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Truth and Reality

Martin's picture
Normal 0

Why must there be a distinction between truth and falsity, reality and fantasy, or as Harry Frankfurt puts it, between truth and bullshit? I do not argue that one must accept the notion of a single external reality that everyone participates in order to discuss mental health, I argue that one must accept that notion to discuss anything at all. Correspondence theory of truth, where terms and their definitions are attempts at pointing to things that exist outside of us (facts) in an external reality, is the only way we can speak to one another with a shared vocabulary. The term corresponds to the objective reality. What form the term/sign takes is irrelevant, but what is important is that signs have as their "meaning" the thing pointed to, namely the fact. Our inability to create a universal set of signs that we all recognize as pointing to the same things does not demonstrate that there is no universal set of things to which we are pointing, namely an objective reality. It only demonstrates that we each have unique perceptions of the realities that we point to so we may call the same thing by many different names.

There is no way to demonstrate or prove the truth of the statement that something can not both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. This principle of non-contradiction, or PNC, is something that one must simply accept in order to engage in rational discourse. A statement can not be both true and false, the terms are mutually exclusive. One must accept this or else we will have no vocabulary at all, words will not have any meaning. Veracity is a property of statements. So, to say that a statement about something is true or false, is a matter of the relation between the statement and the thing. For example, if I say that my hair is brown, my relationship to the statement is irrelevant insofar as it's veracity is concerned. The fact that I made the statement, or how I feel about it does not change the fact that it is true. The truth of the statement is due to its correspondence with the thing that the terms point to, namely my hair and the color brown. To say something is true for me but false for you is to insert oneself in-between the relation of a term and the thing it signifies. Now, whether or not we know that a certain term does correspond to a particular object that we point to with it is another issue entirely. The fact remains that without this "pointing" phenomenon, our words do not have any meaning. And, without meaning our conversation is pointless.

William James, the late 19th century epistemologist gives an account of truth in his essay "The Will to Believe" that suggests that truth is a belief that works in the long run. Whether or not one is justified in saying that they know the truth is not only a matter of the evidence, as an empiricist would suggest, but it is also a matter of the passional nature of man/the will/pragmatic motivations. In suggesting this definition of truth, James rightly points out that nobody, anywhere or ever, has all the facts about a situation upon which to base their judgement/form their belief in the hopes of it being true.  Therefore he suggests that what makes something true is a combination of why someone believes something and the evidence that supports that belief. If the evidence changes or the reason for believing changes then what was true can become untrue and what was false can become true. This way of looking at things gives us a new concept, namely the concept of what kind of truth men really have access to. This is coherent, and useful way to look out our mental experience, but I would argue that it is incomplete.

There is a distinction that needs to be made in order to get at the crux of the "reality" issue. Thus far we have been speaking of truth, and our ability to possess it or of it's existence. The notion of truth is often thought to be thought of as something outside of us, divine, etc... However, truth is only a noun that refers to statements which possess a certain property, namely the property of being true. Truth, then deals with statements about things, not with things themselves. And, James quite rightly points out that our ability to know if any of our statements about things are true is severely limited if not downright negligible. Therefore, truth needs to be distinguished from facts, about which James says this: "throughout the breadth of physical nature facts are what they are quite independently of us" (VIII). A fact is something that we encounter and then try to explain, categorize, and understand. The statements that we make regarding the fact in our efforts to explain, categorize, and understand are then either true or false depending not upon us but upon the fact and its relation to our statement.

When we engage in dialectic or argumentation to do this explanation, categorization, and work toward understanding, we give reasons in support of our arguments. Reasons are simply statements about the facts as we see them or about the facts as we choose to represent them even if we represent them in a way that is contrary to what we believe about them (i.e. lying or playing the devil's advocate). If one chooses to move a discourse without regard for the "truthfulness" of the reasons then the motivation for engagement in the discourse is to manipulate people and events in a way that the person giving the false reasons sees fit. The person giving the reasons is unconstrained by anything at all. If one chooses to move a discourse with regard to the "truthfulness" of their reasons they are constrained by something, and are not in control of where the discourse will go. The are constrained by the facts even if what actually does the constraining are the facts as the interlocutor sees them and not necessarily the facts as the are in themselves.

The facts as one sees them, not the facts constrains one in the attempt to understand, but the facts constrain when someone tries to act upon their understanding. For this reason, James says that "to hold any one of them (beliefs)... as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude." (VI) Our beliefs about facts can and should always be open to change. This statement can only be made in the light of the belief that the facts themselves cannot change, i.e. they can't contradict the PNC. Frankfurt makes a similar point when he says "civilizations have never gotten along healthily, and cannot get along healthily without large quantities of reliable factual information." (p34) He is saying that what works in the long run tends to be those beliefs (statements about facts that one makes to oneself) that are true, meaning that the facts as one sees them correspond to the facts as they are independent of our seeing them. If we don't have some measure of understanding of these facts we will not get along very well with our environment. James is right, truth does work in the long run. In fact, I think he is more right than he even realizes. In the infinite long run, only those beliefs/statements that are true will work, but one might get along quite nicely their entire life acting upon a false belief. This suggests that all true beliefs work but not all false beliefs fail, at least in the short term (our lifespan). So, a belief "working" is not what makes it true, rather a true belief "works".

Our concept of the facts/reality is just a statement of the facts/reality as we see them. But, our statements have no meaning without our inference of the existence of a fact/reality to which our statements point. Do we "possess" The Reality concept? Certainly not. But, without that inference to reality I do not see any point in speaking.

