Friday, 18 August 2017

Getting at the truth

Julian the Apostate
We all think we know the meaning of the word truth. We all think that, if asked, we can give examples of it. We might even call these examples things we know (for sure).

Yet philosophers have written volumes attempting to define truth. If it’s so simple that everybody knows what it means, what did they find to write about?

My own ideas of truth were probably most profoundly influenced by Bernard Williams. He suggested the first issue for us to resolve must be whether truth is external or internal to ourselves. Is it something out there, waiting for us to recognize it, or is it something in our own heads?

If it’s the latter, then is there anything to stop what’s in my head (my truth) from being different from what’s in yours (your truth)? Might there be as many truths as people? Wouldn’t that be effectively the same as truth not existing at all?

If truth is external, then how did ‘what’s out there’ get into my head? How reliable is the perceptual mechanism that put it there?

The problem here is that we don’t have direct access to the outside world. We perceive by way of senses that are specific to ourselves and yield data relative to ourselves. That’s a good thing. It’s best that I should perceive, say, threats to myself in the most direct way possible. If a charging rhino’s fifty feet away from me, I’d quite like to know about it, and only it, rather than be provided with a total world picture.

The drawback to this system is, we can’t see anything absolutely. Our brains have become expert at deducing what absolutes must be there in order for them to receive the relative impressions they do, and most of the time they’re right, but not always. We may greet a friend in the street, say, only to find when he turns around that it’s not actually him. In other words, we all make mistakes.

Our brains use not only sensory inputs, sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, but also our own experiences and our cultural upbringing in order to make sense of the world and produce the perceptions they register. No two people therefore will have identical perceptions of anything, but similar people from similar backgrounds will have perceptions that overlap a lot, sufficiently for us to call that overlap truth.

It is however important to remember the relative nature of that overlap. Our truth describes the world as seen by people like us. There are alternative truths out there. It is not the case that everyone who disagrees with us is a fool, a rogue, or lying.

We are all rational people, aren’t we? We aren’t going to change our own notion of the truth because someone shouts at us, calls us rude names, or blocks us on Facebook. We’re stubborn, so that sort of thing only confirms our belief we’re right. The only thing that will persuade us we’re wrong is evidence. Like when the person who’s not the friend we think he is actually turns round.

So why oh why do some people apparently think other people will change their minds in response to abuse, threats, no-platforming or anything else except evidence and reason?