Truth — Knowability
In my last philosophical blog, Truth — Existence, I discussed some of my thoughts on the nature and existence of truth. While I don’t think it’s a simple question by any means, I think I’ll move forward with my life under the assumption that truth does in fact exist. In this article I want to talk a little bit about what it means to know truth, and if such a thing is possible.
Side note: In this discussion, many of my readers will doubtless invoke their beliefs about God. For the sake of this discussion, I will take the liberty of foisting my beliefs as a given. Fortunately, they are simple: (1) God exists, (2) He knows me and (3) He loves me. Most theologies have a much more elaborate view of God, and so, I expect, do most of my readers. I suspect there is more to God than this, but since this is what I know currently, this is where I’ll start.
In the first blog in this series I talked about a few different topics that led me to question the existence and nature of truth. I’d like to give some more thought now to its knowability.
A relative of a friend of mine was quoted as having said, in regard to relationships:
“There are always three sides to the story: his side, her side, and the truth”.
It seems pretty obvious that a person can know his or her own perspective on a sequence or collection of events. I even dare say that one could know another’s perspective on that same set of events. How do you discover the truth?
This difficulty in discovery pervades scenarios where people talk about what they witnessed. The decaying relationship is an easy example because it’s fairly familiar for me, but similar things happen with witnesses to crime. In “The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony”, Laura Engelhardt explains/summarizes that
“ The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory — thus introducing distortion from the beginning.”
So it would seem that our memories go in with distortion. I have to say, then, that if there is truth about events, I have to side with the common idiom that God only knows. My perception is at best a rough estimation.
Is Ronald Reagan responsible for ending the Cold War? Was Bill Clinton responsible for the economic boom that happened during his presidency? Are people of color better off today than they were eight years ago because of Barack Obama’s presidency? Does capitalism ultimately lead to the greatest good for the most people? Is Donald Trump more dangerous as a president than Hillary Clinton would’ve been?
I’m confident that a yes or no answer to any of these questions can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I also doubt that there are very many people who can’t immediately answer all of those questions without doubt.
Perhaps this is a problem of ambiguity. When we say “responsible” there’s room for interpretation. The same goes for terms like “better off”, “greatest good”, “more dangerous”.
Help me out here. It seems like there must be things related to these types of question that can be accepted across the board as “truth”. I have no idea what they are, beyond simple facts.
Note that I added the non because the example here is really intended to show why I don’t believe that non-causally-related events are orderable in any meaningful way, and that simultaneous events don’t actually exist. For a better explanation than I can give of this, please watch this video for an explanation of how special relativity ruins simultaneity.
For the sake of argument, lets say that God sees and knows everything, and is thus like a recorder for “truth”. In my previous blog, in the example of Alice, Bob and Charlie and the stars, there could exist some observer that couldn’t come to terms with their interpretation of the events. If God is the ultimate authority on it, could he settle the dispute?
Without being preferential to one frame of reference over another, I don’t believe he could, and, for the record, I can’t imagine that he would give such a preference. I suggest, then, that if God can’t settle a dispute, the subject of the dispute is meaningless. In other words, ordering non-causal events is just silly.
One of my very favorite topics from my degree in mathematics is Chaos Theory. Its basic premise is that in any nonlinear dynamic system, small changes in input can lead to vast changes in output. This idea was popularized in Jurassic Park by Dr Ian Malcolm. Remember the water droplet he put on her hand? A result of this situation is that predicting anything meaningful about a chaotic system requires knowledge of that system to a level of precision that is most often (always?) not available.
A few systems that exhibit chaotic behavior include weather, the stock market, the brain, a double pendulum, and three-body orbital systems. Of course this list goes on and on — these are just a few examples.
Even if we believe that the universe is deterministic (which is a controversial claim — on that I don’t believe), we don’t have the capacity to know the state of any of the systems listed above with enough precision to be useful for any significant amount of time.
It seems like in these types of systems, potentially a lot of truth exists, but as far as I can tell, this truth is forever beyond our knowledge.
I might have done well to define the term truth for the sake of this discussion. There are a lot of trivial things we can say that are true. In 1983, the President of the United States was Ronald Reagan. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is dead. These are facts. The Truth is something different. It seems to me that for the most part, The Truth is not knowable to us. We can know approximations, but for some reason, which God only knows, we aren’t equipped psychologically, physiologically or technologically for Truth.
Maybe our existence is about an asymptotic approach to Truth. This fits with many ideas about God. If that’s the case, should I be content in my belief that my beliefs approximate truth? Is that good enough?
I look forward to your thoughts!