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The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé

Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.

Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?

Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.

Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?

Protagoras: Indeed I do.

Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.

Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates. (Plato’s dialogue Protagoras)

“The choice between competing theories is arbitrary, since there is no such thing as objective truth.” (Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. II (London, 1963), p. 369f.)

“There is no unique truth, no unique objective reality” (Ernest Gellner, Relativism and the Social Sciences (Cambridge, 1985), p. 84.)

“There is no substantive overarching framework in which radically different and alternative schemes are commensurable” (Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 11-12.)

Sherwood Anderson on "true"

"In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful. (…)

There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Parable of the blind men and elephant (the manifold nature of truth)

"A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a drain pipe".

For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, “I perceive the shape of the elephant to be like a pillar”. And in the case of the one who placed his hand upon its back said, “Indeed, this elephant is like a throne”.

Now, each of these presented a true aspect when he related what he had gained from experiencing the elephant. None of them had strayed from the true description of the elephant. Yet they fell short of fathoming the true appearance of the elephant.”

Two of the many references to this parable are found in Tattvarthaslokavatika of Vidyanandi (9th century) and Syādvādamanjari of Ācārya Mallisena (13th century). Mallisena uses the parable to argue that immature people deny various aspects of truth; deluded by the aspects they do understand, they deny the aspects they don’t understand. "Due to extreme delusion produced on account of a partial viewpoint, the immature deny one aspect and try to establish another. This is the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant."   Mallisena also cites the parable when noting the importance of considering all viewpoints in obtaining a full picture of reality. "It is impossible to properly understand an entity consisting of infinite properties without the method of modal description consisting of all viewpoints, since it will otherwise lead to a situation of seizing mere sprouts (i.e., a superficial, inadequate cognition), on the maxim of the blind (men) and the elephant.”

— (The ancient Jain texts) ☞ See also: Anekantavada

                                                         ***

Sophists:

"In response to the confusion, one group of philosophers concluded that there is not just one truth but many. In fact, they believed that anything is true if you can convince someone that it is true. Nothing, they said, is inherently right or wrong, but believing makes it so. These philosophers were called Sophists. The Sophists were profesional teachers of rhetoric and logic who believed that effective communication determined whether an idea was considered relative, and therefore no single truth was thought to exist. This belief marked a major shift in philosophy. The question was no longer, What is the universe made of? but, what can humans know and how can they know it? In other words, there was a shift towards epistemological questions.” (…)

Protagoras (ca. 485-410 B.C.), the first and best known Sophist, summarized the Sophists’ position with his famous statement: "Man is the measure of all things - of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not". This statement is pregnant with meaning. First, truth depends on the perceiver rather than on physical reality. Second, because perceptions vary with the previous experiences of the perceiver, they will vary from person to person. Third, what is considered to be true will be, in part, culturally determined because one’s culture influences once’s experiences. Fourth, to understand why a person believes as he or she does, one must understand the person. According to Protagoras, therefore, each of the preceding philosophers was presenting his subjective viewpoint rather than the objective “truth” about physical repality. Paraphrasing Heraclitus’s famous statement, Protagoras said, "Man never steps into the same river once," becasue the river is different for each individual to begin with. Protagoras emphasized the importance of rhetorical skills in getting one’s point of view considered and, perhaps, to prevail. (…)

Gorgias (ca. 485-380 B.C.) Protagoras concluded that, because each person’s experience furnishes him or her with what seems to be true, “all things are equally true.” Gorgias, however, regarded the fact that knowledge is subjective and relative as proof that “all things are equally false.” Furthermore, because the individual can know only his or her private perceptions, there can be no objective basis for determining truth.” (…)

— (B. R. Hergenhahn, An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Cengage Learning, 2008, p.41-42.)

Socrates observes that if someone, x, believes Protagoras’ doctrine, they must agree that no one ever makes a false judgment. This, in itself, is said to be incredible, though Protagoras would not have conceded this. (No person makes ajudgment that is false for themself; but they may make a judgment that is false for x.) The main argument comes when the observation is applied to Protagoras’ view itself (171a5-c7):

The argument is an attempt to establish that Protagoras’ view is true for no one, including himself (whilst the same is not true of the views of his opponents). They key part of it is that where Socrates attempts to show that Protagoras’ views are false by his own lights.” - (Plato's Theaetetus (dialogue) cited in Graham Priest, Beyond the limits of thought, CUP Archive, 1995, p. 54-55.)

Aristotle: “The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.” — (Aristotle, Metaphysics (translated by W. D. Ross))

                                                       ***

"According to Michael Krausz [American philosopher and artist], “Relativism is a theory of logic rather than epistemology, though in particular discussions, are clear-cut distinction is not easily drawn.” He offers the theory of Nelson Goodman, who characterizes “his position as ‘radical relativist with restraints.’” as an example:

"Since no "world" independent of our symbol systems is accessible, it cannot function in our cognitive judgments. So, "truth," for Goodman, turns out to be a feature of the internal relations within symbol system, a feature explicable after the epistemic limits have been drawn."

(…) It is consistent with John Dewey's definition of truth as “warranted assertibility,” and it seems to be the necessary outcome of any adequate recognition of the limitations of human knowing. If we are not aware of, if we have no access to the “world” independent of our symbol systems,” then it seems necessary to conclude that truth may be defined only in terms of the relations of those symbol systems of which we are aware.” — (Christopher Stephen Lutz, Tradition in the ethics of Alasdair MacIntyre: relativism, Thomism, and philosophy, Lexington Books, 2004. p. 67-68.)

Donald Davidson in On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme (pdf):

"It would be wrong to summarize by saying we have shown how communication is possible between people who have different schemes, a way that works without need of what there cannot be, namely a neutral ground, or a common coordinate system. For we have found not intelligible basis on which it can be said that schemes are different. It would be equally wrong to announce the glorious news that all mankind - all speakers of language, at least - share a common scheme and ontology. For if we cannot intelligibly say that schemes are different, neither can we intelligibly say that they are one.

In giving up dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside all schemes and science, we do not relinquish the notion of objective truth - quite the contrary. Given the dogma of dualism of scheme and reality, we get conceptual relativity, and truth relative to a scheme. Without the dogma, this kind of relativity goes by the board. Of course truth of sentences remains relative to language, but that is as objective as can be. In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we do not give up the world, but reestablish unmediated touch with the familar objects whose antics make our senteces and opinions true or false.”

— (Donald Davidson in On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme cited in Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics, and praxis, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, p.76.)

Friedrich Nietzsche:

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)

A. S. Eddington in ‘Space time and Gravitation’:

"Here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three-Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensional being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing." H. G. Wells, English author (1866-1946), The Time Machine cited in A. S. Eddington, Space time and Gravitation (pdf), Cambridge University Press, 1920, p.41.

"Let us compare two well-known books, which might be described as elementary treatises on relativity, Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels. Alice was continually changing size, sometimes growing, sometimes on the point of vanishing altogether. Gulliver remained the same size, but on one occasion he encountered a race of men of minute size with everything in proportion, and on another voyage a land where everything was gigantic. It does not require much reflection to see that both authors are describing the same phenomenon - a relative change of scale of observer and observed. Lewis Carroll took what is probably the ordinary scientific view, that the observer had changed, rather than that a simultaneous change had occurred to all her surroundings. But it would never have appeared like that to Alice; she could not have “stepped outside and looked at herself,” picturing herself as a giant filling the room. She would have said that the room had unaccountably shrunk. Dean Swift took the truer wiev of the human mind when he made Gulliver attribute his own changes to the things around him; it never occurred to Gulliver that his own size had altered; and, if he had thought of the explanation, he could scarcely have accustomed himself to that way of thinking. But both points of view are legitimate. The size of a thing can only be imagined as relative to something else; and there is no means of assigning the change to one end of the relation rather that to other.”

— (A. S. Eddington, Space time and Gravitation (pdf), Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1920,p. 29.)

Joshua Roebke:

None of us perceives the world as it exists fundamentally. We do not observe the tiniest bits of matter, nor the forces that move them, individually through our senses. We evolved to experience the world in bulk, our faculties registering the net effect of trillions upon trillions of particles or atoms moving in concert. We are crude measurers. So divorced are we from the activity beneath our experience that physicists became relatively assured of the existence of atoms only about a century ago.

Physicists attribute a fundamental reality to what they do not directly perceive. Particles and atoms have observable effects that are well described by theories like quantum mechanics. Single atoms have been “seen” in measurements and presumably exist whether or not we observe them individually. The properties that define particles—mass, spin, etc.—are also thought to exist before we measure them. In physics this is how reality is defined; particles and atoms have measurable properties that exist prior to measurement. This is nothing stranger than your blue couch.”

“In the history of physics, we have learned that there are distinctions that we really should not make, such as between space and time… It could very well be that the distinction we make between information and reality is wrong. This is not saying that everything is just information. But it is saying that we need a new concept that encompasses or includes both.” — Anton Zeilinger

— (Joshua Roebke, author and a Visiting Scholar at UC, Berkeley in The Office for History of Science and Technology, The Reality Tests. Do we create the world just by looking at it?, SEED Magazine, June 4, 2008.)

Martin Heidegger on truth

"Heidegger’s way of understanding the originary phenomenon of truth is to “make clear the mode of being of the cognition itself.” His starting point is a proposition that is not based on intuition. Someone says with his or her back to the wall: this picture hangs askew. The proposition embodies the claim to have discovered the picture (as a being) in the “how” (the mode) of its being. The proposition displays this “how” of being in language. In the attempt to verify the proposition by sensuous experience, the recognition, according to Heidegger, is directed only to the intended being (the picture) and not to the proposition. It is directed to the being itself (which is to be verified by perception) in its mode of uncoveredness (Entdeckt-heir), i.e., in its showing-itself. Confirmation (Bewährung) means this showing-itself of the being in the same way in which it is intended in the proposition.

A true proposition shows the being in its mode of uncoveredness. The phenomenon of “originary truth” does not have the character of correspondence. It is the ground of the concept of truth in the sense of correspondence and propositional truth. By unfolding the meaning of alétheia Heidegger shows us a more originary sense of truth as unconcealment (Unverborgenheit). He wants to show that this concept coincides with the first and originary concept of truth in Greek thinking. In this primary sense only the discovering human Dasein can be “true” while it is Being-discovering (Entdeckend-Sein). On the other hand, beings (Seiendes) that we can find in the world can only “be” in a secondary mode, i.e., as being-discovered (Entdecktsein). They can only make a claim to uncoveredness. Their fundament is the Being-discovering of the human Dasein. The being-true of a discovered being is only possible as being discovered by human Dasein as being-in-the-world.

The authentic Being of Dasein, the being-in-the truth, presupposes disclosedness (Erschlossenheit) of the world in states-of-mind (Befindlichkeiten), understanding, and discourse, i.e., the constitution of the being (Seinsverfassung) of human Dasein as thrownness (Geworfenheit) and project (Entwurf). The mode of being of Dasein is characterized equiprimordially (gleichursprünglich) by the possibility of both authenticity (being-in-the-truth) and the deficient mode (Verfallsform) of inauthenticity. In the mode of the “they” (das Man), of obstruction (Verstelltheit), of gossip (Gerede), Dasein is in untruth. Thus the being-in-the-world of human Dasein is determined at the same time by truth and untruth. We must always fight anew for the truth of Dasein (Being-discovering). Following Heidegger, the negative expression “a-létheia” expresses the fact that hiding itself is a main characteristic of Being. In the hiding-itself of Being, human Dasein is hidden for itself in the mode of untruth.

Heidegger wants to make evident how the transition from the originary concept of truth as alétheia to “correspondence” came about. He wants to make clear that correspondence is only a derived form of truth: in a proposition Being should be displayed in the mode of its uncoveredness. In the inauthentic forms of mere reproducing and hearsay, the proposition becomes itself something ready-to-hand (Zuhandenes). Thus we have to engage in the demonstration of the uncoveredness that is preserved in the proposition. In this way the relation between proposition and discovered being then itself becomes something present-at-hand (Vorhandenes) and can be understood as a correspondence of proposition and being (intellectus and res). The fact that we are used to disregarding the originary dimension of truth is an aspect of our forgetfulness of Being (Seinsvergessenheit).

The originary dimension of truth in human Dasein “is given” (gibt es) only as long as there is Dasein. All truth is relative to the being of Dasein. Thus the claim that there could be “eternal truth” seems to Heidegger to be “fantastic.” Against the background of this relativity of truth to the being of Dasein, Heidegger asks anew: why must we presuppose that truth “is given”? His answer is that the possibility of truth (authenticity) and untruth (inauthenticity) belongs to the facticity of human Dasein. From the point of view of existential ontology, the being of human Dasein (its disclosedness) and truth are synonims.”

— Dieter Lohmar, Truth - in: Lester Embree et alii (eds.) - Encyclopedia of phenomenology - Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1997, pp. 711-712.

Mahatma Gandhi:

"Though in Gandhi’s philosophy relativity of truth is important, this relativity has an ultimate aim, that is, to achieve the absolute truth. This relativity of truth is essential to realise absoluteness of truth. Differences are fundamental and cannot be avoided. Relativity is universal and cannot be ignored. Particularity is natural and it must not be overlooked. The beauty of unity lies in diversity. We must accept this universal truth that all that happen in this phenomenal world are highly relative in nature. They have different causes. And every cause produces further cause; thus they are relative in nature. (…) But Gandhi never speaks about complete relativism or subjectivism. Instead, he says that no one knows truth absolutely. No one knows non-violence absolutely. It means in Gandhi relativity or particularity or difference is valued, but not relativism or particularism, which absolutises it. The only access to the absolute is through the relative approach. Relativity is a means to achieve the Absolute end.”

— (Upasana Pandey, Mahatma Gandhi and Modern Civilisation, Mainstream, Oct 2, 2010.)

Buckminster Fuller:

That is what you want to know - the truth about everything - and then the truth about combinations of things. Some combinations have such logic and integrity that they can work coherently despite non-working elements embraced by their system.

Whenever you come to a word with which you are not familiar, find it in the dictionary and write a sentence which uses that new word. Words are tools - and once you have learned how to use a tool you will never forget it. Just looking for the meaning of the word is not enough. If your vocabulary is comprehensive, you can comprehend both fine and large patterns of experience.”

Buckminster Fuller, American engineer, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, and futurist (1895-1983), from Critical Path (1981), St Martin’s Press, NY

[This note will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

Cognition, relativity tag on Lapidarium
Cognition, perception, relativity tag on Lapidarium notes
Relativism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Pluralist Theories of Truth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Relativism, The Proceedings of the Friesian School
Objectivity, IEP
Map–territory relation - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Qualia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Qualia: The Knowledge Argument, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Correspondence Theory of Truth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Relativism - The Cognitive Construction of Reality , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
☞ Susan Haack, The Unity of Truth and The Plurality of Truths (pdf), University of Miami
☞ Gila Sher, What is Tarski’s Theory of Truth? (pdf)
☞ Panu Raatikainen, More on Putnam and Tarski (pdf)
☞ Michael Glanzberg, Semantics and Truth Relative to a World (pdf), University of California, Davis
Overview: Simplicity, Possible Worlds Semantics, and Relativism (pdf)
☞ Arianna Betti, Sempiternal Truth. The Bolzano-Twardowski-Leśniewski Axis (pdf), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte
☞ Richard Baker, Science and truth
☞ Peter Fristedt, Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Relativity of Truth and Meaning, International Journal of Philosophical Studies
☞ Jeff Malpas–Tasmania, Truth, Politics, and Democracy – Arendt, Orwell, and Camus
Martin Heidegger on Aletheia (Truth) as Unconcealment
Isaac Asimov on The Relativity of Wrong, Lapidarium
Werner Herzog, On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth, Boston University
John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices, Lapidarium
Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking
The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks