What is True?

So far, to the question “If we can’t found narratives empirically/scientifically, how can we then know which is true?”- I have offered two ways thus far as to how we might think about doing this.  The first one was to consider the consequences of the narrative.  What has it led to as far as impacting the practical aspects of everyday life?  In many ways, this is a common-sense way of evaluating most aspects of our lives and something we do all the time in navigating life’s journey.  Say we have two people in our lives—two relationships.  We have known both for a long time.  In one, the person is honest with us, trustworthy, kind, helpful and compassionate.  In the other, the person is not always honest.  Sometimes we feel we cannot trust them.  Sometimes they are judgmental and unkind to us.  Often they don’t listen to us and unfairly criticize us.  Which is the “true” friend then?  I think we can reflect upon narratives in a similar way.  They are not just abstract, intellectual systems, they are inhabited and embodied stories that speak to us at every level, intellectual and emotional.
The second way I’ve offered as to how we can evaluate differing narratives is by asking this question: How well are the philosophical resources of this narrative able to provide a culture the resolve to resist evil and effect positive change in the world?  In other words, is this narrative capable of producing a Martin Luther King Jr.?  Could it produce a Wilberforce?  Could it move a culture to protect a weaker one, in another part of the world, from being victimized or even exterminated?  Could it move a culture to protect the earth and the environment (Something even Peter Singer is beginning to question as to the humanism/secularism narrative)?  Could it move a culture to protect minorities and those with little power within that culture?  And I don’t mean moved by power of law or force.  I mean moved by one’s conscience, move by the head (intellectual) and heart (will-emotions).  If at the end of the day one’s “truth” cares nothing about others and is completely selfish, who would possibly care, at that point, if it were “really” true or not?  What could “true” even mean in that context?
The other aspect to these methods and a narrative’s “truthfulness” is to think about what we mean when we say something is “true.”  And to that subject I would like to now turn.        
And I agree that we can validly speak of truths that are not grounded in facts, things that speak truly to us, and our human condition. Were this not the case, we wouldn’t have the Arts, and I agree too that we mustn’t fall for the trap of believing one type of truth is more important, or even more basic, than the other.-Bernard
I wanted to explore a little bit of what a conversation partner (Bernard) noted recently (the above) regarding different types of assertions and of what we might consider, “true.”  I should say I agree completely with Bernard’s observation above.
First of all, I wonder if Burk and JP (Ron I assume you are?) are on board with Bernard’s statement above.  Why or why not?  Let’s just start there.  To help frame this, I’m going to go back to my analogy of the woman “Betty” and her mother.  If we recall, I set up the example approximately thus:
Suppose the natural biological mother of Betty was very cruel to her growing up, she beat her, barely fed her, and one day abandoned her. Betty is eventually adopted. She is raised from there on in a loving home by loving parents. She grows up a very happy girl and graduates High School—and is now preparing for college. One day Betty’s biological mother sees Betty on the street, is told who she is, the girl she gave up.  She runs up to her. She says, “Betty, it’s me, your mother.” Betty just stares at her. The woman says, “I’m a little light on money right now, could you spare a little, you know, for your mother?” Betty reaches into her purse, pulls out some money, hands it to her, and says, “You are not my mother—my mother is home—I’m going to go see her now,” and she walks away.

Now which statement is “true”? Empirically and scientifically, this woman is Betty’s biological mother. She gave birth to Betty. They carry the same DNA. But Betty says this woman is not her mother—that her true mother is someone else. Who is telling the truth here?

I think most of us would say both assertions are true—just “true” in different ways.  But how should we think about that “difference”?  I’m curious to know if Burk and JP would be willing to say that the statement by the daughter “You are not my mother,” is more significant and more important (truer) than a statement by a lab technician that, because of the DNA match, this woman is, rather, Betty’s “true” mother.  If so, does the fact it is more significant make it also “true” in a much more important way than the empirical “truth”?  Does the statement by the daughter “trump” the more “factual” empirical/scientific statement noting the “facts” from the lab?  Which “truth” statement is more significant, has more weight, and why? 

So please first address the statement by Bernard and then any comments regarding the “mother” example and how we should think about this difference in “truth” statements.
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65 Responses to What is True?

