Perspectives on Truth and Realism

Lately I have been considering myself a relativist. To cast away the kneejerks, I don’t consider all belief systems equally valid (with caveats1). Wikipedia sums it up nicely:

… that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture.

I have noticed an increase in my opposition to what I am currently calling “scientific realism” — the belief that discoveries made by science are true, and other things are false (basically just an incarnation of absolutism). Yesterday I had an impassioned argument (still in good fun, though) with my roommate about our differences in perception. I noticed my emotions firing up around this subject, a symptom begging me to analyze its cause. Humans get very emotional when their thoughts approach a shattering of a core belief, so I am curious if one is near.

This time, instead of a philosophical persuasive essay, I’m just going to write down some of my observations.

In the conversation with my roommate Monty (who I consider quite intelligent), mostly a battle over semantics, I found the following ensemble of his ideas to leave an impression on me:

  1. Newtonian gravity is false, and General Relativity is true.
  2. If he lived 200 years ago, Newtonian physics would be true.
  3. One thing cannot be more true than another (except in the trivial case of one thing being true and the other false, of course).
  4. General Relativity and The Standard Model, which are mathematically incompatible, can both be true at the same time.
  5. He hasn’t yet seen any evidence that would suggest there are things that can’t eventually be explained by our current scientific ideas.

Taken together, these ideas are fascinating to me. They indicate a different definition of truth than the one I use, and I’m fascinated because I don’t have a concept that I could substitute for it. On surface interpretation, these statements seem inconsistent to me, so I am really curious about the concept from which they arise. (I am pretty sure (5) is just a fallacy though: what would such evidence look like?)

I have met others who claim that they do not have beliefs. I find this to be common among scientific realists. I wonder what definition of “belief” they use to be able to consider themselves devoid of it; so far when I have pried I am just evaded. There are two reasons I evade inquiries: (1) I am not taking the conversation seriously, which may be because it is threatening my beliefs, or other reasons; and (2) the inquiries are using words in ways that don’t have meaning to me, so I answer in riddles that bring out the dissonance2. I usually assume they are doing it because their beliefs are being threatened3; what makes me curious is the possibility that they are evading because of (2)4. Perhaps I am using “belief” incorrectly when asking that question.

Among Skeptics, there is another possible reason to avoid the word “belief”: because it is very close to “faith”, the buzzword of the enemy. Maybe they use the word “truth” to mean what I call “belief”… but then the idea that someone’s beliefs can be false would be nonsense.

I think most of my anti-realism comes from a desire to (at least give due diligence to) respect the belief systems of others. I think I may start considering “true” to be a value judgement (which, as an experiment, I am trying to avoid). I had a debate with a young earth creationist, a belief system I typically have a hard time respecting. After a long time, I think I heard an essential difference, when he said (paraphrasing): “I believe there is a God because I don’t want to live in a world without a God.” That indicates to me a different relationship to truth — that truth and desirability are related concepts — and opened to me the possibility of respecting his belief system a little more.

Dan Piponi made a brilliant comment on twitter during a conversation about realism: “I don’t think ‘reality’ means much. It’s just a placeholder to make the sentence grammatical.”

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1 What exactly does a belief system being “valid” mean?

2 This will happen, for example, if you ask me whether I believe extra-terrestrial life exists, because I get hung up on the definition of “life”. People seem to acknowledge the subtlety of that word, but then keep using the word anyway as if the inability to define it is no big thing: “you know what I mean.” No, I actually don’t.

3 Probably because it confirms my superiority.

4 Possibly because it threatens my superiority.

18 thoughts on “Perspectives on Truth and Realism

  1. The solution is that you have to replace absolute “true” and “false” with “to the best of our/my current understanding”. You have to accept that there are things you don’t (can’t?) know, and that the things you think you know may not be right. In the case of theories there is no reason not to allow a partial ordering relation defined as whether one of them fits the available facts better than the other, and there’s also no reason not to allow a partial ordering relation defined as whether you’re more certain of one thing than of the other. Your roommate’s ideas are fascinating to me (and possibly to you) mostly because they are so intrinsically, flabbergastingly wrong and it’s a marvel that someone can honestly still hold them after apparently having given them thought. (Though as you allude, in a sense it’s just a confusion of semantics… choosing different meanings for the words ‘true’ and ‘false’, albeit to my senses mighty strange ones.)

    “That indicates to me a different relationship to truth — that truth and desirability are related concepts — and opened to me the possibility of respecting his belief system a little more.”

    It would probably have had the opposite effect on me. Albeit at least he realizes it and is being honest about it, which elicits some respect. Most people jump from ‘desirable’ to ‘true’ without ever realizing that’s what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Knowing that you’re doing it doesn’t make it any more correct, though. That’s probably the single logical fallacy I’m the most intense about trying to weed out from my own thinking. (It’s to the point where if some idea is desirable and I notice that it appeals to me I actually become skeptical of it… occasionally I wonder whether I might not be introducing a bias in the opposite direction, and then I try to compensate for that too.)

