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.

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