VIDEO: The Truth about Truth

I wrote about this content in 2019, but I wanted to revisit it for a video as well as create a podcast audio version.

Video: YouTube version of this page content
Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

In today’s segment, I am going to share my perspectives on the truth about truth. To start, I’ll let the audience know that I do not believe in the notion of truth. I feel the term is ill-defined especially in the realm of metaphysics and morality. I feel that when most people employ the word ‘truth’, what they mean to say is ‘fact.’ That a fire engine is red, for example, may be a fact, if indeed the fire engine happens to be red, but it is not true. This is a misapplication of the term. If you employ truth as a direct synonym for fact, then this is not what’s being discussed here, and perhaps your time might be better spent watching some content by the Critical Drinker.   

My argument is that truth is not objective. Rather it is subjective and perspectival. I concede that there may be some objective truth out there somewhere, but it is not and will not ever be accessible to us because of limitations in our sense-perception faculties and cognitive limitations. Per Aristotle, we only have five senses with which we can connect to the world, and these senses are limited. If there is anything out there that would require another sense receptor—a sense receptor not available to us—, we would never be able to sense it, to even know of its existence. Perhaps the universe emits 100 sense signals, but we are only capable of receiving and translating five. We’d be oblivious to 95 per cent of reality.

I am not making any claims that this is the case, but human cognition is so limited, that we can’t even conceive of what another sense might be. If you can, please leave a comment.

To be clear, I am not talking about senses we know other species possess. Bats may have echolocation, and sharks may have electroreception. Some animals may have greater sensory acuity—superior vision and auditory senses, olfactory and gustatory, tactile, or whatever. Some can see into infrared or ultraviolet light spectra. Technology that includes biomimicry provides humans with microscopes for the microworld and telescopes for the macroworld. We have x-rays and sonar and radar, radios and televisions that extend our senses, but these provide no new sensory receptors.

Like the story of the blind people and the elephant, we are left grasping at parts. But even if we are able to step back to view the whole elephant, to hear the elephant, to touch and smell or even taste the elephant, if there is more to the elephant, we cannot know it. The same goes for ourselves.

I know that some people might inject gods or psychic or paranormal energy into this void, and sure, feel free, but I am looking beyond these pedestrian concepts. What else might there be?

But let’s depart this train and head in a different direction. I want us to focus on the senses we do have. For the typical human, sight is our primary arbiter of reality, at least as defined idiomatically. We tend to believe what we see, and what we see, we assume as real—even if we are later mistaken. I guess that wasn’t a unicorn or a pink elephant. I must have been hallucinating or dreaming. I could have sworn that was Auntie Em.

There are several competing theories around truth, but I’ll focus on the Correspondence theory, which is simply put, the notion that, proxying reality for truth, human perception corresponds with the real world. And a pragmatist might argue that’s close enough for the government.

Keep in mind that historically humans have contorted themselves into making calculations. Remember how long people had been tying themselves into knots to show planetary motion in a geocentric system creating epicycles and retrograde motion to map understanding to a perceived reality.

One might even argue that we’ve progressed. It wasn’t true or accurate then, but now it is. And perhaps it is. Let’s look at some illustrations.

NB: Due to an editorial mishap, this paragraph was dropped in the podcast, hence dropped from the video, which shared the podcast audio source. As such, this image was also not used in the video. This is unfortunate, as it was meant to introduce those with limited maths knowledge to the asymptotic curve, as described. Apologies, and I hope this serves to orient any travellers who may have lost their way at this point.

In this first illustration, we see Truth (or relative truthiness) on the Y-axis and Time on the X-Axis. On the top, we see a threshold representing Reality. In the plane, I’ve rendered an asymptotic curve, where over time, we get closer and closer to the Truth. But we never quite get there. More on this later.

The next illustration will help to demonstrate what’s happening.

Notice there is a gap between the curve and the Reality cap. For one thing, we don’t really know where we are relative to Reality. In the case of the geocentric system, we might have been at the leftmost space. Once we determined that the system is actually solar-centric, we might have moved right on the curve to close the gap. We might be tempted to defend that we’ve finally reached the truth, but we’d have been equally willing to make the same defence from the geocentric position, so we need to be mindful of the past.

