Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Critical Reflections on Why Truth Matters - Part 1 of 3

This book...is dry. It's not nearly as interesting as the other books for this class. It's the last one.
Honestly? We're running out of steam and it's hard to focus, and it's probably going to be obvious in the three reflections for this book (though next week's one, while shorter, is a lot better).


When you put it into the hands of "professional" philosopher...well.
Holy fuck if nearly everything you put into the hands of a philosopher isn't turned to nonsense.

This class, about truth, reality and knowledge, isn't solely a philosophy class. It's a humanities class. It has been a great class. Inspiring, even. But now the professor has hit the philosophy portion. Ten years ago or so when attempting to take an intro to philosophy class, when faced with having to drop a class for personal reasons, it was the first to go. Even then it just seemed...there's really no word for it. Utterly ridiculous? Nonsense? Irrelevant? (hey, there's a whole series of blog entries about the philosophy of philosophy, if we wanted to write them)
So you can imagine the feelings now. Despite desperately wanting to understand and appreciate much of it, it has always been illusive. We could say more. But you get the point. Reading it makes the head spin...and it's so dry...one almost becomes lost, parched in a desert just reading it.

So, what follows are attempts at trying to muddle through concepts in the first section, broken down into headings like:
- Truisms about Truth
- Is the Truth Attainable?
- Is Truth Relative?
- The Truth Hurts
LOADS of concepts and differing opinions based on many, almost endless, fields of philosophy...on the topic of truth.

[Past essays, papers and other University related content can be found here, the essays and papers are from the last year - the other stuff is personal historical stories: http://just-call-me-frank.blogspot.com/p/university.html]

Part I: Cynical Myths

The prospect of approaching the premise of truth, at first, seems very agreeable. Cut and dry, truth is good – all of it. To really break down truth into segments of facts and beliefs, and how they work together while being influenced by bias and perceptions, is to realize that there are many kinds of truths.

In Lynch’s first section, Cynical Myths of truth, he outlines the four “truism of truth” well enough. Starting with objective truth, in that something true is true for all people, whereby truth is something that exists whether or not anybody believes it to be so (11). He makes sure to adequately explains that believing something is true does not make that belief intrinsically true - meaning the world is not always, or necessarily, the way we believe or wish it to be. “Wishful thinking leads to believing falsehoods” (13), according the Lynch, and falsehoods are not truth.

Even mere objects themselves become subject to truth and reality through phenomenalism where objects, seen to be nonexistent without the observer, become suspect of being true. Taking the thought experiment of George Berkeley, ‘if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is near enough to hear it, does it make a noise’ and asking “if nobody is there to see it, does the tree even exist?” never mind make a sound. So many philosophies and so many different kinds of truths: physical, moral, spiritual, knowledge, cultural. Not everything has one truth, while at the same time one truth has to exist for some things, an opinion which, according to Lynch, may be viewed as a cynical myth. In acceptance of the worth and importance of truth Lynch makes sure to present his underlying rejection of negative myths associated with attainment of truth, such as the belief that there is only one truth. He also rejects the ideas that only “pure” reason can access the truth, that truth is a mystery that only some people can know, and that we should pursue the truth at all costs (20). At first the notion that we should not pursue truth at all costs was shocking, but upon further study, it seemed to me that Lynch was equating the attainment of truth with attainment of knowledge, whereby all manner of atrocities have been carried out through unethical practices. Lynch presented examples, one where Nazi scientists who, in trying to attain knowledge of the resilience of the human body in various temperatures of water before freezing to death, used Jewish prisoners from the concentration camps. This was not so much a pursuit of truth, as it was of information. It is true that humans will freeze to death in cold water. How long it takes them at different temperatures is not a truth, because with each person it will vary due to body size, weight, age, physical fortitude – information attained can be viewed as knowledge. In Lynch’s other example I also found it to be a faulty by my own beliefs of the separate natures of truth and knowledge; however, that does not mean my belief on the matter is true. Going further into the section in views towards relativism, I found that there is a case to be made for the subjective nature of some truths, as opposed to objective, but not for relativism itself. Where individual relativism is concerned, the radical reductionism involved seems at once arrogant or egotistical.

Lynch asserts that truth is fundamentally good and that the best most authentic truth is based on good evidence, and further, that beliefs not based on good evidence should be subject to criticism. The pursuit of truth is a worthy goal, and to pursue the truth requires inquiry, the ability to cast off the assertion of correctness while understanding no person can believe on demand, and so must be presented with evidence. Lynch claims that belief is not something that can be controlled, yet it can be indirectly controlled through pursuit. By changing of perceptions, open-mindedness, entertaining curiosity, and an understanding that “absolute certainty is impractically and probably impossible” (29) truth becomes a worthy quest if simply for the properties of self-improvement.

Most people want the ugly truth, according to Lynch, over beautiful illusions, even if the truth has no practical value. However, a similar claim about people not wanting the truth can also be made, particularly of religious peoples; as Friedrich Nietzsche said of faith, faith is people “not wanting to know what the truth is.” Yet many people strive for truth for the sake of truth because they understand to live under an illusion is impractical and to do so offers no value, and in truth, there are realities, while sometimes painful, that are worth the pursuit which leads to practical ends.

