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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

Reality, Fact, and Truth

Reality, Fact, and Truth
by Michael E. Berumen 8-15-05

Few subjects occupy as much space in philosophy as reality and truth, basically, our attempts to understand what obtains and to describe it accurately. Philosophers discuss the constituent parts of reality as represented by facts. The man in the street considers a fact to be what is real, but many philosophers mean something rather different, namely, that a fact is what we assert about reality, a proposition that purports to describe it, a string of symbols whose meanings have some rough to exact correspondence to what is or to what was or even to what will be. More specifically, a fact is a true proposition. And here is the source of much of the philosophical clutter, namely, trying to understand what it is that makes a proposition true.

Some facts or propositions are tautological, which is to say, they are true by definition. Logical and mathematical propositions are examples of tautological truths. Strictly speaking, a logical tautology does not require that its constituent parts be true, only its form. Thus, for example, the proposition "The pail is full or it is not full" is necessarily true (let's ignore the disputes on the law of the excluded middle for our purposes), notwithstanding the truth of its constituent parts or its descriptive properties. It is only the form "A v -A" that is important, not its content, at least, insofar as the logician is concerned. The truth of a tautology does not depend upon anyone's observation of states in the world or of any facts outside of logic and mathematics. The only "reality" such propositions describe, in and of themselves, is the reality of language and rules. When we bind these formal terms with cognitive content of one sort or another, they might be used to describe other properties of the world; but such content is not the product of the formal structure of the proposition or its terms.

Other facts are judged to be true by virtue of their having been observed to be true. They are judged empirically, and they are therefore true by virtue of their corresponding in some sense to what we apprehend through our experience, that is, from our perception. At the most primitive level, our apprehension of such truths is not aided by any process of ratiocination. They are not true by definition or through pure reason, other than in the sense that our language, or the way we use it, matches up in some way with our experience. The proposition, “The sun is yellow,” is something we judge to be true because we see that the object in the sky corresponds to our notion of a yellow sun , a notion that is expressed in words with definite meanings. While these words have definitions, our understanding of the essential truth of the proposition does not depend merely on these definitions, but on actually seeing the yellow sun. In other words, verifying the truth of the proposition depends on our actual experience, an experience that the words are supposed to describe in a way that both we and others understand. Our understanding of its truth does not emerge from the proposition itself or from some prior definition, but from the actual experience.

Obviously, a blind man can also “know” that "The sun is yellow" is true, or at least, he can know it in a sense, notwithstanding the fact that he is unable to see the sun or understand yellow in quite the same way. He knows it is yellow because he has been told that it is yellow by someone who is directly acquainted with it. In other words, he knows its truth indirectly, by description, rather than by direct acquaintance. A great deal of what we believe to be true, what we call knowledge, is like this. It is not based on our first-hand experience, but on the alleged experiences of others. Most of our knowledge of history, for example, is based on the description of others; indeed, a great deal of it is filtered by generations who have not had direct experience, but who base their assertions on the descriptions of others. It is also generally fair to say that our historical knowledge, as with most knowledge, comes in degrees of accuracy. For example, our knowledge of what happened in Philadelphia in 1776 is probably better than what we know about what happened in Rome in 44 BC. In general, however, if our sources and their methods are deemed to be reliable, we accept the statements of those who report on historical events as being true.

Much of what we consider to be true depends upon our having repeated observations. For example, “The sun will rise tomorrow” is a proposition we believe to be true because we have had many experiences of the sun rising at approximately the same time, leading us to believe that it will rise again with similar periodicity in the future. The statement, “It will probably rain soon” might be given a high degree of credibility because we see a giant cumulus nimbus cloud overhead, and because in many other instances, such a sighting is followed by rain. When I hear the doorbell ring, there’s a good chance someone will be there when I open the door; such as been the case on many other occasions. These are so-called inductive truths. They are not derived from pure reason, but from our experience. We assume that the future will resemble the past. Many of our endeavors rely on inductive reasoning, for example, science, business, and just daily living; basically, wherever we make judgments about the future based on what occurred in the past.

