideas that are important to me; the fact that there is an irreducible split between my words, my intent and my audience does not reduce the value of the ideas, or even of the words. To say otherwise is a matter of one's psychology.

So: truth must be universal. Striving for clarity is necessary, but the ambiguity is necessary also; the tension is perhaps something like the id/superego relationship.

The medium of potential truth is language. The uses of potential truth are environmental and personal. The characteristics of potential truth are universality and the clarity/ambiguity tension.

Not quite a definition of truth, but I'm not sure where to go from here, so I'll just bite the bullet and accept the most common definition - correspondence with reality. The correspondence theory is compatible with my description of truth thus far.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Truth and Such

Sidenote: Tool's most recent album further cements them as the only angry shouty metal guys worth listening to. Buy it, by all means.

Ok, so what does it mean for something to be "true?" Here's the problem with answering that question: whatever criteria you come up with, you'll have to move in a circular motion to apply that criteria to your definition of truth.

Truth = X
Y = criteria for X
X = Truth cause it meets criteria Y.

Now, this inescapable circularity can move you in a couple of directions. One common move is to put all your epistemological eggs in "faith." Another is to attempt a type of extreme skepticism. The problem with both of these moves is that they can be used to justify absolutely any statement. Faith as an epistemological tool can produce a practically limitless number of statements, and skepticism is simply the opposite side of the same coin.

Here's what everyone needs to recognize: every last one of us, nihilists and skeptics included, consider some statements to be superior to others. By whatever criteria, statement A is superior to statement B. Attempts to claim that all statements are equally true and therefore equally false cannot be squared with at least the obvious example of scientific vocabularies.

The word "truth" carries with it a certain dignity and certain imperative for us. In just about any setting, the term "relativist" is understood to be a perjoritive; nobody wants to be seen as a relativist. Nobody - not even the most ardent postmodernist - believes that there are no statements that deserve the title of "truth."

My attempt to dodge the fundamental circularity in defining truth has a pragmatic edge to it. Then we should ask after the medium of truth. Then, we should ask exactly why truth matters at all. Then we use those answers to start constructing a truth test.

My answer as to the medium of truth is, not surprisingly, guided by this post. Since language is our medium of thought and discourse, rational truth cannot be considered apart from it. This laptop is not truth - but statements about it can be. Facts, conclusions and judgments reside within language. "This laptop exists" is not the laptop itself.

The problem: words do not carry inherent meaning. They are symbols that stand in for their objects. If language does not carry inherent meaning, then how can it convey truth? Does this not leave truth as an impossible goal?

How does language convey anything rational at all? Context, context, context. Language always has a source (speaker, writer) and a target (reader, listener).

In the wrong context, a chemistry equation is a meaningless group of numbers and letters. In the writer context, it is fruitfully interpreted as a vaccine formula. In the wrong context, Korean characters are a meaningless series of scribbles. But to the right recipient, it is a coherent system.

Language is a useful tool - it can indeed carry accurate information, and therefore it can carry truth. All of this communication is affected by the context, however. The further you move from the rigid world of mathematics, the hermeneutic circle gains more and more power, making all statements a matter of interpretation regulated and limited by context.

This is where much of the epistemic anxiety surrounding postmodernism comes from. If all linguistic expressions are matters of interpretation, and truth can only be found as a function of these expressions, then is not truth a matter of personal interpretation?

Well, yeah. Sort of.

This is where we need to ask about why that matters. Who cares if truth is a matter of personal interpretation? What are the ramifications of accepting this? Are there statements that are genuinely superior, and not just a matter of wishful thinking?

It's my bedtime, so I'll finish this another time. See ya.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Symbolic Representation

Ok, I know I said I wasn't going to mess around with epistemology anymore, but I need a couple of neither/and posts to act as a segue into my next series.

Through the past couple of posts, I talked about how we gather raw data and tried to suggest how we should organize it. There's another aspect to our rational interaction with the world, however. After all, we need to be able to communicate our judgments to others.

After St. Augustine and before the 14th or 15th centuries, the Christian theologians/philosophers of Europe saw reality as a series of "books" to be read. There was the word itself - the Bible - but there was also the "book of nature." Nature was a series of symbols of God; not God himself, but simulations.

That view fell away for several centuries, but was partly resurrected in the 20th century by European philosophers. Starting with Martin Heidegger in 1929, hermeneutics - the study of how humans interact with symbols - began to be used as a path into human existence as such. That turn is largely responsible for the maligned monstrosity known as "postmodernism."

So the idea - and I think it's a nifty one - is that symbols, specifically meaning language - mediate our relationship to both ourselves and our world. Put another way, language is not only our mouth, but it is also our hands and eyes.