Perhaps, this last example was too obvious. We feel comfortable staking a truth claim—or at least a claim of fact. So let’s look at another example.

Let’s re-use the same axes—Truth and Time—, but rather than an asymptotic curve, let’s presume something more polynomial in nature—or not particularly cyclic. Rather than retrograde motion in planets, let’s visit the supposed progress of Newtonian over Einsteinian physics.

This takes a bit more setup but bear with me.  In this case, I have taken liberties and illustrated the Einsteinian physics gap to capture an inferior vantage on reality over Newtonian physics. Granted, I need to rely on a bit of suspension of disbelief, but in the bigger picture, I am trying to convey a scenario where some new paradigm puts the prior knowledge in perspective.

In this instance, both Newtonian and Einsteinian flavours of physics are based on a materialistic, particles-based model, which is where the modern physics consensus resides. But, let’s say that consensus changes in such a way that it is determined that something else underlies reality, say consciousness per Analytic Idealism as proposed by Bernardo Kastrup or per Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as advanced by Donald Hoffman and others. As with retrograde motion, we might end up finding that we were barking up the wrong tree. This might be a bit different because the particles are a directly perceived manifestation of the underlying consciousness, but I wanted to create a scenario where knowledge thought to have advanced actually regressed, but this wasn’t revealed until a new perspective was available.

Yet again, an important aspect of note is that we don’t actually know the distance between our perceptions and real Reality.

This last illustration builds upon the first asymptotic chart but has an in-built error margin meant to reflect language insufficiencies. There is some concept that people feel they grasp, but the consensus is not as unified as the group thinks.

I’ll share two examples, the first being the concept of justice. To me, Justice is what I deem a weasel word. It’s a word we commonly use, but it means different things to different people. To me, it’s a euphemism for vengeance by proxy, but for others, it transcends that and mirrors some impartial dispensation of just desert—some good old-fashioned law and order.

[Justice is] a euphemism for vengeance by proxy

Without getting stuck down some rabbit hole, my point is that if we aggregate these beliefs, the asymptotic curve represents an average consensus vantage rather than something as obvious as 2 plus 2 equals 4. On this note, allow me to clear the air.

Some viewers might be clamouring to say, “but 2 plus 2 equals four is true.” But this is tautologically true, which is to say that it’s true by definition. It’s a similar tautology to saying that it’s true that snow is white, or coal is black. We’ve already defined snow, white, coal, and black, so these may be facts, but they are true by definition.

Revisiting the chart, notice that there are two curves in the space. In this case, I illustrate competing truth claims from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. The case is whether the earth is an oblate spheroid or is flat. I am going to go out on a limb and assert the earth is spherical, as represented by the top blue curve—and we have some margin of error as to what that might mean. The bottom red curve depicts the perceived truth of the flat earthers, who also have some room for semantic error.

Given that I am presuming that I am in the right adopting the majority position—please be right—, the blue curve is closer to Reality than the red curve. Of course, in the event that the earth is really flat, then it proves my point that we don’t know where we are relative to truth, so we assume that the state of knowledge at any given time is what’s real.

Again, forgive my fanciful examples. Please don’t tell me that this spheroid versus planer earth is tautological too because you’d be correct, but I am already aware. They are just nonsensical illustrations. Nonetheless, I hope they’ve served to express a point.

I could have as well created curves that depicted two cohorts’ beliefs on the efficacy of tarot or astrology in predicting the future. I am sure that it might render somewhat like the last chart, but I’d also presume that both curves would have very low truth values as seen from an objective observer. Secretly, I hope tarot wins the truth battle.

Before I end our time together, I’d like to convey that for an Analytic Idealist, these charts might be more acceptable at face value. For a Realist, Naïve or otherwise, they may argue that this curve is not asymptotic and may in fact reach some tangency. I don’t happen to believe this is the case or I wouldn’t have spent my time assembling and presenting this. Time will tell. Or will it?

