Sunday, 8 December 2013

Possessed by truth: a journey

Color of truth

[Warning: long read.]

One of the points made by Pope Francis in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari at the beginning of September regarded the nature of truth, which he likened to a relationship and which he argued “embraces and possesses us” instead of us possessing it. In this post, I would like to revisit this passage and look at it, and related statements made by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, through the lens of philosophy.

The question of truth is one of the central concerns of philosophy and theories about it impact a vast variety of other aspects of rational enquiry. Since it is such a central theme, my attempt to look at Francis’ and Ravasi’s words from the point of view of philosophy will necessarily be in the form of a very roughly-ground lens1 indeed and all that I can hope to convey are blurry silhouettes. To keep the argument at a high level (as much as I would love to delve into the depths, e.g., of Alfred Tarski’s approach), I will mostly stick to summaries provided in the Stanford Encyclopedia’s “truth” entry and round it out by headlines from the “truth” entry in the Wikipedia.

With the caveats out of the way, let’s first look at the concept of truth most akin to what is typically meant by this word in “ordinary language” (i.e., language as used without the machinery of technical definitions - effectively the language spoken by “the man on the Clapham omnibus” to borrow an expression from English law). Here, an expression, statement, declaration, description, account, etc. is true if it matches how things actually are. If I say “there is a cat on the mat” and there actually is a cat on the mat then what I have said is true. What does philosophy make of the concept though and how does it deal with the pandora’s box that spills out left, right and center, when a basic idea like truth is subjected to scrutiny and deconstruction (in “ordinary language” terms).

As the King said to Alice, very gravely, let’s begin at the beginning - or at least reasonably close to it - and look at how Aristotle (who had something to say about pretty much everything) thought of the truth. In his Metaphysics, he declares: “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (Book 4, Part 7). This, in fact, is close to the everyday meaning of the word and a variant of what today would be called the correspondence theory of truth - a theory still adhered to by many philosophers today and a theory (or class of theories) that I too consider to be best representative of my own understanding.

Put in more contemporary terms, “[a] belief is true if and only if it corresponds to a fact.” There is immediately a host of questions that spring up: is belief the only possible “truth-bearer” or are there others, what is the nature of correspondence, and what is a fact and can there be other “truth-makers”? Put in more generic terms, the above definition becomes: “a truth-bearer is true if and only if it corresponds to a truth-maker.” Here truth-bearers include entities like beliefs, propositions, sentences or utterances, truth-makers can be entities like a world that exists objectively (i.e., independently of the ways we think about it or describe it), electrodes connected to a brain’s nerve endings in a jar, states of a self’s consciousness and correspondence can refer to a match on the truth-bearer’s structure to the truth maker’s structure or just to convention (i.e., the “situationist” argument). As is obvious, a sprawling tree of choices grows from under our feet even just by enumerating some of the options, never mind engaging with them.

As should be obvious from the “truth is truth-bearer corresponding to truth-maker” way of posing of the correspondence theory of truth, the schema lends itself to modification and also to analysis using mathematical, formal languages methods (as Tarski did - more about that in a future post ...). Still using my ultra-rough lens, let’s next look at G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell’s identity theory of truth, where “corresponding” becomes “being identical to” - i.e. “a true proposition is identical to a fact [...] Propositions are what are believed, and give the contents of beliefs. They are [..] the primary bearers of truth. When a proposition is true, it is identical to a fact, and a belief in that proposition is correct.” This is essentially a flavor of the correspondence theory, cutting out the bearer-maker dichotomy.

The most substantial competing theory of truth though is the coherence theory, whose basic idea can be put as: “A belief is true if and only if it is part of a coherent system of beliefs.” Truth here is not constrained to individual truth-bearers (instead whole systems of beliefs are the primary truth-bearers) and is “not simply a test or criterion for truth. Far from being a matter of whether the world provides a suitable object to mirror a proposition, truth is a matter of how beliefs are related to each-other. [... It] insists that truth is not a content-to-world relation at all; rather, it is a content-to-content, or belief-to-belief, relation.”

Extending the two basic concepts of correspondence versus coherence are a host of other, more recent approaches. Here pragmatist theories (e.g., as propagated by C. S. Peirce) make truth be about its practical value, since “[t]rue beliefs are guaranteed not to conflict with subsequent experience.” Verificationism instead “holds that a claim is correct just insofar as it is in principle verifiable, i.e., there is a verification procedure we could in principle carry out which would yield the answer that the claim in question was verified. [.. T]ruth just is verifiability.” Deflationist theories (e.g., as put forward by Gotlob Frege) argue that there is no property of something being true - that the concept is redundant. “[A]ppearances of the expression ‘true’ in our sentences are redundant, having no effect on what we express.” Constructivist theories instead hold “that truth is constructed by social processes, is historically and culturally specific, and that it is in part shaped through the power struggles within a community.” This is, e.g., the truth theory that underlies gender theory. A related, democratized, alternative is consensus theory where “truth is whatever is agreed upon.”

