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?

Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him

Voltaire

To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.

Moral Responsibility

Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? Yes, says Daniel Dennett. No, says Gregg Caruso. Reader, you decide

Aeon Article, 4 October 2018

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?

Gregg Caruso

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. 

Daniel Dennett

if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent

Dan Dennett

So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.

I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.