The Useless Idea of Truth

When I have conversations about the nature of reality, or truth, or existence, there’s a recurring theme of the assumption that reality, either in whole or in part, is external or objective.

This is all fine, except frequently people tend to treat this not as an assumption, but as an unquestioned fact. As in, there is a difficulty conceiving of the possibility of reality as anything but external.

This is reflected in the use of the word ‘truth’ (or reality, or existence, but let’s use ‘truth’ for now).

“Yes, we want to believe that God exists, but are we really believing the truth?”

“Is it true that light is kinda a wave?”

“We must discover the truth of this murder mystery.”

As is generally a good practice to figure out the meaning of words, we should watch what happens in our minds when we use this word. What sort of concepts are occurring within us when we say “Is it true that God exists?”

We usually handle truth like this: We imagine some sort of large reality around us as it is purely, untouched and unfiltered by our fallible brains skewed by millennia of evolution. And we imagine ourselves in this reality, as the fallible brain skewed by millennia of evolution. And our fallible brain holds an image of the pure world around us. It matches up in some ways, and in other ways it doesn’t. If the images match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is true. If they don’t match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is false.

Of course the problem here is that both the pure world and our image of ourselves within the pure world are both taking place…. inside our image of the world. The idea of an external reality or independent truth in itself is only happening because we are imagining it happening.

We might try to explain this in terms of evolution and our brain (e.g., we evolved to simulate external reality) – but the trick is that no matter what sort of explanation we have to address our perception of truth, that explanation itself lies within our imagination and our subjective assumption that truth is external (e.g., the idea of evolution requires the assumption that an external world featuring evolution does exist). It is circular – you cannot argue for external existence without first assuming external existence.

One counterargument I’ve heard is the sensation of surprise. If truth itself occurs only within our own brains – if reality is entirely self-created, then how do we encounter things like prediction violation and the sense of false belief? As in – no matter how hard I believe that it’s going to rain tonight, my belief does not affect whether or not it rains, and maybe it doesn’t rain at all. If the concept of external truth is meaningless, then why do we run into the feeling that the world isn’t obedient to our expectations? Disobedience implies that there is something else to disobey us, doesn’t it?

In order to address this I want to move sideways a bit.

I think that the word ‘truth’ can be taboo’d and its meanings divided into two categories, both not invoking the use of any sort of idea of external reality.

One – that of internal consistency. Something is ‘true’ if one thing is compatible and non-contradictory with another thing. Math falls into this category. 2+2=4 is true (consistent). “If this, then that” statements fall into this category. Internal consistency makes no claims about objective reality, only about things like logic.

Belief operates off of internal consistency. I do not believe in God because the assumptions I would have to make to believe in God cannot coexist with a lot of other assumptions I have about the world. I naturally seek internally consistent explanations for any sorts of mysteries – if my breakfast vanishes off the table, I look for explanations that make sense with my worldview – am I on a prank show, am I dreaming, did I have a seizure? If I decide that I am on a prank show, I am not necessarily deciding that in “pure reality” there is a prank show, only that my interpretation of a prank show matches up with my interpretation of a missing breakfast. Our assumptions about external reality also exist because, ironically, external reality seems internally consistent.

The formation of belief systems and belief consistency and what makes one system more consistent than another is a great topic and one I’m planning on exploring deeper in another post.

Anyway – the second truth category is that of direct experience. This is a bit harder to explain because it’s easy for us to try to fit it into the first category, but try not to.

This is for ‘knowledge’ that cannot be inconsistent. It is for ‘truth’ which, in no possible interpretation or imagination, can be considered to hold inconsistency with another truth. This eliminates basically all statements (That is an apple pie, color is light waves hitting your eye, the earth spins around the sun) and leaves only experience, or qualia. I mean the sensation of looking at red, the feeling of the weight of your body, the sound of the hum of electricity.

“Color as a light wave” is not what I mean. If we can imagine color not as a light wave, then it is thus “possibly false” and no longer qualifies as an experience. I mean the direct experience of what it is to witness color before you. Even if you’re in a simulation, even if color is actually created by metaphysical crayons scribbling on a wall, even if you are dreaming, even if color isn’t real – in every scenario in which you can imagine falseness – you are still having the experience of color, right this second, regardless of the explanation.

Thus what our brains do when we think about “truth” can be substituted fully by two things – consistency, and experience.

Now back to the counterargument about prediction and surprise. Can we explain the sensation of surprise entirely within the terms of consistency and/or experience?

When I expect it to rain and then it doesn’t and I feel surprised, what is happening? In my subjective experience, this moment, I am imagining a prior version of myself that had a belief about the world (it will rain!), and I am holding a different belief than what I imagine my previous self had (It isn’t raining!). I am holding a contrast between those two, and I am experiencing the sensation of surprise.

This is all surprise is, deep down. Every interpretation of reality can be described in terms of a consistent explanation of the feeling of our mental framework right at this moment.

I am not saying that the assumption of an external truth is not deeply useful. It is by assuming a reality apart from ourselves that we can use things like object permanence, the sensation of meaningfulness, and long-term goals.

I am only trying to highlight that the assumption of an external reality is not an absolute axiom, is fundamentally nonsensical, and is an unsatisfactory answer to the question of what truth is. If we are looking to hold an elegant and fully consistent system of philosophy in our minds, we have to recognize when concepts have limited use – and external reality is one of them.

