Scribbles: Common Sense on Truth

posted by Jonathan Logan on 2009.01.09, under Blog, Probable Fiction, Scribbles
09:
Truth? A while ago I sat with a friend having coffee and discussing things not at all related to business. This is one of my favorite past-times and a really enjoy getting down to the bottom of things, refining what I think to be true, and getting a bigger perspective on the world. I do this as frequently as I can, and I am really blessed to know quite a few really smart and open people. One of those friends (shoutout: Steve!) suggested that I somehow organize the scribbles I tend to create during the coffeehouse discussions. So… this is where MinorScribbles comes from, blame Steve.

Common Sense on Truth

Truth is probably the most important concept humans have. However, it is also one of those concepts that are often misunderstood, mistreated or misapplied. So, what exactly is “Truth”?

Lets look at the dictionary definition:

  • Truth: That which is in accordance with fact or reality
  • Truth: A fact or belief that is accepted as true
  • Fact: A thing that is indisputable

The first thing to mention here is that we use different qualities of truth. We distinguish first between “Objective Truth” (that which is actually in accordance with reality) and “Accepted Truth” (that which is generally accepted as being in accordance with reality). We differentiate between both because “Objective Truth” is something that is actually placed outside of what can be generally experienced. The reason for that is simply that our sensory and intellectual toolkit is limited. But that does not keep mankind from approaching Objective Truth. We will never really get there, but we get closer and closer with each iteration of the process of truth finding.

The process of finding truth is of enormous importance to humans. Because our knowledge of truth allows us to live in this world better (more effectively, with less harm, etc). It is a basic process that every human starts out on very early in his life. Humans first experience that things about this world can actually be known. This experience comes from direct interaction with the world. We try to walk, and find out that refusing to move our feet leads to hitting the pavement. Thus we perceive that there are facts and concept to this world that actually matter. We use this perception to refine it into generalized facts (touch the stove -> hurt). This actually brings forth one of the basic methods of finding truth: Experiment. The experimental method is what the basics of most of our knowledge of material facts is based on. There is at least a second method: Logic. We learn that things in this world are of a specific nature, and that natures do not contradict themselves. Thus we can start doing things like induction and deduction. Logic is not purely limited to material facts, not just to physics. It also applies to thought. Some people might challenge this, but there is also a third method of truth finding: Revelation. Revelation means that a “trusted” source passes information to us that we perceive as truth because of the source. This is actually something we all did and still do all the time: Our parents share information with us that we believe to be true, our teachers do it, our professors, media etc.. The reason why revelation is a normal method of truth finding is because we are unable (due to time and other resource constraints) to apply logic and experiment to everything that matters to us. It might also be used to define premises of thought that cannot be reached through Logic and Experiment. For example the question of “Is there a God?” can most likely not be answered purely through our sensoric and intellectual abilities.

The total process of truth finding thus looks like this: We first “perceive” some truth, through experiencing it or by applying tools of truth finding, we then refine this information based on previous knowledge and again by applying methods of truth finding. This is an iterative process, and as with all iterative processes this comes with a caveat: Iteration amplifies. So, if we start with bad information, this information tends to poison the process the farther we proceed. Which results in the necessity that we are willing and able to identify errors and correct them, even if that means that we have to start all over. It also means that we have to be honest about the horizon of our truth seeking. If however we are able to refine knowledge in a successful manner, by eradicating error, we approach Objective Truth ever more. This process is present in most humans most of the time. It is an individual process. Out of the sum of individual processes we come to meet “Accepted Truth”.

Accepted Truth is what a good majority of a group ends up with when the individual truths are combined. In science we usually try to have individual truths tested, challenged, and hopefully falsified. The more other individuals come to the same conclusions, the more likely those individuals are not wrong. Of course not all subjects are equally familiar to all individuals, which is why we value the opinion of an expert in a field higher then just some guy talking about it at the bar. We want “peers” to challenge and test each other on the subjects of their expertise. This is where truth finding is “professionalized”. We in return trust those experts (because they are accepted by their peers) and thus we trust their truth findings. Essentially we take a shortcut in most areas by assuming the “revelation” of the experts to be true. While in many cases we could challenge their opinion ourselves, we refrain from it simply because of costs (time, other resources, brain power).

It is of enormous importance to keep in mind that all we do so far is increasing the probability of some “Truth” to be actually approaching “Objective Truth”. Probabilities are however a double-edged sword. Just because a probability of 0.99 is present, we don’t hit it always. We only hit it 99 out of 100 times. And occasionally we go wrong. This is the first reason why we should be careful with the word “Truth”. While we most likely approach reality, we might actually go astray. Humility is very much appropriate here. Furthermore we need to be aware that “Accepted Truth” is based on consent, but consent has little to do with truth itself. An individual experience can contradict the subject of consent (rendering it false), but this does not have a direct effect on the “Accepted Truth”, especially if these experiences cannot be reproduced by others. There are other problems that can come up, like what premises, axioms and tools we use. For example, Occam’s Razor.

Occam’s Razor is most often defined as “When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.” However, this tool is often misunderstood and misuses. Take for example the scene of a murder. On the floor lies the victim, stabbed by a knife placed next to him. The suspect’s hands are covered with the victims blood and the knife is full with the suspect’s fingerprints. There are two alternative theories of what has happened:

Policeman: “The victim was found stabbed by a knife that was clearly held by the suspect in the past (due to the fingerprints), furthermore the suspect’s hands are full of the victims blood, as would happen if the victim was stabbed by the suspect. We can thus assume that the suspect took the knife (leaving the fingerprints) and stabbed the victim (spilling his blood on the suspects hands).” To this the attorney of the suspect would reply: “When my client entered the room the victim was already dead. My client tried to reanimate the victim which caused his hands to be covered by the victims blood. The fingerprints on the knife can be easily explained: My client went to a knife-shop yesterday where he tried out several knifes. One of those knifes must be the murder-weapon.” Applying Occam’s Razor it is clear what verdict the jury will come to: “Guilty!”. Occam’s Razor is often applied in a way that confuses “better” with “true”. While it is more likely that the story told by the policeman is true, that does not mean that it is actually true. The suspect’s story is more complicated, it introduces additional entities and information, but comes up with the same facts found at the crime-scene. Because it is more complicated we assume it it be false. However, it is just more less likely to be true, which is not the same as being false.

There are other errors we can commit, for example starting with false premises. We could for example assume that the State consists of only good people and that this leads to the State only doing good things. In this statement we assume that it is sufficient that all actors are good for the outcome to be good as well. But in this we ignore that systems can actually result in behaviors that are opposite to the single actors motivation. Game theory is full of examples how situations can lead to many smart people acting in a stupid way. We can also assume things about reality that are outside of our perception, like if a God exists or not. This directly influences our truth finding. If we assume that there is a God that does constantly intervene into our world, our explanations will be very different from what we would assume to be true without a God. Or we can assume that the only motivation for politicians and scientists is to serve the public and that they always come to objective decisions. By this we would ignore that there are most likely also secondary motivations, like personal power or grants for research. This should serve as a warning to overstate “Accepted Truth”. At best we approach Objective Truth, at worst we are far off the track. After all, sometimes the Fringe Truths are shown to be true decades later. Always remember Galileo.

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