Monday, July 22, 2013

Double truth (2)

In my blog on double truth last week I argued that the truth of a statement must often be put into perspective and that it may depend on the position of the person who utters the statement. I expressed this by saying that truth can be double or even multiple. Is that all there is?
I begun to think about this question, when I heard about a new doping scandal in sport. This time it is not in cycle racing, which gradually seems to become cleaner. No, the present scandal is in athletics, where recently a range of athletes, among them several Olympic gold medal winners, have been exposed as doping users. This raised in me the question: Has there always been doping?
When searching for the answer on the Internet, I discovered that it is yes and no. Since sport in its present manifestation goes back to classical antiquity I wondered how it was in those days and what I found was double: yes, doping existed; no, it did not exist. I’ll not go into the details, but indeed, it was so that in Greece and Rome athletes and their trainers of all kinds of sports had discovered that there are nutrients but also, for example, mushrooms that improved the sporting achievements. The answer is no, since there was no doping in the modern sense for there were no rules that forbade the use of doping. Paraphrasing Feyerabend, it was “everything goes”. Doping as we know it today, so drugs that are explicitly forbidden because they improve the results, is a recent phenomenon. One website says that it was in 1865 that in modern times the positive effects of doping were established for the first time, when Dutch cross-Channel swimmers used caffeine. The first sportsman who died by using doping is said to be Arthur Linton, the 1896 winner of the Bordeaux-Paris cycling race, who died eight weeks after his victory. Since then gradually rules have been made that forbid the use of doping in sport, and now the list of “List of Prohibited Substances and Methods” is long. However, developing rules and adding drugs to the prohibited list is not one-way. Sometimes drugs that were once not allowed have been removed from the list again. Caffeine is a case in point. Until 2004 it was on the list when a certain threshold value had been exceeded. Then it has been dropped from the list, and a sportsman or sportswoman can drink as many cups of coffee and other caffeine containing drinks as s/he likes.
What does this mean for my theory of double or multiple truths? The statement that a range of athletes recently has been exposed as doping users is true from the present perspective: According to the present sport laws they simple are doping offenders. Using oxilofrine and other dope, as they did, is a sports offence today. But if they had used the same drug on, say, the Olympic Games of 676 BC they would have been no more than smart athletes who followed the rules and who would have been honoured as decent winners. Using oxilofrine was no offence at all. Even if the use of dope could and would have been established afterwards then, nobody would have thought of depriving them of their titles. They would have been honest winners.
The upshot is that truth cannot only be double or multiple if we take the perspective of another person or of other persons, it can also be double or multiple from the perspective of time: what is true at one point in time need not be true at another point in time. We can also say: Truth has both a synchronic and a diachronic dimension.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Double truth

In my last blog I criticized Wittgenstein’s remark in On Certainty 80-81 that asserted that whether I understand what I state depends on whether it is true or false what I state. My objection was that it is easy to give examples of false statements that have nevertheless an obviously clear meaning for the speaker, for instance that the earth is the centre of the universe. What I actually want to say in my criticism is that truth, at least empirical truth, is often a matter of perspective and that it is often not possible to say “This statement is true and the opposite statement is false”. It’s a bit surprising for me that two paragraphs later in his On Certainty Wittgenstein actually says the same:

83. The truth of certain empirical propositions belongs to our frame of reference.

Without a doubt, it will be possible to give a sound explanation or interpretation of this remark by Wittgenstein in the context of his On Certainty. However, here I’ll leave it as it is.
Probably some readers of my blogs find the remark that truth may be a matter of perspective (or a matter of frame of reference, in Wittgenstein's words) a bit shocking. But is it really so shocking? Isn’t the phenomenon of double or even multiple truths, as I would call it, something that abounds in daily life? Take for instance the caption of the photo in my last blog: Does the sun go down or does the earth come up? The former is true from the perspective of what we see; the latter is true from the perspective of astronomy.
Actually, the perspective or contextual dependence of truth is not limited to such rather trivial examples as the question whether the sun goes down or the earth comes up. It can be a source of serious social and political conflicts. I’ll give two examples:
- Ethiopia has started to construct a barrage in the Nile. Egypt, which is downstream of the new barrage, is afraid that this will be detrimental for the water supply in the Nile and it threats to take measures. It’s a case of double truth, I think, where both countries are right in a certain sense from the perspective of state autonomy and the right to defend its interests.
- Terrorism is a threat for the world, so you are allowed to collect any data that might help to prevent it. Citizens of a state have a right of privacy. Who is right? Obama or Snowden?
Maybe these cases or not well-chosen or not clear-cut enough, and that’s then my fault. Look around and I don’t doubt that you’ll find much better instances. But I think that you’ll understand the idea I want to express: At first sight, what is true is not as plain as you might think but it may depend on where you stand.

