Truth Criteria

[Note: Paul Hinz' entry, which draws a distinction between facts and opinions, motivated me to write the following little essay.]

Truth criteria is a very touchy-feely topic in epistemology, not to mention mathematical logic and ontology on two other extreme poles.

For example, in mathematical logic, Alfred Tarski had a model-theoretic criteria of truth for statements expressed in a given mathematical language. Anyone who knows about Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem and non-standard models knows where that definition will lead us.

"Facts" will always depend on the model of the world that one is dealing with and using to establish truth of statements.

In some models, a mathematical statement may be true and in others it may be false. In smaller models, the truth or falsity of the same statement may not even be possible to establish through any proof mechanism.

Now, applying the same concept, on a philosophical level, to the real world should have its obvious conclusions. Let's leave that as an exercise.

I should also mention that common scientists are successful in defining "facts" and "truth" to their satisfaction because they deal with a very simple, fictitious world-model, established for their very narrow and  particular purpose.

Here's another take, for example, which is more on the ontological side.

"Facts" are what one believes in based on what one has come to know of the world. Here, one's take of what "the world" actually is becomes key. In life, the "world-model" one uses depends critically on what one has come to really understand about the world through one's life.

"Assumptions" are "facts" in which one believes more than one believes in other "facts."

Except for sterile "scientific facts" (these, on their own, are discovered through consensus and agreement more than anything else), one man's "fact" becomes another man's "falsehood"...because they see the world in completely different ways.

So, if we bank on settling of facts as the main problem and on distinguishing fact and opinion as the main resolution, we're badly under-funded when it comes to understanding what's really going on.

On the other hand, we can submit to our partial understanding and agree that the best we can do when there's disagreement is to try to understand the various sides of the disagreement to the greatest possible extent. Often, we're just too lazy to do so. We tend to dismiss one side outright because of our prejudices. Understanding others can hardly be easy. It requires an ability to grasp the others' life as a possible life of our own to live, according to Bernard Williams, the late Cambridge philosopher, with not all of whose opinions I must say I agree.


I think it's interesting that 'everyday experience' or 'common sense' and scientific investigation can give rise to very different 'facts'.

 For instance, in the 'common sense' world, here are a couple of fairly uncontroversial 'facts':

- Electricity is something you can't touch;

- A table is solid and you can't stick your hand through it. 

 Talk to a physicist and you will get a different set of 'facts':

- 'Solids' are mostly space;

- Atoms are electrically charged particles.

Even as a child, I thought that Linnaean classification of the natural world was a slightly strange thing. Was it really the case that different branches (and offshoots) of the living world were so neatly bifurcated and arranged - or was this just an anthropocentric 'neatness filter' which we saw fit to impose on a much messier reality? And yet relatively speaking, it has, as far as I know, largely survived the advent of DNA analysis, which provides the means to see if there's an organising principle at the genetic level and not just in terms of outward appearance.

Posted by Robin Wilton on August 02, 2006 at 09:41 PM PDT #

We will know of reality what we'll come to know of it and certainly not all there is unless we're willing to pay attention to other senses and rediscover basic principles, very much in the tradition of Meno but in deeper aspects of life than mathematics. That's my view.

You've given excellent examples of divergence in knowing.

Another good place for material on this topic, specially when it comes to what I've called "sterile scientific facts," would be John McMurray's Science, Art and Religion.

I ran into this book on the bookshelves of UC Berkeley central library while I was studying philosophy there, quite accidentally. It is a very small book and most definitely out of print. New reprints of McMurray's book , by Humanist Publishing in the States, have not included this book, as far as I can tell.

Although I may not agree with everything McMurray says, it is clear that the distinction he draws between science, art and religion are for the most part correct. On science, he notes that "facts" are collected and orgnized for the purposes of "control" value they render. Also, science breeds on consensus among scientists.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on August 03, 2006 at 09:07 AM PDT #

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