A little more on truth

Warden: He drew a unicorn in space. I ask ya, what’s it breathing?
Homer: Air?
Warden: Ain’t no air in space.
Homer: There’s an Air & Space Museum

What does it mean to live a rational life? (as if I’d know) Let’s start with an extreme example. Clifford’s Principle states that it is wrong always, for everyone, everywhere, to believe something on insufficient evidence. This means that we make sure those things we do believe are warranted with evidence. This evidence can come from many sources. Our senses can give us evidence. We can get evidence from those we trust, although this is usually somewhat less reliable than that gathered directly from our senses, which if you read my ‘My Madness’ blog you’ll know even the senses are subject to ‘a blot of mustard, or an underdone potato’ as Scrooge liked to say. Evidence from multiple sources is always better and adds weight to the things that we believe. These rules are not foolproof. Sometimes masses of people believe things that are patently not true. For example, children allover the world could testify that they have firsthand knowledge of Santa Clause, some could provide accounts of encounters, other’s could provide evidence of reindeer pawing on the roof, others could speak authoritatively of missing cookies or the sound of bells coming from downstairs. Despite the evidence, however, the kid (including my children) have been duped. But, in general, the more people that have had experiences with evidence the more likely the experince is at least well supported. And even with Santa Clause, if we were to add some adults to our sample we would soon find anomalies and alternative explanations for some of the events that would require further enquiry and investigation.

To live rationally is a commitment to live in tune with some underlying reality as much as we can. The deal is I think we want to find the truth and then to live a life that recognizes and embraces the truth. Of course, living in light of what ‘is the case’ can mean many things. Most of us assume that there is a real world that does not depend on us at all. Whether we are here or not, certain things keep happening: planets would rotate around stars, electrons would stay in their orbits, and that the physical objects of the universe would keep at what they were doing before humans came on the scene. To find the truth then is to align our lives with these realities. Philosophers call this ontology, the study of things as they really are. However, truth does not require ontology. Truth can be about any objective reality. For example, when I ask you how many horns a unicorn has, most of you will say: One. Now wait, there are no unicorns. There are none on earth and there are likely none found anywhere in the universe, yet when I ask the question there is little hesitancy in answering ‘one’. That is because we have a tradition about what a unicorn is and how many horns it has.

So that ‘what is the case,’ in this case, is based upon traditions about unicorns having one horn. So ‘what is the case’ can mean not only what is the case with respect to some ultimate reality, but it can mean what is the case in a given tradition, culture or religio. It can mean what is the case in reference to human law, literature, or political thought. If we are going to talk about the truth, we need to specify which domain we are in. When a seven-year-old says unicorns are real, she means that they really exist. When my literature professor says that unicorns are real she means that they are an active element of certain literary types such as is found in certain kinds of fantasy. So when we talk about what is true or what is real we need to be careful and specify what domain we are talking about.

Questions for thought: What do Unicorns breathe? Is there a Mormon equivalent of Clifford’s principle? What counts as evidence in matters of Faith? Were curlomes unicorns?—why is no one pursuing this? If unicorns aren’t ontologically real then why is there a unicorn horn at the Schatzkammer Museum in Vienna? Why isn’t it in the Air & Space museum? Is a unicorn having one horn a tautology since it means ‘one-horned’? So is the fact that unicorns have one horn an analytic truth? Can we therefore prove using real math that unicorns have one horn. If it’s mathematically true it must be real, right? Curlomes are real. QED

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