Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

You Can't Handle the Truth

I wanted to write a follow-up to my post outlining my view of the truth, which needs some elaboration, and Matt Yglesias provided a good opportunity with this post on the age of the Earth (in the news because of Marco Rubio's recent difficulties with the subject, chronicled by Paul Krugman here and here).  Yglesias writes:
The key thing here is that contrary to what people often say, there’s absolutely no empirical evidence that the planet earth is 4.5 billion years old rather than 4 thousand years ago. Take the standard scientific account of what the earth was like in 2000 BCE. Now imagine that God create the universe exactly like that 4,000 years ago. He put fossiles [sic] in the ground whose state of carbon decay was just so. There’s no “evidence” about this hypothesis one way or the other. Scientific materialism just incorporates as a baseline assumption that these kind of radical discontinuities in the nature of reality don’t happen. But maybe they do?
If I were Yglesias, I would have phrased it more like this:
Well, everyone knows the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. What Young Earth Creationism presupposes is . . . maybe it isn't?
 The point Yglesias is making is rather silly, if you want my honest opinion.  But it does seem like a helpful example of how things can go astray when you rely on the correspondence theory of truth.  According to that theory, this debate about the age of the Earth can't be resolved.  You can appeal to a variety of procedural arguments, like Occam's Razor or whatever, but you can never conclusively prove things one way or the other.  This is because, to revisit my earlier point, the "truth" is meant to reside in an unknowable "real world," which could easily be a prank played by God, in which case you can't trust your senses.

I think this goes some way toward demonstrating another point I want to emphasize, which is that merely because I've abandoned the correspondence theory of truth does not mean I've abandoned objectivity and embraced relativism.  In fact, in many ways the concept of truth I believe in is less subjective/relative than the correspondence theory of truth, because it doesn't really allow for weird theories like Young Earth Creationism.  There are definitely some lurking issues about how we compare different models, but there is no reason in practice that the "empirical world" approach needs to be characterized by undue deference to crazy theories.

UPDATED to add:

10 Comments:

Blogger Sarang said...

Well this seems to me a language game. It's possible that the ordinary-language notion of truth is not, on the whole, useful in discourse. However, it seems to me that on any notion of truth that is closely connected to the ordinary-language notion, the bad-dream scenario is a _possibility_ and cannot be excluded a priori or dismissed as irrelevant. In other words, a discourse about truth that excludes Cartesian demons and the like is really a discourse about some completely different concept which you might as well give a different name.

8:21 PM  
Blogger James said...

Not sure I get your point. You think that when people use the term "truth" they are implicitly aligning themselves with the correspondence theory of truth? I think that's probably not right.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

I think that a lot of what you think are problems with the correspondence theory of truth are problems with the ordinary-language notion of truth -- for instance the Cartesian demon argument has a lot of intuitive force. I suspect that if you define truth such that the Cartesian demon problem doesn't arise then you've defined it out of recognizability.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Sarang said...

PS I don't think you really _have_ a non-correspondence theory of truth, just a set of vague gestures.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

I wound up leaving a long-ish comment back on your previous post on this. Link. I tend to share Sarang's view that 1) I am skeptical that you have outlined a view of truth, and 2) the quest for a concept of truth that eliminates Young Earths and Cartesian demons from consideration as possibly "true" is doomed (your characterization of Yglesias seemingly implies that you think you are offering such a concept).

I initially wrote a long comment here about, like, principles of mediocrity and shit, but am canning it for now. We discussed this a tiny bit on my post here. I am not sure how to cash Sarang's comment there into the discussion here and on your other post.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

I don't have anything terribly to-the-point to say about principles of mediocrity etc. but my general feeling about these is that they are not very good principles out-of-sample -- they give the "right" answers to questions like young-earth but the moment you apply them to a different sort of question you end up with Boltzmann brains and the like. FWIW my current position on these matters is that it's good to be naive about induction as a first principle -- as there is a well-defined, non-absurd naive view with general agreement -- and skeptical about everything else.

8:39 AM  
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