Truth & Utility
Billions of humans on earth go about their daily business of eating, sleeping, and laboring without the thought of “truth” and “whether or not it is a sort of thing which needs tying to relationships”. Most scientists and engineers go about their daily business without ever stopping to think “Is this relata a truth-bearer to my thinkable?” Yet, advances in computer science and medical technologies continues to thrive?
Do we need a description of what truth is to be able to continue with our progress in these fields of science and technology?
More simply, what utility is derived from knowing the makeup and scope of truth, if any?
With generations, centennials, and millenniums gone by, philosophers are still trying to perfect what it is that truth is. One may afford me to say that, there seems to be a great deal of value, at least to these philosophers, in answering this question and answering it correctly.
As a student interested in the advancement of artificial intelligence, a veridical framework for truth seems like it has tremendous utility. If we are to ever create a general purpose thinking machine, said machine should have installed how it gets about deciding what sort of things are true, or has the potential to be true, etc. Shouldn’t it?
As a retail worker, I never had the need to have such a rigorous framework for truth worked out and applied to my day to day operations. “The cash register has been counted” my manager claims, maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. The truth of his claims does not interest me, but the phrase itself and what it implicates, namely, that I am not responsible for counting. Much of human life gets on in these terms, people make claims, and we don’t so much care about whether or not those claims are true or not, but whether or not that implicates us to act in a certain manor.
So when do we care about truth in our day to day lives? When does a real strict account for something being true really matter to most people? Dinner can be one example. If you are heading over to your friends house, and you ring to ask them “Will dinner be there upon my arrival?” you are asking them about an account of a material substance (food) and whether or not it will be in a certain location (your friends house) at a certain time (when you arrive). If your friend answers with “Yes”, your friends is essentially stating the following claim “There will be dinner at my house upon your arrival”. Now how do we check is this statement is true or false? Or should we care if this statement is true or false? If it is false, then there just won’t be any dinner there, and then you have a problem of nourishment, not with your friends claim.
The day to day goings on, does not care about the truth value of the claim “There will be dinner at my house upon your arrival”. People just don’t care if the claim is true or false, they care about whether or not there will be food provided, or if they need to make other food arrangements. People may get hung up on the fact that “So and so lied to me! There was no food there! Their statement was false! Liar!” Are they mad that their statement was false, or that there was no food, when they said there would be food?
You may say, “They are mad that they made a false statement.” But does this really upset people? Do false statements ever matter? For example, let’s say that your friend claims “There will be dinner at my house upon your arrival” and you arrive at their house, and there is still one second left until the dinner is done. By the time you get to the front door, dinner is ready. Well, dinner wasn’t ready by the time you “arrived”, thus making the claim false. But honestly, who cares? No one would care, I doubt anyone would even know. And yet, the claim was false.
Well this seems ridiculous. How can we have a false claim, and yet think that the claim was true? How often does this happen? What does it mean for truth and its utility, if there a trillions of claims a day being made which result in their falsity, but are interpreted without fuss as true? Does this not beg the obvious question, what is truth good for?
You may still be hung up on the liar example from above. You may still contend that “They made a false statement, and that matters. I want to be able to rely on the claims my friends make, so I may more accurately adjust my actions”. Sure, but again this isn’t a desire to know truth, this is a desire to have more accurate control over one’s own actions. You can get full satisfactory results, if you and your friend engaged in the above, second late, sort of claims. Claims where they are ultimately false, but they are taken as true since no real deficit could result from its falsity.
But you are insistent and ask “but what about in the first example, where there just was no food at all. Can’t we say that our friends statement being false does matter to us?” Again I say no, the truth or falsity of the claim doesn’t matter to you, what matters is the state of affairs which result, regardless of the truth or falsity of their claims.
For example, if your friend calls you up and says “I have twelve beers in my fridge” and summons your consumption powers, and then upon your arrival you discover that he did not have twelve beers in the fridge, but five ketchup packets, you may say your friend has lied to you. Okay, but do we care about the claim and its truth or falsity, or do we care that we drove eight miles out of our way to help consume five ketchup packets? We could say “You SAID there would be twelve beers in the fridge! That was a false claim!” But whether it being false or not has nothing to do with the level of rage and frustration you are now exhibiting. Most likely the rage stems from the thought of your friend getting you to their house under false pretenses, and whether or not you can take what they say as being accurate or not.
And here introduces the term, accuracy. We care whether what a person claims is accurate to some degree or another, we do not much care about whether their statements are true or false. As we went over earlier, the falsity of a claim could exist while we falsely perceive it to be true.