Because language has come to be seen as the medium of our rational relationship to both ourselves and our environment, studying it was one of the major philosophical preoccupations of the 20th century. There were repercussions for epistemology, ontology and even ethics. Jacques Derrida, arch-deconstructionist, sent the world into a tizzy with things like "the trace" and "differance." Other writers - from Nietzsche to Levinas to Foucault - have traced the many pitfalls and quandaries found in language. One of the most significant writers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once considered that the whole work of philosophy was a battle against the deceptions of language.

When we are trying to hold a discussion about any particular topic - from chemicals to the nature of love - we have to do so using the symbolic framework of language. This is because the topic of conversation is not simply a "given." (I'm wishing I had written some of the previous posts differently, because now I realize I may have seriously miscommunicated.)

This is a ridiculously abstract concept that took me a long time to understand: language does not point to it's object, but rather stands in for it's object. Any topic of conversation - from this laptop to the Trinity - is not immediately present to the speaker or writer.

This is not to malign the five senses, but merely to point out that sense data must be formed into a particular shape - and since my brain doesn't actually turn into a chair when I am thinking about chairs, it must use a symbol. A re-presentation. The five senses are purely physical tools; animals have the five senses. What they do not have is the rational ability to express and communicate, and that is linguistic.

It isn't only sense data that needs to be formed into a particular shape - the abstractness of our subconscious and imago also requires representation. We have to use language to make ourselves intelligible to ourselves. In the academic lingo, language mediates our self-presence to ourselves.

There are two topics I'm interested in. I'm going to try to discuss both in this single post.

The first is the hermeneutic circle. I think this term is an apt description of a large portion of human interaction with the world. Simply put, we affect the world, and the world affects us. We come to a situation or a written text; governed by whatever factors, we are affected. We act and affect the situation, or we re-read the text through a slightly different set of eyes. The situation is different, or our reading of the text is different. We affect the situation again, or we read the text again - each time, we are changed and our perception is changed. That is part of our constant engagement with the world; our perceptions and representations (and therefore our rational considerations) of the world are constantly being nudged however slightly.

The second is the question of meaning in language. Does a particular text mean one thing, and if so, what is the authority governing that meaning? Or perhaps any text can have a practically limitless number of meanings?

One could say that the meaning of a particular text is self-evident; this necessarily implies the belief that language points to something beyond itself. It is the belief that language stands for its object, not that it stands in for the object. This, however, has several problems. One, it denies the nature of language as mediator, leaving us without a seemingly necessary tool. Two, it has serious practical problems: I dare anyone to point me to a single non-technical text that people don't differ in their interpretations over. This second point is explained in various ways, and that can be left to various posts.

One could say that authorial intent governs the meaning of a text. However, the only thing the reader has access to is the text. We aren't mind readers. Authorial intent, by definition, resides within the author. Another problem with this is that it assumes that the author always says what she means, and means what she says. One, this conflicts with our common experience of being frustrated that we can't properly express ourselves. We can't properly express ourselves because we are trying to interpret something abstract within us.

Which is not to say that I'm denying the existence of authorial intent - obviously I'm trying to convey particular ideas. But this expression - of my ideas - is necessarily an interpretation of myself. I am forcing an abstraction into the external, cultural created and transmitted medium of language. This is an inevitable difference - however fine - between my words and my intent. Authorial intent exists, and in a certain context, it should most certainly guide the content of a discussion about a text. It must simply be recognized that my intent is not the final authority over the meaning of this text, and the attempt to deny this is futile. Just look at the comments in this post for a good example.

So how is communication possible at all? Even if the meaning of a text slides around a little, we still manage to communicate effectively. Why are architectural plans worth a damn? How come scientific texts - symbols though they are - are so useful in understanding and manipulating the physical world? It certainly appears as if certain forms of language - ie, mathematics - really do escape the inevitable slide of meaning.

It's all about context. Mathematics exist in an extremely narrow band of symbols; these symbols are rigidly controlled and no ambiguity is really possible. This does not mean that meaning lies within the numbers themselves - they still stand in for something - but what they stand in for is tiny and regulated by the community mathematicians. Math holds a lot in common with more traditional forms of language, and I'll talk about that in future posts.

Other, less precise texts - from prose to poetry - will inevitable slide more than math. The hermeneutic circle more blatantly affects these types of texts, and so there is a great deal more disagreement over "meaning."

There are not infinite possibilities for meanings in a text, however. Language is a social construct, and so its limits are socially constructed. No one individual can act as if the English language held a series of meanings only for him; the attempt to have an entirely person language is just as futile as having a personal currency. The value of the dollar is socially constructed, and it is in constant flux, but always within a context.

No text - other than math or computer languages - will ever mean one thing. Its meaning will always (again with the lingo) "differ" and "be differed." Possible meanings are not infinite in number. So there's a tension there - and the only way you can deal with it is to carefully tread the hermeneutic circle.

Which is all to say: stuff is complicated.