Ultimate Responsibility

Robert Kane argues that ultimate responsibility (UR) should guide us in determining whether someone is responsible for their actions. He gives the example of a drunk driver who gets into an automobile accident. If the actor tries to skirt responsibility because s/he was intoxicated, hence incapacitated, then [1] we can still rewind to an action taken that caused this intoxicated state and then [2] choosing to drive—a causal relationship articulated by Aristotle. This seems fine, but it’s a specious defence.

According to Kane

According to Kane—noting an issue raised by some—, it doesn’t require an assessment that a person could have done otherwise. This condition has numerous implications for free will.

For example, it doesn’t require that we could have done otherwise for every act done of our own will. But it does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. Kane calls these self-forming actions (SFAs). According to Kane, [3] we act from a will that’s already formed, but [4] it’s our own free will by virtue of the fact that [5] we formed it by other choices or actions in the past—self-forming actions—, [6] for which we could have done otherwise.

Consider the drunk driver. If this were not the case, there’s nothing we could have ever done differently in our entire lifetimes to make ourselves different than we are—a consequence that’s incompatible with our being, at least to some degree, ultimately responsible for what we are. And that’s what I think free will requires.

Kane’s Challenge

I marked passages in brackets [n], to serve as a reference for my commentary here. Some of my responses may be repetitive, so I’ll try to make any redundancies recursive.

[1] Kane suggests that even if the person is incapacitated at the time of the accident—hence not responsible in the moment—, we can trace events back through time and pinpoint an event that caused the incapacitation. In fact, we can trace it back to the decision to imbibe in the first place. I have two objections here, but I’ll defer the second one to my next reaction.

Kane says we can rewind to some causal event. We are in agreement on this point, but I have a question: why stop there?

In engineering, there exists a concept called root cause analysis, and there is a concomitant heuristic called the 5 Whys. Essentially, using the DUI example as a discussion point, we can refer to the accident as event T0. Then we can trace back.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll ignore trivial or immaterial events such as s/he encountered a detour and so took an unfamiliar route or s/he fell asleep at the wheel, missing a green light, which caused a delay, which meant that she was in a place to happen to hit another vehicle—presuming that if s/he had been a minute ahead of her fateful schedule, there would have been no other vehicle to hit. This might be a logical line of inquiry, but let’s shelf it.

So, tracing back, at T-1, we find our actor already intoxicated and starting the car. At T-2, we find our actor drinking the last of multiple rounds of alcohol. We could trace back all the way back to, say, T-5, where our actor made the decision to take the first drink.

We may have difficulty pinning down where the impairment kicked in. Was it the drink at event T-2 or was it earlier, say, ay T-4, where all subsequent drinks were not assessed rationally? In any case, even if we stop at the last lucid state, T-5, then everything that follows can be said to be related to that event. But I have a problem.

[2] Firstly, if s/he was mentally incapacitated, how could s/he make a rational decision to drive or not? Secondly, even if we say that s/he became mentally incapacitated at event T-4, then the decision at that juncture was not rationally deliberated.

We could introduce a twist here, which is to assign culpability to the drink server. Some local statutes exploit this by making the barkeep culpable for serving a drink to an already intoxicated patron. Of course, this has the same issue noted above because we can’t say with any reliability whether the actor was intoxicated at T-2 or T-4. Let’s not get mired in this. This is not my biggest concern.

My key concern is in stopping there at T-5. Why not go back to why s/he even had the first drink? Why not go back to why she drinks in the first place? Why not keep going back. More on this ahead. Let’s continue.

[3] Kane says that the actor, the decider, already has a formed will. In this, he is introducing another concept—one of the self or the individual. Let’s continue, and I’ll get to that, too.

[4] Echoing the self, Kane doubles down and says that this self has a will, and the actor owns it. As such s/he is responsible for these willed actions, these caused actions. So, let’s dig in.

[5] Kane asserts that we formed this self by other choices or actions in the past that he calls self-forming actions. This is where in my mind this skein of logic unwinds.

Ignoring whether the self is anything but narrative convenience, why should one accept that the actor has any agency in this so-called self-forming? What proof do we have that this actor is just a victim of circumstances—from geworfen until event T0? Even without invoking determinism, I think it’s safe to assume that this actor is a consequence of, at least, hereditary and (monomorphic and polymorphic) genetic traits including temperament. Then we have structural influences, such as family, peers, institutions, and authority figures, societies and cultural norms.

