Truth, Dissonance and Reason

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum : February 6, 2011

1. Logic, Truth and Sincerity

1.1 Truth is usually expressed in a three-fold manner. Statements which are logically consistent are often referred to as true; for example truth tables. This is despite the fact that logic and mathematics are quasi-empirical at best. More commonly there is one refers to factuality and the other to sincerity. The antithesis of these statements is the illogical, the false (wrong), and the insincere (more commonly called 'lying').

1.2 The multiple pragmatic boundaries that are called 'truth' is a source of some confusion. A logical and mathematical statement may not work in reality, as many engineers are all to willing to testify! More commonly, a person could be truthful, that is sincere, but in error (e.g., someone who really believes in the Biblical doctrine that the earth is a flat and immobile). Less likely, a person could express a statement which is factual, but doing so insincerely (e.g., a salesperson who deceptively over-estimates the price of a good, but actually does give its market value). It is therefore necessary to separate the logically consistent, with factual statements of truth from the expressive statements of sincerity i.e., logic, truth and sincerity.

1.3 Formal pragmatics argues that there are other expressions which cannot be evaluated by factual truth statements. For example, certain metaphysical claims (e.g., "Does God exist?) are beyond human cognition. As Durkheim pointed moral statements can not be ascertained from facts alone; the fact of murder tells us nothing about its moral rightness ("We do not reprove it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we reprove it"). Finally, aesthetic judgements are so tied to individual tastes ("beauty is in the eye of the beholder") that making factual classification of aesthetic standards is impossible, despite attempts at aggregations.

2. Relative and Absolute Factual Truths

Is it possible to pick and choose one's truth, like a shopping list, from personal preferences? Or is truth absolute?

There are several theories of factual truth.

2.1 Correspondence theory. Correspondence theory argues that propositions must correspond to objective reality. As Thomas Aquinas wrote: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus ("Truth is the equation of things and intellect"). However direct correspondence theory is difficult to achieve; in particular there are the problems of language, the possibility of equivalent meaning between subjects and, from a psychoanalytic point of view, even within subjects.

2.2 Coherence theory. Coherence theory argues that propositions must have logical consistency and lend inferential support to other propositions. A more coherent theory has a greater degree of consistency and comprehensiveness. More strongly tied to a theory of logical truth, rather than factual truth, there remains the debate in logical and mathematics on whether there a multiple systems of coherence or a single system. Gödel's first incompleteness theorem states that: "Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete."

2.3 Constructivist theory. Constructivist theory is a form of philosophical relativism, and argues that facts are not discovered (correspondence) or systematic (coherence) but rather are mental constructs proposed that explain our sensory experience. As a result, there is no single valid methodology. Vico wrote verum ipsum factum "truth itself is constructed" and "the norm of the truth is to have made it". Note that philosophical or epistemological constructivism differs somewhat from social constructivism; Marx for example did claimed there were not deny that many hold socially constructed beliefs were actually false.

2.4 Consensus theory. Consensus theory argues that truth is based on agreement, or as Ferm wrote, "that which is universal among men carries the weight of truth". No serious philosopher holds to this in a pure or naïve sense. A more sophisticated version of consensus theory looks at how such claims of truth are reached and developed or as a heuristic tool.

2.4 Pragmatic theory. Pragmatic theory argues that truth is verified, confirmed or falsified ("negative pragmatism") by the results of putting one's concepts into practice. As Pierce wrote: "the 'true' is only the expedient in our way of thinking". It is considered an advanced form of the correspondence theory because the it goes beyond a purely nominal sense and becomes strongly associated with process, which occurs in a community.

As can be seen there is some overlap between the different theories. If reality is singular, then any correspondence theory will increasingly develop a higher level of coherence and constructs that have better explanatory strength. Pragmatic community testing of propositions will lead towards statements that have a higher possibility of consensus. Indeed, it is quite possible to argue that the many theories of truth are actually one and the same with the main difference being one of emphasis.

3. Dissonance, Madness and Reason

3.1 Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort when one holds conflicting ideas simultaneously (e.g., claiming to support human rights and simultaneously supporting a totalitarian regime). This discomfort has been studied extensively in psychology and has been identified in the brain.

3.2 There are two methods of dealing with dissonance; either by changing one's values or beliefs (i.e., via reason) or by seeking justifications, blame or engaging in denial. The latter path leads to unconscious dissonance which may eventuate in madness A classical example of this idea (and the origin of the expression "sour grapes") is expressed in the fable The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop.