Truth & Other Fictions

Posted by John Perry
administrator,Featured Contributor

We've titled this week's show "Truth – and Other Fictions."  Now that’s a provocative title, since truth is usually opposed to fiction.  So why don’t we break it down and start with truth.  

Some people think Aristotle basically had it right when he said, "To say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true".  I take it he meant that, for example, if I say this apple is red, what I say is true if this apple actually has the property of being red.  If I say this apple is not red, what I say is true if this apple does not have the property of being red.  What more is there to say?

Well, that’s all about what’s said or spoken.  But what about unspoken truths?  For instance, did a dinosaur sleep on this spot 60 million years ago?  That and a zillion others things like it would be true or false even if no one were ever around to talk about it.

This is starting to sound like Truth with a capital ‘T’ -- truth as a thing rather than as a mere property of assertions.  There’s everything that happens in the world, and then, hovering over all of that in some strange way, there is the Truth.  But do we need Truth with a capital ‘T’?  What’s wrong with Aristotle’s focus on truth as a property that beliefs and assertions can have?

We may not need truth with a capital ‘T’, but surely we do need more than apples and colors in the world.  We need more than individual objects and their simple properties.  There are laws of nature … and truths about morality, and God, and numbers.  All kinds of stuff.  And Aristotle doesn’t tell us what it means for all those truths to be true.

Maybe that’s no big problem.  That’s why philosophers these days talk more about facts.  If I say such and such, then what I say is true if there is a fact that's such and such.  I’ll revise the definition.  Assertions and beliefs are true if they correspond to the facts.  But now in addition to objects having properties, you’ve got a whole world of facts -- whatever those might be.  And that's way more complicated than Aristotle’s original idea.

So what if we forget about facts?  Here’s the simple point I think Aristotle was making: It’s true that the apple is red if the apple is red.  It’s true that E=mc2 if E=mc2.  To say that something is true, is just to say that thing.  That may not sound terribly informative, but that's why people call it the deflationary theory.  Truth is just a compliment we pay to sentences we are prepared to assert.

Simple as that sounds, though, as a theory it doesn’t work.  In fact, it leads to contradictions, something the Greeks worried about too.  Let’s say I say, “My statement is not true”.  Now, on the deflationist's formula, it’s true that my statement is not true if my statement is not true.  But if my statement is NOT true, it can’t also be true!  So we get the Liar’s Paradox.  We could try to ignore that problem and just avoiding saying stupid things like “My statement is not true,” but then it seems we're just pretending that we have a good theory of truth.  It's almost as though there’s really no such thing as truth -- it’s just a fiction we find useful at times.

Which brings us full circle to the title of the show -- Truth and Other Fictions.  The big question, then, is whether there really is something called The Truth?  Or is the idea of truth itself a fiction, something we just make up because it’s convenient?  


March 28, 2013


bhujagapati's picture
Submitted by bhujagapati (not verified) on June 30, 2013

Is truth really exists or not? Both of them.

To me truth is the average point our individual perceptions of nature that isn't proofed false yet. We might be proud of Einstein's view of Relativity that enlightens to the outworldly sensation of knowing more the universe upon a human's view. The next day we might see a scientist who revives Newton's Mechanism.
It exists as it represents the Nature, while it doesn't as it has an expiration date.

Dr. Sardonicus's picture
Submitted by Dr. Sardonicus (not verified) on April 19, 2013

Truth is somewhat relative. This evening, while watching Entertainment Tonight's coverage of the Boston terrorism, ABC News broke into the broadcast with REAL coverage of new developments in the ensuing manhunt. This crisis will end soon, if it has not already ended. For the record, it is not my understanding that Entertainment Tonight is a news program. Apparently, that program's creators believe that it is such. We have more than enough programming devoted to news coverage and we are subjected to plenty of it. ET ought to stick with what it does best: the sordid, maudlin, self-indulgent lives of entertainers. I wonder if anyone else thinks this way? Yes, truth is relative. Yet also necessary. Within the confines of context.

Paul D. Van Pelt's picture
Submitted by Paul D. Van Pelt (not verified) on April 10, 2013

Thanks, Michael. There was more than one question, though. It does not matter. Allow me to say this: your poetry is sensitive, if redundant. Your prose, when you let it out, is intelligent and philosophically provocative. We both like the blog---here's hoping our ideas/notions/opinions are adding something to the discussion.