    Essentially it comes down to “would you rather know the awful truth or believe a comforting lie”. And for me it’s unambiguously and uncontestedly the former. I guess depending on someone’s wider belief system they may make a different choice. Like if you think that nothing matters anyway and the important thing is to get through life with a maximum amount of happiness. Or that what we think doesn’t matter because it’s all in the hands of God, or that we shouldn’t even try to know because that’s the job of God. Or something. Not going to continue to try enumerating every possible belief system. In any case being actively indifferent to the truth is not someone I can be.

  2. I studied philosophy of science back in the day. I don’t think the issues will be settled here. I would suggest, for those who are serious about the debates over scientific realism, mathematical realism, near realism, pragmatic realism, empiricism, positivism, etc., to spend some time studying the work of philosophers such as Hilary Putnam, Bas van Fraassen, Richard Rorty, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, W.V.O. Quine, to make sure not to just be rehashing the same arguments people already had decades and centuries ago with no resolution or advancement in the state of the art.

  3. Here’s how I like to summarize my ontological disconnect with folks like your creationist: “I don’t believe I have a choice in what to believe.”

  4. @franklinchen, thanks for the references; I’m curious about this and very amateur as a philosopher, so this gives me a nice roadmap. Do you have any works that you particularly recommend?

    I dispute your implicit judgment that the purpose of philosophy is to resolve and/or to advance the state of the art.

    @illissius, “Your roommate’s ideas are fascinating to me (and possibly to you) mostly because they are so intrinsically, flabbergastingly wrong and it’s a marvel that someone can honestly still hold them after apparently having given them thought.” There’s a little of that, but phrasing it that way contradicts my value of attempting to respect others’ belief systems. The consequences of my beliefs are most certainly wrong and inconsistent, and yet I egotistically consider myself to relate to the world in a unique and interesting way nonetheless. How does he?

    @Dan, that’s interesting. Choosing what to believe is something I have been playing with for quite a while, and I think I do have a choice in the matter (at the very least, by hypnosis). The level of accessibility of various beliefs is the hard part to me. Some are fairly easy to re-orient, others (I’m sure) are so deeply ingrained that I am not even aware I have them. (That is, I am aware I have some collection of beliefs, each of which I am unaware of specifically) But assuming you have a choice of anything at all, what makes you think that your beliefs are not accessible to your decisions?

  5. > Newtonian gravity is false, and General Relativity is true.

    Interesting use of the concept. I would say that the “truth” is that the model of GR is more accurate than NM. “All models are wrong, some models are useful”.

  6. @Luke, I dunno. I think you need to draw a distinction between respecting the person and respecting their belief system. I definitely try to respect people even if I don’t agree with their belief system. What does it even mean to respect a belief system? Why is it a good thing to strive for? With ideas (which is what belief systems boil down to) I think it’s just a matter of correct, incorrect, interesting, uninteresting, plausible, implausible, logical, illogical, etc. I guess you could call thinking that an idea is interesting or plausible “respecting” it and thinking that it’s ridiculous “disrespecting” it (and I guess that’s actually the interpretation I was using when I used it myself in my earlier comment…) but the connotations are totally different, it’s not like you’re being rude to the idea by giving it little credence.

  7. I think if we are being totally pedantic, it is wrong to call newtonian gravity (or even young earth creationism) “false” and general relativity “true”. It is more that general relativity makes more accurate predictions that we can test.

    From an epistemological standpoint, there is no such thing as “one true model”, and we can only rule out models based on whether they imply predictions we can show do not hold. And we can always add more special cases to a model to ensure it does not conflict with any observations (“the earth was created 4000 years ago” “what about the fossil record?” “that was all put in place by God to test our faith”). If you add enough special cases you can make any model “fit” reality.

    In practice, what people do is rule out whole classes of models via some heuristics. Science generally rules out any models that don’t make testable predictions, and models that just accumulate mountains of special cases in response to what would otherwise be conflicting observations. Yes, you certainly can argue this “bias” of science is not logically justified.

    Btw, I think you might really enjoy the book “The End of Science”, by John Horgan. It’s mostly a series of (very entertaining) interviews with different scientists. One of the last chapters includes a hilarious round-table discussion of a number of prominent scientists discussing these very issues.

  8. These days I think “true” and “false” are overrated terms. I’m more interested in properties like “useful” or “interesting”. “Truth” and “falsity” are special kinds of usefulness. For example one way a sentence can be useful is as a representation of some part of the world. When the representation works, we call it “true”. But I intend that in a very down-to-earth practical way rather than some fundamental metaphysical way.

