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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Is There Such a Thing as Truth?

Errol Morris
Boston Review
Originally posted April 30, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

In fiction, we are often given an imaginary world with seemingly real objects—horses, a coach, a three-cornered hat and wig. But what about the objects of science—positrons, neutrinos, quarks, gravity waves, Higgs bosons? How do we reckon with their reality?

And truth. Is there such a thing? Can we speak of things as unambiguously true or false? In history, for example, are there things that actually happened? Louis XVI guillotined on January 21, 1793, at what has become known as the Place de la Concorde. True or false? Details may be disputed—a more recent example: how large, comparatively, was Donald Trump’s victory in the electoral college in 2016, or the crowd at his inauguration the following January? 
But do we really doubt that Louis’s bloody head was held up before the assembled crowd? Or doubt the existence of the curved path of a positron in a bubble chamber? Even though we might not know the answers to some questions—“Was Louis XVI decapitated?” or “Are there positrons?”—we accept that there are answers.

And yet, we read about endless varieties of truth. Coherence theories of truth. Pragmatic, relative truths. Truths for me, truths for you. Dog truths, cat truths. Whatever. I find these discussions extremely distasteful and unsatisfying. To say that a philosophical system is “coherent” tells me nothing about whether it is true. Truth is not hermetic. I cannot hide out in a system and assert its truth. For me, truth is about the relation between language and the world. A correspondence idea of truth. Coherence theories of truth are of little or no interest to me. Here is the reason: they are about coherence, not truth. We are talking about whether a sentence or a paragraph
 or group of paragraphs is true when set up against the world. Thackeray, introducing the fictional world of Vanity Fair, evokes the objects of a world he is familiar with—“a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harnesses, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour.”

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