Harold G. Neuman's picture
Submitted by Harold G. Neuman (not verified) on April 9, 2013

Good show, Jesse! Cogito, ergo grok. If you are young enough not to have read R.A. Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, please take the time to do so. It was, for me, a special story at a confusing time. And, IMHO, it remains timeless.

Michael J Ahles's picture
Submitted by Michael J Ahles (not verified) on April 9, 2013

Great question Paul!

Where did fiction start and truth end?
Who let the dogs out?

I think it all started with the uncertainty of a question that led to more uncertainty of thought. Some of those thoughts became uncertain answers, which led to sharing One's uncertain thoughts. Some of those shared uncertainties became stories passed on from people to people, generation to generation. And those same uncertain answers and stories became theories and others became faiths. Those theories and faiths led to the uncertainties of science and the uncertainties of religion. And those uncertain dogmas with all of its followers question today, what is certainty, what is the truth?

Today many and most are buried under a blanket of uncertainty, passed on from the uncertainties of old. To find the truth again one must simply remove what is not. Enlightenment is simply this Way!
Truth is more certain than a question,
And much more simple than thought.


Arvoasitis's picture
Submitted by Arvoasitis (not verified) on April 8, 2013

Unless I am missing the point in several of the blogs, I think that there is a great deal of faulty reasoning in the blogs on the current topic.
"This statement is false," seems to belong to a dimension other than true, false, or meaningless however one manipulates it.
"This statement is true," seems to me to be meaningless because simply saying that something is true does not make it so.
"This statement is meaningless," seems to me to be true.
Even though the professional logicians may not agree with my view, clearly there seem to be problems with the analysis of all simple self-referential statements.
Not so obvious, is the problem with the verb "is" and other variations of "to be." As George Santayana remarked ( in Scepticism and Animal Faith), "Whenever I use the word "is," except in sheer tautology, I deeply misuse it; and when I discover my error, the world seems to fall asunder . . .."
P.S. I first raised the issue of the liar's (or Epimenides) paradox n the hope that it could be set aside without further adieu.

Jesse L Teshara's picture
Submitted by Jesse L Teshara (not verified) on April 6, 2013

Truth (with a capital T) is the entire body of possible statements that are true. It doesn't exist as a platonic form, but it's still true! And red, for example, has a specific definition (from wikipedia) as light with the wavelength between 620-740 nanometers. Another example: If "only God is good" and "I am good" are true, then I am God is also true. Which might be another way of saying if "God is love" and "I love myself", then I God myself. Self-apotheosis! I think Philosophy Talk is fun.

Paul D. Van Pelt's picture
Submitted by Paul D. Van Pelt (not verified) on April 6, 2013

Mr. Ahles, bless his meta-physical soul, always brings us down to Earth and the simplicity of oneness. And, regardless of how we may espouse the expansion of complexity, we should pause and consider those things that make us happiest vs. those that do not. I wonder when it was that we first doubted truth and, moreover, why? There must have been at least one tipping point. I do not think it was Hiroshima. So, if there was some such epiphany, then---how long did it take for us to fashion the truth-as-fiction notion? Or, has it always been with us---ever since we became smart enough to lie? Tell me a story. I have heard many...

Michael J Ahles's picture
Submitted by Michael J Ahles (not verified) on April 6, 2013

The Sun does rise and move across the sky and set,
And if ever it doesn't it won't matter what you eat before swimming.

If you are still searching for truth, study Nature.

Thoreau wrote: How indispensable to a correct study of Nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will One day flower out into a truth. The season will mature and fructify what the understanding has cultivated. Mere accumulators of fact---collectors of materials for the master workmen---are like those plants growing in dark forests, which "put forth only leaves instead of blossoms."

The flower that grows
Nature's truth is immeasurable,
Her Unity, our Oneness, the single absolute.


Fred Griswold's picture
Submitted by Fred Griswold (not verified) on April 4, 2013

Here's a way to approach the liar's (or Epimenedes) paradox that Arvoasitis brings up. It really says two things, that it's true and that it's not true. Since it's saying two things, maybe it would be better to divide it up into two statements:

The next sentence is true.
The previous sentence is false.

Then you get to decide the truth of each of these statements independently. You could decide 1) that the first statement is true and the second statement is false; or 2) that the first statement is false and the second statement is true. If you take either of these two alternatives, the paradox vanishes.