Truth, Fact, and Meaning

The things we are most certain of mean the least to us.  The things that mean the most to us, we are least certain of.  The difference is between fact and truth.  We are certain of facts, we believe truths.  A chemical redox equation can be duplicated anywhere, any time, and the results will be the same.  A redox equation is fact.  But does it mean anything to us how may electrons switch valences?  Of course, the batteries that depend on redox equations power our cars and cell phones, and they matter a great deal to us.  But the certainty of the equation itself doesn’t matter much to me.  On the other hand, the fact that there are eternal consequences to the way I live now matters a great deal to me.  The truth that there is a loving Creator watching over me, leading me, guiding me towards eternally lasting happiness matters a great deal to me.  But the existence of God is a belief, not a provable fact.  The reality of eternal life is also a belief, not a provable fact.

I grew up in a family that thought only science was truth.  Even art was devalued.  Math, engineering, chemistry, mechanics–these were the things that mattered.  These were the things they called truth.  The meaning a person finds in a poem, was not considered truth.  In fact, it wasn’t considered at all.  In the Turgenev novel I’m reading, the nihilist Bazarov deprecates belief, the arts, and aristocratic values.  He believes in nothing.  This abandonment of belief thrusts him into science.  He thinks that only science is certain.

But there is much truth in poems, like Robert Frost’s The Mending Wall.  “Something there is that does not love a wall.”  There is a feeling in us that wants connection among fellow humans and doesn’t love walls that come between us.  But Frost is an artist, not a scientist.  I don’t think it can be proven that there is a human antipathy to walls that come between us.  But I agree with Frost.  I believe he is correct.  The Mending Wall means more to me than the existence of quarks.  Quarks can be proved, Frosts truths can’t.  Neither can God’s love for humanity, nor the reality of afterlife.  But even if the things that matter most to me can’t be proven, my life is more fulfilling when I act upon the truths I believe.  I don’t see how science can direct me to a full and fulfilling life, even if the facts it discovers are provable.  The things that matter most to humans are not provable; the things that are provable hold least meaning to us.

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Epistemology and What Words Are

Words are created by people;

They help us function.

Words have meaning only when

Our experience meshes with the origin

Of any given word.

Then there is the consideration

Of experience.

To Locke, experience is

Inner and outer.

The motions of our soul are inner.

The world we all share is outer.

Words created to mediate what is inner

Confront what is outer.

When they coincide,

We call it truth.

A preponderance of words from what is inner

That don’t coincide with words from what is outer

Is what we call a lie.

Linguistic processes affirm the art of epistemology.

And there is what we call truth.

For those who care.

Trump Tests Contemporary Philosophy

At a supper party I spoke with a young woman who was getting a degree in philosophy.  I took the opportunity to lament the state of contemporary philosophy.  I told her, “There’s no more truth!”  She responded, “If there ever was.”

There were a coterie of philosophers in recent years who maintained that there is no such thing as truth.  Some of the notable philosophers were Nietzsche, Derrida, Fish, and Rorty.  Their assertion is that there is no outside reality that language copies and reproduces with words.  Rorty wouldn’t even make an assertion like that.  Because if he had said that there is no reality that language copies, that would have been an assertion of which the predicates of true or false could be attached.  Being consistent to his own system, Rorty said that he would use language in such a way that we would be attracted to speak like him.  He wasn’t making a statement about truth.  He was persuading us to speak like him, think like him.  Rorty wouldn’t even accept the endowed chair in the philosophy department at the University of Virginia which was offered him.  He thought that philosophy was no longer a viable discipline.  So U VA created a chair in a brand new department called something like cultural studies.

What does all this have to do with Donald Trump?  A lot of us are getting sick of all the lies he is telling.  As of August 1, the fact checker at the Washington Post found 4,229 lies told by Trump.  This averages 7.6/day.  If Trump had the brains, which he doesn’t, he could claim that contemporary philosophy has eliminated the concept of truth.  Since there is no truth, he would not be making statements contrary to it.  In short, Trump is the most prominent spokesperson for contemporary philosophy.

I was always suspicious of Rorty, Derrida, and Fish when I was a student.  Their claims didn’t convince me.  Now we have a test case for contemporary.  Is Trump lying?  Or can’t he lie?  Is there such a thing called truth which Trumps 4,229 statements are contrary to?  Or are the tactics of Trump and Giuliani, which seek to poison the notion that there is truth at all, entirely legitimate and in keeping with philosophy today?

I think the public outrage against Trump’s lies is an indication that most of us believe in truth, and bristle against lies.  When it comes down to it, I think that the pretensions of contemporary philosophy is another case of the emperor’s new clothes.  We see through it, even as we do Trump’s lies.

Brokering Truth

Brokering Truth

With Russia’s intentional misinformation campaign through social media, and with news stations becoming mouthpieces for politics, it is now imperative for we, the people, to become intelligent consumers of truth.

These days, anyone, myself included, can post opinion, fact, falsity, or truth on the world wide web, on web pages, on social media—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram.  And readers can go to any site and read what’s on it.  And the credulous will believe anything they read.

I’m olding now, and things were different for a good portion of my adult life.  There was a time before the internet.  There was no Wikipedia, rather, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica; there were no web postings for information, rather, there were books.  There was considerable advantage with these old-fashioned methods of learning.  The articles in Encyclopedia Britannica were written by world authorities on the subjects in it.  The information that one would read in Encyclopedia Britannica was reliable.  Today, anyone can post on Wikipedia, expert or not, informed or not, opinionated or not, vicious or not.  When we needed deeper knowledge, we would need to read books and research.  In order to publish a book, the author needed to go through an editor, or a review process.  Academic books go through a committee of peers, or experts on the subject.  Not just any Joe can publish on university presses, so the information we would obtain was fairly reliable.  When we would discuss ideas or information, often the question, “What’s your source?” would be fired at us.