Monday, July 08, 2013

On Certainty

Does the sun go down or does the earth come up?

In On Certainty Wittgenstein writes:

80. The truth of my statements is the test of my understanding of these statements.
81. That is to say: if I make certain false statements, it becomes uncertain whether I understand them.

Broadly speaking, this is not correct. For example, when the Inquisition sentenced Galileo, because he denied the official doctrine of the roman catholic church that the earth is the centre of the universe, the inquisitors understood and knew exactly what they were talking about, although their doctrine appeared to be false – and was actually already superseded in those days – and Galileo appeared to be right. What is true is often not a matter of yes or no but it must be seen in the perspective of place and time (history). This is for social facts even more so than for physical facts.
And what to think of lies? They are produced with insight and understanding of what’s true.
There are many other instances that speak against the truth of these two combined statements, at least in general.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Double identity

Actually I need not to write about it, for it’s a well-known phenomenon: role playing. No, I don’t mean what actors do on the stage but what we do in everyday life, although in a certain sense it’s a bit like what actors do. At home, we are father, mother or child. On the workplace we are accountant, teacher, manager, or student. On the sports field we are long distance runner, goalkeeper, referee or spectator. And so on. Every position has its rules of what the holder of the position is supposed to do, what s/he is allowed to do and what is forbidden. The accountant registers the money transactions of his or her company but doesn’t take the decisions what to do with the money. That task belongs to the manager or to the director. And the worker on the shop floor is the one who factually makes the products. By analogy of what is happening on a stage such positions are called roles and the position holders are called role players. Since each person always plays several roles, daily life can be quite compartmentalized. Then you have to do this, an hour later (or sometimes a few moments later) you have to play another role and each role has its rules and requirements. This can be quite confusing. The American sociologist Robert Merton has become famous by his social role playing theory (but not only by this) but the idea that we play roles is already much older.
Because role playing is an essential part of our lives and is an essential way of filling in our relations with others, the roles we play are important elements of our personal identities (next to our experiences, for instance). Usually it is so that we not only play our roles but we are our roles. I mean, as a rule we don’t just pretend to be father, teacher or long distance runner. We believe in what we do and we do it with our whole hearts. However, it doesn’t need to be so, as everybody knows. An extreme case of pretending a role is a seeming customer who wants to observe the bank in order to come back next day as a raider. Actually it is so that in most roles we play we always need to pretend a bit as well.
For most people their different roles are well integrated. It’s true, roles can conflict, for instance, when a teacher has her own child in her class, so that the roles of teacher and mother can conflict. But most people can play their different roles openly and they can be tuned to one another, so that role conflicts can be avoided. And normally one doesn’t need to hide particular roles for other people. Nevertheless this can happen, for instance when someone doesn’t dare to say that he is gay to his parents, boss or other relevant people in his environment. If he wants to visit a gay cafe, for instance, this needs to be kept secret. Then such person leads a “double life”: two “lives” strictly kept apart. In a certain sense he has a double identity. In a more innocent way, you can say that someone has a double identity if one of the roles he openly plays actually has nothing to do with his daily life. People have hobbies, and hobbies like playing chess, collecting stamps, voluntary work, or whatever, usually involve roles that are well integrated with the other roles of the role player. But what to think of an actor or a member of a historical re-enactment group? The role as such as a player is well integrated with other social roles, but what about the role played? The actor playing Napoleon is Napoleon at the moment he is playing if he is playing well. The man playing a mediaeval knight is this mediaeval knight at the moment he is playing if he is playing his part well. In this sense we can say that persons playing the role of another have a double identity. This has been shown so well by Wim Piesen in his excellent series of photos (
To what extent are double identities kept apart and to what extent can they be kept apart? And to what extent are people pretending playing the role they play not the role player they pretend to be? I think that the cases of the actor or the pretender are not problematic. Even if the actor is playing Napoleon or another role, he is always giving a personal interpretation of the parts being played. This points to an integration of his, what I would call now, “secondary identity” with his “main identity”. And the pretender pretends his role usually in function of the other roles that make up his or her identity (the customer in my example is a raider in disguise). But also the person who keeps one of his identities secret for the daily environment is actually “playing” the person he is for his environment: Much he does in his daily environment is often done  in function of keeping a part of his identity secret. This keeping secret influences the ways the “public” roles are filled in. Therefore, we can say with Montaigne, “Whatsoever personage a man takes upon himself to perform, he ever mixes his own part with it” (from “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”).