Sunday, July 24, 2005

Truth

A question for thokolosi:

In your last response to my response to somebody else’s response to my response to another person’s response, you said this:

That aside, you posed a very interesting question about the independence of words from the speaker. In other words, "can a statement stand on its own outside the context of its speaker?"

If I were asked that question, my short answer would be "yes;" My long answer would be "yes, but..." Especially when the topic is politics, by which I am equally compelled and repulsed.

In politics and punditry, the speaker does color how I hear a message. Even in casual conversation, I think many people speak on multiple levels at the same time. So, I think it is reasonable to be more skeptical of a message from a source whose past statements you find disreputable.

You are right! This is a good question. And I would like to address that in a post, if only in an attempt to move away from the ugliness in the last one.

So what is truth? Or, rather, do our words become less true when our character is lacking? I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why. I believe that truth exists separate from us. It is a standard against which our words, and even our very natures, are judged.

A popular theory among postmodernists is the idea that we make our own truth, that we can be polar opposites in all things and yet be equally true. The idea that we make our own truth is ludicrous, because if this were so then we have no standing by which to claim that historical atrocities are wrong. For instance, we could never say that Hitler was wrong to murder six million Jews (and countless others) because his truth was his truth and who are we to call it wrong? Right?

To put it another way, if one person claims that each person makes his own truth, then it is equally truthful for me to say that this person is always wrong. If he says that I am right and I say that he is always wrong, nothing makes sense.

Or, to put it a third way, two plus two equals four and it doesn’t equal anything else. If a person tries to tell you differently, they are either trying to be funny or they are hopelessly stupid.

There is such a thing as truth; otherwise we have no basis for thought and no means by which to improve ourselves as a race. If two scientists who differ in their opinions about the nature of physics are both right in their claims about a particular subject, then they are likely to share a hug and go home happy in the knowledge that they are each correct in their interpretation rather than argue with each other and work the problem through to the end. What is the point in innovation if there is no standard, no point at which you shout “eureka!” and claim the problem solved?

Truth exists. We see it all around us. It’s deciding what that truth is that causes all the problems. If each of us makes our own truth, then we will have none of it.

What you are talking about is, I think, our tendency towards miscommunication. I might speak the truth, but there are a million things that could make you interpret it differently than what I had intended. My past tendencies to lie or not take things seriously could result in skepticism in my audience. My inflections of voice could lead you to believe that I stated a question as opposed to a declaration. I could speak in long, complex sentences and you could be an idiot; in which case you’d have no idea what I was saying.

This is often the case when I listen to others speak. They use big words and I get confused. Because, when you get right down to it, I’m a complete moron.

If, however, my statements stand up to the rigors of investigation and critical analysis, then they must be accepted as truth regardless of my character. Because, as I believe I have shown, truth is not created by the person who speaks it. It can be sought after. It can be misinterpreted. It can even be approximated. But once it has been proven, it exists, and no amount of baseless character attacks is going to make this not so.

Your thoughts?

2 comments:

thokolosi said...

When I wrote about the difficulty of separating words from the speaker, it was not because I don't believe in capital T objective truth. I do.
What I am frequently skeptical of is humankind's ability to discern what that Truth is.

You wrote:
If two scientists who differ in their opinions about the nature of physics are both right in their claims about a particular subject, then they are likely to share a hug and go home happy in the knowledge that they are each correct in their interpretation rather than argue with each other and work the problem through to the end.
You are right, but the reason that this does not happen is because "science" has a limited and agreed upon set of rules. Anyone that calls himself or herself a scientist has opted in. Science is both a process and a worldview. You used physics in your example; there have been numerous times in history when two seemingly opposite conclusions have merged under a unifying theory that was still years from discovery. No one yet had the perspective to see the Truth of the situation.

People have different visions of how to arrive at Truth. For some, Truth is revealed in sacred literature. For others, Truth is found through scientific rigor. For others, Truth is found in a meditative state. I am not saying that each of these is equally true or even relatively true. But, I doubt anybody has more than a few pieces of the Pie.

What you are talking about is, I think, our tendency towards miscommunication. I might speak the truth, but there are a million things that could make you interpret it differently than what I had intended.

Absolutely. Our own experiences and beliefs alter/limit our understanding of what is True. Some of what I am thinking may be me blurring the line between Truth and Knowledge.
I am reminded of something from philosophy class a million years ago. You probably know the story about the guy who comes up over a hill and gazes down on the field below. Fuzzy white animals are grazing. “Ahh,” he says to no one in particular, “there are sheep in that field.” But the fuzzy white creatures he is looking at are not sheep; they are invading space aliens or something. There are, however, a few sheep in the far corner of the field under a tree where the dude can’t see them. Is he right or wrong in his observation?

There is one philosopher who says the in order for a belief to be true, it must be fully grounded. All of the inferences leading up to the conclusion must also be demonstrably true. I think this is a place where character enters the discussion. Just like the dude in the field, the statement may be objectively True, but lacking in knowledge. In cases like these, I hear you arguing that we should separate the statement from the speaker. I guess I think that in life that isn’t always prudent because I don’t have the time or intelligence to full reason all situations. I depend on the intellectual leg work of others to build certain premises. I recognize the dangers there. If I choose to rely on undependable sources, my arguments are suspect. This is especially true in politics where debate often centers on “means” rather than “ends.”
That doesn’t mean a nut-job can’t say smart and objectively true things, just that I think it’s ok to be more skeptical in such a situation.

