18th Nov. 06 Here is a Geordie football fantasy. Once upon a time …
It is the 89th minute of the Newcastle-Sunderland F.A. cup final (I did say was a fantasy!). There is, as yet, no score. Alan Shearer traps a forward pass. He turns. He shoots. He scores ……….or does he?
The linesman flags for offside.
The video cameras shows offside.
The referee blows his whistle …and declares a goal.
The Newcastle supporters rise in ecstatic acclamation of a brilliant goal and a historic victory. The Sunderland fans erupt in anger at a visually challenged referee of doubtful parentage.
What can we say is the ‘truth’ of this event? That Shearer scored a valid goal is true for the Newcastle fans. But this is certainly not true for the Sunderland fans – ‘they wus robbed’! And is the declared goal (or the invalid goal) the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
This everyday story of Geordie football should warn us that the ‘truth’ is not the simple unambiguous account beloved by the warring football fans, the religious fundamentalists and the worried moralists. ‘Truth’ is more complicated than that.
We might have been warned of this situation by the way ‘truth’ is used in the vernacular. It has often an emotional overtone. We might say ‘be true to yourself’, or talk about ‘truth and beauty’, or a ‘poetic truth’. This use of the word ‘truth’ is perfectly valid in evoking emotional states but it does not carry any precise or useful meaning in a philosophical sense. What is an emotional truth for one person might be emotionally false for another. Used in this way ‘truth’ has no universal meaning – it is merely indicative of a personal emotional state.
Or, (significantly, as we will see) we might hear truth spoken of in a quasi-religious sense:
This is the gospel truth.
I swear by almighty God this is the truth.
It is God’s own truth.
We are not likely to say in common parlance:
It is the Truth that it is raining.
It is the Truth that it is 6 o’clock
It is the Truth that Shearer scored a goal.
We are more likely to use the word ‘fact’ for these latter statements - it is a fact that it is raining … and so on. We seem to recognise, intuitively, that there is a difference between universal transcendental Truths and local facts.
This notion is behind Wittgenstein’s declaration:
‘The world is all there is that is the case.
The world is the totality of facts, not of things’
So, how do we explain this obsession with the concept ‘truth’? The thing that many men, and a few women (women not being so foolish) have been prepared to die for. From a physicalist’s perspective, for the materialist, the monist, ‘truth’ is the correspondence of the brains synaptic patterns with ‘reality’. For the dualist, ‘truth’ is the correspondence of the mental concepts, accompanying the synaptic patterns, with ‘reality’. We do not need to engage in the monist versus dualist argument here – the dualists have enough problems explaining what this other non-material ‘stuff’ is. It must suffice to note that this ‘correspondence with reality’ idea begs the question. Reality is just another word for truth and we are led into the ontological linguistic debate which some believe ended with Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein came to the conclusion that all propositions of logic are meaningless tautologies and all existential propositions (sentences which relate to the verb ‘to be’) are self justifying assertions.
There is an apocryphal (but epistemologically revealing) story of Wittgenstein asking a local Geordie:
‘Is it the case that the number 6 bus will take me to South Shields?’
The Geordie replies ‘yes’, or more likely ‘why aye man’.
Wittgenstein returns and accosts the Geordie:
‘I thought you said the number 6 bus would take me to South Shields, it took me to Sunderland’.
‘Why man’, says the Geordie, ‘when I say the number 6 bus goes to Shields I mean the number 6 bus that goes to Shields will take you to Shields. The number 6 bus that goes to Sunderland will take you to Sunderland’
Wittgenstein is reported as being inspired by this Geordie logic and he abandoned analytic philosophy – and Geordie public transport. .
The religious claim that God does not only KNOW the truth, does not simply TELL the truth, but rather that God IS the truth. Christ says ‘I AM the truth, the way, and the light’. This is not simply a biblical grammatical howler. As we shall see, Nietzsche explains our belief in God is because of our grammar. If we were to speculate on the possibility of an absolute truth, we would need a God to be It. For the religious fundamentalist this is the end of the debate. Truth is what God is – or tells them – conveniently, but confusingly, conveyed in the Bible or Koran by an assortment of charismatic prophets culminating in a science fiction writer with an eye for the financial. For them, the religious fundamentalists (or the fundamentally religious), the debate ends here.
For the rest of us, we might turn to philosophical definitions of truth. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes ‘correspondence’, ‘deflationary’ and ‘pragmatic’ theories of truth.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy adds to these a ‘coherence theory’, a ‘redundancy theory’ a ‘semantic’ theory and a ‘subjective’ theory of truth.
Peter Strawson, the Oxford philosopher, saw that truth lies, not in the proposition itself, but rather in its meaning (the king of France is a wise man). For Strawson meaning, and thus truth, is contingent.
What are we to make of these confusing (and conflicting) views?
Francis Bacon writes
‘What is truth? Says jesting Pilate – and did not stay for an answer.’
Nietzsche does not turn away, he stays and answers Pilate:
‘Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions’.
