Thursday, November 29, 2007

On Truth: Because the Title is Insufficiently Overused

Truth is a virtue, so they tell me. They also tell me the truth will out.

No, don't give me that crap about 'who is they.' You know exactly who they are.

By now you've probably surmised that I disagree. Indeed, what would be the point of writing an entire article about how awesome someone else's idea is?

This isn't a newspaper, dammit.

Regardless, here's what I interpret when I read the letters, 'truth.'

Truth is always true, for all people at all times and places.
Truth has two parts, objective and subjective.
Truth is necessary to live a happy life.

Seeing other people refer to truth is very annoying, as it's usually misused, from my perspective. :-)

Truth is Always True
So, is the first part even possible? I've used the word true in my definition, which would be a no-no if hominid brains weren't so good at parsing crap like that.

It's possible because I can define anything that isn't self-contradictory. If it's not completely out there, it probably exists. Truth is what's constant across all situations. It's what we can ultimately agree on. It's something I can say that can't somehow be refuted.

Anything that fails these tests can't be truth. It must be something else.

How much truth exactly there is in the world is an area of heavy debate. Since this seems to be an axiom war, I'm not going to expend much effort on it.

By experience I can say this both a very broad and very restrictive definition. It's exacting to have to say things such that they are exactly true. It's extremely easy in standard English to accidentally include or exclude too much. Conversely, while thinking strictly conceptually* it's almost too broad. It can actually be difficult to find the parts of an idea that aren't true, simply because of the vast area of ideas that needs to be trawled over.

*(The idea that people think using words is blatantly false. Any evidence to the contrary is illusory. It's therefore very easy to figure out how deaf people or babies or animals think - exactly like you do.)

However, the definition highlights very effectively the extreme importance of definition. For instance, the simple statement of "I have a computer," is a nightmare of definitional tragedy to a philosopher who hasn't thought about it yet. Still, since I'm writing this post, you can probably agree that it's true.

But what does 'I' mean? What does 'have' mean? How can I define these so that I can't go somewhere else or to someone else's perspective and negate them? Simultaneously, I have to encompass everything they mean in common parlance. The definitions can't be used, unless absolutely necessary for consistency, to go around telling people they don't mean "I" when they say "I."

So, cogently, what do I mean by agree? Can we disagree on the beauty of the sunset? Yes, but only because we're using disagree and truth loosely. The real statement of truth is, "I, Alrenous, do not find sunsets compelling." How can you disagree with that? By noticing me appreciating a sunset when I think no one's watching. You won't, but that's the method. The statement is irrefutable, and therefore true. Looking at our actual statements, you can see that we don't really disagree at all.

Running around the aforementioned way and telling people they don't really disagree, while amusing, can be avoided by simply noticing when people are making statements of truth, and when they're just making statements. You can't make statements of objective truth about beauty, because beauty is subjective, and so any statement that looks objective is obviously not what it seems. I personally think you shouldn't make such statements because it's a mild form of lying, but if you stopped completely you could never have a conversation with anyone.

Truth is Either Subjective or Objective
Given that truth must be true for everyone, and also various norms in English, I have to divide truth into subjective and objective types. Preferably, the language would recognize this difference implicitly - perhaps subjective descriptors like beauty and other emotions would have their own articles, and so it would be impossible to grammatically state subjective truth as objective.

Nevertheless, it is not so. Therefore, I have to describe truth as either objective, having to do with objects, or subjective, which needs a subject.

Notably, all subjects are also objects, but objects aren't necessarily subjects.

Take an orange. The orange is an object, and has certain objective properties like mass and frequency-dependent light reflection. The experience of orange, however, is subjective. If the orange reflects photons of wavelength approximately 590 nm in a forest and no one sees it, does it make a colour? No, of course not. While it is objectively true that I see oranges as orange, and objectively true that most people see oranges as orange, the subjective truth that I'm seeing orange requires the subject.

In the case of orange, I can even say something objective about the world given this experience, regarding the aforementioned photons of 590 nm. However, subjectivity ranges from these instances which are very close to objective, to things that are way way off like taste and emotion. It's pretty rare that I can say something objective from the subjective experience of emotion, though not impossible.

Here, incidentally, I see the real non-division between these two ideas. Is it objectively true or subjectively true that I'm feeling a bit annoyed right now? Is it objectively true or subjectively true that I have found something annoying?

The real reason for the label subjective is simply that people insist on talking normally, instead of warping their diction around the constraints of truth, which means I have to run around labelling some statements as subjective and some as objective. People also insist on thinking that other people are important. Think of the last movie or book that had as its main character a non-human? Can you imagine a nature documentary following, say, a crocodile and letting its actions speak for themselves? How about a non-living thing?

Even the idea of a subject itself is Cartesian dualism. Still, I find it rather useful. Given that, I can now say that objective truths exist in our shared reality, and subjective truths exist for me the subject, and therefore cannot be objectively verified, at least with current technology.

So, subjects are inherently distinct, while objects are inherently shared. I'll have more to say on this later.

Truth Is Necessary for Happiness
Having figured out what I mean by truth, I was still left in something of a quandary. Truth is considered very important, and the hominid brain posts error messages to our shared space when they find they have been intentionally led away from the truth.

Despite these, most endeavors in modern society seem to depend rather heavily on keeping the truth at bay. Almost every argument I run across explodes violently when exposed to logic.

Clearly, it's quite possible to live at least a somewhat happy life, and to achieve one's goals without acceding to anything more than the most basic truths. I'll have more on this later.

What, then, is the purpose of truth? Even if I had a whole warehouse of the stuff, what can I do with it? I can explain the anti-lying complex as a simple hominid dominance-managing device, which, even if statistically untrue, I can't rule out. I can say that the basic truths run at a different level of thought and therefore don't heavily interact with the philosophical level. Thus, truth doesn't appear to be very useful to the average person. In fact, to the level that people are hypocrites, they hate truth.

Still, engineers have to respect at least physical truths, or the bridges and skyscrapers will all collapse, and the production lines will jam. But beyond our specialist truth-managing caste, society seems to get along fine with the current truth level minimizing strategy.

If I were to start a company, and the whole point was to peddle the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us God, and to make shit-tons of money because everyone wants some, what would I have to sell my product for?

It turns out I would have to sell it for freedom and happiness.

I suspect but cannot prove that the truth makes you happy directly, that being a hypocrite is inherently painful.

Even if that's untrue, when you believe untruths you are under the control of the untruth peddlers.

When you are told a lie, the purpose is to control you. Sure, the lie-teller will try to put as much truth and comfort and other benefits in the suite with the lie, but the point is control. They lie to you so that you will do what they want you to do. If you continue to buy their lies you will continue to buy their product, physical or political. The lies will be set up so that to challenge any one important lie will be to challenge all of the lies.

You can buy a lie, but the only currency is your soul.

So, do you believe that you need to be controlled, for you own good? If so, I suspect that my first axiom, Trust Your Senses, will grind unbearably against your sensibilities. We probably have nothing to discuss.

Otherwise, you want truth. Whether you think so or not.

Nevertheless, society does work. People are happy. Freedom does exist. So, truth is not critical. But, society is not working well. People are not very happy. Freedom is on a relentless decline.

If you want to continue to believe your lies, there's nothing actually wrong with that.

If you want to be actually happy, profoundly happy, you need to know the truth. The truth clearly does not out on its own, but if it does it will set you free.

Further reading: Philosophy Now

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