Now, inductive truths are notoriously less reliable than formal, deductive truths. They do not share the same apodictic nature of conclusions that depend only on definitions and rules. There are many things that can go wrong with our observations, for example, our senses can play tricks on us; appearances can be deceiving; and with particularly complex experiments, variables can be difficult to control. For another, as David Hume has shown, underlying all of this is the assumption that there is uniformity in nature, such that the future will resemble the past, and that what we suppose to be physical laws will continue through time and from place to place. It is not irrational to make these assumptions, for they would appear to work for us. However, that by no means proves the truth of our underlying assumptions. As we see in many areas, for example, the stock market, measuring insurance risks, and meteorology, there is no guarantee that the future will resemble the past, or at least, that we can understand the latter well enough to make completely reliable assessments of what will occur.

Beyond relatively trivial, formal truths, logical (or mathematical) arguments that, when combined with other information, purport to say something about the world, are true only insofar as the descriptive properties of the terms are also true. Scientific propositions are of this sort, for they often combine elements of formal reason with empirical data. Such truths are those that we (or others) observe to be true through repeated experience that, in turn, are buttressed by the formal reasoning of mathematics and logic. Science combines, formal deductive reasoning with observation. If our formal statements are properly structured, meaning that our arguments are valid, our conclusions are necessarily true if the constituent parts of the argument that depend upon empirical research are also true. In other words, if the premises are true in such cases, a valid argument guarantees a true conclusion. Obviously, when we are dealing with the uncertainties associated with observation, not to mention the underlying and very undemonstrated assumption of uniformity, all of this ifiness is not to be taken lightly.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said that the world consists of facts. Both in his earlier “Tractatus era” and in his later “Investigations era,” he essentially boiled the world down to what we say about it. Language was reality for Wittgenstein. He was mistaken. The world is more than what we say, and it consists of whatever it has. We make assertions about it, assertions that are themselves factual or not; however, that they are facts (or not) does not depend on our verification of them, any more than reality depends on what we say about it. The facts themselves are representations or descriptions of reality, which, of course do depend on the possibility of language. However, propositions are true or false or even meaningless even though they are unknown to us. Their truth, in other words, does not depend on their having been said, only on their having some relationship to reality.

Now it is important to get this thing straight. A fact is not reality itself. The fact that "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492," is not the same thing as Columbus doing the sailing in 1492. The fact is a description, a proposition. When I say, "Columbus did such-and-such," and someone else says, "That is a fact," the latter does not mean what Columbus did and what I said are synonymous or identical. The proposition is not the reality itself. The proposition is the fact portraying reality. The factness is a supervenient property of what Columbus did. It is not what he did. When someone says, "Here is a list of facts," the list does not consist of the state of affairs in the world, only their portrayal of them (except, perhaps, in the trivial case of a list of logical or mathematical facts, though even that is debatable).

Reality is what is, it is the universe that exists, whether or not it is an object of perception. It is the collection of everything. If, as some have assumed, it depends on being perceived, it nevertheless is what there is. True propositions are facts. To be sure, they are also real in the sense that the words are real, and therefore part of reality, but they are not identical to what they describe. What is more, facts that are the case are true even before our having strung the words together. A fact does not depend on our having discovered it, only on its possibility and correspondence to reality. Similarly, truth does not depend on our having found it. Truth is not given or bestowed on a proposition by our having verified something. Truth is not an activity. Truth and verifiability, or our ability to test something, are quite different. That "The world is spirit" is a true or false proposition does not depend on our ability to ascertain whether it is, or even on anyone's having ever formulated the proposition.

Had our ancestors never climbed down from the trees onto the savannah, had we never progressed beyond the australopithecines, many of the facts that we "know" today would still have been facts, notwithstanding their having never been discovered by us, or our having any means of verifying them. The obvious exception are the facts that depend upon our having done something; but most of reality is not a function of our existence. The truth of facts ultimately depends on reality, not on our perception or on our understanding of them. In other words, truth is not merely an action on our part, something we do or a determination we make, it is a relationship between a proposition and reality, a kind of correspondence, even though the proposition was never been uttered by any being. A proposition is a possibility, even before it has been said, or if it never is.

There is not a necessary correspondence between the world as it is and our logical constructs, even though we are unable to conceive of anything else. The truth of the law of identity, for example, depends only on a formal definition. And while we believe that any object is identical to itself, because we cannot think of it as being any other way, as Immanuel Kant has shown, the nature of the object as it exists outside of or apart from our experience, or as he called it, "the thing in itself," independent of our perception of it, remains beyond our reach. It is unintelligible in the sense that we cannot know it purely, in an unfettered, direct sense, without imposing our own mode of understanding. We cannot set aside the limits of our faculties of sensation and perception. Nevertheless, we hope that what we infer from behind the wall that separates our understanding from what really is has some semblance to the truth. But that there is truth without our understanding it is undeniable.