If, however, my statements stand up to the rigors of investigation and critical analysis, then they must be accepted as truth regardless of my character. Because, as I believe I have shown, truth is not created by the person who speaks it. It can be sought after. It can be misinterpreted. It can even be approximated. But once it has been proven, it exists, and no amount of baseless character attacks is going to make this not so.

The thing about critical analysis and investigation is that there are different ways to investigate and analyze. As Mark Twain said, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
When you mentioned “our tendency toward miscommunication” I think this often includes a lack of common vocabulary on what constitutes investigation and critical analysis.


Finally,
You wrote:
do our words become less true when our character is lacking?

Objectively, no.

There is such a thing as truth; otherwise we have no basis for thought and no means by which to improve ourselves as a race… truth is not created by the person who speaks it. It can be sought after. It can be misinterpreted. It can even be approximated. But once it has been proven, it exists, and no amount of baseless character attacks is going to make this not so.

I would take this a step further and say Truth exists independent of us or our ability to discern it. I would add that I am skeptical that people are very good at identifying it.
So, what often happens is that we are often presented with part of the Truth rather than the whole Truth. I think you would agree that it is our burden to parse it out regardless of the speaker.
Since a big statement is often the result of a chain of reasoning, I maintain that including the character of the speaker can be a valid part of the evaluation of a statement.

The Sasquatch said...

When I wrote about the difficulty of separating words from the speaker, it was not because I don't believe in capital T objective truth. I do.
What I am frequently skeptical of is humankind's ability to discern what that Truth is

Cool. That’s what I thought, but I wanted to be sure.

You are right, but the reason that this does not happen is because "science" has a limited and agreed upon set of rules.
Tell that to the people who argue string theory versus Big Bang! ( I agree with you on this point, just so we’re square).

There is one philosopher who says the in order for a belief to be true, it must be fully grounded.
This one is touchy. You’re wording might be off a bit (I don’t know…I don’t sit around reading philosophy on the weekends). Did he actually say “belief,” or did he say “theory?” If he said theory, then it makes perfect sense (and he was ripping off Socrates…unless it was Socrates). But if he said “belief,” I think it is quote easy to equate that with “faith,” and with faith you’re never going to have your idea fully grounded. If you did, you wouldn’t need faith. But that is a semantic argument. And I don’t like semantics.

All of the inferences leading up to the conclusion must also be demonstrably true.
This is where I might disagree with your philosopher. If we are to claim that the statement we have made is, in fact, True (with a capital T), then this would be so. However, if we merely wish to believe it, then all we need is a preponderance of evidence; enough to lead us to the conclusion but not enough to demonstrate it with 100% assuredness. For instance, I am perfectly reasonable in my assumption that evolution and the Big Bang are true, but I can’t say that they are True™ from a scientific standpoint, because I can’t demonstrate them in a lab setting. Again, it might semantics, but this time I think it is important because it shows how much faith we put in things (such as science and the basics of logic) that most of us consider a sure bet.

I think this is a place where character enters the discussion. Just like the dude in the field, the statement may be objectively True, but lacking in knowledge.
And that makes perfect sense. To use the current row over the quotation from Ms. Coulter, I have repeated again and again that, while her statements make sense to me, I am more than willing to accept those with greater knowledge of the situation who wish to prove me wrong with evidence. Because I am a moron. And I don’t care to pour over countless stacks of court proceedings in order to vindicate myself.

In cases like these, I hear you arguing that we should separate the statement from the speaker. I guess I think that in life that isn’t always prudent because I don’t have the time or intelligence to full reason all situations. I depend on the intellectual leg work of others to build certain premises.
I can agree with that up to a point. I can look at a commentator I trust and accept his or her arguments as basically true when it comes to your average, everyday stuff. For instance, I trust Peter Gammon’s analysis of trade rumors in major league because he has more knowledge than I do. However, were it a life and death situation, I would like to verify his claims. On the flip side, I do not trust Joe Morgan’s comments on the use of SABERmetrics in baseball analysis (despite the fact that he is a Hall of Famer and a former Cincinnati Red, because he has proven himself to be quite unintelligent when it comes to that subject. I do not, however, completely disregard anything he has to say merely because I dislike his opinions. I look at what he has to say, compare it to the available facts and decide whether I agree.

The case is similar with Ms. Coulter. I do not trust what she has to say, but I do not completely disregard it. That would not be an open-minded approach. Instead, I weigh her claims against the available facts and decide whether I agree.

I can agree that character plays an important role in determining which facts to consider when the subject matter is not really that important and when time is a factor, but character by itself does not judge truth. And those who follow that route do not engage in honest, intellectual discussions.

That doesn’t mean a nut-job can’t say smart and objectively true things, just that I think it’s ok to be more skeptical in such a situation.
Word.

The thing about critical analysis and investigation is that there are different ways to investigate and analyze. As Mark Twain said, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
When you mentioned “our tendency toward miscommunication” I think this often includes a lack of common vocabulary on what constitutes investigation and critical analysis.

I agree, but you have to admit that it’s a better process than character assassination. And, as long as you keep an open mind and a sharp eye, you can usually filter the B.S.

I would take this a step further and say Truth exists independent of us or our ability to discern it.
Good point. That is why it is important to admit openly that this is your interpretation and that you are willing to listen to alternative interpretations, provided that these alternative interpretations are based on honest and open investigation.

I maintain that including the character of the speaker can be a valid part of the evaluation of a statement.
I agree. Certainly. But not on the same level as objective analysis, and certainly not on its own.


Whew! Whenever I talk about politics, I get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, much like I imagine Socrates did when, after his big trial, he turned to his friends and said, “I drank what?!?”

Always going for the cheap laugh,
The Sasquatch