And now, to move this discussion toward the particular area of discourse that we are interested in, namely the topic of mental health. I suggest that human beings are a reality/ a fact of the natural world (reality in its entirety), and that they are what they are quite independently of what we think about them. What evidence do I have to support this? Well, if one accepts (in light of the thousands of examples that their daily experience provides) that there are things outside of us that constrain us, namely  an external reality, facts, then I think it would be foolish to assume that we are part of a separate reality that is somehow influenced by this "factual" reality. It seems to make more sense that we are part of that outside reality, and since things in that reality are what they are independent of what we think about them, why should we be any different then any other thing in that reality.

So, now that we can say that human beings are something, a fact, that is what it is independent of how anyone sees the facts; I think we can move forward to say that there are a whole host of facts that are not the fact of a human being. This second statement, hearkening back to the PNC claims that humans are humans and not some other thing. At this point I move forward with the assumption that since we are all humans, what is good for one human is going to be good for the next because of their similarities. However, if one wanted to, they could make the argument that everyone we speak with is so radically individual and unique that one cannot make any statements about another human being with the hopes of the statement being true. If that is the case, then I give up. But, I doubt that it is, and I remain convinced that humans share something in common with one another, namely their humanness, i.e. the fact that they are human.

This means that only a certain set of actions will "work in the long run" when one interacts/ butts up against the fact that is humanness. Our actions can only be based on our view of the facts but that does not mean it is a good idea to forget that we are trying to base our actions on the facts. If we formed our beliefs about the sources of our experiences without acknowledging that our experiences are related to something other than the experience itself, then we would have no reason to ever say that our beliefs are wrong because our beliefs would be about nothing. If we want to talk about our experience as we experience them, then we have the fact that is our experience to restrict what we say about it. Luckily this is one area of reality that we can know a lot about, we are better at knowing our own experience of things than about anything else because it is so personal. The man experiencing must then be the man making statements about that experience and he is the only one  who can know if he is at least trying to make true statements, i.e. statements that correspond to the fact of his experience.

A mental healthcare system that works in the long run cannot say that there is no such thing as humanness, or health. It can not say that individuals are free to decide what the facts are and what their humanness or health is in itself. But, it can help people to form their own view of the facts, a view of their humanness or health and help them to acknowledge that their view may or may not correspond to the facts. A communities best effort to determine what the facts look like is often misunderstood as a demand for conformity to some individual's view of the facts. Conformity to the communities best understanding of the facts (what is normal) is not de-facto a bad thing. I would think that starting with a community's standard/normal view of the facts is not such a bad idea. It may not be the best view of the facts, but at least it gives us a foundation upon with we can discourse with others. It is not a waste of time to seek to be normal, so long as one also attempts to understand where the community got their standard.


William James The Will to Believe


Harry Frankfurt. On Truth. Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2006.


jrlewis's picture

You probably know that that

You probably know that that I can't read this paper without wanting to discuss the necessity of a normative reality a little more.  So here goes, the infamous tea kettle problem.  If you decide that you want to make a cup of tea that is a conscious choice.  The actual tea maing process may be monitored by your unconscious though.  If after initiating the tea making process, putting a tea kettle on the stove, you do not obtain a cup of tea, then there is a problem.  Your conscious and unconscious should communicate and problem solve to analyze what went wrong, for example leaving the kitchen to work in the garden.  It is a matter of consistency of personal story that is important here.  I don't think there is any need for appeal to a normative reality in this case.  Although objective reality may be a useful concept it is not the only way to explain things. 

Also, as a chemistry major, I have to bring in a little quantum mechanics.  Are you familiar with Schrondinger's cat?  If not, there is a cat sealed in a box with a loaded gun.  The trigger is attached to a device measuring radioactive decay.  Radioactive decay is a process described by probabilities.  We don't know for sure that the gun fired.  Anyway, the cat is simultaneosuly dead and alive until the container is examined.  A similar description is applied to particles in physics. So I'm curious how this fits in with your statement:

"There is no way to demonstrate or prove the truth of the statement that something can not both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect."  

Help please?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Mental health: going beyond discourse foundations

"I would think that starting with a community's standard/normal view of the facts is not such a bad idea. It may not be the best view of the facts, but at least it gives us a foundation upon with we can discourse with others. It is not a waste of time to seek to be normal, so long as one also attempts to understand where the community got their standard."

I'm quite comfortable with a "standard/normal view" as a "foundation upon which we can discourse with others" (cf The Objectivity/Subjectivity Spectrum: Having One's Cake and Eating it Too). And even with the idea that one needs something to "point to" in order to engage in discourse, ie with a presumption, for the purpose of discourse, that there is something which is common to peoples' experiences (at least several of them).

There is though a big step between accepting things for the sake of discourse and asserting that there are facts "independent of how anyone sees the facts." Yes, for the sake of discourse there is indeed "humanness" or "health," the commonalities currently agreed upon by some particular group of people. And those are indeed a good foundation for further exploration. The issue is whether we should use them as a measuring stick, as opposed to encouraging individuals (and groups of individuals) to further explore both "what the facts are and what their own humanness or health is".

Foundations for discourse are fine; measuring sticks still seem to me to be missing fundamental features of mental health phenomena. "attempts to understand where the community got their standard" so as to promote new standards seems to me an essential component of mental health.