It might be difficult to determine what percentage of the self are formed by this, but it would be disingenuous to defend this as self-forming rather than formed by some crucible.

[6] Kane’s final point is about whether one might have done otherwise. He downplays this point, and so shall I. If someone insists that this is important, I’ll address it at that time.

Enfin

I left out some key points that I’ll likely return to in future. Essentially, Kane is a traditionalist who pines for virtue and character, two concepts I feel of figments intended to act as tools of power maintenance. I feel this will get us down a rabbit hole, and I am rabbitted out, so let’s end here.

Cicada-caused

Nicomachean Ethics

Someone will have to try very hard to convince me that the classical Greek philosophers were not strictly satirists. I believe I’ve commented on Plato in the past. I try to be well-rounded and not just cherry-pick material that supports my worldview—even though that competes for my available time and creates opportunity costs.

Listen on Spotify

This time, I decided to pick up Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. If there is anything I needed to read to drive another nail into the coffin of Virtue ethics, this does the trick.

Nails in a coffin

Reading Classical philosophical texts feels like reading the Bible or any other religious works. It feels like it is only meant for disciples. It’s just choir preaching. If one agrees with the foundational position, it all works. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

I am not going to deconstruct the text. That would quite literally take several posts. What I want to point out is that within the frame he attempts to establish, his position is entirely heuristic. In this case, if one believes in virtue and honour and how these may or may not connect to happiness, then this is right up your street in much the same way as a Christian knows that s/he will be forgiven because Jesus loves them.

In some ways, it feels that the philosophy underlying Western Civilisation is more insidious than Abrahamic religions. They act in a similar way, attempting to convey an underpinning that simply doesn’t exist. Both are aspirational, but they claim to be foundational.

Like Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics comes across (to me) as mental masturbation—some free-association thought experiment. I’m about 60 per cent through and tempted to quit, but on some level, I want to be able to defend that I have read it. Like the Bible, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur’an, and other such canon, I want to have read the source material and not just references to it.

So, I’ll take one for the team and see whatever gems I can find.

First page of a 1566 edition of the Nicomachean Ethics in Greek and Latin

UPDATE: I’ve finished the book. It doesn’t get any better. He drifts off into politics as he sets up his sequel. My biggest criticism is that he casts his elitist worldview as reality based on assertions based solely on his opinions and appeals to tradition and authority. Read this if only to understand where certain people derive this moralistic, virtue-laden worldview. I was surprised by the foreshadowing of Descartes’ Cogito—though given how that further led to popularise Dualism, I’m not saying that’s a good thing.

Justice or nonsense?

Why should justice be the foundation of a society, and why not something else, say, honour or valour or wealth? What do we mean when we say justice? Do you mean the same thing as me? Dating myself to be sure, but would a Klingon from the Star Trek universe share your definition? So what is justice anyway?

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‘Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due. Jurisprudence is the knowledge of divine and human affairs and knowledge of what is just and what is unjust’, or so writes Justinian in Institutes 1.1 in 533 CE.

“Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.  Iuris prudentia est divinarum atque humanarum rerum notitia, iusti atque iniusti scientia.”

This is Justinian’s answer to the question: What is justice? In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss relates that ‘justice is the constant and unflagging will to render to each person what is due to him’ (or perhaps ‘what he’s entitled to’), and therein lies the rub: what exactly is one entitled to?

Geuss goes on to point out that entitlement was contingent to one’s place in society. Citizens were entitled to some things, resident aliens another, and slaves, pretty much nothing at all. In fact, giving a slave more than s/he was entitled to would be considered unjust, as it would be considered to be undeserved. As Geuss writes, ‘that to treat a slave as if he or she had any entitlements would be a gross violation of the basic principles of justice’. Of course, you are thinking, post-Enlightenment ‘all men are created equal’, or so the saying goes.