  1. JP says:

    Hi Ron,

    It's still not clear why, in the kettle situation, you consider that both answers are true but in a fundamentally different way. My take is that they refer to two different levels of explanations, each as valid as the other in its own context.

    Are you saying they are different because one involves a purpose? Because one involves a person/mind? Or because one is more difficult to ascertain? It's not clear to me at all.

    As for the intuition that the world is purposeful, the question for me is whether there is any good reason to trust our intuitions about the world as a whole or not. I don't know of any. We do know that some intuitions are reliable but, as a rule, they are intuitions built on a long experience of a topic. Clearly, this does not apply to reality as a whole and I don't see how this can arise from our evolutionary past (concerned with survival in a very tame section of the universe).

    This is why, among other things, I wouldn't trust my intuitions on “ultimate reality” or such. As Bernard suggests, this is not a question of putting one's intuition against another's.


  2. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    The point of the kettle illustration was just an example of how context/perspective affects the notion of truth. Specifically, it was in reponse to the “who is Betty's true mother” question. My comment about one answer to the “why is the kettle boiling” being not determinable empirically was just a throwaway line which I now regret making, though I think still true since you can't empirically get at will or purpose in another person's head. Not yet, anyways (if ever). You have to have a relationship. Which isn't really science, IMO, but no less true for all that.

    Your intuition is there is a purpose, mine is that there isn't. But then, on this I don't trust my intuition, in part because clearly people considering the same problem are led in opposite directions by such intuition.

    Fair enough. Although the overwhelming majority of people who've ever existed have shared the same intuition that the universe has purpose. There's plenty of disagreement about what the purpose is, but not that it exists. That's a fairly recent (and small) phenomenon.

    somebody's intuition is a lousy guide on this question. You assume that somebody isn't you. I'm less confident

    First of all, it sounds like you're going for rhetorical points: “Ron, you're saying my intuition is a lousy guide.” But that's not what I'm saying at all, and I don't appreciate the attempt to negatively charge my position. I don't know that my intuition is reliable on this point or not. All I know is that I have it. I can't know if it's reliable or not. “Hey, Ron, remember all those times you thought the universe had purpose but as it turned out you were wrong?” Uh…. no. That's precisely it: this is a one-off event, and we've got no priors. I've got to trust my intuition or ignore it. In the absence of good reason to ignore it (i.e. demonstrated failure), I trust it. We do this all the time. Your intuition is that other minds exist, that there is a really real reality “out there” and that you can know it, that there is causality. You go with these intuitions because: 1) you don't have cause to doubt them specifically; and 2) there's practical advantage to doing so.

    And before y'all start in on the “Yeah, but what about all the times your intuition is wrong!”, keep in mind that “intuition” isn't a single block thing. My intuition about whether or not there's a predator in the bushes is pretty reliable. So is my intuition about how my wife will respond in most situations. My intuition about what the stock market is going to do next week isn't. This was actually the purpose of the hammer illustration, by the way. Burk was trying to demonstrate how intuition about “something out there” has failed in so many other situations that there's no reason to trust it at all. My point was that the intuition that the gods throw lightning isn't the same as the intuition that there's a consciousness behind the universe, so that the former has proven to be false doesn't address the latter.

    (Oh, and just to muddy the water a bit: it might well be more advantageous sometimes to follow a false intuition than to ignore it. I've heard anthropologists suggest that religion enabled the first real “civilizations”. For all we know, our species won't survive long without it.)

    As for the “good story” line… You do not have to steal it, because I will happily share it with you. Although if you get significant mileage out of it in a novel some day, I'd be thrilled to get a signed copy!


  3. RonH says:

    Hi, JP…

    My take is that they refer to two different levels of explanations, each as valid as the other in its own context.

    Well, yeah. That's pretty much all I meant. That, and you can't get at both explanations through the same methods.

    the question for me is whether there is any good reason to trust our intuitions about the world as a whole or not. I don't know of any.