Ok, I think that's an adequate into to semiotics. Not terribly academic, but I'll take whatever license for mediocrity that self-publishing on the net provides.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Part One
Part Two
Part Three

And here's part four.

So with definitions of facts, conclusions and judgments in hand, I'm going to talk about how we can come to arrive at accurate statements. By statements, I mean text or speech intended to convey or express information of any kind. Exactly what I mean by accuracy can wait for a later date, though a useful working defition is simply "truthful."

I know after all this it must sound like I'm a total reductionist - as if everything we do that could be called "truthful" is made from bits and bytes of information. I actually don't necessarily believe this, however. I'll explain more about that later. Probably when when I'm back in school and feeling more academic, I'll do a post on Heidegger and empiricism. For now, I'll just leave all that in the background and say that I don't think anything I've said here contradicts the idea of Dasein, which I am a fan of.

What I do believe, however, is that all the statements that we actually make about the world and ourselves are reducible to bits and bytes of information. It all comes from information gleaned through our five senses. Even a deeply introspective statement is still dependent on a certain (historio-cultural specific) vocabulary, and that vocabulary was learned through the senses.

So we have big, unorganized piles of information lying around; how should we organize it all? The basic method is that of questioning. We ask a question: what relationship does one conclusion have to another? We then seek an answer - we seek to form a judgement. Some judgements are more accurate than others; there are principles that help form judgements that are truthful.

One good principle is that of simplicity. I don't quite mean Ockham's Razor, here, though that's another good principle. What exactly I mean by simplicity is that conclusions and judgements should be as free of "wild card possibilities" as possible.

Let's say you have conclusion 1 (C1) and conclusion B (C2). You are having a hard time forming judgement 1 about CA and CB. However, there is an ambiguous group of facts that you may form an ambiguous conclusion from them - ?C3. ?C3, if accurate, can provide a valuable missing link between CA and CB.

The problem: C1 + C2 + ?C3 = ?J1, always. ?C3, because it is ambiguous, cannot object (the object objects). While C1 and C2 made be solid, connecting them with ?C3 inevitably creates a vacuum within the judgement - and that vacuum is either filled with skepticism or credulity, depending on one's presuppositions.

Tbe vacuum created by ambiguity is a deeply frustrating thing to people. The flight from ambiguity is partly responsible for the inability to say "I don't know." I think there is a brand of skepticism that has no limits (no object can ever object to it) and is rooted in a particular psychology rather than a philosophy. The ability to readily admit ignorance, however, is different - understanding that facts can be scarce is a matter of responding to the physical world as it is. Refusing to admit a lack of facts and information is one of the worst abuses of the word "faith."

Another strategy used to avoid this vacuum is an abuse of induction. Particular + particular = general. It is a simple matter to gather a few facts and conclusions and then claim that you have discovered a larger pattern. This necassarily involves overlooking the possiblity of exceptions. For example, it is common in some circles to make certain claims about genders. Males have trait X, while females have trait Y. One can parade a seemingly endless number of males acting under the influence of trait X, and then claim that trait X is someone "inherantly" male. Maleness is the decisive factor in whether or not someone has X. Trait X can then be set up as a virtue for males to perfect.

However, as I said, this ignores that it is inevitable that some males will not exhibit X to any degree. This fact absolutely objects to the judgement that maleness is the decisive factor in whether or not someone has X. Therefore X cannot be inherantly male.

I am not knocking induction per se. It is a useful guide when predicting the future; if a statistically large portion of males have X, then it is reasonable to expect to encounter X from a male. The problem comes when one insists that X is inevitable and/or desirable. It is also a problem when one uses the expectation of X as the primary basis of their relationship to a male; in a practical sense, that is the same as believing X to be inevitable. It is just as wrong, and will result in some kind of paranoid/controlling relationship.

Induction has a great deal of value for the natural scientist as well, but I'm going to leave that for a future post. That discussion will follow a similar pattern to this one.

A corralary to simplicty is explanatory power. We have a pile of raw facts, and we need to fit those facts into an interpretive framework. We need to explain as much of our sense data as we can; otherwise the physical world itself would become unnavigable and we would again quickly find ourselves being smashed by trucks on the highway.

Now, explaining facts is a subset of our hermenutical interpretation of the world. That larger topic can wait for a later date; here I am concerned with the practical, pre-theoretical ways of forming useful conclusions and judgements.

Let's say we have conclusions C1 - C10. We want to understand how these conclusions relate to each other - we want to form a judgement.

Man X develops J1. J1 incorporates C1 - C8, but cannot account for C9 and C10.

Man Y, however, uses J2 and is able to account for the whole group of conclusions. However, he is required to incorporate an eleventh conclusion - ?C11. J2 is therefore actually ?J2.

