Request for Steelman: Non-correspondence concepts of truth

byPeerGynt 4y24th Mar 201574 comments

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A couple of days ago, Buybuydandavis wrote the following on Less Wrong:

I'm increasingly of the opinion that truth as correspondence to reality is a minority orientation.

I've spent a lot of energy over the last couple of days trying to come to terms with the implications of this sentence.  While it certainly corresponds with my own observations about many people, the thought that most humans simply reject correspondence to reality as the criterion for truth seems almost too outrageous to take seriously.  If upon further reflection I end up truly believing this, it seems  that it would be impossible for me to have a discussion about the nature of reality with the great majority of the human race.  In other words, if I truly believed this, I would label most people as being too stupid to have a real discussion with. 

However, this reaction seems like an instance of a failure mode described by Megan McArdle:

I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here)." It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.

The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me

 In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.

With this background, it seems important to improve my model of people who reject correspondence as the criterion for truth.  The obvious first place to look is in academic philosophy.  The primary challenger to correspondence theory is called “coherence theory”. If I understand correctly, coherence theory says that a statement is true iff it is logically consistent with “some specified set of sentences”

Coherence is obviously an important concept, which has valuable uses for example in formal systems. It does not capture my idea of what the word “truth” means, but that is purely a semantics issue. I would be willing to cede the word “truth” to the coherence camp if we agreed on a separate word we could use to mean “correspondence to reality”.   However, my intuition is that they wouldn't let us to get away with this. I sense that there are people out there who genuinely object to the very idea of discussing whether a sentences correspond to reality. 

 

So it seems I have a couple of options:

1. I can look for empirical evidence that buybuydandavis is wrong, ie that most people accept correspondence to reality as the criterion for truth

2. I can try to convince people to use some other word for correspondence to reality, so they have the necessary semantic machinery to have a real discussion about what reality is like

3. I can accept that most people are unable to have a discussion about the nature of reality

4. I can attempt to steelman the position that truth is something other than correspondence

 

Option 1 appears unlikely to be true. Option 2 seems unlikely to work.  Option 3 seems very unattractive, because it would be very uncomfortable to have discussions that on the surface appear to be about the nature of reality, but which really are about something else, where the precise value of "something else" is unknown to me. 

I would therefore be very interested in a steelman of non-correspondence concepts of truth. I think it would be important not only for me, but also for the rationalist community as a group, to get a more accurate model of how non-rationalists think about "truth"

 

 

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