    But is doubt the reasonable default position with regard to intuition? Your intuition is that other minds are real (it never occurs to most of us that they might not be, until we hit our first philosophy class). You can't prove it, and you have no past experience with this intuition being accurate or not. It may be advantageous to assume it's accurate, but as I get told repeatedly that's not sufficient reason to believe something in the absence of evidence. As I point out to Bernard, there are all kinds of intuitions of which we simply cannot test the reliability. We don't assume they're all false, however.


  4. Burk Braun says:


    “All the other questions you just say aren't real questions.”

    No, I recognize them as real questions. But just because we can pose a question doesn't mean that there has to be an answer. Nor does it mean that the question might not be heavily loaded in the way it is put. The question of purpose to the universe sort of supposes that there is a purpose, when there might not be. We really don't know.

    “Science doesn't answer the question of purpose better than Christianity. Science doesn't answer the question at all. It cannot. The naturalist doesn't explain my intuition — he explains it away. “

    Again, this is not really true. If there were a purpose, science can answer such questions perfectly well. What is the purpose of life? Well, it seems to be to perpetuate itself.. that is a pretty solid answer from the scientific perspective, which even covers the psychological phenomenon of us asking so insistently about what the purpose of life is, since we so fervently feel our lives to have purpose, due to our evolutionary.. etc.. etc…

    The problem is that there is no evident purpose to the universe, and making ourselves its purpose, amplified through the image of our totem, god, is a purely emotional, narcissistic answer. It might be true, but it might not be, and again this speculation is so heavily psychologically loaded that quite a bit of skepticism is in order.. that is, if you are taking an analytical perspective.

    “I love nothing better than a good story.”

    Yup, no truer words have been spoken here. But consider where this gets you. I believe “the Matrix” is a great story. Should I regard it as true and tells me about the purpose of the universe and what I can do about it?


  5. RonH says:


    If there were a purpose, science can answer such questions perfectly well.

    No it can't. No more than it can arrive at the “Because I want a cup of tea” answer to “why is the kettle boiling.” This is wrong tool! Purpose is a function of consciousness, and if you want an answer about what a conscious being is thinking, you ask it questions — not perform experiments on it. That science shows life perpetuates isn't purpose. It's science showing this is what life does, not why life does it or why there's life to do it in the first place. Saying I only think there's purpose because it's a psychological phenomenon of evolution is precisely explaining away. Like I said.

    The problem is that there is no evident purpose to the universe.

    Rubbish! Purpose is evident to me! That's the whole point of disagreement!

    I believe “the Matrix” is a great story. Should I regard it as true and tells me about the purpose of the universe and what I can do about it?

    I suppose you can if you want. Let me know how it works out for you. If you start moving in bullet time, I want to come watch. Might even swallow the red pill myself then.

    Guys, I'm about done responding to gratuitously deployed reductio arguments. “I think this good story might be true” does not mean “I think any good story might be true” or “I think all good stories are equally likely to be true”. I'm not even saying “I think this story might be true because it's good”. Nothing I'm saying can lead you to reasonably conclude I expect you to build a swamp god statue out of licorice. “Hey, Ron, some hypothetical person I'm imagining with 'religious' intuitions might come to some completely ridiculous conclusion and go do something stupid or maybe even evil. So why aren't you doing that?” Gee, I dunno, you've got a fantastic point there! Oh noes! I lose!

    “Hey, Ron, since you're irrational, why aren't you thinking these other things which are also irrational?” I dunno, Burk. Since as an atheist you're immoral, why aren't you out eating little children?

    Someone wake me up when we get back to respectful discussion and all.


  6. Hi Ron

    Yes, I agree, blanket doubt is not the default position, for that way self-consuming scepticism lies.

    Personally I introduce doubt of intuition at the point where the alternative is also widely held (and, in my society, a great many people do indeed doubt purpose) so someone's intuition is doing a lousy job here.

    And, protest if you will, but your decision to trust your own intuition on this is a decision to claim my intuition on this is lousy. That's not a rhetorical device at all. It's inescapably the theist position, and is a great part of why I'm agnostic. Why theists are so reluctant to own this position of self claimed superiority puzzles me still.



  7. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    your decision to trust your own intuition on this is a decision to claim my intuition on this is lousy.