Let us not turn away either. Let us continue the questioning of our Geordie football fantasy. Let us return to our Shearer goal (or non-goal). From the perspective of the Newcastle fans and the F.A. Rule book a goal was scored (the referee decision is final). From the view of the Sunderland fans and the linesman Shearer was offside and the goal was invalid. The ‘truth’, it would seem lies within the value frame, the belief system, of the observer.
The American philosopher W.V.O. Quine expresses this view in his work Word and Object:
‘The totality of our so-called knowledge or belief, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics, or even pure mathematics and logic, is a man made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Any statement can be true if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system [of our beliefs].’
If we dismiss the transcendental solution, - the view of a god-like referee with a holy rule book we might, in our search for the truth, be tempted to seek a scientific, third person , reductionist account of our football fantasy.
From a third person perspective – which means taking a view acceptable to a neutral observer – a player in a black and white shirt was observed to kick the ball into the net and the referee declared a goal. Even the Sunderland supporters could agree with that account, albeit reluctantly. That view is certainly A truth (with a small‘t’), it is a historical fact. However, we would be wrong to claim that it is The Truth (with a capital ‘T’). It is certainly not the whole truth. Nor is it a universal transcendental truth. It is conditioned by our human species subjectivity. We have stripped out the cultural subjectivity of the Newcastle and Sunderland fans but we are left with the species subjectivity of our physiology – our human brains and our senses.
To place this third person account fully within the scientific paradigm we would need to be able to reproduce, test and observe the event, to predict other dependent observations, and to obtain the concurrence of our peers. We would need to strip out the dependency of time and place. That is not possible with a football match – even though it might be the subject of countless pub replays.
However, even if such a scientific account was possible, we would still be left with the human species’ subjectivity - the human perception of time and space, for example.
Einstein has shown that our observations of space and time are relative, even when expressed in mathematical terms. His theory of relativity is premised on the recognition of the necessary subjective perspective of the observer. Kant, presciently, saw our human subjectivity in terms of space and time, and these he included in his ‘apriori’ for human beliefs.
This subjectivity is now recognised at the heart of the modern science paradigm. Heisenberg summed up his Uncertainty Principle thus:
‘We can no longer speak of the behaviour of the particle independently of the process of observation… nor is it possible to ask whether or not these particles exist in space and time objectively [i.e. independent of the observer].
… Science no longer confronts nature as an objective observer…the scientific method of analysing, explaining and classifying has become conscious of its limitations.’
A Martian might see our account of the Newcastle- Sunderland cup-tie differently. What, he/she might ask (if Martians have such genders) is this black and white of your scientific account? And how is it that those nets try to capture the ball?
As an alternative to this scientific, reductionist account, the phenomenologicalists might suggest a different approach. Is it possible to find the truth of the event in the form of a third person account of ALL the phenomenological factors – including the experiences of the players, the fans, and of course, the referee. To access the whole truth we might seek to identify all the factors that constitute the event. This would include all the external physical factors – the meteorological conditions and the Newtonian reactions of the ball – together with a third person account of the first person experience of the players, the fans, and the referee.
Daniel Dennett explains such an attempt to give a third person account of first person mental states with his idea of what he calls heterophenomenology. He explains this would involve:
Starting with raw data i.e. starting with the vocal expressions of emotional states such as ‘brilliant goal’; ‘we wus robbed’; and other expressions of unconstrained emotion. Together with an account of all internal overtly physical conditions such as brain activities, hormonal diffusion, heart rate changes etc.
And, in our case, including the neurological effects of Newcastle Brown Ale (pacé the dualists)
And, including other manifestations of emotional states; conviction, fear, loathing, disgust, etc. – however they might be identified.
By using quasi-scientific methods in this way Dennett seeks to establish that a comprehensive third person account of first person experience can be obtained. Thus, we might think, that with this, together with an account of all the other physical factors, a full ‘true’ account of the event would be achieved.
Simply to describe such a methodology is to expose its uselessness. The dualists would deny its legitimacy per se. We cannot, they would say, give an adequate third person account of the first person experience of the combatants.
The monists, the physicalists would deny its possibility. We cannot, they would say, account for all the action and reaction of all the environmental factors, the physical and cultural, and the Newtonian reactions of the ball - never mind the mind set of the players, the fans and the referee. We would, to use Hawking’s phrase, have to know ‘the mind of God’. (Some footballers do, of course, recognise the ‘hand of God’ – but only when it favours them with a goal).
And, even if we were to allow this account as theoretically possible, we would be left with reality that the heterophenomenological, quasi-scientific, account to which it aspires would be only an agreed pragmatic and provisional account of peers. It would be bound by the same human species subjectivity that conditions all human concepts.
Immanuel Kant says, in his Critique of Pure Reason:
‘Thus the order and regularity in the appearance, which we entitle “nature”, we ourselves introduce. We could never find them in appearance, had we, or the nature of our mind, not originally set them there.’
