Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Study Guide

The Writing Game Part 4



The Nature of Truth:

Knowing and how we know what we know

Other aids in this series have examined the actual process of writing. This study-aid begins to examine the foundations of logic, proof and knowing. In some ways this should have been the first of the series. In other ways it should have been the last. It is with-out-a-doubt the hardest of the group to write because it deals not with the "how" of writing but the "why" of thinking. It might not be apparent, at first glance, how these two are related. I hope I can make the relationship clear.

The word "Truth" or "True" is a funny word. It comes from the Old English word "Triewth" and is used in a variety of ways. A wheel that rolls without wobbling is said to turn "true." The correct answer on a test is said to be a "true" answer. But these are ways that the word has slid connotatively into other areas of meaning. The actual meaning of the word "true" or "truth" is, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary "The quality of being true or truthful." Well, so much for definitions. The same dictionary defines a forest as "a large area chiefly covered with trees and undergrowth..." Fuzzy ideas, like fuzzy definitions, can lead to misunderstandings. By using the definition of a "forest" given above a well-meaning person could mistake an overgrown lumberyard for a forest. Just as a forest is an ecosystem that is more than a bunch of trees, truth is more than not telling lies.

Finding what is true can be compared to playing the game of “Scrabble” You know how to play scrabble don’t you? You take randomly drawn letters and build words that give you points for the length of word or obscurity of the letter.

Finding truth in the materials you use for references in your school projects is a lot like that because, truth is built from facts just like words are built from letters. Many times, though not always, an argument is considered more “truthful” because it contains more facts. So, just as a longer word in scrable gives you a higher score a more facts tend to make a statement appear more truthful. A series of facts that spell out a “word” of truth is called a “Truth Statement”

We, like Pilate, at the trial of Jesus, need to ask, "What is truth?" If you, as a scholar, do not have a clear sense of what truth is then you will not have the ability to judge what you read and what you write as worthwhile. Having a clear concept of truth is probably one of the first steps in becoming an educated person.

The concept of "truth" is, or so it appears to this fat cat, tightly bound up with the concept of absolutes. What do I mean by an absolute?

I realize that it is a popular notion, held by many people who are otherwise intelligent and rational, that there are no absolutes. This is a position that allows people to be non-confrontational in that they believe that they can accept any idea as true to that individual. The denial of absolutes in this regard appears to me to be thought of as a form of moral tollerance because absolutes are often conceived of in moral terms.

While there are a plethora of cutesy rebuttals to this position I would like to approach the issue of absolutes from a little more serious angle. I would like to try to show that absolutes exist in a variety of areas. After doing this I would then like to talk about what absolutes have to do with library research and, by extrapolation, your homework and your research papers.

In their simplest form absolutes can be thought of as laws that cannot be broken. It is important for us to realize that absolutes exist in several areas.

Permanent Absolutes
In nature we have several well-known examples of laws that I will call a "Permanent Absolute". Gravity, for instance, is a universal (In the literal meaning of the word universal) law that we cannot break. We can overcome gravity when an airplane uses enough force to create lift across its wings; or like a balloon by making ourselves lighter than the surrounding air but we can never go where gravity is not a universal law.

I could cite several other examples of absolute laws from the physical world. Whether physical science has any moral applications is another study guide; it is also irrelevant to the current discussion. The point is simply that many absolutes exist in the form of physical laws that can never be broken.

Our definition of truth needs to be able live within the world in which that these absolutes exist. We can label these absolutes as a "Permanent Absolutes" because they never change.

Positional Absolutes
Other absolutes are not so permanent. We can call these "Positional Absolutes."

An example of a positional absolute is a 1966 Ford Mustang that I owned in high school. This was a great car. It was fast and good looking already a classic enven in the 1970's. I looked just like Joe Cool when I drove it around town. The only problem with this car was the ignition switch was worn-out. Any flat object that would fit in the switch could be used to start the car. At various times I started the car with a pocket knife, a screwdriver, a sliver of plastic cut from a credit card and even an Ice-cream stick. While it would not be true to say that every car could be started using these items it was absolutely true that this car could be. It was an absolute that was true about a particular thing at particular time. It is different from a "Permanent Absolute" because it does not have to exist, does not exist everywhere and may not always exist.

Denotative Absolutes
There is another type of absolute that we could call a "Denotative Absolute." The best example of this type of absolute is seen in language. Think about it. If you as the reader did not have a shared definition of the meaning of the letters used to write this study-aid then you could not read it. Not only that, if we had no common definition of the meaning of the sounds that make up words in a spoken language (In this case English.) then we could not even talk. Granted, the connotative meanings of words may escape us. We do not use words in an absolutely consistent manner. But, we understand each other because we have a set of shared definitions of not only words but of letters and grammar.

This type of absolute is an arbitrary absolute. It is different from a "Positional Absolute" because it depends upon the way that a language is used. It is different from a "Permanent Absolute" because it is possible that it might not exist; it is an absolute that we simply define to make life easier. Some group of people started using grunts and moans in a systematic way among themselves and a language developed. I pronounce the word "potato" as "potato" and not as "Shilgmagisterist" because I have defined set of phonetic sounds called "English" that defines the sounds for the arbitrary letter shapes of p-o-t-a-t-o.

Conotative Absolutes
Lastly we can say that there are what we might call "Connotative Absolutes." We create connotative absolutes when we use mental pictures to define an object. How do you know what a "chair" is? Well, you could look up the definition in a dictionary provided you knew how to read. However, as we saw with the definition of the word "truth" a definition might not tell us much. In reality, we define a chair as an object that contains all or most of the characteristics of "Chairness." These are probably very fuzzy and there is obviously overlap between the characteristics of a "chair," "bench" and "stool." But, part of the definition would include the use of the object, its general shape and so-forth. Our definition of a chair might look something like this: "A chair is an object that we use to sit on. It normally has a seat, a back and is movable. But, sometimes is just a place to sit."

You can actually play a rather fun game by taking the various parts of your definition of a chair and trying to figure out what is "meant" by each of the various components of the definition. What do we mean when we say "sit", "back, "movable"? How rigid is the definition? While fun, this kind of game actually has little practical value once the people involved are using a language that they both understand. This is a type of absolute that occurs when people have a connotative mental picture of the attributes of a thing. It does not even have to be real thing. This connotative list of object characteristics coalesces in the user's mind into a mental definition that can, in most cases be shared by many people.

This type of absolute is similar to Plato's concept of a "Form." Notice that this form would transcend language. It is a mental picture of a thing that would encompass a large variety of synonymous objects or words used for similar purposes. These "forms" are effectively absolutes. They may be fuzzy and open to a certain amount of interpretation but if they were not absolutes then we would not be able to write a definition of a chair that would enable us to tell a chair from a dog because a dog has four legs a back and a place to sit. We also could not translate our words into another language.

In all of these areas we can legitimately say that that we have absolutes. We can obtain truth because we can know the absolutes that comprise truth. For example: It is absolutely true that gravity is a force of attraction between objects that increases in intensity with mass and decreases with distance.

It was absolutely true that my 1966 Mustang could be started with a pocketknife.

It is absolutely true that if I call my wife on the cell phone and say, "I'm going to be home late. The bus is caught in traffic." that because we both speak English she will understand what I mean.

If I ask students in the library to sit in the black chairs then I do not expect them to sit on the table because they know the connotative difference in the definition of a chair and table.

In each case absolutes lead us to truth about an item or the world around us.

We can prove that at least in the areas of physical science, relative position, and language and in the definition of objects and abstract concepts such as "chairness" that absolutes exist. This is significant for several reasons but the point of this study-aid is to allow you to better find out what is "true" in the books and periodicals that you read. So, how do these examples help us come up with a working definition of "truth" that will be useful in completing homework assignments? The answer to that question is contained in examining the examples used above.

First, when looking for truth or writing about truth we are looking for absolutes. We can also see that like gravity many absolutes are easy to define but like our mental definition a chair others are somewhat fuzzy.

Second, other absolutes exist only by definition and some of those like the grammatical rules used in English language may be arbitrary and have very little to do with logic and have exceptions.

What is not in dispute is that absolutes exist and therefore, something called "truth" also exist.

Third, because we know for a fact that some absolutes are hard to define it would follow that they may be difficult to grasp. The full implied meaning of any particular absolute might be very broad. There may be rather subtle aspects of an absolutes' nature that need to be examined.

Fourth, some absolutes are only absolutes by the position of certain facts (like my 1966 Mustang's faulty ignition switch). We will need to be able determine the difference between what we could call a positional absolute which could be different than it is from what we could call permanent absolute like gravity which does not change regardless of position.

Taking these four elements and combining them into a definition of truth we would come up with a definition of truth something like this: "Truth is a thing that really exist in the world as both an abstract concept and definable entities. Truth can also be of a permanent, denotative, connotative, or positional nature." We could possibly also add this additional sentence: "Truth can, it is generally believed, be known because the absolutes that comprise truth can be known."

So, how do you use this definition of absolutes in your homework or research paper? Well, start by looking for the underlying absolutes assumed or presumed by the author of what you are reading. What is that author's definition of truth? Are the absolutes credible? Are they observable? Is evidence of a permanent, positional, denotative or connotative absolute presented that would allow you to believe the author's conclusions are true? If the author is appealing to a connotative or positional absolute is that absolute really an absolute? If it is a positional or connotative absolute does it apply in this case? Is it really connotative or positional absolute or is it like gravity, universal and permanent?

Examining you readings using an adequate definition of truth will help you answer these questions. An adequate definition of truth will make you better reader and help you to study more effectively. An adequate definition of truth will also help you write better papers because you will be better able present you evidence and have great faith in your information.

Think about it.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Christians believe that in addition to the "truth" talked about above there is another kind of "truth." This other "truth" is spelled with a capital "T." Jesus said; "I am the TRUTH…" If you would like to know what the difference between truth and the Truth is stop by the library. I would be happy to talk with you about it.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Philosopher Librarian

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