Furthermore, there is no mystical realm of propositions. They do not exist before they are uttered, at least, not in the same sense that the other objects of the universe do. The are supervenient, even when they are mere possibilities (having never been formulated), and their truth depends only on reality. In the case of tautological truths, however, truth is definitional and, therefore, depends on the propositions themselves, and again, notwithstanding the fact they have never been formulated. In other words, Euler's discoveries were true even before he discovered them. Whether or not there is any relationship or correspondence between these and whatever else that might obtain in the world is another consideration altogether: an empirical consideration. Empirical propositions are not true by definition. They are true because they correspond to or accurately depict the physical world.

Believing a proposition is true is not tantamount to knowing it is true. To know that something is true is to verify it, to assess it using some standard, either through ratiocination, through perception, or some combination of these. Knowing is acting. Knowledge, unlike truth, does depend on our discovery, on verification. Determining that we know and how we know are epistemological issues. However, truth, while not altogether unconcerned with epistemology, deals with what is, with the facts in the world, and their relationship to reality. The act of knowing is not the same thing as this or that being true. It is the process of apprehending truth. The truth of a proposition does not depend on our understanding it.

We can have true beliefs without really knowing what we believe is true. Our knowledge often comes in degrees. Most people believe that 2 + 2 + 4. However, very few can actually demonstrate that this is the case. It took Russell and Whitehead many pages of abstruse reasoning to do so. People often confuse what they believe with what they know, even when what they believe is true. For example, many people correctly believe that the Earth moves around the Sun in an elliptical orbit. However, relatively few really know that this is true in the sense that their knowledge is based on a thorough understanding or on some process of verification, much as one might expect of an astronomer. It is important to understand, however, that the fact that something is or is not true does not depend on one's knowledge about it or on one's beliefs about it, though these are of obvious interest and importance.

Some philosophers have said that truth is basically what works for us, what succeeds within a particular operational framework. This is the pragmatic or instrumentalist philosophy propounded by William James and John Dewey. James famously described truth as having "cash value." There is no denying, in some sense, it is correct to say that in verifying that a given proposition is true we also mean that it successfully describes what the case is. But the pragmatists mean something more than that we have successfully verified something; they mean that truth, itself, is something that works for us, that it is something we have verified, notwithstanding its relationship to what obtains. Such a view of truth, I believe, devolves into a kind of silliness. For example, James holds that if a belief in a god brings us comfort and makes it easier to understand the world around us, it is therefore true, even if there is no means of verifying that there is a god existing independent of our belief. With such a conception, truth is reduced to a kind of psychological disposition.

To my mind, if something is judged to be true, its truth does not depend on its producing a commodious result, but on its being an accurate depiction of the world. This is not to say that we are often able to arrive at anything other than approximations, especially in the case of matters that we judge empirically and inferentially. What we hold to be true might well “work” within a particular framework, and later be shown to be incorrect or inoperable in another kind of framework, as in the case of Newton’s conception of action-at-a-distance versus Einstein’s theory of general relativity. But Newton’s conception is not true because it successfully got us to the moon. It was, we now "know", an approximation of the truth. We now believe Einstein’s conception of gravity and space-time to be an even more accurate depiction, and not simply because it successfully describes certain phenomena, but because we think it depicts the way things really are. Even so, we readily admit that it might not be the final word on the matter.

The most firm truths, the things we can hold to be absolute, such as the formalities of truth tables and the laws of Modus Ponens and Modus Tollens, are quite unimportant when considered apart from our experience. The more tentative truths that we most depend upon, for example, the truths of history, science, and just daily living, are much more crucial and, unfortunately, much less reliable. That does not mean there are no final truths beyond trivial, tautological ones; it only means that we ought to be wary of being too sure of ourselves. We need to be prepared to have our judgments proved false, even the ones we hold most dearly. However, illusive though they are, there are truths, just as sure as there is reality. And, notwithstanding the obvious and not so obvious difficulties we face, we should never stop trying to discover them.