“Okay, okay” you say, but this is small time, what about high stakes enterprises like the Mars lander. Surely claims amongst the engineers and physicists matter a great deal, and thus are held up more closely to inspection. Again, I say nay. And in fact, almost all claims made in regards to the physics of the Mars lander and its trajectory was wrong. In the engineer’s day to day business, they spoke in the context of Newtonian Physics. There is no need to apply quantum physics for the trajectory of the Mars lander, and seeing as quantum physics is just are closest approximation to what physics actually is, it still would miss the boat for being “true”.
We speak in terms of underlying contexts all the time. We behave a certain way due to the context of a situation. If we are giving a lecture to a second grade classroom, certain claims could be true or false, but the truth or falsity doesn’t matter, the conveyed meaning matters. You can’t hope to give a lecture on the alethic meaning of truth to second graders, using the same statements and claims you use to an adult audience. The truth value of said claims are irrelevant to those interpreting said claims. And if claims aren’t for some audience to interpret, then we really must ask, what in the hell are they good for at all?
This audience can be yourself, and when it is, you get to assume the context of everything you know, which is nice. But for claims being projected out into the world, for a specific audience, that claims power or function does not reside in it being true or false, it resides in the impact it makes on its interpreters.
Maybe you yell a claim at your pet dog, “I hate you!” after it has just proceeded to eat through your hard drive and the many physical backups you had of your term paper. Let’s assume the linguistic meaning is void for the dog, but the amplification and tonality are interpreted as angry or mad. You have conveyed something that was in the claim “I hate you!” namely the bundled in implication that what the dog has done has frustrated you and has made you mad. Even for a dog, this ability to take a claim, strip it of its linguistic meaning, and derive at a decently accurate account of our physiological state, is impressive.
You could say to your dog, “We are going on a WALK after I finish watching this Feynman lecture”. The dog, being accustomed to the word walk, responds gleefully, without knowledge of when the walk will take place or who Feynman is. The sound alone, has triggered a modification in the dog’s behavior. Why shouldn’t we think of claims as producing the same behavior modificational power in humans?
“We are going on a walk after I finish watching this Feynman lecture,” I say to my friend. “Great, I will block out 20 minutes of time at 6:00pm” they respond. It appears they interpreted my claim just fine, and since they glanced over at my computer, they were able to deduce the length left in my video lecture, and thusly what time it should be done at. But what if the lecture was Robert Leighton’s and he has invited Feynman to give a small account of specific heats of gases, which only takes about five percent of the total run time of the lecture. My friend may not know it is Leighton’s lecture, and I may not even know. But my claim, would surely be false. Even if we did go on a walk after the video was complete, the claim would still be false, because we didn’t go on a walk after I finished watching the Feynman lecture, we went on a walk after I finished the Leighton lecture.
“Okay! Okay!” you scream into your computer monitor, in hopes that it transduces itself into a electronic stimulus so strong that it transmits itself to me, inducing electrical paralysis. You have grown weary of account after account of claims which appear to be true, ending up being false, and yet nothing happens. You say “TRUTH MUST BE MEANINGFUL! TRUTH MATTERS!” To which I temptingly say “Does it?”
Or does what matters for statements, beliefs, or claims is their context and their accuracy? For the Feynman lecture example, the claim was a fairly accurate account of how the state of affairs ended up being in the world. Although it got wrong the relata of “Feynman”, its overall power to convey meaning was not stunted.
What if you had an informed friend and they knew it was a Leighton lecture, yet remained quiet. They remained quiet since they knew you were referring to the lecture in which you were currently engaging. They may had the passing transient thought “Although that is a Leighton lecture, I know my friend believes it to be a Feynman lecture, and since we neither care about the ascriptions of lectures to lecturers, and nothing will be gained from pointing out the difference, I shall remain quiet.”
And then your other know it all friend, overhears your statement, and interjects “That is a Leighton lecture, not a Feynman lecture”, and addendum has now been made for you, on behalf of your claim, in the know it all’s mind. Is there ever a point where the truth of whether it is a “Feynman lecture” vs a “Leighton lecture” really matters?
Let us consider the example of databasing. The first rule the CalTech database has received is to assign one and only one lecturer with each lecture. It’s second rule, assign the lecturer of the lecture, as the Professor for whose class the lecture takes place. And as the Leighton lecture took place in Professor Leighton’s class, he is named the Lecturer in the database for said lecture under dispute.
My know it all friend and I are in a dispute whether or not it is a Feynman or Leighton lecture. We go to the CalTech database, and alas, the lecture has been designated under Leighton. “Ah ha!” you say, “The truth does matter, and it is staring you in the face!” But unfortunately, I must object before rejoicing continues much further. I simply say that the context or algorithm for which the lecture has been assigned is entirely arbitrary, and could have been done differently. It could have been set up to assign the lecturer as the person with more nobel prizes in physics. If this algorithm was applied, Feynman would be assigned lecturer.