Now we need to consider the source more carefully than ever before.  The efforts of Russia are not only to spread misinformation in order to favor a given political candidate.  What Russia is trying to do is to destroy the notion of truth itself.  They want us to think that there are no facts out there, that no news is reliable, that all information is only opinion.  News stations are becoming vehicles for partisan politics.  Some networks are putting out lies, and obvious propaganda.  And they are calling it news, which it is not.

But there are facts.  There is truth.  It is now incumbent on we, the people, to care about truth and to sift through the mass of media to discover fact and truth.  We need to consider the source.  We need to be skeptical.

I grew up skeptical of everything.  I thought everyone was trying to sell me a bill of goods. This was a character flaw I needed to overcome.  But doubting until convinced is a good method to employ now when sifting through media.  The fact is, some media sources are indeed trying to sell us a bill of goods.

Skepticism can lead to sincere inquiry and the quest for truth, for fact.  The enemies of truth want us to give up, to believe that everything is opinion and that anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.  When it comes to black holes, the late Stephen Hawking knows more than me or my girlfriend.  When it comes to brokering information, the Encyclopedia Britannica is more reliable than Wikipedia.  When it comes to politics, an actual film of a politician speaking, including the US President, is more reliable than what Fox News, or any other broker of information says he says.  World stability may well depend on we, the people, arming ourselves with sound research techniques.  I’m going to turn religious now.  If we persist in skeptical searching for fact, for truth, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Dupery for Dupery

I was talking about God with an acquaintance who told me, “I just don’t see enough evidence.”  The absence of evidence led this acquaintance to disbelieve in God.  I made the observation that lack of evidence does not disprove.  His disbelief in God was on the same level of my belief in God.  Neither were founded on proof.  My acquaintance’s disbelief was actually a fear of being duped.  My belief was actually a hope that God is real.  His disbelief is fear; my belief is hope.  Both positions are emotive, not logical.

What I am talking about is not my own idea.  It was formulated in the nineteenth century by the philosopher William James.  I am paraphrasing James’ wordy language in the above paragraph.  James says it better—and funnier—but he is hard to read.  James says,

“To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear ? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, . . .” (The Will to Believe).

Dupery for Dupery.  Is my hope worse than my acquaintance’s fear?  With a philosopher’s precision, James distinguishes between two approaches to truth.  There is the quest for truth and there is the avoidance of error.  Those are two different paths.  James:

“Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; . . . We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”

If we are talking about something that doesn’t matter all that much—like the appearance of sunbeams being due to a colloidal suspension of water in the sky—maybe fear of being duped is more important than the quest for truth.  But if something matters a whole lot—such as whether I should devote my life to love and thereby find eternal happiness—then fear of being duped may not be as important as the hypothesis that there is a God.  In the case of something that matters a whole lot, I think holding a belief that could be true based on some evidence may be more important than disbelieving out of a fear of being duped due to insufficient evidence.

Living life spiritually is something that we cannot be neutral about.  Either we decide to live spiritually, or we wait for sufficient evidence, all the while living according to only material norms.  But we can’t wait in some neutral space between spirituality and materialism.  People can live good lives, but not spiritual lives.  Spirituality to me means living from spiritual motives, for spiritual purposes, according to spiritual norms.  Without spiritual intentionality, good people appear to be living according to civil law, habit, common sense, but not conscience.  And I think there’s a difference.

So we’re back to the quest for truth and the fear of being duped.  James quotes Fitzjames Stephen effectively.  And I’ll let James’ use of Stephen conclude my reflections, too:

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]

Fact and Myth

Do scriptures have to be historical fact for them to be meaningful?  Is the Bible scientific fact, or spiritual truth?  Are the 7 days of creation intended to be about science, or about spirituality?  Did David have to actually fight Goliath for the story to have meaning?  Or does it serve spirituality better as an example of trust in God and the power that small ventures can muster against great odds?  Does the dragon in Revelation actually have to sweep a third of the stars out of the sky for the episode to have meaning?  Or is it an example of falsity sweeping away the lights of truth?

I say that sacred scriptures are more meaningful when they are not looked at as historical or scientific fact.  Myth matters more than history and fact.  Poetic metaphor, symbols, and myth speak to the heart, mind, and soul.  There is much more power in symbol than there is in a mathematical equation or scientific theory.  The theory of relativity does nothing for my soul.

Addictions and God-Image

When a person’s centre of interest is jarred and he or she is no longer pointed in the direction they have known, a person is vulnerable to addictions.  This is especially the case when a person’s God-image is lost.  The infinite power of the Deity steadies the soul.  When the God-image is lost, there is an insatiable drive to fill the emptiness.  A person seizes any temporal good at hand.  However, everything that is not God will never fill the emptiness left by a displaced God-image.  So the distraction seized becomes insatiable.  One craves it as a God.  But it is not God.  So a person cannot get enough of it.  This is the origin of addictions.

There are biological factors that figure into addictions.  Alcoholics have an allergy to alcohol.  Other addictions are said to turn on the neuro-transmitter called dopamine.  Addictions give a person a shot of dopamine.  But this shot of dopamine cannot compare to the ongoing peace and serenity of God.  When a person has a God-image in his or her heart, one does not crave the transient pleasure of a dopamine rush.  The Prince of Peace brings lasting contentment and a person feels whole.

This is particularly the case when a person loses a job, or moves to a new location.  Then there are also shocks to a person’s psyche when a new truth is dawning.  All these things shake a person’s soul.  They may lead to a new God-image.  But in the transition period, a person can be vulnerable to addictive behaviour.