Saturday, 22 May 2010

What's true for you isn't true for me?

"What's true for you isn't true for me!"

Most likely you've heard this statement being made, or you've perhaps said it and believe it yourself. This idea - that there isn't a universally applicable truth - is expressive of what's generally known as 'post-modern thought'. In case you weren't aware, if you're living in Britain as I am, you're living in a post-modern culture. It sounds kinda weird. How can we be already passed what is modern you might ask? That would be a good question, the answer being "I doubt we could", but post-modernity refers not so much to literal time but to the movement from one type of thinking to another. The 'modern' type of thinking, if you'll bear with me, is actually the older way of thinking and post-modernity is the type of thinking that has come after it. The origin of 'post-modern' thought is a story I shan't go into (I'm not confident enough that I can tell it accurately) but it certaintly has some strong roots in the philosophy of the German thinker, Nietzsche. His philosophy wasn't quite the same as that expressed by the popular phrase quoted at the start of this blog entry, but it shares some of its distrust toward universal truths.

In this entry I'm going to take a look at this popular expression of post-modern thought and hopefully show that it just doesn't make much sense! As a result we can let go of this way of thinking, agree that there are universally applicable truths, and start to discover what those may be. So let's crack on.

First question to ask is "what exactly do we mean when we talk about something being true?" It probably sounds like a very silly question. After all we use the concept of 'truth' a great deal and nobody seems to complain about it. Why bother going into detail defining it? Philosophers, as you may be aware, like to question common sense (we apparently like to question the existence of chairs for example), and while it may seem a tad ridiculous at times, it's actually really helpful to make sure we are thinking clearly about the issue and that we haven't just taken something really important for granted. So humour me as I talk about truth for a bit!

When I say "it is raining outside" and it actually is raining outside we would call this a 'true' statement because the content of the statement - the ideas - match up to the reality it is aiming to describe. Similarly, it works the other way round. If I say you are a true friend it means that the reality of your qualities as a friend matches up to the proper idea of a friend. Truth then, is about how ideas and reality match up. So what are we saying when we say that "what's true for you isn't true for me"?

We're either saying that the reality we both have cannot be the same or that the ideas we have cannot be the same (or both).

Do we have completely different realities?

Be careful not to confuse the idea that we may have different realities with the idea that we may see the same reality differently. A common musing along the lines of the latter is whether the colour I label as blue is the same colour you label as blue. This is a different issue relating to whether we can both have the same knowledge of the same thing. I'll address that issue in a later post. For now just recognise that even if we labelled a colour differently that wouldn't mean that the light hitting our eyes would be different. We would probably agree that even if we see or interpret things differently, we have the same reality around us. In fact it would be bizarre to believe that we didn't. Could we really claim that we live in different universes from one another? Does the sun exist for me but not for you? If we believed this was the case why would we bother talking to anyone about anything? I wouldn't be writing this blog to you the reader because you wouldn't have the internet in your universe or the postmodern movement or anything I have in my reality. I hope you can see that holding this sort of view would be rather extreme. After all nobody can talk to another person in the same room and seriously believe that to the other person the room exists completely differently. You might think however that this view still has some merit in relation to more blatantly philosophical or religious topics. In fact it is around these topics that the "what's true for you isn't true for me" idea commonly emerges. Let's imagine the following conversation between a muslim, a christian, and a religious skeptic.

Skeptic: So what do you two believe about God then?
Christian: I believe in one God who is three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Muslim: I believe in one God, Allah, who is completely unified; there is no plurality in him at all.
Christian: I have a few objections to your concept of God.
Muslim: Funny you should say that, I have some objections to your concept of God as well!
Skeptic: Look at you guys arguing! Just remember that what's true for one of you isn't necessarily true for the other.

Is the skeptic's remark here any more plausible than the idea that the sun may exist for me and not for you? Surely not. Does God exist in three persons only for the Christian and as a completely unified being only for the Muslim? For God to exist as both those things would be a contradiction. So no, the skeptic's claim is false, at least one of them has to be wrong about their concept of God. We can see that it is simply unreasonable to believe that we have different realities.

Do we have completely different ideas?

No doubt you will think of things that I won't and you will have ideas that I won't. In this context however, ideas refers more to concepts than to ideas in the sense of an inventor or poet having a new idea. It is our concepts in our statements that match up to reality and produce either truth or falsehood. In the example used earlier it was the concepts of rain and outsideness that matched up to reality. If however your concepts are completely different to mine we could never believe in the same truths. Clearly however, our concepts are not completely different. You have been reading this and have hopefully understood a good portion of it. This would be impossible if our concepts were irreconcilably different. Probably we have some individual meanings attached to certain concepts but our differences aren't untraversable. We share many concepts. So there is no reason to think that "what is true for you isn't true for me" at all. In fact we have seen that to believe that requires you to believe some rather silly things. If however you still think there might be some merit to the position, there is one final thing you should bear in mind.

