Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Classes of Truth

Truth is a very difficult concept to understand. It cannot be properly defined, it is frequently misunderstood, it has different meanings in different contexts and they are confused, sometimes deliberately but more often through ignorance and, even when the matter is clarified to some extent, and although we think we know what it means, and even what it is in many cases, very frequently this is far from being true.

Like any other concept, abstract or otherwise, it needs to be defined carefully if it is to be used as a hard currency, as it were, in argument. This is not done, because we all think we know what truth means, and so there is no need to reach agreement on the meaning of it. The result is great confusion. Words only have meaning in context, and the great variety of contexts in which we speak of truth are not usually identified at all, let alone analyzed separately.

It is surprisingly difficult to define truth lexicographically. This is doubtless the case with many words, and all lexical definitions are ultimately recursive, but the problem seems greater with truth than with other concepts. Dictionaries, including the OED, tend to give definitions of truth which say things like, “Conforming/consistent with fact/reality; that which is so/the case”. This does not help very much. In fact it seems to show desperation rather than understanding. The Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, for comparison, has “Conformidad de las cosas con el concepto que de ellas forma la mente”, (Conformity of things with the idea created of them by the mind), which is if anything a little better than the average, introducing the idea that truth may depend, to some extent, on the mind that perceives it.

In any case, people do not generally attach great importance to truth. They are more concerned with being able to satisfy themselves that things are as they think they are, or wish them to be. Rigour is not required, and would in fact be worthless here, since it interferes with the psychological process of rationalizing our experience.

The difficulty of identifying a particular truth, or of recognising something as a truth, is secondary to what concerns us here. In many circumstances it is possible to identify which facts need to be known, but hard or impossible to know them, and so to arrive at the truth. (What Hayek says of economics is true of many fields). It may not be possible to identify those facts, whether or not they are known. But I intend to restrict the scope of this article to the problem of understanding what truth means in different contexts.

The easiest, and commonest, way to accept as true that which is not, or which we cannot know to be true, is to refuse to analyse it.

There are things we believe, though they are not in fact true, or we cannot know them to be true, and things which, though they are true, we do not understand, and so cannot actually know them to be true. These are different kinds of belief. I may choose to believe, for example, that my neighbour is unfaithful to his wife, because he wears aftershave when she is away, or because I find him uncongenial and imagine this behaviour would be natural in him. I may believe a man guilty of murder because a series of reliable witnesses have persuaded a court to convict him of it. I may believe Fermat’s last theorem to be true because a proof has been developed and accepted by those who understand these things. In each of these last two cases it is reasonable to assume the truth of these beliefs although the sense in which I “know” them is different, and if I believe that grass is green, the basis of my belief is different again. Nevertheless, many people would claim in each case that these things are true, because they know them, and, where appropriate, would claim to understand what they do not, and are incapable of explaining or analysing.

In pure thought the mind seeks truth through reason, but the truth is not a function of mental images, but rather it is the object, which exists independently of the exercise of reason. The trouble, and the interest, is in finding it and identifying it as such.

In social use, and especially in the judicial function, where truth is explicitly sought as the primary purpose of the process, truth is subjective. It needs to have a way of arriving at something it can call the truth, because the consequences of what it decides is true are so momentous. In the civil law, it may often define truth, in that one side or other is right depending purely on the decision of the court. In the criminal law, it is assumed that the court is seeking to uncover a truth which exists objectively, but its decision does not define a truth, it only gives an opinion which is accepted as though it were the truth because of the importance it has for those involved.

From the point of view of the pure sciences truth is objective. It is something to be discovered, not defined or agreed upon. It does not have to conform to some mental image, but to satisfy a series of conditions which are not a product of the human mind.

Art, on the other hand, has an entirely different idea of truth. Conformity with the image present in the mind of the creator, without any necessary reference to objective reality. There is no requirement for internal coherence. If there is such a reference it is so that the contemplator of the work can better understand what the creator is expressing. The recognition of artistic truth depends to a great extent on the understanding of the contemplator, and also on the nature of the art. Music is purely abstract, it simply is what is is, it cannot be confused with any mental image with which the contemplator thinks it should conform. The pictoric arts, on the other hand, exist in a state of tension between what the artist intends to express and the possible interpretations of what he has created, and the dramatic arts usually need a reference to real life in order to have any meaning at all, but it is all a question of coherence, rather than imitation of reality (90+ % of art is worthless junk, but that isn’t the point).

The narrative arts have a different kind of truth. What they tell need not have happened, in fact it is better if it has not, but it must produce the satisfaction of meaningful possibility in the mind of the contemplator.

This is merely an introduction, a crude and incomplete attempt to explain why it is that truth is such a difficult matter, when it appears that it shouldn’t be. It is a protean concept, the conditions it must satisfy are often hard to identify, and most people do not care about the truth, as long as they can believe they have found it.

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