    Newtonian gravity is much more useful that general relativity. On the other hand, general relativity is, to my taste, much more beautiful and interesting. If I had to pick one I’d pick general relativity because you can derive Newtonian gravity from the other. But I don’t get too hung up on which is true or false except in an ordinary practical way, eg. does this theory give useful predictions about that system.

  9. I always have trouble understand exactly what “relativism” is, and unfortunately, your article doesn’t clear that up for me. Not that your goal was my enlightenment, but I appreciate your attempt.

    As for truth, I agree with Paul Chuisano: science is the process of self-corrective learning, and I _believe_ it’s the best we have. That is not to say that everything we know from science is true, but that it describes our environment no worse and usually better than our own perception, thus making scientific results significantly more likely to be true than perceptions or beliefs.

    I also agree with Dan Piponi: “useful,” “accurate,” and “interesting” are better goals than “truth,” especially if we can logically motivate and quantify them, thus again moving beyond our individual perceptions.

  10. @Luke: I’m not sure what single source to recommend exactly, to get a full picture of the scope of the Western philosophical tradition when it comes to truth, realism, relativsm, etc. You could say it began before Socrates with a lot of different schools of thought, then Socrates came on the scene and hugely changed things, then the big names such as Plato, Kant, Descartes, Kant, and so forth, dozens and dozens of important thinkers who actually did come up with refinements and changes and advancements to the discussions, all the way up to the present. For me, the most provocative modern philosopher was Paul Feyerabend, since he changed his mind so much during his career.

    The problem with philosophy is that everyone thinks he can do it, but in fact, almost every single word and thought expressed in the comments I see here so far have been completely unoriginal, and I could pull out a passage from a philosopher from the 1940s or something who said exactly what each commenter here has said, and for each such philosopher, I could point to serious work in the 1940s also trying to refute that philosopher, and so on up to the present, an endless debate with refinements and counter-refinements. I deliberately mention the 1940s because I have found that the average scientist or engineer in the past couple of decades has implicitly been trained to believe in ideas about science that revolve around the realism put forth by Karl Popper during that time period.

  11. @illissius, by respecting a belief system, I mean giving it my best effort to consider it potentially true. To me, respecting people includes respecting their belief system. How could I respect someone meanwhile thinking the way they see the world is false? How do they deal with the inconsistencies that I see in their beliefs? Without asking this question, I am basically assuming that they don’t think. What gives me the privileged position that the things I think are true are actually true, while the things they think are true are actually false?

    “Why is it a good thing to strive for?” That’s a question that one doesn’t usually ask about ideas one agrees with. Try it sometime.

    @Dan, I enjoy trying to cut concepts out of my mental vocabulary, so I definitely resonate with this idea. “True” and “false” are not observable, so I can see how they might be a strong residual pattern from the way our brain processes information. “But did it make a sound?”

    @Sean, maybe I’ll write a post about how I see relativism. My concept of it is very likely less refined than the philosophers who have given it a lot of time. But one way to get started is to think about words: can you communicate *exactly* the meaning, with all the connotative subtleties, a word has to you to someone else? If not, then words can mean different things to different people. When you write a question about whether something is true, which question are you asking: yours or your reader’s? (Possible response: “yeah, but most of the time your meanings agree well enough.” Granted, but that doesn’t answer all the questions the idea implies.)

  12. Just a short note, upon checking back here to see how the thread has progressed:

    You must define what “meaning” is. And that must occur at a level above the word. Frege’s revolutionary work on Sinn and Bedeutung (sense and reference) are relevant, and foundational to the philosophy of mathematics, and by extension, eventually computer science. Kripke’s interpretation through modal logic is also relevant. Meanwhile, there’s the legacy of Wittgenstein, and no shortage of considerable further work in the general “analytic philosophy” tradition that grapples with what meaning is, what knowledge is, etc.

  13. blown away, been reading a lot of articles and blog posts on realist and realism. seems like a cancer to be honest. no real upsides to being a realist in regards to a professional career unless your goal is to put people down and be a debbie downer.

  14. @GmailFree, so, I know I am contributing to the problem by leaving your comment intact (I have at least removed the hyperlink), I just had to keep this comment for historical documentation. You are clearly a real human (or a computer with unprecedented NLP skills), and you are promoting a spam site that does no phishing and provides nothing but legitimate ad-laden links to Google. I can’t imagine this to be profitable, but maybe I’ve underestimated the payoff of ads. In any case I think this is reasonably unique for spam. Maybe you are a mechanical turk worker?

  15. The idea “One thing cannot be more true than another (except in the trivial case of one thing being true and the other false, of course).” is attacked in Asimov’s essay “The relativity of wrong” (can be found by googling). It is short and worth reading.

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