Friday, October 01, 2010

True Enough

What is truth? Clearly it includes (following Aristotle) saying, of what is, that it is, and saying of what isn’t that it isn’t. The obvious contrast is with falsity, with saying of what is that it isn’t, or of what isn’t that it is. Truth, then, is the fit of our words with the world.
......But words exist in a public language and so, given how we come to acquire our linguistic skills, vague meanings are inevitably ubiquitous. Still, we invariably speak within some context, wherein we need only say enough to make our meaning clear enough. Our words can describe the world well enough—they usually do—and then what we say is true enough. And when it isn’t, we can always be more precise.
......We can even introduce new terms into our language, if we have to (as scientists and philosophers). Indeed, there seems to be no logical limit to our ability to be ever more precise. And so to say that something is true is, more precisely, to say that it’s true enough. Bivalent propositional logics—in which each sentence is either true or else false—are just rough approximations to the truth.
......Consider some commonplace examples: The table at which I’m typing this is flat—it isn’t warped or lopsided—but in another sense it isn’t flat, not being perfectly smooth and horizontal. To say that it’s flat is to say something that’s true enough.
......And similarly, to return to the themes of previous posts, ‘grass is green’ is true because ordinary grass (such as fills lawns and pastures) reflects the green bits of daylight (fuzzily delineated bits) ordinarily (e.g. when there’s no drought).
......And it’s insofar as chairs exist that it’s true to say of them that they do.
......And do rainbows exist? Well, in a sense they do (e.g. we can refer each other to them), but there is clearly a sense in which they don’t (much as mirages are not oases).
......What do we mean by ‘grass’ or ‘chair’? Such things form obvious kinds, which is how we come to learn such words. What most of our words have, then, are meanings that are definite enough. Indeed, such vagueness may well be logically necessary, in any possible medium of communication. But even if a more definite language was possible, it’s the vagueness we have which means that our words can be given more definite meanings as required. So a less vague language would in any case be a less useful tool.

2 comments:

Xamuel said...

In light of results like that of Friedman & Sheard (they took a bunch of reasonable-seeming axioms about self-referential truth, pointed out that altogether they are inconsistent, and then found seven or eight maximal consistent subsets of those axioms), it's probably better to ask "what are truths" rather than "what is THE truth".

enigMan said...

Not really; Liar paradoxes actually present no problem for our intuitive concept of truth, as is shown by such intuitively satisfying resolutions as the one I presume in my Liars, Divine Liars and Semantics. And while the inconsistency of Friedman & Sheard's axioms indicates that they were, even if apparently reasonable, at best an imperfect axiomatization of truth, it doesn't follow that any maximally consistent subset is going to be an adequate axiomatization of something deserving of the name 'truth'.