How to decide between J1 and ?J2? Partly, more observation is required. Other facts and conclusions need to be brought to bear. Also, ?C11 needs to be examined. How ambiguous is it? What facts are in question? Which judgement is simpler?

By striving for simplicity and explanatory power, I really do think we can make valid, truthful statements about the world (ourselves being a subset of the world).

The more I write about this, the more I think I've bitten off more than I can chew. I'm not defining simplicity or explanatory power to my own satisfaction, which means I'm not explaining how I decide what's right and wrong very well.

I'm going to try and avoid doing multiple posts on the same topic from now on... it's just too long between posts. Gotta stop being lazy about it, too.

For now, I'm going to leave behind this epistemology stuff. I'll come back to it after I read what others have had to say about it a bit more.

Monday, May 01, 2006

. . . another hour deeper in the night

Here we have a continuation of this post.

At the end, I mentioned a third epistemological concept. I also asked where that concept appeared in the paragraph that began "So, what exactly is the path. . ."

Here's my answer. Of all that paragraph, only this sentence is an empirical conclusion: "Even Buddhists develop complicated metaphysics."

The rest of the paragraph is a series of statements about the relationships between a broad range of conclusions (after finishing this post, I realized the sentence "I think it is an easily observable human trait - an empirical conclusion" isn't actually a conclusion). I'll use the word judgment for this.

We observe facts A, B and C. Photos of Washington DC, reports from people who have been there, and airlines offering flights to that location. We use these facts to form the conclusion that a city called Washington DC exists.

We can make other conclusions about Washington DC; it has a high murder rate, and many parts of it are quite poor.

Here is the danger: putting those two entirely correct empirical conclusions next to each other invites us to make a quick judgment about the relationship between those two conclusions. It is easy to believe that it is an empirical conclusion that poverty causes violent crime.

This is the line between a conclusion and a judgment. A fact's distinguishing characteristic is that is a part of the physical word; it is an object (noun) that can object (verb). A conclusion, can also object. It is a correct conclusion that Washington DC has a high crime rate, and you can experience this yourself by wandering certain neighborhoods at night. Conclusions can object against other conclusions; you hear a gunshot and a scream around the corner and conclude there is a crime in progress. That conclusion would object against the conclusion of Washington being a peaceful place. This being said, it is much more typical that only facts can object against conclusions. In fact I reserve the right to junk the last half of this paragraph at a later date.

A judgment, however, will not object in this way. The only things that can object against a judgment are conclusions and facts. The judgment that poverty causes crime cannot be objected to be saying the opposite; both judgments need to be broken down into their constituent facts and conclusions.

Facts are objects that object; conclusions are also (possibly?) capable of objecting. Judgments are not capable of objecting.

So, how to form correct judgments? Um... next time.

Contents Page Two

I'm creating a second contents page because the first was too disorganized. This page will be organized only by chronology, not by topic.

All posts prior to November 9, 2005 are on Page One.

On The Road Again - November 09, 2005
An attempt to create a plan for the next few posts. Rubbish, of course.

Roots - November 16, 2005
Part 1 in the presuppositionalism series.

What Kind of Humanist Are You? - November 16, 2005

Answering the Ready Answer - November 25, 2005
Part 2 in the presuppositionalism series.

For Whom The Bell Tolls - November 29, 2005
Sneering at the fall of the Liberals.

Lacanfest - December 10, 2005
My questionable attempt at translating Jacques Lacan's psychological stages into understandable terms. This is where I really start to lay out and systematize the stuff I've been thinking about the last 2 years.

Year That Was - January 1, 2006
A recap of 2005's best entertainments.

Bloggin' - January 14, 2006
A list of blogs I was reading at the time. I still regularly read Right Reason and Vox Popli.

Suicide is Painless - January 18, 2006
Possibly my favorite post ever. It's a stew of Lacan, Camus, Nietzsche, Bataille, and The Last Samurai.

Loose Ends - January 24, 2006
Attempting to clarify and develop what began in Lacanfest.

Laboring in the World - Febuary 1, 2006
An account of how humans interact with their environment: we change it, and in doing so become something.

Justified - March 20, 2006
Forming and developing our self image.

Empiricism and Death - April 6, 2006
Setting one foot down the ill-fated road of the epistemology project.

Another Mile Down the Road... - April 22, 2006
Just like the title says.

. . . another hour deep in the night - May 2, 2006
Just like the title says, part 2.

Webs - May 11, 2006
The conclusion of the attempt at epistemology.

Symbolic Representation - May 23, 2006
A very basic intro to semiotics.

Truth and Such - May 23, 2006
The difficulties in defining "truth."

Uses of Truth - May 29, 2006
Just like the title says.

A Revaluation of All Values - June 8, 2006
The first round in a discussion of morality.

Words as Pockets - June 13, 2006
More semiotics. This post is pretty essential, in my opinion.

Thinking - June 25, 2006
Asking why philosophy matters.