Bad Ideas, Epistemology, Ideas, Ideologies, Knowledge, Science, Truth

One Truth or Many?

SUMMARY:  The notion, prevalent among some academics, that truth is not one, but many seems to be fad that cannot withstand examination.

(About a 6 minute read)

Humanity is subject to fads.  It is a curious fact that this is true — not just of things like clothing or music fashions — but of nearly everything humans do in public — and often enough in private.  I have no explanation for that other than to note we’re a social species of animal greatly concerned with what other people are up to.

While I have long known that humanity was subject to fads, I have resisted fully accepting that fact when it comes to one area in particular.  Academia.  Academia is just as subject to fads as is any other area of human endeavor, but I myself am so strongly dismayed by that fact that I often find myself in denial of its full significance.

After all, academia is ideally where one goes for the truth — the lasting, enduring truth.  Or as near to that as is humanly possible for us.  Alas!  That is only the ideal.

The reality is that the pursuit of truth is less like the smooth progress of a confident man or woman walking down the street with an important mission or purpose in mind, and much more like the stumbling and lurching “progress” of a drunken frat brother or sorority sister on his or her unfortunate progress towards some object they are going to almost blindly trip over.  One lurch backwards for every two stumbles forward.  I think the human disposition to faddish behavior has much to do with that.

For instance, in recent years many academics have faddishly adopted the notion from some postmodernist writings that truth is not one, but many.  And while I believe there is actually a bit that could be said in favor of such a notion, I find the extremes to which some of them have taken it to be ripely absurd.

Nevertheless, they appear to be just as blind to the absurdity of their notions as people sometimes are blind to the frightful ugliness of some ugly fashion, such as the fashion in architecture that gave us endless, soul destroying city landscapes of miles upon miles of buildings that were no more than boring boxes.  Just like box architecture, anyone not actually intoxicated by the fad can see the ridiculousness of it.

But first, here’s where I think the postmodernist notion that truth is not one, but many, has a point.  Some of us seem to be of the opinion that the only truths worth being called such are the truths supported by the sciences.  They tend to summarily dismiss any truths presented to them by “suspect” sources, which amounts to any sources not of a scientific nature, such as religion, folk wisdom, ethnic wisdom, and internet porn and so forth.

Such a notion is just as ridiculous in my opinion as the postmodernist “many truths”.  Just because your grandmother was not a chemist is no reason to suppose she didn’t know how to bake cookies.  And just because you are not a psychologist is no reason to believe you lack any deep insights into yourself and others.

People who think the only truths that matter are scientific truths are drunk on hornswoggle in my opinion.  I would much more benefit from listening to the ancestral wisdom of some community than from listening to the — at best — half educated opinion that the only valuable truths are supported — or even supportable — by the sciences.

None of which changes my profound dismay at the notion that there are many truths. But what exactly is that notion?

Basically it goes like this.  Every person or group has to one extent or another its own truths, and if and when these truths contradict each other, there is no reasonable way of deciding between them which views are true and which are false.  Thus if I say that bullfrogs are turquoise and you say that they are greenish-brown, we are both equally right.

Now one reason I’m so down on such a shameful and depraved opinion is because I myself once espoused it — or nearly the very same thing as it — 40 years ago in my embarrassingly juvenile undergrad thesis paper, and long before espousing it had become an academic fad.  Beyond that, however, there are some solid reasons to oppose the view.

One reason is that it’s logically self-contradictory.  To say that your notion of frogs is on equal footing with my notion of frogs is to pretend that you can’t tell which is true and which is not true.  But if that were indeed so, then you would not even be able to say with confidence that you couldn’t tell the difference.  You would only logically be able to claim agnosticism on which was true and which was not true, for how can you know both are true without yourself possessing some means that could — in theory at least — declare one or both of them false?

Perhaps a more telling reason to oppose the view that truth is many, rather than one, is what such a notion would mean in practice.  Suppose, for instance, you put together extensive documentation to reasonably conclude that drilling an oil pipeline under your water reservoir is very likely to lead to horrendous spills and pollution of your drinking water.  Then I come along with my crew of experts who each claim that they have consulted the stars to discover that no spills will ever occur, and that moreover, there are many truths and their truth is just as true as your truth.

Ridiculous?  Of course!  You can either have an oil spill or not have an oil spill, but you can’t have an oil spill that is not an oil spill.

I should perhaps explain something that might lead a few readers to some confusion.  Earlier today, I hinted in a post on what mystical experiences are like that I am nowadays at home with the possibility that both the reality of normal conscious awareness and the reality of mystical awareness were simultaneously true, even though they appear to radically contradict each other.

That might lead some readers to suppose that I actually believe in multiple truths. I do not.  Instead, I have faith that, if the two realities are both true, then there must be some hidden way in which they can both be true — a way that resolves the apparent contradictions between them.

So these days I simply don’t buy into the notion that the truth is many, rather than one.  Boring as it would be to the undergraduate I was 40 years ago, I have arrived at the conviction that truth is one.

Questions?  Comments?

5 thoughts on “One Truth or Many?”

  1. “Truth” is a grandiose name for a consensus opinion. It is (usually) easy to build consensus around a claim with an obvious correlation to objective facts. “That apple is red” is not going to cause you much trouble. “That apple is delicious” is much more of a problem. It is no less a claim about the world, but coming to a consensus on it might be impossible since there is no objective basis on which to stake your claim.

    Science helps by extending the reach of the former kind of truths, while tending to ignore the latter kind. But both are very much a part of our world. In any situation where there either is no direct connection to objective fact, or the issue is complex enough that those facts could be interpreted in radically different fashions, there will never cease to be several Truths whether you approve of them or not.

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    1. I’m afraid we are in significant disagreement here, Andrew. I’d rather not argue with you, so I’l just point out my take on it — for whatever it’s worth. You can do the same.

      When I say “The apple is delicious”, the only truth claim I’m making is the apple tastes delicious to me. That happens to be true, although I have no way of demonstrating its truth to others besides simply stating the fact. Were I to claim the apple tastes delicious to everyone, that would happen to be false — demonstrably false.

      Were I to say, “It is objectively true that the apple is delicious” — and mean by that anything other than “The apple tastes delicious to everyone” (a false statement) — I would be talking nonsense. That is, my statement would be meaningless because I would have no means of demonstrating it was true or could be true.

      So in my point of view, there are not several contradictory truths. There may be several truths concerning the apple, but those truths are compatible with each other. Put differently, truth is one, not several.

      As for the nature of truth, I adhere to a modified correspondence theory of truth. So truth, roughly speaking, is a property of the relationship between a statement or proposition and a reality. Much like a map is true if it bears a certain relationship between itself an a terrain.

      That’s my two cents.

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