It is self-defeating!

The major problem with 'truth-relativism' - the belief we've been discussing here - is that it is self-defeating, or to be more technical, it is 'self-referentially incoherent'. A philosophy is self-defeating if it sets up a standard for what can be known or what is true and then fails to meet that standard itself. An example would be me saying that "the only statements which can be true are mathematical statements". That statement is self-defeating because it is itself not a mathematical statement. That truth relativism is similarly self-defeating can easily be shown.

If someone says to you "what's true for one person isn't true for another," ask them this question; "is it true for me that what's true for you isn't true for me?" That person shall be trapped. If they agree that is true for you then they will have conceded that at least something is true for the both of you. If they say it isn't true for you, then truth-relativism isn't true for you and universal truth is. But if truth is universal it is universal for the other person too. This might all sound confusing so let's look at it another way.

Truth relativism can be expressed in this statement; "there are no universal truths." But is that not itself a universal truth? If it is then it breaks its own rule and thus must be false. But if it is not a universal truth then there can still be universal truths. Either way it is false.

The idea then that "what is true for you isn't true for me" is a very bad idea! It is necessarily false and we should not entertain it. Next I shall look at moral relativism which is another popular belief in our culture today.


Yusuke said...

"An example would be me attempting to disprove the validity of mathematics with a mathematical equation."

I hate this example.

It always seemed to me that if one could successfully invalidate math(s) with an equation or undermine logic with logic then the system would be shown to be internally inconsistent and victim to some reductios. I may have mentioned way back when my mathematical proof that 6 = 3. I divided by 0 to get this of course, but if I had used entirely legitimate steps then there would be a serious problem for mathematics.

Ryan said...

i found this interesting and easy to understand, cheers man

Anonymous said...

There are only two universals we share beyond question, the first of which is that of Time.

Not time in the sense of hands caressing a clock-face, but the procession of life ever onwards, towards something or nothing, through an endless expanse(not space, time must precede space) that we have no alternative to refer to but with the word Time.

It's surely undeniable that 'truths' and concepts, universal or otherwise, have changed over time. And it is impossible to deny the probability that they will change from the general moment in 'time' we refer to when we say (generally) at this current moment in time.

Which brings us to what I contend to be our second universal, Change.

Everything (conscious or otherwise) that proceeds through Time is unequivocally altered and affected by Change.

This means that there are universal truths, yes... in the interpretation I offer. But the concepts you and I share of 'reality' or a metaphysical existence are undoubtably different, undoubtably have changed throughout our lives, and in all probability will change again and again.

Even the concepts of the universals I have offered which we both possess (or are aware of) are very different and changeable, and the semantics involved offer only a very rough generality of concepts that we understand in some ambiguous fashion, and are enabled by our belief in understanding (based almost solely on semantics), to scrap through a conversation without too many injuries.

If you say 'it is raining outside', this is not actually a universal truth, for it is absurd to assume that it is raining everywhere which is outside at the same time. It may be raining at a particular moment, but it is undeniable that it is also not raining at that same moment. I think this highlights not the truth of rain itself, but the general concepts we apply to everything... The general concept of 'outside' and the general concept of 'rain', overlap and produce a general prognosis of 'outside + rain + currently'.

The argument I wish to present, in its simplest form is: There are no universal truths. Just universal generalities.

And the 'reality' we consider to be universally true or independently and uniquely true, is all based on general concepts which change and alter throughout their existence in Time. And therefore cannot be truly universal.

nightbringer said...

Yusuke, yes I think I agree with you. Russell's paradox within set theory might be an example of showing such an inconsistency.

Ryan, thank you, I'm trying to make the entries accessible.

Anonymous, interesting comment but I think there are more universal truths that you give credit for. You say for instance that my example of "it is raining outside" is not a universal truth because obviously for some people it won't be raining outside where they are. I think you make the mistake however of reducing the meaning of the statement "it is raining outside" to simply those concepts of rain and outsideness. In actual fact when that statement is uttered, it is a proposition with far more meaning, implied by the context.

