Domains of truth

by mxln4 min read5th Oct 20201 comment

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Rationality
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Every text about truth must begin noticing that truth is the most written-about topic in philosophy, which is due to the importance of the notion of truth.

You may or may not find the above sentence to be true. Perhaps you find some parts of the sentence to be true, but not others. Perhaps you feel incredibly bored by yet another text about truth. Why discuss the matter any further?

I will argue that the term of truth has a different meaning in different domains, that this can cause serious issues in any discourse, and that it can help explain the seeminly incredible irrational types of discourse we witness today. Is there a (metaphysical) property common to all usages of truth? That is for philosophers to decide. However, I find it fundamental to any rational debate to reflect on the usage of central ideas, such as the idea of truth. In an age which sees both amazing scientific progress and Flat Earthers, such reflections could even help understanding these kinds of nonsynchronisms.

The philosopher Michael P. Lynch argues in favor of a pluralistic theory of truth. Together with Jeremy Wyatt he states that the concept of truth must be separated from truth properties, and that depending on the domain, different things can play the role of truth bearer. In the scientific and political discourse, a number of important domains exist. In each domain, I believe the matter of an objective truth as well as our ability to recognize it, should it exist, varies to a great extent. 

Regarding the number and types of domains, a pragmatic approach is best. Defining such a taxonomy of domains is effectively a model. As the adage goes, models are always wrong, but more or less useful. The basis for the domains are properties of the world which appear to be uniquely important, and not easily reducible. These properties are:

  • empirical: time and space
  • ontological/categorical: which kind of things exist, and of which kind a specific thing is
  • axiomatic/symbolic: defined, self-contained sets of symbols and rules
  • causal: Without the thing A, the thing B would not exist, or at least it would be different.

Of course, other categories might be introduced. For example, I would subsume moral propositions under the axiomatic category, but its practical importance could motivate creating a separate category for such propositions.

Disclaimer: The table below is my own work, so I cannot provide a source for it.

domainexamplerationaleexistence of objective knowledgepossibility of certain knowledge
empiricism (past and present)
  • There is a tiger in my room.
  • Cesar was killed by his fellow senators.
To the extent that the universe is not random, atoms exist in a certain time and space. Aside from a very small scale, we do know where things are at which time.For atomic components yes. For more abstract concepts probably not.Yes for atomic components, but not always attainable. It is certain that there was a time and place when an animal of the type homo successfully made fire for the very first time, but we cannot know when and were.
ontology/category
  • It is dangerous to go alone at night.
  • This specific person is of the biological sex "female".
Mostly functional rationale: In a political discourse, many high profile discussions revolve around "Is that X of type Y". Is this person toxic? Was that speech fascist? No, but attempts at intersubjectivity can be made. no
axiom/symbol
  • Captain Piccard is captain of the Enterprise.
  • A formal system of sufficient complexity can be either complete or consistent, but not both.
Mostly intuitive rationale: If a person defines a set of axioms and rules based on these, I see no basis to say "You are wrong here." People can be wrong about their symbols if they extend them to other domains. Within the axiomatic system, they can be wrong by not following the rules.Depends on the degree of formalization of the axiomatic system. If formalized yes, if not probably no.Depends also on degree of formalization.
causality
  • If you jump from a very high bridge, you will die.
  • The corona virus can cause death.
In the universe, information is tied to matter/engergy. Perhaps it is even equivalent. Matter/energy underly strong constraints, even if (!) they are not deterministic. Information therefore must also be very constrained, leading us to dependencies between entities. The principles behind these dependencies might be at the core of causality.probably yesProbably no, but we can work out principles that are good enough to get very good results, e.g. technology. Investigations of causality very often use empirical approaches.

What have we gained using such a taxonomy? Let us revisit the opening statement:

Every text about truth must begin noticing that truth is the most written-about topic in philosophy, which is due to the importance of the notion of truth.

The sentence contains references to several domains. For example, the proposition that truth is the most written-about topic in philosophy is an empirical statement. It states that a thing in this very world has actually happened. It is not quite as simple as the tiger in my room, because it contains abstract concepts such as "written-about". This is a case where we could use operationalization to measure this notion, and at least attempt objectivity by intersubjective agreement. 

Next, due to the importance of the notion of truth is a causal statement. Whether or not the causal statement holds is a bit more difficult than a mere measurement. But it is easy to see that Alice might evalute the proposition as true, whereas Bob would not. We find that the notion contains a claim to truth. To me it is unclear if an objective truth can exist here. It is puzzling that a proposition such as The person died due to an illness seems to contain an objective truth, whereas other causal propositions do not. Perhaps that can be improved as our formal understanding of causality evolves

Regarding the importance of the notion of truth, we can conceptualize that as an axiomatic truth. If you agree that philosophy is the discipline concerned with existence and knowledge, and that truth has a lot to do with knowledge, than it would follow immediately that truth is important in philosophy.

Of course the domain-concept of truth has limitations. It mostly leaves open the issue of what to do with conflicting sentences from different domains. Take Flat Earthers. Their truths follow an axiomatic set, which is elaborated within the system itself. It simply does not make sense to say that once you accept the premise of a flat earth, that the earth is not flat. Evidence from a different domain, the empirical world, could be used to dispute the veracity of the axiomatic truth. One might think of falsification. However, that process is much more difficult than it seems, and even in science it is very challenging to apply. 

The Netflix documentary Behind the Curve shows this conflict directly. There is a scene where a methodological sound experiment tests the idea of a flat earth. The outcome of the experiments directly disproves the hypothesis put forward by a flat earth theory. However, to the protagonist, the perceived axiomatic truth weighs stronger than the empirical truth. I do not believe that a rational analysis can provide an explanation for the failure of conflict resolution, because the arbiter of the ultimate truth in the scenario is the cognitive system of a specific person. This is a job for psychology, but the categories causing the conflict must come from a rational analysis.

A great advantage of a domain concept of truth is that it allows the application of different theories of truth in the same discourse. It can guard against overextending arguments by cleanly separating empirical arguments from ontological and causal ones. Arguments based on empirical truths can only be brought foward against arguments based on ontological truths inasmuch the other party is receptive to such arguments.

This is especially true if the ontology is based on an axiomatic system. I suppose that it is one of the greatest challenges of large scale discourses (climate change, the future of capitalism, equality) to bridge conflicting arguments from different domains. If one person finds a position in one domain to be true, and another person argues with a perceived truth from a different domain, it is hard to see how conciliation can be attained.

I have left out many ideas relevant to the debate, such as degrees of truth or the important difference between object language and meta language. Truth concerns virtually every aspect of life, universe, and everyting, so I hope that can be forgiven. For anyone reading up to here, thank you for your time and attention. I hope I could provide some interesting ideas.

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Cesar was killed by his fellow senators.

That's far from the layer of atoms. To see whether that's true you have to first define what it means for multiple people together killing another person. 

There's a kind of truth that you can ask metaculus questions about or make bets about comes with different statements as it's important to make the terms clear so that questions can be resolved.