Monthly Archives: March 2009

Truth

Before discussing what I define as “truth”, lets go back and fill in a missing piece in the last discussion of knowledge. I was struggling with what to call unverified impressions one has about an item, or the invalid content of a framework of ideas where the proper validation has not been done. (In reality, these are both the same, though stated “nicely” and then “harshly”). In conversation with our “discussion group” (in this case, one person) last week, I was immediately given an answer – these are opinions. After some consideration, I think I can agree with using that term to mean these un-validated ideas. As an aside, I often find myself unable to find the right word for a thought – even when the right word is obvious in retrospect.

Alright, on to truth. This whole train of thought about knowledge and truth revolves around the problem of intrinsicism vs. subjectivism – usually asked in the form – “where is Truth, in the external world around us, or in our understanding of that external world?”. This seems to be an ageless battle throughout the history of philosophy, and was only answered satisfactorily by Ayn Rand (and perhaps stated most clearly by Leonard Peikoff). Without trying to present the full importance of Rand’s solution to the problem here, Objectivism answers that the content of a concept of a particular item is neither in the thing itself (intrinsicism) or in one’s own mind (subjectivism), but is in the relationship between the thing and one’s mind. This is not easily understood, and it is not my intention to try to describe this central tenet of Rand’s epistemology here. What I want to focus on for the moment is the common use of the word truth, and how I prefer to use that term.

Truth seems to be commonly used to indicate an absolute statement about of the nature of a thing in itself, completely separated from our understanding of that thing. As such, I think the very use of this term implies an intrinsicist viewpoint. The Truth in this sense can never be completely known, so the argument would go, and hence we can never be certain of what we know. In the full implication of this viewpoint, the Truth exists in a separate Reality from the world that we can know – this is the Platonic world of Ideals, and leads to the Kantian (and ultimately Existential) view that we cannot know anything about Reality. As you can see, I reject all of these implications, and hence refuse to use the term Truth in this sense.

Now, it is the case that things exist in an absolute state of being – a thing is what it is, regardless of what any consciousness may know about it. (This is axiomatic – “Existence Exists”). However, it is also axiomatic that our knowledge of a thing (using my definition of knowledge) is certain. If we have completely integrated our understanding of a thing with the rest of our knowledge, then what we know of a thing is absolutely correct, though it is also incomplete. New observations of a thing may bring evidence that we need to expand our concepts regarding this thing, but it will not contradict our existing knowledge, it will only require an expansion of our concepts.

So, we have the nature of a thing as it exists – what I’ll call its absolute state of being – and we have our valid conceptual understanding of that thing. I use the word “truth” to indicate a measure of the completeness of our understanding against the absolute state of being of a thing.  In principle, this is a quantitative measurement; in practice, it can only be evaluated in contrived examples.  A conceptual framework can be completely untrue if it is malformed (if the entire framework is actually an opinion), and if none of it matches the absolute state of being.  Assuming knowledge instead of opinion, then all parts of the framework are true, yet the measure of truth will generally not be perfection (say 100%), because there will be additional aspects of the absolute state of being which have not been perceived, or have been perceived but not yet integrated into the conceptual framework.

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A Definition of the Term “Knowledge”

The following stems from a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with our weekly discussion group, after a question about the meaning of Truth was raised.

When dealing with philosophical matters, I find that one of the most difficult, yet essential, problems we face is in carefully defining what various terms mean.  More often than not in serious conversation, I will find that what I mean by a particular word is at odds with what others interpret that word to mean.  Perhaps this is an issue only of my idiosyncratic use of some words, but I am convinced such problems are very widespread.

The word “knowledge”, as applied to a particular item or field of items, I understand to mean the accumulated content of a concept or a hierarchy of concepts an individual holds regarding those items.  By “content of a concept”, I mean the common attributes or variables that have been abstracted from the observation (physical or mental observation) of concrete examples.  Per Ayn Rand’s framework, these common attributes, with their measurements omitted, define the concept.  I further limit the application of the term knowledge to those conceptual frameworks which have been created with appropriate use of reason – insisting in each step of construction that the framework is integrated with the rest of the individual’s knowledge. 

I’ve been struggling to find an appropriate word to describe the content of invalid frameworks of concepts in which proper validation has not been performed, and haven’t yet resolved this problem.  My limitation allows the use of the term knowledge to imply certainty – we are certain of the accuracy of our knowledge.

It should further be noted that I limit the term “knowledge” to apply exclusively to the content of an individual’s conceptual framework.  There is no social knowledge under this definition, though there certainly is shared knowledge.  The attempt to communicate knowledge between individuals – through conversation, writing, public speech – I recognize as at best partially successful.  Separate individuals can develop similar conceptual frameworks through communication, but these knowledges will never be exactly matching.  This issue merits its own phrase, and I call it “the problem of communication”.

Next up – defining truth.

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