    No. I make no claim about your intuition at all, because I don't have access to it. I am completely agnostic about the reliability of your intuition — or even what your intuition is in the first place. That your intuition is lousy is evidently not an inescapable conclusion for a theist because I, as a theist, do not come to that conclusion. You are putting words in my mouth and ascribing to me a position I do not hold. To put this in terms with which you are familiar, I find your position here distasteful. And quite lacking in respect.

    Two points: 1) If I thought your intuition were lousy, I wouldn't be engaging in dialog with you at all. 2) If you don't think your intuition is trustworthy, then why in hell should it bother you if I do also? (That's assuming I had an opinion about your intuition, which I do not.)

    Bernard, throughout all our discussion I've tried to take your claims at face value, regardless of the extent to which I understood them or agreed with them. If you cannot accord me the same courtesy, then I've got other things on which I'd prefer to spend my time.


  8. Burk Braun says:


    Well, you also have a little problem in how you have reductively defined science not to include doing the basic detecive work, like asking questions, which lead to finding a conscious purpose behind a boiling kettle. You didn't have to use your intution to guess that someone put the kettle on for a reason- your common experience reliably indicates that cause. In contrast, the god-consciousness is not readily apparent from any rigorous evidence, and needs some heavy imagination to make its appearance.. they are totally different cases, with your intuition not only providing a clue, but providing the entire god story from front to back. It is an amazingly presumptuous postion to take.


  9. Hi Ron

    I think there's a logical inconsistency at play here. You trust your intuition. Therefore you believe the universe has a purpose. I tell you my intuition is that it has no purpose. If you are to stick with your intuition, then you must conclude my intuition is wrong. To claim you are agnostic about the reliability of my intuition, whilst simultaneously backing your own intuition, thus entails a contradiction. Or so it seems to me.

    If it's discourteous to question consistency, then what hope is there for advancement through discussion?



  10. JP says:

    Hi Ron,

    Concerning the question of consistency raised by Bernard, I just want to add that this is not a foolish notion at all.

    Alvin Plantinga, for one (and he's certainly well regarded in his area), seems to recognize the necessity of resolving this stalemate between opposing and contradictory intuitions. He's is very up front about this. He claims that some “sensus divinatis” allows for a direct perception of God (or something of the kind) but that this sense is defective in non believers (perhaps due to sin?).

    So, you see, he has no qualm at all calling the atheist's or agnostic's intuition defective.


  11. RonH says:


    It's been hundreds of messages over months now, and we haven't budged an inch. You still leave me with only the following options:
    A) distasteful Christian
    B) irrational Christian
    C) agnostic

    I'm not thrilled with the choices, but try as I might I can't seem to negotiate any others from you. So… I'm gonna go with B. I've been doing B for a long time now, and it's been working out well. I don't see the advantage of C over B at the moment. And, really, who wants to be distasteful? So A is right out.

    You're all really bright people, and it's been a fun challenge to see if I could crack the “distasteful, irrational, agnostic: pick one” puzzle with you, but 1) you're too clever and 2) I've kinda lost interest. (Honestly, I kinda think the game is rigged, but that's been too tough of a sell.) If I ever start my own blog, you're all invited to come hang out.




  12. Cheers Ron

    All the best



  13. Burk Braun says:


    Congratulations for finding a place you like. It sounds like you are making this decision based on feelings and intuition, so the outcome was pretty much foreordained. That is, unless one of us could reach through the lines and give you some fuzzy feeling of awe/happiness/contentment. But that was never the philosophical project.


  14. RonH says:

    LOL, Burk!

    At bottom, we're all operating on “feelings and intuition”. As for anything being foreordained… well… I'm not the determinist.

    But it was your comment about philosophy that made me have to reply. Only not with my words but Nietzsche's (I've been reading Beyond Good and Evil lately, and when I went googling for a copy/pasteable version of the quote below, my first hit was this page full of similar quotes by other philosophers.):

    Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.

    Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a “drive to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument….

    In the philosopher [by contrast with the scientist] there is nothing whatsoever that is impersonal….


  15. Darrell says:


    Your sarcasm and irony were probably lost on some. I had a good laugh though. Thanks.


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