The most interesting assertion that Lynch made was that the mere fear or discomfort in being wrong is proof that someone has a preference for truth. However, it could be said that they have a fear of their personal truths being wrong, and are not necessarily concerned with truth itself, but rather the loss of identity structured about what they believe to be true, and not, as Lynch says a concern for their intellectual integrity, but rather reputation. Bottom line, it is right to accept truth, even if it creates uncomfortable realities.

Some truth is unattainable, but not all truth is unattainable, because as previously stated, some truths are subjective, as with much of life, truth is not black and white. However, when beliefs are created through bias and false perceptions, as Kant claimed they are, beliefs that lead to things such as sexism, racism, and stigmas surrounding disabled and mentally ill, persist. People see what fits their paradigm, and are blind by things that threaten it and by prejudices based on habits of thought, employed concepts which are modified by the structures and habits of mind. Conceptual choices based on whim, or constructed around race, gender, etc., determines what we believe but not whether those beliefs are true. (Lynch, 42)

Beliefs are often wrapped in standards of certainty because “we want certainty because we want safety […] if certainty is dead, everything is permitted” (29), if everything is permitted that there is chaos. According to Lynch, evidence and sound reason lead to certainty of truth and in not caring about truth a person is not caring about justifying their beliefs and in so their beliefs do not truly exist. Further “not having true beliefs is bad […] because pursuing truth is good” (29), but it is important to recognize when a belief is false, because having false beliefs is equally as bad as having no beliefs at all. As the commonly used phrase attributed to so many people says, “If you don’t believe [or stand] for something, you’ll fall for anything”, but that is not to say that what you stand for or believe in should not meet standards of truth. Anything presented at truth should be subject to skepticism. Important lesson in skepticism: “The most dangerous man is he who is certain, absolutely sure, that his way is the right way” (29) causing him/her to feel justified in not listening to questions or considering alternate views. The frightening awareness is that we may never be able to be absolutely certain of anything, but that doesn't mean we should stop striving to be as close to the truth as possible.

As stated earlier, I do not buy the idea of pure relativism, that “truth is in the eye of the beholder” (31) and in so personal truth is the only truth and all other truth is inaccurate, which essentially creates a personal illusion that one can never make mistakes or be wrong. Further, people who back up their relativist views with the assertion that “everybody is entitled to their own opinions”, as Lynch says, simply prevents “reasoned discussions” and is a stumbling block to the attainment of truth. Surely, everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but that does not make their opinion factual or true.

Lynch’s own objective truth that “stealing is wrong and also illegal” is the key to how I see the subjective nature in some truths, and this is probably where I use the term subjective because I reject the narcissistic quality that lies in pure relativism. For example, there is a subjective nature to right and wrong, and truth and untruth. If a parent for whatever reason has fallen on hard times and has a hungry or starving child, unable to attain resources through public services, steals some bread to feed the child, then stealing, while it remains illegal, is not wrong. Similarly, companies swindling money from customers is wrong though often not illegal by business practices. While surely there are many examples of how truth can be subjective, this appears to be a worthy illustration.

When considering whether or not politics hold sway over what we think is true, Lynch asserts that political power and systems of power produce and sustain it truth. (37) However, as an alternative view, Gandhi said to the sustaining of truth through power, “An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained.” [1] When truth takes a turn at being a political and cultural issue (40), Lynch’s “acceptable truths” in the community at the time are not so much truth as they are views and beliefs that cause people to believe something is true, and as Lynch says, are rooted in power structures which change over time.

Finally, truth hurts, but it is a good hurt.

However, Lynch made a very interesting case for why some self-deception, such as in unrealistic “positive thinking”, can be a good thing. Perhaps in this he presents the only case in which I would view untruth to be beneficial. According to Lynch, some self-deception can lead to positive self-fulfilling prophecy – for example thinking too highly of your skills or abilities so that you actively perform up to those standards. It was also interesting that he noted, that in studies, people who were depressed had a more realistic view of themselves as opposed to these practicing in self-deception (48). Pursuit of truth are cognitively and morally good (49), because truth about ones’ own psychological aspects construct the reality of personal identity (53-54), but thinking more highly of yourself, lying to yourself, somehow is beneficial…if you can believe yourself.

Belief about truth are at the base of who people are, whether or not they realize it. It might be a generalization, but I do not think most people think about truth very often. By this I mean, people are quick to point out lies, or untruths, but rarely do they inspect for the truth in the untruth. To look at all things presented in life with a bit of skepticism, whether it be towards acclaimed truths, or bald-faced lies, and to inspect them with curiosity is imaginative. In skepticism, there can be curiosity, in curiosity there is the creative. In all of this, there is the pursuit of truth. As Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

Skepticism → Curiosity → Creativity →Truth

“I must continue to bear testimony to truth even if I am forsaken by all.” 
– Mahatma Gandhi

Lynch, Michael P. True to Life: Why Truth Matters. Cambridge: MIT, 2005. Print.
[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Young India 1924-1926 (1927), p. 1285

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