Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Difficulty Of Communicating Absolute Truth Statements

Barely gagging on my egg sandwich as I watched Trump at a National Prayer Breakfast this morning, I had to smirk when he babbled "And freedom is a gift from God".   This from an imbecile who likely wouldn't be able to find chapter and verse of a biblical quote from his bible - assuming he even has one. 

But it interjects the question of how much of what he said is true, and how much is BS.  Or was it all just made up crap - like in his exec orders (actually written by Steve Bannon) to get applause from the dopey peanut gallery?  Can there even be an absolute truth statement in religion (or science) and if so what attributes must it have?  What are the criteria, or are we limited to only relatively true statements?

Philosopher Herman Philipse has noted we may legitimately show respect for religions (or religious statements)  because they reflect deep human longings. However, we are not obliged to show any respect when they put forward claims of knowledge  (Philipse.: Free Inquiry (Feb./Mar. 2007, 37). In this sense, Trump's claim that freedom "is a gift from God" is meaningless. He could as well be blabbering about flying monkeys taking over the world.

Given the above, one may inquire into the inherent problems in articulating any alleged true statement. Scott Soames (1) clarifies the issue by appeal to more and less general schema to arrive at truth in a convergent way. Soames defines what is materially adequate.

He does this by referencing “Level 1” or L1 statements, depicted as partial definitions.1 The task of communicating truth in language then reduces to consistently generalizing partial definitions to cover every type of sentence and condition. This also assumes the subjects, objects included in the statement have specific meanings - or "operational definitions", in the case of scientific statements.

He goes on to note that Tarski’s definition, i.e. that if an earlier iterate allows for additions without contradiction to the original proposition (truth statement), then we can arrive at materially adequate sentences. In this sense, most scientific explanations – while admittedly partial – are nevertheless materially adequate. But do they amount to true statements?

Consider the following sequence of L1 statements for solar flares and note the ascending hierarchy of information presented:

1) A class X-7 solar flare occurred last Tuesday.

2) A class X-7 solar flare occurred at 22h 33m GMT Tuesday.

3) A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare occurred at 22h 33m Tuesday.

4) A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare occurred at 22h 33m GMT last Tuesday, and lasted 1440 seconds.

5) A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare occurred at 22h 33m GMT last Tuesday, peaked 543 seconds after inception, and lasted a total of 1440 seconds.

Are all of the above statements, referencing the same event, true? Are they all equally true? If not, why not? Can one therefore have true statements which do not express the entire truth but rather only a partial truth? If a partial truth is expressed can it be said to be the truth without reservation?

Obviously, the statements given are successively more materially adequate by degrees, but none of the statements are wholly materially adequate unto themselves. For example, using any of the statements (1) - (3) one would not be able to obtain an estimate of the power or energy released which requires knowing the flare’s duration. As one moves in ascending order each statement contains more material adequacy, hence arguably more truth than its predecessor, simply because one can obtain more from the information. Thus (5) is more true than (4), (4) more so than (3) and so forth. Is (5) the last word? Consider this description of the event:

A class X-7, optical class 2B solar flare, occupying an area 1800 millionths of a solar hemisphere and located at heliographic longitude 90 degrees, and latitude 22 degrees, occurred at 22h 33m GMT last Tuesday, peaked 543 seconds after inception, and lasted a total duration of 1440 seconds.

Thus, one is unlikely to deliver all the material and relevant truth on the solar flare at once since data generally aren’t processed simultaneously, certainly about a complex physical event. Even in the course of normal human interactions, and particularly teaching, total conveyance of information is unlikely. Is this a lie by omission? Hardly! In the case of physics teaching, even attempting to convey the full basis of Newton’s laws of motion would take one hundred times longer than the standard classical mechanics course if all details and exceptions were included. In the interest of time and convenience, therefore, one must often omit the whole truth, assumed to be a complete description of a phenomenon or the principle that governs it.

“The whole truth and nothing but the truth” may well be a fine courtroom bromide but it doesn’t make the practicality cut. Can one have true statements which do not express the entire truth but rather only a partial truth? Yes, and these are none other than the L1 statements by Soames’ definition. As Soames puts it2:

If such instances (e.g. L1 statements) are thought of as partial definitions, then the task of defining truth for an entire language may be seen as finding a way of generalizing the partial definitions so as to cover every sentence of the language.

Carrying this further, there is no way any practical expression of language can encompass more than limited truth. What does all of this say about any truth claim?  It says that in general truth claims must be treated with great skepticism, and in the case of scientific claims, confidence levels for them must be demanded.. At any rate, one must always assume the initial claim for truth is partial, or at the L1 level. The claimant must be then pushed as far as possible to disclose the maximum content of the truth as he understands it, especially if the truth claim is made dogmatically.
In terms of scientific publications and the formulations of scientific methods - as I will show in a later blog post- it implies one must treat them carefully. For example, one must be aware the different scientific methods exist, not one frozen in stone. These will therefore differ depending on whether the object of inquiry is a stochastic one, say like climate change, or a deterministic one - say like computing the orbit of Enceladus.
By contrast,, Trump's statement that "freedom is a gift from God" is totally devoid of even a limited truth aspect. For example, he hasn't even defined what he means by 'God" and we can't assume ab initio that he knows or that it comports with any traditional versions. 
Indeed, most people are unaware that when they use the word G-o-d they’re not talking or writing about an actual entity  (i.s. that they know like I do a solar flare) but a limited construct or ideation configured as a noun, which is really a God concept. Further, because it’s limited by content and comprehension, i.e. by finite minds with finite intelligence which can’t grasp all aspects, then all such concepts must be relative and subjective. This means that the Jewish concept of Yahweh, the Muslim concept of Allah, the Hindu concept of Brahmin and the Christian concept of the Trinity all stand in the same epistemological relation.  From an informational point of view, none can be selected as “true” to the exclusion of the others.
What this means is that neither Trump, Pence or any of their other cohort can show in an absolute sense that what they mean by "God" is distinct from what the Muslim means - and hence that their version is superior.  In science, at least, we have the advantages of future observations and experiments which ultimately will be able to isolate verified hypotheses or theories from failures - say like the basis for the downfall of the steady state theory because the 2.7 K background cosmic radiation was discovered that supported the Big Bang - not the steady state.
In religion, no similar observational or experimental measures apply, hence the religionist is compelled to fall back on faith, nothing more. In other words, Trump and those he was talking to can believe freedom is "a gift from God", but there is no substance behind it for the rationalist or scientist. We instead accept that humans crafted the concept of freedom with their brains - honed by evolution- and that they also defined the markers, criteria for human freedom. This enabled it to be referenced in documents that underlie our governance.  The Founders themselves who may have referenced a deity, were actually not Christians - but Deists - with their own limited God concept at variance with that of the orthodox Christian version.
1 Soames: Understanding Truth, 69.

2 Ibid.

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