Tag Archive: truth

What aims we pursue

What is the characteristic difference between a scientific theory and a work of fiction? It is not, I hold, that the theory is possibly true while the descriptions in the story are not true, although truth and falsity have something to do with it. The difference is, I suggest, is that the theory and the story are embedded in different critical traditions. They are meant to be judged by quite different traditional standards (even though these standards might have something in common.)

What characterizes the theory is that it is offered as a solution to a scientific problem; that is, either a problem that has arisen before, in the critical discussion of earlier tentative theories, or (perhaps) a problem that discovered by the author of the theory now being offered, but being discovered within the realm of the problems and solutions belonging to the scientific tradition. [289]

Absolutely authoritarianism-free absolutism

The idea of a philosophical absolutism is rightly repugnant to many people since it is, as a rule, combined with a dog­matic and authoritarian claim to possess the truth, or a criterion of truth.

But there is another form of absolutism—a fallibilistic absolutism—which indeed rejects all this: it merely asserts that our mistakes, at least, are absolute mistakes, in the sense that if a theory deviates from the truth, it is simply false, even if the mistake made was less glaring than that in another theory. Thus the notions of truth, and of falling short of the truth, can represent absolute standards for the fallibilist. This kind of absolutism is completely free from any taint of authori­tarianism. [Addenda, 567-8]

One truth for the Greeks

Herodotus seems to have been one of those somewhat rare people whose minds are broadened by travel. At first he was no doubt shocked by the many strange customs and institutions which he encountered in the Middle East. But he learned to respect them, and to look on some of them critically, and to regard others as the results of historical accidents: he learned to be tolerant, and he even acquired the ability to see the customs and institutions of his own country through the eyes of his barbarian hosts.

This is a healthy attitude. But it may lead to relativism, that is, to the view that there is no absolute or objective truth, but rather one truth for the Greeks, another for the Egyptians, still another for the Syrians, and so on. [45]

Truth is above human authority

If only we look for it we can often find a true idea, worthy of being preserved, in a philosophical theory which must be rejected as false. Can we find an idea like this in one of the theories of the ultimate sources of our knowledge?

I believe we can; and I suggest that it is one of the two main ideas which underlie the doctrine that the source of all our knowledge is super-natural. The first of these ideas is false, I believe, while the second is true.

The first, the false idea, is that we must justify our knowledge, or our theories, by positive reasons, that is, by reasons capable of establishing them, or at least of making them highly probable; at any rate, by better reasons than that they have so far withstood criticism. This idea implies, I suggested, that we must appeal to some ultimate or authoritative source of true knowledge; which still leaves open the character of that authority–whether it is human, like observation or reason, or super-human (and therefore supernatural).

The second idea—whose vital importance has been stressed by Russell—is that no man’s authority can establish truth by decree; that we should submit to truth; that truth is above human authority.

Taken together these two ideas almost immediately yield the conclusion that the sources from which our knowledge derives must be super-human; a conclusion which tends to encourage self-righteousness and the use of force against those who refuse to see the divine truth.

Some who rightly reject this conclusion do not, unhappily, reject the first idea—the belief in the existence of ultimate sources of knowledge. Instead they reject the second idea—the thesis that truth is above human authority. They thereby endanger the idea of the objectivity of knowledge, and of common standards of criticism or rationality. [38-9]

What argument can do

No argument can force us to accept the truth of any belief. But a valid deductive argument can force us to choose be­tween the truth of its conclusion on the one hand and the falsity of its premises on the other. [10]

Encouraging an absolutist cast of mind

In their Dialectics of Enlightenment, the German philosophers Horkheimer and Adorno have argued that it was thus no accident that reason so often went hand-in-glove with ‘absolutism’. For reason and science, far from promoting liberty, encourage an absolutist cast of mind, by assuming an ‘absolute’ distinction between true and false, right and wrong, rather than a pluralist diversity of values. [8]

Nagel’s obviously objective values

Harris has identified a real problem, rooted in the idea that facts are objective and values are subjective.

Harris rejects this facile opposition in the only way it can be rejected—by pointing to evaluative truths so obvious that they need no defense. For example, a world in which everyone was maximally miserable would be worse than a world in which everyone was happy, and it would be wrong to try to move us toward the first world and away from the second. This is not true by definition, but it is obvious, just as it is obvious that elephants are larger than mice. If someone denied the truth of either of those propositions, we would have no reason to take him seriously.

These cases show that the idea of truth applies to values as much as it does to facts—but as with facts, the idea is not limited to obvious cases. There are many questions of value whose answer is not obvious, and about which people disagree, but that does not mean that they do not have a correct answer. As Harris points out, exactly the same can be said of historical and scientific questions: one should not confuse truth with what is known, or agreed on by everyone.

The relativity of proof

Every proof must proceed from premises; the proof as such, that is to say, the derivation from the premises, can there­fore never finally settle the truth of any conclusion, but only show that the conclusion must be true provided the prem­ises are true. [ch. 11, 260]

The corroboration of facts

While no evidence can be conclusive, we seem to be inclined to accept something (whose existence has been conjec­tured) as actually existing if its existence is corroborated; for example, by the discovery of effects that we would expect to find if it did exist. However, we may say that this corroboration indicates first, that something is there; at least the fact of this corroboration will have to be explained by any future theory. Secondly, the corroboration indicates that the theory that involves the conjectured real entities may be true, or that it may be near to the truth (that it has a good degree of verisimilitude). [10]

Better problems, closer to the truth

[T]heories are steps in our search for truth – or to be both more explicit and more modest, in our search for better and better solutions of deeper and deeper problems (where ‘better and better’ means, as we shall see, ‘nearer and nearer to the truth’). [154-5]

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