Is Truth just a sometimes useful illusion?
What is truth?
What is this idea we have of something being True?
Clearly, truth doesn’t just reside in the existence of something, that is the thing itself.
Clearly truth is a relationship between a model of something (expressed in some form of language), and the thing being modeled.
Clearly our brains have evolved not to represent things as they are, but to have approximations that can be produced quickly enough and accurately enough to be useful in survival oriented situations.
There seem to be at least three different classes of situation that this notion of truth can apply to in different ways.
It seems that we have an existence in reality (whatever it is), and part of that existence includes the ability to subconsciously model that reality at some level of fidelity, then to consciously experience that subconscious model of reality as experiential reality.
Our experience of reality seems to be modified and modulated at several different levels by various set of factors including chemical, electrical, contextual, genetic, cultural and conceptual.
So it seems that “Truth” can:
1/ relate to the degree of accuracy or utility of our experiential model of reality to whatever reality itself is; or
2/ relate to a the degree of accuracy of a conceptual model we have about how reality works; or
3/ relate to a proposition following from a set of axioms.
There is a mixed type which involves aspects of 1 & 2 which is a declarative model of truth, where some authority declares something to be so, and it is so by fact of the declaration. Legal guilt is an example, where what the judge declares is the case, whether they did it or not. In ancient times, much of the truth of culture about nature and reality was of this declarative type, and for many it still is.
It seems clear from scientific investigations into the nature of the existence within which we find ourselves, that there are many different classes of ways in which absolute correspondence between a model and reality cannot be verified, and thus while one may in fact have an accurate model about some very small aspect of reality for some period of time, there is no way to objectively verify it in any absolute sense, so it becomes an article of faith or conjecture.
What reality does seem to allow, is probabilistic treatments of some aspects that can achieve remarkable accuracy, to 20 or more decimal places in some cases some of the time; while still retaining fundamental uncertainty at base.
The ancients had the idea that Truth could be known, and that it was our job to seek it out.
That now seems to have been disproved beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.
What we now seem to be left with is an ability to develop sets of heuristics (useful approximations at some scale), that can in some contexts be very reliable indeed, and in other contexts not so much.
As examples of fundamental barriers to Truth:
1/ Many aspects of physical reality seem to require the use of irrational numbers (like Pi) to calculate them.
The definition of an irrational number is that it has no finite representation in any integer numeric base.
Thus perfect accuracy is not allowed, ever.
All that is allowed is some useful approximation that is good enough for the job at hand.
2/ Heisenberg uncertainty prevents knowledge of both momentum and location of a “particle” beyond a certain limit. Thus all calculations come with this level of fundamental uncertainty.
3/ We seem to live in a universe where it is big enough that it is not knowable even in theory, and there will always be photons of various energies impacting us about which we could not possibly have had any prior knowledge.
4/ There are many others classes of uncertainty resulting from different sorts of complex systems including ideas like maximal computational complexity, chaos, fractals, etc.
So in such a fundamentally uncertain reality, the idea of Truth seems to be entirely illusory – a simplistic approximation to something that served our ancestors reasonably well, but in our modern age needs to be replaced with something more humble and uncertain – the idea of contextually useful approximation.
The classical idea of “Truth” seems to embody a kind of arrogance that actually instantiates existential level risk if it is allowed to dominate decision making processes.
We still need to make decisions.
Some decisions have tight time bound aspects.
So we must all use simple models like “Truth” in some contexts, and it pays to be aware that we are doing so because of the necessities of time pressures, rather than the notion of “Truth” having any reality greater than that of a “contextually useful heuristic”.
I don’t discard it [Truth] as something to be aimed at.
Trying to get the best approximation to whatever reality is seems like a great thing.
Expecting to ever actually have 100% accuracy seems to be an act of hubris.
I don’t particularly like the idea of consensus in respect of “Truth”.
I much prefer the idea that everyone has a responsibility to get the best approximation that they can, given the time and interest and energy that they have in respect of any particular subject.
I like the legal standard, of beyond reasonable doubt.
I know of politicians who have the ability to say what they believe to be true in a way that people hear what they want to hear. I am not in favor of that, however much I see and acknowledge the political utility of that.
I acknowledge the utility of truth as a heuristic in many contexts.
For many purposes, it is good enough.
What I question, is the proposition that we can ever have a 1:1 mapping between a model and reality. The evidence seems overwhelming that such a thing may not exist. It may be approximated, sometimes very closely, but rarely, if ever, achieved, and is certainly not verifiable even if attained (and is therefore a dangerous idea if taken too far, because anything that cannot be verified is by definition unscientific, and open to a lot of abuse).
I’m all for the use of the best approximations that we have, and for their transmission.
I acknowledge the utility of logic and mathematics in building models – they are the best tools we have.
I am just advising caution against asserting that any particular model is necessarily always relevant. History seems to show us time and again that such claims are usually shown to be false, and turn out to be useful approximations at some scale for some set of contexts.