Scientists, generally, recognise this limitation. A scientific ‘truth’ is simply a peer consensus view, for the present. For science the question is not ‘is it true?’ but rather ‘does it work for now?
And Dennett, with his heterophenomenology, is concerned with promoting the effectiveness of this narrative – not in defending its transcendental ‘truth’.
Constrained by the prevailing culture and scientific knowledge of his time Kant was unable to carry this idea of human subjectivity forward to the level now recognised by modern science and postmodern philosophy. But he was led to assert a necessary a priori for his ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ concepts based, presciently, on space and time. It seems clear (to me) that Kant saw these concepts as subjective species dependant foundations for human thought, rather than objective universal absolutes. Kant, it would seem, saw no need for divine intervention.
However that might be, Kant was one of the first to attempt to deal with human subjectivity in a rigorous analytical manner and he is recognised as providing the genesis for much modern (and postmodern) philosophy.
Earlier philosophers had, of course, addressed the relationship between our concepts and the external world. Plato discussed the status of our ‘reality’ and recognised that it was our language, and in particular the use of the verb ‘to be’ which determines our concept of reality.
Hegel related reason to reality - we reason therefore we are. And Nietzsche argued that it was our grammar, the ‘verb ‘to be’ that caused us to believe in God. Wittgenstein recognised that all propositions (including logic) are founded on the verb ‘to be’ (two and two ARE four; I think therefore I AM; that IS (or is not) a goal).
We can see where these philosophers are coming from – even if we don’t always follow where they are going to. Ultimately, the question of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ is a question of ontology. It depends, as president Clinton said, in a totally different context, on what our meaning of ‘is’ is. Our observations in quantum mechanics, where sub atomic properties can simultaneously ‘be’ and ‘not be’ tells us that our concepts of ‘being’ are not secure. Quantum physics exposes human subjectivity, even regarding our fundamental concepts of being - science requires that we review our ontological philosophy.
The ‘is’ is subjective. We are the ‘is’.
Where does all this lead us? We cannot escape our human condition. Sartre said that the human species is doomed to be free. But, we are also bound by the chains of the human condition – the physiology of our brain; the nature of our senses; our language and culture. The concept of truth is a human construct. Our truths (if that’s what we choose to call them; ‘facts, is a more appropriate term), truths can be only our local truths, contingent and pragmatic. They are, like scientific facts, facts for us for now. If there are other sentient beings they will have THEIR truths, THEIR facts.
If we rule out the existence of some supernatural being, transcending our universe, the idea of an objective universal truth is not simply wrong it is meaningless. Without a God to instruct us otherwise, the human species is bound to our human truths, to our species subjectivity. That is the human condition. It is not a condition we have chosen, it is simply the way we are and we must make the best of it. There is no point in the realists, the anti-relativists, complaining about the difficulties and uncertainties this places on us. They might just as well complain about gravity.
As Sartre says:
‘The existentialist …finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.’
Frederick Nietzsche confronts this human condition in his work Reflections on the Struggle Between Art and Knowledge. He identifies a general ‘will-to-truth’ which seeks to appropriate life according to its needs. He shows (along with fellow travellers Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and Baudrillard) how culture suffers if the demand for truth and certainty is allowed to override the pragmatic implications for knowledge.
We can accept the idea of truth as a convenient human construct. The human species has found the idea of truth to be beneficial in the evolutionary struggle to focus and direct our behaviour. Evolution has conditioned us to think in these terms. There is no doubt that the concept of truth remains useful – perhaps even essential. We need the idea of truths – even if we recognise that we have to make them up. It is the STATUS of our truths that we have to remember. We must, as Nietzsche puts it, never forget that they are illusions.
Our human condition has laid upon us a paradox. We must act as if there were truths, an objective reality, but our reason insists that we can only believe that we cannot believe anything.
The alternative – an acceptance of an accessible dogmatic certainty – leads to the horrors of political and religious fundamentalism. To accept the idea of Truth as an objective universal absolute is to allow justification to those who think that they have it - and the right (or indeed the duty) to impose it on others. This concept allowed access to the ideologies that led to the Inquisition, Hitler’s and Stalin’s death camps, and the modern suicide terrorist. The wars of the 20th century (and many before) were carried out, not in the name of relativism but rather in the name of dogmatic ideologies – Religion, Nationalism, Fascism and so-called Communism. The concept of an objective universal truth, transcending the human condition, is not only wrong, it is dangerous.
For the modern postmodern philosopher, truth is concerned with the rhetorical and practical rather than the metaphysical and logical. Calvin O. Schrag says, in his work The Task of Philosophy after Postmodernism:
‘Truth must no longer be conceived of, metaphysically or epistemologically, as the correspondence of (subjective) ideas with so called objective reality… Truth must rather be seen to be a practical notion, an “implicate” of our being and action. Truth is not merely to be discovered; it is something we have the responsibility for making…the disclosure of possibilities for agreed upon perspectives for seeing the world and acting within it.’
Truth is something that seems a good idea at the time.
Now, THAT’S the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!