In summary, and in Cardinal Ravasi’s words:
“There are essentially two opposing approaches to the concept. The first is a relativistic, subjective view which sees Truth as a sort of Medusa‐like figure, constantly changing appearance depending on the circumstances. [... This view argues] that Truth does not in itself have any ontological basis and, for this reason, should be left free to follow the course of continual change.

The second approach to Truth [...] holds that there is an objective – or rather, transcendent – Truth. [... Here] an emblematic image is provided in Plato’s Phaedrus, where the soul is likened to a chariot that flies across the plain of Truth. [...] Adorno, in interpreting one of the aphorisms of Truth in his Minima Moralia, maintained that “one does not have [the Truth], but is in it.” Hence, humanity, finding itself within the womb of Truth, uses the mind to take it in, to become familiar with it, to investigate and illuminate it. There is clearly an attempt to combine the two aspects: on the one hand, a Truth which precedes us; on the other, a Truth which the individual must choose to enter. We read in Robert Musilʹs The Man Without Qualities that: “The Truth is not a precious stone to be kept in a casket, but a sea in which to immerse oneself”. This approach emphasizes the primacy – or precedence – of Truth, which is to be understood not as dominion but rather as illumination: a Truth more complex than mere rational knowledge.”
In fact, it is the above concepts - from a talk by Ravasi in 2009 - that, to my mind, underpin Pope Francis’ response to Eugenio Scalfari a couple of months ago and already the positioning of truth in Francis and Benedict XVI’s Lumen Fidei: “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all.”

With all of that under our belts, let’s take a fresh look at Francis’ response to Scalfari:
“I would not speak about “absolute” truths, even for believers, in the sense that absolute is that which is disconnected and bereft of all relationship. Truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship. As such each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture and situation in life, etc. This does not mean that truth is variable and subjective, quite the contrary. But it does signify that it comes to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: “I am the way, the truth, and the life?” In other words, truth, being completely one with love, demands humility and an openness to be sought, received and expressed. Therefore, we must have a correct understanding of the terms and, perhaps, in order to overcome being bogged down by conflicting absolute positions, we need to redefine the issues in depth. I believe this is absolutely necessary in order to initiate that peaceful and constructive dialogue.”
Armed with my rough, philosophical lens, the above looks to me very much like a correspondence theory: correspondence here is the relationship Francis speaks about, the truth-maker is God and his creation and the truth-bearer are my own, circumstance-, culture-, language-relative beliefs, thoughts and utterances. The truth-maker is absolute and objective, while the truth-bearer is ultimately its opposite: relative, in flux and existentially subjective. The image of a journey and of being embraced express the entities of this scheme in an intuitive way. On the one hand, the givenness and quiddity of the landscape, which envelops the traveller, and on the other hand, the subjective, observer-dependent experiences of it, had by the pilgrim (the "For now we see through a glass, darkly." of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12)). What makes this paradigm profoundly Christian though is what Francis points to when he identifies truth with “the love of God for us in Jesus Christ.” The truth-maker is reaching out to the truth-bearer across the absolute-relative chasm, placing himself in relationship with His creatures, who are to Him like a dimensionless point is to the unbounded hyper-dimensional space.

Before you change channels, just bear with me while I try to put the above in other, less faith-dependent words. The concept of truth presented by Francis, as I understand it, is one that maintains the realism2 of a classical correspondence theory of truth, while acknowledging elements of contemporary truth theories that point to the impact of social, historical, conventional, linguistic and individually-subjective factors on the truth-bearers. Unlike truth theories that are marked by an absence of realism (e.g., coherence, pragmatist, verificationist and constructivist ones), here the imperfect and inherently subjective truth-bearers are still in relationship with their truth-makers. Up to this point, the theory does not make recourse to Christian beliefs and could just as easily be held by an atheist, in my opinion. Where it diverges is then in the belief that the truth-maker is not only an objective reality but also a personal agent who actively seeks to relate to the subject owning the truth-bearers. I didn’t say I’d put it more simply :)

1 Apologies to my überbestie MR - a fully-qualified and practicing professional philosopher - for bringing the name of philosophy into disrepute. I am sure she could have done a far superior job of the following.
2 And by “realism” I mean that the truth-makers are posited to exist independently of the truth-bearer’s circumstances - not the typical, ordinary-language meanings of the term.