10 comments

  1. I like how you deconstructed surprise as a counter argument to the notion that all of reality may be a subjective experience. I also like how you have presented your ideas sensibly, cohesively, eloquently, but also quickly. Generally speaking, I can’t imagine that any serious philosopher would debate that reality may or may not exist. As Kevin says above, all I really know is that “I am.”
    If you are going to make further examinations on reality, then, those examinations must necessarily follow two paths. The first is that reality is real; you are a mote in an infinite universe; your role in it is mediocre; and there are hard, fast physical rules that govern this world and do not flex by any expedient mechanism. In this universe, the world is an entity to be explored, experienced, and cataloged. Time has value for cataloging that universe, though from some viewpoints it is an illusion (for example, at the speed of light, the universe is created and destroyed in the same instant and all matter exists in the same point).
    The second is the reality is an illusion, a daydream, a reflection. The reality that you experience is the entirety of the reality that is. You are as god. Without you, the universe is absent. Everything you see in this life is a reflection of your intentions, your will, and your own internal conflicts. In this universe, there are no hard rules, and every moment is defined by the moving will of the previous. But there are no previous moments. All of the universe occurs in one moment and one instant: now.
    These two viewpoints are wildly divergent and absolutely equal in their validity from the most fundamental assumptions about our reality. Where you go from there must – MUST – allow for both options because neither can be proved wrong or right. Our universe is one of ruthless self contradiction and brutal complexity, all hidden within inexorable simplicity.

  2. RPF says:

    My beliefs have to be consistent because external reality must be consistent, since a thing cannot exist and not exist at the same time and in the same way. I trust experiences because those experiences are caused by the external reality. Without an external reality, what are those principles of knowledge based on? Why not hold inconsistent beliefs, or ones that go against your senses, instead of holding fast to two principles that aren’t based on anything?

  3. Tetris says:

    Do you believe that other consciousnesses exist, beside yours? If no: congratulations on being a consequent solipsist. If yes: how do you reconcile the existence of other, separate consciousnesses with the non-existence of a reality separate from your perception and imagination?

    • Aella says:

      It depends on how you mean the word ‘believe.’ Do I act as though other people are conscious? Yes – I feel empathy and I try not to hurt people and what not.

      But I don’t think that assumption is based on anything I could ever validate. From a subjective perspective, no, I don’t believe other consciousnesses exist.

  4. wompadan says:

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this read and have nothing to add of any more value than simply thanking you to take the time to write it.

  5. Pluto says:

    Maybe it’s time for you to be a wife and a mother.

  6. Interesting article, you seem to have essentially independently derived the map-territory distinction as well as the coherence theory of truth and the correspondence theory of truth: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth/. Where correspondence assumes an external reality against which facts can be checked and coherence is about whether one can formulate a self-consistent set of beliefs (and the question of how to “jumpstart” the belief set is left unanswered).

    As for the concept of truth, I recommend reading this interesting essay (which you may already know about, given you know about the rationalist taboo coined by Yudkowsky): http://www.yudkowsky.net/rational/the-simple-truth

    Lastly, this may be of interest wrt truth and certainty: http://lesswrong.com/lw/mo/infinite_certainty/

    • Aella says:

      I’m already familiar with those articles. Mine was partially meant as a reply to Yudkowsky’s article The Useful Idea Of Truth.

      • Hmm, then I suppose I don’t understand what you mean by “the assumption of an external reality is not an absolute axiom, is fundamentally nonsensical, and is an unsatisfactory answer to the question of what truth is”.

        I would agree that reality outside of one’s own mind (what I just call reality) is not an ‘absolute axiom’, but then I expect Yudkowsky would also agree with you there, given he doesn’t believe in “absolute” certainty.

        Like, if we are (1 – 1E-30)*100% sure that reality does indeed exist, there is still this 1E-30 chance that it’s actually false.

        If the belief that reality exists can be said to not be absolute, then nothing is absolute (or at least, I can’t come up with any example). But if we’re using ‘absolute’ in this very precise way, then I don’t see what we’re trying to get at. I am very sure that the words that I believe I am reading on my screen map correctly to ideas you expressed by typing on your keyboard, but I am much much more sure that external reality exists. Like maybe 4 orders of magnitude more certain (as in, I could answer 1000 questions with certainty about reality for every question I could answer with certainty about our conduit metaphor situation).

        I suppose a more straightforward way to put this is that I think you’d need to flesh out what you see as better encapsulated by a coherence theory that is not at least equally well encapsulated by a correspondence theory of truth.

        It seems to me that your argument is mostly that you find the notion counter-intuitive/nonsensical. Which is not a notion I am unsympathetic to, although I would point out that many things that are true are also counter-intuitive. The most recent example that comes to mind is this excerpt:

        > Unfortunately Aumann’s proof is quite static and formal, building on a possible-world semantics formalism so powerful that Aumann apologizes: “We publish this note with some diffidence, since once one has the appropriate framework, it is mathematically trivial.” It’s ironic that a result so counter-intuitive and controversial can be described in such terms.

        http://www.overcomingbias.com/2006/12/agreeing_to_agr.html

  7. kevin says:

    the only reality i can prove to myself is “I am”. Inside that another reality exists “I’m bored and alone, I want something to do”. From a Taoist point of view desire destabilized a balanced existence at peace, Yin and Yang began to polarize and swirl round chasing each other. For the Judaeo Christian point of view God separates light from dark and on like that. In the Buddhist mind it was mutual creation. A physicist tells us E=mc2 which really says matter and energy are interchangeable.

    For me it is easier to believe a thought created what I see and need to believe it is real and respond to it as if it is real whether it is real or not. I need for it to be real and believe in it in order to have someone to talk to someplace to go and something to do when I get there. So I pretend it is real, stopped taking acid and asking “what is reality” and moved on. It makes me uncomfortable to overtly remember that no matter who who I’m talking to, I’m really talking to myself.

    The best thing to do is enjoy the show and try not to see through the illusion.

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