US-Camp_x-ray_detainees-Guantanamo-Bay-Jan-11-2002-Phot-Shane-T-McCoy-US-Navy-Creative-Commons-513x239[1]In practice, it’s been easy to sidestep the application of justice by redefining a certain group to be outside of some protected group. During the illegal aggression by the United States against Middle Eastern countries that resulted in extraordinary rendition of civilians spirited off to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, off the coast of the United States and outside of their jurisdiction, their acting regime declared that the detainees were not people, strictly speaking, and as such were not subject to the protections afforded to people, therefore they had no access to justice.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”
— John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

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Hermione’s Time Turner

The ancient Greeks had a different idea of justice, so perhaps we just need to break out our trusty time turner to see what Aristotle had to say about it.

Here Aristotle rather equates the notion of justice to that of equality, but that begs the question: what equality? as we understand that equality comes in a variety of colours, so I won’t belabour the point any further here.

Instead of asking about justice, why don’t we focus on the root of the word, just? This yields the following definition:

Just: (adj) based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair

This brings us into the normative domain of morality, fairness, and reason, so it’s not much to work with—basically, we are in the realm of opinion defended by rhetoric.

For ‘all’ intents and purposes, we’ve got four forms of justice. We’ve been focused on the distributive type, but there are also procedural, restorative, and retributive varieties. In many cases, not just one form of justice is satisfying and so multiple varieties are deemed, well, just.

  • Distributive or economic justice is about fairness in how things are distributed, about getting a fair share.
  • Procedural justice is also about fairness, but it’s more about fair play, an even playing field.
  • Restorative justice is about compensating for an injustice, about restoring some perceived balance.
  • Retributive justice is about punishment—retribution.

A problem arises when we try to quantify and measure justice. Consider distributive justice: If two people work in a field and each cultivates 50% of the crop, are each entitled to 50% of the yield? If the cultivated land was the ‘property’ of some other landowner, what portion would s/he be entitled to? All of it? Some of it? None of it?

What about the court system? Procedural justice comes into play here. Should a wealthy person have access to better attorneys than a poor person? Is this just? The poor person may argue no, but the wealthy person may argue that s/he earned the ability to pay for a better lawyer, so s/he is entitled to this benefit.

Restorative justice sounds simple at the surface. If I steal a loaf of bread, wouldn’t returning the loaf (or, at least, a similar loaf) be restorative—no harm, no foul? Many people will argue that this is not good enough. Balance has not been restored.

This is where retributive justice comes into play. Retributive justice is a poorly veiled euphemism for vengeance. This is where Hammurabi‘s code (or Leviticus‘)  eye for an eye—but not Matthew‘s turn the other cheek rendition—comes in. Let’s not get into Nietzsche’s take on forgiveness as being unjust and part of slave morality.

Keep in mind that in Hammurabi’s code, as with Roman law, justice was relative: Given eyes, (Nº 196) ‘If a man put out the eye of a nobleman (amelu), his eye shall be put out’, yet (Nº 198) ‘If he puts out the eye of a freedman or breaks the bone of a freedman, he shall pay one gold mina’.

Through all of this, we are still left wondering: just what is justice besides some vague notion constructed solely to preserve the status quo.

Sources:

  1. http://legalhistorysources.com/LisbonRights/JusticeDefinitions.htm
  2. http://changingminds.org/explanations/trust/four_justice.htm

Leibniz’ Blockchain Revolution

The first thing that popped into my head was blockchain.

Polymath, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), coincidental discoverer of differential calculus with Isaac Newton, was also an Age of Reason (or Rationalism) philosopher. Whilst listening to a lecture (Nº 5) about Leibniz’ monism (whence: monads), wherein he believed that all substance is comprised of monads—think of them as like atoms—, which  contain ‘entelechy‘ (from Aristotle’s Greek, ἐντελέχεια*), « an inner principle that unfolds all the changes it goes through with respect to other substances, that everything true of the substance, including its relations to all other things, must be deductible from it ».

The first thing that popped into my head was blockchain, that a thing would contain within itself the entire history of itself, in particular, it’s spatiotemporal relationships. Of course, this is not a very tight analogy, but I thought I’d share it anyway.

 

*Etymologyentelekheiaen– (within), –teleos– (end or perfection), and –ekhein (to be in a certain state).