Oh, Say what is Truth–OK! I will

The truth is usually just an excuse for a lack of imagination. — Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Garak (episode-Improbable Cause).


 What is truth? And how do we get at it? And why do I have it and you do not? And why does that matter? Let me get rid of some preliminaries. First my concern is about knowing the truth about some underlying ontologically real stuff. This is a fancy way of saying I think there is a real world underneath it all, and this matters. The real question is ‘Can we get at it?’ and if so ‘What’s the best way?’ The trouble is we mean a lot of things by ‘true’. Sometimes by ‘true’ we mean ‘true for me,’ as in “That is truly the most beautiful sunset ever.” Sometimes when we say, “That is so true!” we mean we agree with the person saying, even though if pressed we haven’t really done any experiments. For example, if I say, “So and so is a real pain.” And you say, “That is true.” You probably aren’t saying, “There exists some underlying reality in which so and so is a pain in all times and in all places in this universe.” And even though I’ve met people that are ontologically a pain, we usually aren’t making this claim.


So the true I’m talking about here is this: Truth is a belief about the way things are. Sometimes people distinguish knowledge from belief as the claim: knowledge is holding a belief that is actually the case, which is silly when you think about it because the real aim is grounded in our value in believing true things. If knowledge is true belief, it doesn’t really do any work because, well, how would be know if our beliefs are true? The problem just cycled back on itself. Yuck. So let’s just make this easy and say that we want to line up our beliefs up with some ontological reality and when that happens, our beliefs are true. Call it knowledge if you want. And we all want true beliefs, right? So how do we satisfy this desire or value to have our beliefs line up with reality? How can we even hope that our beliefs are true?


Well there are a few ways. One is to get our beliefs to correspond to the world. So when I believe that that dog has fleas, it does. (Although actually I should say, rather, I believe a dog has fleas just in those cases it actually does (see if you can sort out the differences between those two statements) Untrue beliefs, beliefs that are wrong about the way the world is can be dangerous. If I believe that there is no sabre-toothed tiger behind that rock and glibly walk passed it, and there is a sabre-toothed tiger behind it my false belief may get me eaten. So having beliefs that correspond to the world is a nice feature of beliefs. But it’s really hard to tell if you got it right. Like, are there really electrons? or are these just mathematical place holders from results we see in experiments? When things get gallingly unobservable maybe correspondence is too much to ask so we go for coherence!


Coherence theories are great because they are just like a Suduko puzzle! You just try and fit all the facts together in a way that it all adds up both in columns and in rows (metaphorically speaking of course). Simple as that. So whether your electrons correspond to some real entity isn’t that important, they just work so darned well that there must be something at least sort of like them, and, what the heck, they let me to chemistry. Good enough.


Then there is the purely pragmatic approach to truth. Sort of a truth-schmruth approach where you don’t even pretend that you can get a ontology and who cares as long as my beliefs let me predict how to get to work in the morning then I’m good.



Lastly, there are those who think truth is a cultural construct. Sort of like wearing Levis rather than a sari. Truths are those things your culture accepts and there is no real validity other than what works for you in a given situation. Truth is made by truth traditions mostly by those who have the power and authority to make assertions that are accepted and maintained a community. Usually, these truths cohere well with facts of the world at least to some degree, people are rational beings as it turns out and they aren’t bad at noticing those things that don’t work well in the world.


So there are our four theories of truth. My focus is going to be on Science and science’s values which orbit most often around the first two theories of truth. Scientists in general tend to be realists of the first stripe. Mathematicians and string theorists tend to be of the second. Philosophers just are happy to sort things out for everyone. Engineers of the third and Mormons of the last. WHAT!! ‘Mormons are realists’ you say! Yes, I agree that’s what they say they want, but then they write and act otherwise. I’ll be developing this further, but let me say up front that as I have looked at the relationship of many members of my faith and science I see more epistemic value placed on other less successful methods of truth finding than science (and I don’t mean prayer or faith when I say ‘less successful.’ Those methods I’ll explore later when I talk about subjective truths. Right now I’m talking about objective truths about the universe so don’t complain—yet anyway—that I left those out). In fact, I’ll be bold here–Correspondence theories of truth are held in deep suspicion. I’ll be illustrating this with some of the junk thinking that goes on in the Mormon Universe. Much of the discourse about science and truth are based on a hermeneutic of suspicion. Which is a technical way of saying that Herman Munster is a better scientist than many Mormon writers, including some scientists. To prepare for my discussion read the article on Meridian Magazine Has Satan Highjacked Science (Note: it looks like Meridian has pulled this from their line up—if so, Well done Meridian). I will soon argue that this sort of hermeneutic in fact causes deep religious harm. We must use the best methods of science AND the best methods of Faith. Both are compatible ways of finding truth. But this is wildly misunderstood.


So there’s truth in a nut shell. Truth then is not the stuff that lies behind the apparent world. Truth is a stance to that world, where our beliefs line up with that world. Truth is right belief? Or to paraphrase truth is right belief of things as they are as they were and as they are to come? QED right belief is knowledge. But herein lies the can of worms I mentioned before. Dang it! How can we be confident our beliefs are right?


Enter Science stage right. Enter Religion stage left. (Since left has the connotation of correctness, goodness, and light, I’ve reserved stage left for those things of most value).


Next time:


What is science?


Questions for thought:


Why does truth matter? What if our fictions move us through the world just fine? Fiction is often truer than non-fiction, why is that? What truths are there other than scientific truths? Are there truths that aren’t true? Is that true? Is that true? How many times can I write that and you still follow me? Truely?

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6 Responses to Oh, Say what is Truth–OK! I will

  1. Doc says:

    So true. jk. Nice post, the subject of which is identical to something I just posted last night. Great minds think alike eh, Steve.

  2. Apparently you can still get the original Meridian Magazine article from Mr. Pratt’s web site:


  3. By the way, your blog design could really use a better template that is more readable.

  4. Jared* says:

    it looks like Meridian has pulled this from their line up

    No, it’s still there.

  5. I entirely agree that the scientific method is compatible with faith, and that it is the most useful epistemic process currently available to us for reaching objective (shared subjective) truth. I also agree that truth is not the stuff behind the apparent world, but rather is to be found in sharing the apparent world.

    However, I disagree with your characterization of pragmatism (unless “pragmatism” is used quite informally). Pragmatism is quite capable of objectivity, so long as we don’t insist that truth is the stuff behind the apparent world. Dogmatism aside, the only form of objectivity we’ve ever known has been achieved through reproducing (and thereby sharing) experience, whether or not this objectivity bares any correspondence with someone’s metaphysical preferences.

  6. Brad Carmack says:

    I always wondered how to spell truth-schmruth! Thanks. 🙂 I appreciated your four theory frame of epistemology/truth.

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