Friday, December 03, 2010

What is truth?

The philosophical question of "what is truth" is one of those classic issues that can tie the professionals into knots but leave the public bewildered. The void is probably between the philosophers analytical attempt at definition, versus the normal functional definition.

The functional definition is pretty straight-forward really. In our day to day existence a "true statement" is one on which we can rely, they are the statements that we can reliably use as premises for our reasoning about what we should do (be that something immediate and practical like how to start the car or something more broadly social like how to care for the poor or sick).

The philosophers however get more tied up in it. The "correspondence theory of truth" is tied up with additional commitments to realism, and to a referential theory of language. In this case "truth" means something that corresponds to the real world.

This troika is, however, to a degree vacuous; most notably because it provides no method at all for determining "truthfulness". We have no other direct connection with "reality" to determine the truthfulness of a proposition.

In a short piece on ForaTV New York Times' Anand Giridharadas outlines versions of establishing truth. This covers "whatever our ancestors did is truth", "truth is whatever is in our holy book", and science says "truth is whatever repeatable experiments demonstrate".

He then goes on to suggest that things like Wikipedia are creating a new "revolution perhaps as significant as the scientific revolution" of truth being social. "Truth is what large numbers of people collectively say it is."

This resonated with me because I'd read something similar recently - and I can't place where.

But for me the issue is not really new. The first two versions of "truth" are just earlier examples because ancestors and scriptures are just other versions of truth being what is widely accepted.

But more significantly the dominant philosophers of science support the theories that the bulk of science is conducted by believing what others believe not really an extrapolation of experiment. While Popperian "falsification" is attractive, the vast majority of scientific experiments are not directed at falsification but at utility. They work on the basis of "given what we know what more could we do". They start from the premise that the science that everyone else (in the community of scientists) collectively say it is is true.

This is actually very easy to observe in Physics, the subject of much early philosophy of science. There is even some modern evidence where about 80% of theoretical physicists are engaged in varieties of string theory that seem to generate no observable consequences, and posit more new entities than they attempt to explain. Orthodox economics is much the same, an internally consistent set of theories that don't have a strong record of reliable prediction.

The point is that no matter how "confirmed" a scientific theory is, ultimately its truth is based on its acceptance and its acceptance is based on utility. That after all was the great point of Friedman's Methodology of Positive Economics, it doesn't matter if the theory is true (meaning here something like the correspondence theory of truth) so long as it produces useful results. That particularly spills over into ontology - does the use of the concept of "utility" actually mean we are positing the existence of the universal utility.

Ultimately from a social or biological evolution point of view it is pretty clear that humans couldn't survive any other way. You couldn't really live life not accepting that the bulk of other people's pronouncements are indeed true. You couldn't really at every turn go and investigate all the supposed evidence for any claim.

And even if you do go on an evidence search, it will be artificially constrained. The constraint may be other beliefs you already hold, or it might be cultural values.

The difference in a "digital philosophy of truth" as opposed to the most accepted version of scientific truth is the speed with which new statements can be propagated and the difficulty of challenging those that spread widely with facts (more correctly - alternative better supported observations).

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

No comments: