Monday, July 28, 2008

Why truth "is" never "true"

Today I happened across this quote from Ernest Hemingway:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.

On the face of it, I think he means that a good story says something we can all relate to. Fine.

But it then occurred to me to ask why fiction accomplishes that better than non-fiction. And the answer jumped out at me: fiction can leave out all the stuff that makes things gray and imprecise and ambiguous.

So what does that say about "truth"? I think it says that "truth is what you get when you leave out the stuff that doesn't quite fit." In other words, when you dial the gray areas into black and white, then you have something you can make a solid decision about: black bad, white good. Which might explain why we find it so hard to pin down "truth" and why we argue about it so much.

In Levels of Knowing and Existence, Harry Weinberg devotes a whole chapter to discussing beauty. In a "beautiful" example of clear and unequivocal logic, he shows that the quest for "beauty" cannot possibly succeed, because "it" doesn't exist. He describes how we apply the word "beauty" to wildly disparate experiences for wildly different reasons, and says, in effect, that we use the word "beauty" when we experience a range of feelings, triggered by a range of experiences, but that no thing exists that we can call "beauty". I recall thinking at the time, that beauty is kind of like your "lap" or your "voice": it only "exists" while you are "using" it, because it has more to do with a moment and a process.

"Truth" falls into the same category: something can only "be true" as long as we narrow the object to something specific, for a particular person, for a particular time. No "thing" exists that we can call "truth". Only by a quirk of language does the word qualify as a noun, which tricks us into believing that it must, like other nouns, "exist" "out there".

In GS, we try to address this problem by "dating" and "indexing": "this is true at this time for this purpose" for example. But does that really address the problem? It still implies a certain amount of noun-ness, as I see it. We might do better to craft a new form of word, something that embodies "observer's semantic reacting".

Stephen Colbert's lovely coinage, "truthiness", comes close, by incorporating the inherent subjectivity of an observation of "truth" as seen in this definition from Wikipedia:
Truthiness is a word that U.S. television comedian Stephen Colbert popularized in 2005 as a satirical term to describe things that a person claims to know intuitively or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
Granted some things seem to evoke the reaction of "truth" more reliably than others, but when every such event involves dimensions of perspective, time, and context, I don't see any "there" there that all people would agree on for all times and purposes.

So, in effect, "truth" is never "true", it only kind of "feels" or "seems" "true" "for now" "to me". Or so it seems, to me.