Is Truth Real?

My journey through the nature of truth has personally yielded many unexpected and insightful realizations.  Early in Blackburn’s book, Truth, he suggested that the dichotomy of absolutism and relativism is probably more of a false dichotomy than a reality.  After a closer look at the issues, Blackburn has shed some light on the nuance that we must consider when investigating truth.  It’s quite clear now that there are multiple ways to understand truth besides the broad terms of absolutism and relativism.  We now have a bit more sophisticated and careful vocabulary when talking about theories of truth.

The three leading competitors Blackburn provides are constructivism, quietism, and realism.  As we will see, they all contain differences, but each can hold their head high and claim a sort of victory in regards to truth.  I want to frame this discussion by first looking at what sort of realism we are left with after its battle with relativism.  Then I want to look at constructivism and quietism in light of this new version of realism.

As we ended the book, it was clear that realism has gone through some serious modifications and has been revamped since its time of absolutism and what some considered, ‘real realism’.  The issue with early realism was the commitment to a metaphysical nature about truth, a second-order philosophical commentary on truth.  This has proved to be too tall a task to achieve, and even more than that, it’s been shown to be, in principle, impossible to attain.  Here, Kitcher explains the situation a ‘real realist’ puts themselves in, “There is no Archimedean point to which we can ascend to check which aspects of the image match reality – or whether or not any of them do.  Once realists desert (as they must) the naïve account of perception that ignores the dependence on prior states of the perceiver, their conception of an independent reality makes skepticism unavoidable (Kitcher pg. 15).”  Under ‘real realism’, the commitment was to show that our theories and facts corresponded to reality.  Those that corresponded were true, and those that didn’t were not.  The basic issue is this involves one “stepping outside of one’s skin” in order to confirm this correspondence.  

In order to actually check if our theories corresponded to reality, you would need to be able to step back outside of all our theories and concepts, and then hold a position where you would look at our theories and then the facts of reality, and then see if they agree.  Unfortunately, this is something that no one can do.  You can’t step outside of all our concepts and theories and then judge our theories as they relate to reality.  You will always be stuck inside our concepts and theories and so checking the degree of correspondence isn’t possible. 

The clever realist notices this flaw and is willing to give up her desire for correspondence to facts, but now turns to notions of success and accuracy to motivate a realist interpretation of truth and the world.  Again, Kitcher helps us along in understanding this new direction, “Success is naturally taken to betoken truth:  the predictions of particle physicists and the organisms manufactured by molecular biologists inspire us to ask how we could obtain agreement to ten or so decimal places or breed mice with tissue characteristic made-to-order unless our theoretical claims were at least approximately true.  (Kitcher pg. 17).”  Blackburn also points out that if our discoveries and representations of the world weren’t at least in some part true or accurate, then it would be a miracle when our predictions happened to be correct and allow us to navigate the world as we expect.  He suggests that, “theories will have been selected because they make predictions that turn out as we expect, or enable us to control things in ways that we want (Blackburn pg. 178).”  So, what is being said here about realism?

Going back to the Kitcher quote, he is saying something very similar to what Blackburn says about miracles.  Kitcher is supposing that it would make no sense for us to be able to detail the world to such accuracy and make predictions with such precision down to ten or so decimals, if our theories and models weren’t in some way true.  It would literally be a miracle if our theories actually didn’t correctly represent some attributes of the world, yet when we make decisions based on the information they give us, things work out in the way we predict when using that information.  As Blackburn has stated, it is the theory’s ability to make predictions that turn out as we expect and its ability to allow us to control things in the way we want that suggests a theory is true, or at least in some way accurate.  It is this intense and precise accuracy that gives us confidence that our theories are in some way true and correctly representing reality.

We are now faced with a new sort of realism, one without the meaty metaphysics behind it, but completely thinned out. Daniel Dennett refers to it as a “vegetarian” conception of truth, and he exclaims that scientists never wanted to go the whole hog anyway.  Once we have stripped away the weighty extra philosophical commentary that came with realism, we are left with something that’s not even philosophy anymore, it’s science.   Blackburn tells us that realism essentially becomes science’s own theory about itself, and with all of science’s credentials.  When we ask questions about what’s real or true about the nature of the world, we use the methods and theories of science to investigate those claims, we don’t engage in philosophical dialogue.  We don’t give deductive arguments for the structure of the atom or the chemical bases involved in DNA.  No, we go to the lab and conduct experiments and tests to figure those things out.  Even beyond that, questions about science itself are to be settled by the methods of science.  “The methods of science, like everything else under the sun, are themselves objects of scientific scrutiny, as method becomes methodology, the analysis of methods.  Methodology in turn falls under the gaze of epistemology, the investigation of investigation itself – nothing is off limits to scientific questioning. (Dennett).”  Here, Dennett is telling us that we don’t look outside of science and to some other discourse like philosophy to give us insight into questions about science.  Instead, we stay within the realm of science itself, using all its own methods and language, to answer questions about itself.  This is the new sort of realism that we are left with.  One that is boasting the achievements and reliability of science, and appeals to its own words to talk about itself.

Now, where do we go from here in interpreting the other theories of quietism and constructivism?  I want to show how with this new version of realism, the quietist and constructivist have not been silenced and still have important things to say.  I want to first start with the quietist.  Quietism is, in Blackburn’s words, “the close relative of minimalism”.  Minimalism is the theory about truth that said we need to not look for second-order philosophical commentary about the nature of truth.  When it comes to truth, the minimalist wants to show that there need not be some common factor about all true claims that make them true, aside from the fact that they are true.  Also, they hold to a very transparent nature of truth and point out that saying, “Gas prices are rising”, and, “It’s true that gas prices are rising”, there is nothing different in the truth value of either statement.  Here, Blackburn would note, “If this is the true pict-ure, then we are not at any point philosophizing about an area, but must always reason within it (Truth, pg. 123).”  Just because you add “It’s true” before stating that gas prices are rising, you aren’t all of a sudden adding some deep second order philosophical commentary about the truth of whether gas prices are rising or not.  Both statements say the exact same thing, and if you were to determine whether either statement was correct or true, you would go about it in the exact same manner.  The fact that you would do it in the exact same manner shows that adding the extra “It’s true”, doesn’t add anything to the original statement and doesn’t call for some extra investigation about the nature of truth to figure out the truth value of the second claim.

Now the point is that quietism does the same thing that minimalism does for truth, but to all general terms we use to investigate truth as Blackburn points out, “…indeed it simply takes minimalism about truth and generalizes it to minimalism about any of the terms we might use to conduct the truth wars:  representation, fact, objectivity, authority (Truth, pg. 124).”  Like minimalism, and now our new realism, quietism wants to shed us of our thick metaphysical baggage that came along with discussing truth.  We must not think that there need to be some common characteristic about true statements, which make them true.  Rather, we can realize that different questions require different methods and theories in order to figure out the truth, and at no point do we need to think there must be something in common between what makes an ethical statement true, and what makes a statement about physics true.  Here Blackburn notes, “If p is an ethical commitment, we need ethical, if mathematical, we need proofs, and so on.  Each area stands on its own feet, and no second-order commentary helps or hinders it (Truth, pg. 121).”  

I think it’s clear to see how quietism and our new realism can both peacefully coexist.  Like realism, quietism wants to shake this extra metaphysics about truth, and claim that we shouldn’t think about truth in that way.  For quietism and realism, the truth of something is to be figured out by the methods of the area of discourse the question is engaged with.  Just like how realism doesn’t want any extra philosophical commentary about what it’s doing when investigating truth claims, but prefers to let science speak about what science is doing.  Quietism tells us to take this view on all discourses.  Let ethics tell us what it means for an ethical statement to be true.  Let chemistry tell us what it means for a chemical claim to be true.  Let astronomy tell us what it means for an astrological claim to be true.  Quietism is happy to give science authority over itself with realism, which doesn’t depend on philosophical claims about the nature of truth, because this is what quietism wants for all discourses.  

We are now left to deal with constructivism and see what parts of constructivism can still be held as insightful in the face of our new realism.  

Constructivism has two basic types of conceptions.  The first is to say that our words don’t accurately represent the way the world is, even though that’s what they are trying to do.  We make claims that we are meaning to be true, but they are actually false.  However, for one reason or another, we still keep speaking in those terms because there is some useful function they perform.  An example may be of someone who doesn’t think we have free will.  Given this fact, they may say, “Technically speaking, our concept of free will doesn’t apply to humans, but we continue to use that language because it is easy and allows us to get our point across when talking about behavior.”  Here, we still use the concept of free will, even though it would be false to ascribe it to humans, because it performs some function and allows us to do something specific.  

The other conception of constructivism is to say that our words don’t accurately represent the way the world is, but also, they don’t even try to.  We can look at the sophists of ancient Greece as an example.  The sophists would speak in ways that were meant to be interpreted as them being in the fact-stating-business, and saying statements that we must decide are either true or false.  However, that was never really the aim of their speech.  Their speech was rather meant to persuade you of some particular point of view that they held, not necessarily to give you statements that should be decided upon as true or false.  They would give statements that were normally meant to function as being in the truth stating business, but weren’t actually meant to do that, but rather to convince their hearers to think a certain way.  The first conception can coexist with our new realism, but the second one not as much.

When looking at the first conception, we may do well to begin by looking at some things Nietzsche has said.  Nietzsche stated, “The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for (On Truth and Lies).”  This statement is to suggest to us that when trying to investigate something out in the world and figure out the truth about it, it’s impossible for us to actually understand the thing itself as it is.  We can only understand through our own human conceptions and our own human senses.  This means that there are things in the world that we miss and don’t fully understand.  This is why Nietzsche also says, ““He forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves (On Truth and Lies).”  Blackburn also chimes in here on this note and says that in regards to our theories, maybe they only give us ‘models’ of reality, or useful fictions (Truth, pg. 125).  Even though there is a lot of talk of metaphors and misunderstandings and incomprehensibility of the outside world, if understood correctly, these statements are very much compatible with our new sense of realism.

The realism that we are advocating now is just stating that the precise accuracy of our science suggests that we are at least getting something right in representing the world.  It doesn’t claim that we get everything all right, and actually suggests that there are some things that we have misunderstood, but will get cleared up in time.  With realism, we need not claim perfection in knowledge and thus acknowledge that our theories aren’t fully true, and may have holes or mistakes or confusions in them.  If this is the realism we are holding too, then Nietzsche’s claims shouldn’t scare us.  What Nietzsche is saying is that we don’t get everything right about the world, even in principle we can’t possibly get everything right, so we have to settle for ‘metaphors’ to interpret the world.  Instead of suggesting a ‘metaphor’ or an ‘illusion’ as he does in other places, we may think of our models as being ‘half-truths’ or ‘incomplete’.  Here, we can still hold that the accuracy of scientific results allows us to claim some accurate representation of the world.  While at the same time, acknowledging the fact that we don’t always get things correct and commonly have models and theories that don’t describe things exactly as they are, but this isn’t an invitation to think we are making things up.  It rather should make you see that we have room for improvement, and quite possibly may always have room for improvement if it’s true that in principle it’s impossible for us to accurately represent the world as Nietzsche claims.  

With the second conception of constructivism, if words aren’t even meant to represent the world accurately, then we can’t have theories and models that are attempting to accurately describe the world.  This is why this conception of constructivism can’t be compatible with our new realism.  The issue for this constructivist is that if our words aren’t even trying to describe the world, then it must be a miracle that our theories and models, which are built from our words, allow us to reliably control events and make predictions that occur in the ways we expect them to.  As we saw earlier though, all is not lost for constructivism.  Constructivist can hold their head up high and claim some sort of win if they allow our words to intend to make true claims, but unfortunately get things wrong in some way or another.  We could even allow a less strict application of the insights into Wiggentstein’s language game.  We can hold to realism but realize that sometimes we misapply concepts and ideas in incorrect contexts which leads to confusion.  We even can allow that sometimes we use sentences to perform functions different than the intended function of the form they are in.  This doesn’t have to commit us to a fundamental mistrust of our language.  All it’s saying is that sometimes we use concepts correctly and sometimes we don’t, but this need not poison the entire project of realism.

As far as I can see, all three theories can have a claim to fame and their time in the limelight.  Quietism is able to stick around because of its recognition to drop the metaphysical baggage that our old realism lugged around.  It sees that we need to allow each discourse to settle the matters of truth within themselves and don’t need to suppose some sort of common feature about all truth claims that makes them all true.  In the same thought, realism itself has ditched the unattractive metaphysics of its old self and has now fallen within the discourse of science, where it investigates truth claims with scientific methods and talks about itself using scientific language and methods to judge itself.  Lastly, our constructivist sticks around because of the insight that our theories aren’t completely correct and so involve some error somewhere in our theories and concepts.  Again, this doesn’t threaten our new realism because it doesn’t even claim to be perfect, but just somewhat accurate.

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