Truth and knowing

Truth and knowing.

“What is truth?” — Pontius Pilate, the Gospel of John.

Truth is easy to explain but rather harder to understand. why? Because in its explanation we are trying to form a true statement about what it is to form a true statement. This leads to confusion, and unfortunately to the rejection of what is true truth (so to speak) and the clinging onto those rocks that we do understand (usually scientific truth or religious truth).

Knowledge on the other hand is not easy to explain. To know something one has to belief it is true and have that knowledge accord with something (usually ones perception of reality). Knowledge is also distinct from mere information. In that both concern a truth but knowledge has a purpose or use. It is also usually a learned experience.

So here we have our parameters of investigation. In answering the following questions and drawing the threads of their answers together under a general philosophical theory I hope to cast light into the darkness, or at least classify the dark better.

The questions are:

Are there really different types of truth?
What does it mean to know something, as opposed to just believing it?
Can we really know something is true?

These are of course Titanic questions that Philosophers and Scientists have struggled to answer for generations. A cop out here would be to just fill this post with quotes and analysis of other thinkers works, but i prefer to actually try and think of some answers myself in my admittedly limited capacity to do so.

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” — Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

“I am” is taken as the most fundamental truth of all. But why? Simply because it is the easiest to prove. One can prove “i am” every single time one thinks it and by thinking it one can simply and clearly assert it and by proxy reject it’s negation; “i am not”. Once we have made an assertion that we are clear is true, we believe it. This proposition is now added to the pool of positive propositions, or what i call ideas. This pools of ideas are like bricks building a house. The most simple ideas are the foundation upon which are placed more and more ideas forming a wall. The walls of this house are held up by the simple truths of the provable simple ideas.

So what is a simple idea? Take the following:

I have a rock 0

This idea is simple. Its truth directly relates and relies on the fact it calls in place. I actually have a rock. I perceive that in my hand is a rock. This perception is so solid and consistent that I believe the statement is true because I can prove it in a millisecond by referring to my perception of the object in my hand. As long as that perception remains true, the idea is also true.

Our minds perceive reality all the time through the senses and the beliefs that this perception give rise to are what we take as true.

So, for me truth is a belief in the mental linking of a simple idea to a perception of reality. So, where is the problem with truth? The problem comes with compound ideas:

Say I have a rock 0

And I add another rock 00

Now I call into place a compound idea and, in the form of a special language (maths) that I have learned, i say that i have two rocks. I perceive the rocks in my hand. I say to myself “I have a rock” and “I have a rock”. That means I have two rocks. This is a compound idea, and idea based on language. In this case the language is mathematics.

Mathematics is a shared language with formal rules. I learned mathematical language at school by the teacher communicating the idea, the conceptual idea, of “two” to me. Once I have the idea embedded deep withing my mind, I cannot look at the two rocks without referring to them in this way. The concept “two” is not to be found in the rocks themselves and it doesn’t require i directly refer to reality. It is an idea over and beyond the rocks perceptions and a total construct of humanity. The wonderful thing about mathematical ideas is that because they are a special language they can operate on other concepts and ideas contained within their language. They are a special language because humanity has formulated rigid rules for the linking and further compounding, as well as the operation of these ideas and the creation of further rules and mathematical language.

The operation of this language takes place only in the mind. It manipulates ideas formulated by its rules and operates to produce results upon which we can (if we should need to) refer back all the way to the simple compound idea that we can perceive to correspond to reality. I have a rock.

I have said it before but I will say it again: The communication of ideas is the primary accomplishment of mankind. This combined with the formalisation of mathematics has given mankind a startlingly powerful tool for both the communication and operation of ideas.

So what is the problem here? The problems are that for all it predictive abilities mathematical propositions are only perceived to be true. This is very hard to spot in the simple arena because the operation of math is so fast in our brains and it can always reduce to a simple perception of reality such as “I have a rock”. However, it is the case that at very high levels mathematicians themselves only talk about models. Models are math that is so complex or cutting edge that the reduction to a simple truth is not yet possible*. Mathematicians try and construct math ideas to explain their predictions or perceptions but we cannot actually call them true yet or even at all. Math models depend on variables and mostly what is called a priori variables (or what i would call the communicated shared idea independent of a perception of reality, as i don’t think a priori ideas exist. But then that is no where near as cool as saying “a priori” and i need to find a single word for it, preferably one in Greek!). The modeler tweaks the math until it “fits” or describes his perceptions of what is happening empirically.

This shows a very important thing. Math does not operate on reality only on our perception of reality and some math cannot and will not progress beyond models because the perception of reality is false. Mathematics is inherently incomplete and can involve paradoxes such as:

[quote]Will Rogers phenomenon is the apparent paradox obtained when moving an element from one set to another set raises the average values of both sets. One real-world example of the Will Rogers phenomenon is seen in the medical concept of stage migration. In medical stage migration, improved detection of illness leads to the movement of people from the set of healthy people to the set of unhealthy people. Because these people are not healthy, removing them from the set of healthy people increases the average lifespan of the healthy group. Likewise, the migrated people are more healthy than the people already in the unhealthy set, so adding them raises the average lifespan of the group.[/quote] WIKI

The Mathematical language is not complete and not fully reliable. One has to question whether it ever will be.