If we are talking and I say "it is raining outside" I am not simply saying "there is rain occurring in some outside", I am saying "in this particular place to which we are both looking, it happens to be, right now, raining," or something to that effect. There is obviously a sense that I'm not just talking about any outside. My statement is not intended to be about the outside in Africa 2000 years ago. It is about that specific point in space and time which we find ourselves in. This intent is loading into the proposition's meaning. And if indeed it is raining in this place, it is universally true for everyone that it is raining in this place. If a person in Germany makes an equivocal statement like "in the place where Martin and his friend are talking it is raining right now", that statement would be true.

You say that 'truths' have changed over time. Not by the reasoning I've just presented. If a person in 3400bc or 10560ad said "at the time when Martin and his friend will be/was talking, it was/will be raining in that area" that statement would be true. The proposition about it raining in this certain point in space and time, if indeed it is raining, is true for everyone at all times.

And while our concepts have indeed changed, those changes are not irreconcilably different and so do not affect my argument. I'd burden you to argue otherwise!

nightbringer said...

Actually Yusuke I think what I was getting at with using the maths example is valid, I just expressed it in a sloppy manner which made it appear to be a different position from what I was actually arguing.

I agree with you that it is perfectly valid to critique a position by assuming its truth and then seeing if the propositions entailed by that position are logically consistent or not. An example of such an attempt is the deductive argument from evil, whereby the skeptic hopes to demonstrate that some of the propositions contained within theism (that God is good, all powerful and that evil exists) logically contradict one another so that the theist cannot hold them all at the same time. If such an argument was valid, the skeptic would not have fallen victim to self-referential incoherence at all. In the same way you are right to say that it is perfectly valid to assume some propositions of mathematics to demonstrate an inconsistency within mathematics.

A position would be self-referentially incoherent if it failed to meet its own standard. An example would be a proposition such as "only mathematical propositions can be true" or a mathematical proposition which claimed that only non-mathematical propositions can be true. They both fail to meet their own standards. I may edit the blog entry for clarity.

Yusuke said...

I actually also think it's valid. I had put a little "/nitpicking" in angle brackets at the end but I think blogspot mistook it for bad html and didn't show it. I really just hate the example, partly stemming from one of my high school teachers upholding logic by saying that disproving logic still requires logic. The realization clicked one day and I've hated it ever since.

I will be keeping an eye on this blog though, so look out for the up-and-coming philosopher in your comments.

nightbringer said...

I'm still not entirely sure whether I agree with you that using logic to argue against the validity of logic can be valid. I don't know however if that's because it is invalid in principle or simply because our laws of logic are so consistent that any attempted disprove ends up self-defeating.

nightbringer said...


nightbringer said...

I think I can begin to explain why I'm skeptical.

Let us agree that no chain of reasoning is valid if any two propositions contained therein logically contradict each other. When attacking theism or mathematics through an internal critique you take say three propositions x, y, and z, that your opponent holds to and show that they cannot all be true for they logically contradict one another. Your oppponent then is forced to abandon at least one of the propositions in order to have a valid chain of reasoning.

The problem with trying to argue against the validity of the laws of logic is that no such argument can ever be a valid chain of reasoning. The conclusion - that the laws of logic are invalid - would logically contradict the necessary presumption of the argument - that the laws of logic are valid ways to reason. Mathematics does not face this problem because the validity of mathematics is not a necessary presumption of any argument.

nightbringer said...

that should be "every argument."

Anonymous said...

Just one thing confuses me here, when you say 'When I say "it is raining outside" and it actually is raining outside we would call this a 'true' statement'

particularly the phrase 'it actually is raining'.

It may seem like a pendantic or underhand tactic at overthrowing 'truth', but how do we know what is actual? I mean, we could look outside and see water droplets showering the street, but is that definately rain? Is there not a host of other possiblities lurking, each of which can be labelled probable?

Short of tracing a raindrop back up to a cloud, somehow, I'm not sure how we can ever say, truthfully, that it is actually raining.

I prefer to view truth as something useful, if I see that its raining, I'll believe it, to the extent that I might just take an umbrella with me, not that I would entrust all my judgements from hereon to that, possibly incorrect, 'fact'.

- Tom

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments Tom.

I think first of all you should recognise that if you deny the idea that truth is about how statements correspond to the actuality of things then you are effectively saying "that theory of truth doesn't correctly correspond to how truth actually is". You would have to use the correspondence theory of truth to refute it! Your position would be self-defeating.

Your question about how we know what is actual is not properly speaking a question about what truth is. It is a question about knowledge, which is a bit different. It's also a rather massive topic! I guess I'd say you /know/ a belief if it is true and you have good reason to believe it, or that believe is naturally formed by virtue of the cognitive design plan of your mind.