You may say, “Well definitions matter! You can’t just go around using words all loosy goosy!” But why can’t we? And more importantly, don’t we? Sure we have the Oxford English Dictionary, we can go to when we want to settle petty spats, but those definitions have just been agreed upon by other human beings…there is not set of fundamental particles for which each term is veridical to. Even a seemingly simple definition for aardvark varies from dictionary to dictionary. Even without variation, we can seem to mean things for which the terms have no agreed upon sense of referring to. If I lean over to my friend and utter “We are going to drive Burger King speed,” said friend certainly understand the degree of speed for which we will travel, where the normal listener is left in the dark. Is it fast? Is it slow? Is that even a coherent sentence? How can one drive at a rate of a fast food franchise? And yet, one of my close friends would in fact understand the rate of speed for which I intended to drive. Such a thing could not be achieved without context. For we had shared a previous experience where we drove at some rate of speed to a Burger King.
Surely the statement “We are going to drive Burger King speed” is false, if not a non-statement all together. And yet, the information for which I wished to convey, was successfully transmitted to my friend. Claims, statements, and beliefs all boil down to information we wish our audience to receive. And we do this by way of a pellet-gun analogy. Although I do not hunt, the analogy works well. If our target is a clay pigeon, we load our pellet gun with a shell, which contains 10–20 individual pellets, and shoot. So for one object, there is about 10–20 ways in which our shell can distribute its payload onto the clay pigeon. Analogously, for our friend, there is about 10–20 ways in which our claim can distribute its information onto our friends mind.
The analogy is attempting to show that claims and statements are not these clear and precise, sniper shots. They are instead a buckshot, just hoping to hit the intended object. Whether we are using a buckshot or a sniper, we are meaning to hit the same object. We are meaning to convey a certain bit of information to the audience. For more complex claims, we need more shots. And sometimes we miss the mark completely. But those marks which were missed, can be either true or false. The accuracy for them hitting the desired mark does not depend on them being true or false. The accuracy for them hitting the desired mark depends on whether or not it hit the mark, and if not, to what degree did it miss the mark.
This is what language is used for, conveying information to ourselves or one another. There is a conveyer, the conveyer’s information, and a receiver (It’s okay if the conveyer is her own receiver). This is the utility of language, the distribution of information between conveyors and receivers. And if the conveyer wishes to bring about some effect in the receiver, then the conveyer should aim with accuracy toward the area in the receiver which will most accurately bring about the desired effect. Whether the claim is true or false, need not be factored in while aiming. It will not improve the accuracy of the claims trajectory towards its desired target. An important factor in aiming, is not truth or falsity, but context. Context is greatly valuable to aiming claims with accuracy, if we don’t’ know the state of mind the receiver is in, it could affect the desired accuracy of our claim in hitting its mark in the receiver.
So what should we say of truth? Should we say goodbye?
I’m not sure. It’s not needed for human language and their resulting interactions from said language.
So is truth needed for anything?
“It is true that today is Wednesday”, says Bjorn.
“Who cares?” snarks Peter.
“We care, we have a gig today,” states John.
John, has gotten the information from Bjorn, that today is Wednesday, and he attended to this information more closely to than Peter, because John keeps track of the concert schedule. He knows that for this week, on Wednesday they are to play a concert. But why did Bjorn say “It is true that today is Wednesday” why didn’t he just say “Today is Wednesday”? What is gained from adding “It is true”? More force, as in the added umph that Bjorn isn’t joking around, and that today is indeed Wednesday, not some other day. Well if this is all that is added, umph, then we can simply say that doing away with “It is true” and replacing it with some other umph-ish inspiring jargon, would have no effect on Bjorn’s ability to convey his desired information.
Okay, so maybe stating that something is “true” or something is “false” is needless. But what about the claims themselves being of the property true or of the property false? Again we ask, is truth needed for anything?
Thus far we have established that it is not needed for accuracy, and it is not needed for a certain “umph”. We can generalize this umph, to some sort of tonal inference. So truth neither supplies accuracy or tonal inferences to claims, statements, or beliefs.
So what the hell do we use truth for? What is truths utility?
And if it has no utility, why waste our time on it?
Update: These thoughts were written almost two years ago now, and although I may have been overly simplistic or hasty in the musing above, much of the sentiment and overall thesis about Truth remains the same. To see my more recent thoughts visit my recent post on Alternative-Facts, Fake-News, and Post-Truth.