Math is not then a different type of truth, only a means of operating on ideas which has the ability to be reduced back to a simple idea. Simple ideas, remember, being linked directly to perception of reality via positive propositions. Also remember that because we are talking about actual truth, reliability doesn’t enter into it, since all truths are true totally.

What else then claims to be higher truth? Logic perhaps. Logic as I define it is the operation of reasoning on a proposition to produce a result that is not contradictory. Logic does in no way need to refer to a Simple Idea or to reality. In fact, despite my love for it, it can be “done away with” very simply in the following example:

What I am now saying is false, or meaningless.

This follows but cannot be true as that would prove it was false. Basically the problem is that because the rules of logic allow for self referencing one can construct propositions that cannot be successfully proved one way or the other. Logic is another language like math (very like in fact since one begat the other), but unlike math its formal rules are based not on new Independent Compound Ideas but on less reliable perceptions of General Compound Ideas such as those used in English. So, like math logic is not always true. Logic suffers something that math does not. It can operate on ideas that do not reduce to perceptions of reality. Logic isn’t a type of truth at all and I think it is a misuse of the idea “truth” to mix it up with Logic.

What of faith then? Can that be true? Here we come into the second of my original questions, regarding knowledge. Consider this,

The sun rose this morning.

I don’t need to have faith that this is true. I was there. I saw the sun rise and experienced the consequences of the rising sun. But can I know that the sun will rise tomorrow? The sun has always risen. This is a Simple Idea which is perceived relating to reality. Every day the idea has been proved and everyday the idea is strengthened. This strengthening is what is called Custom. It has become customary for man to perceive the rising of the sun everyday. We expect it. We believe it will rise tomorrow as an argument from inference:

The sun has always risen in the morning.
I infer that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

We believe this idea. Until it has happened we cannot prove it one way or the other, but it is a reasonable (to us) inference about our perceptions of the way the world works. This is belief. It is the same as saying “fire is hot”. This is an idea based on the historical data available to us. Fire has always been hot so fire will continue to be hot. We do not know that fire is hot until we check but we believe it will be because it customarily is. However, once the data goes the other way we get confused. Consider the sun again. imagine that today it didn’t rise. From this moment on how can i believe that it will ever rise again? The custom has been broken and I can no longer simply rely on a idea being reinforced every day. I need to have faith. Traditionally faith has been seen in this way, as belief in spite of the evidence, but i don’t think that it is necessarily so.

A more cogent example. One day the sun will burn out and will not rise. There is no way for me to know when that day is going to happen and it could happen at any time. Since “to know” requires that i check, i cannot know until the event has passed. I believe the sun will rise because it always has, but more than this, because i also believe that one day it will not, it requires faith on my part to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Faith is therefore not concerned with truth at all, only belief. It is a kind of hope mixed with (or mired with) a belief (the sun will rise) which in turn is reinforced by momentary knowledge (that moment when the sun does rise) and custom (it has always risen before). Truth only enters this in the moment, that moment when the sun actually is rising, the moment that my idea can be directly related to my perception of reality, in fact the moment that I know.

So my final question “how can i know something is true?”. For me you can only know something at all when you check. The famous question “what do I have in my pocket?” is not just asked of the viewer but also of the questioner for they do not know what is in their pocket until they too check (as, for example, it may have fallen out and they haven’t noticed). In checking they validate the idea of what they have in their pocket by the reference to their perception coming to them via the senses. But, until they check in some manner by looking, or opening their pocket they only believe in the idea they have of what is in there. Until they check they do not know. Once they have referenced the idea to their perceptions of reality, then the idea can be said to be known truth until the circumstances change and a fresh check is needed. This may sound pedantic and suggesting only momentary truth but consider that often only a check with the eyes or even an operation of math (based on Simple Ideas) will constitute a check. humans do this all the time, millions of times a second.

It is this that explains science being held as a high truth. Because science is a result of measurement (and a combination of math) it is constantly referencing its ideas to the perceptions of reality. It is the most “grounded” way of producing strong ideas available. It is very careful to remove as many variables as possible and to rely only on observations and their computation.

when it comes down to it, there are no different forms of truth. To say so is to court a misunderstanding of the terms and to ignore the fact that all that is considered true is constantly being reduced to Simple Ideas and referenced with the perceptions of reality.

The question left and rising from this is: What can we take to be reality?

[quote]As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. Albert Einstein [/quote]



About the Author:

Bio: Philosopher, film maker, writer and IT expert. Occupation: IT Consultant, film-maker and writer. Interests: Debate, cooking, computer-gaming, reading, writing, videoing, martial arts, air­soft, movies, diving, skiing… (The list goes on — Basho is a philosopher and therefore into everything!)