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.


Kristofer Rhodes said...

I'd say that in the sun/earth example, the truth of the statement doesn't depend on perspective, but rather, on definitions of terms. (And of course it's no surprise that defining terms differently results in different truth values.) Meanwhile, different perspectives may make certain definitions more natural to work with. But this isn't real perspectivalism.

So, from the perspective of the astronomer, defining "the sun" as the hot yellow body at the center of the solar system, and defining "comes down" as "moving downward relative to the Earth," both seem natural for the purposes of astronomical science--and make the statement false. Meawnhile, from the perspective of the lay observer navigating across the planet, defining "the sun" as "the hot yellow body in the sky" and "comes down" as "to have a smaller angle than previous, with observer at the corner and horizon on the other end of the angle"--these come to seem natural definitions for this guy's purpose--and on these definitions the statement is true.

HbdW said...

Thank you for your comment, Kristopher Rhodes. I think that truth depends also a lot on the definition of truth. Do we take the correspondence theory or, for instance, truth as consensus as Habermas does? In my view, it's a problem what "reality" is, if we want to use a correspondence theory. Another problem is what we do with the development of science. What once was seen as true may later be seen as false. But if we accept that truth is an ahostorical, not perspectival concept, the truth of the past was actually always false. But who judges? And what to do then with present "truths"? Maybe they are not truths at all (of course, I know that for instance Popper and others have said much about it). I think that Wittgenstein's idea of frame of reference or my idea of multiple truths may be a solution. What is true depends (also) on the way you see the world and the concepts you use for it. Without wanting to say that nothing can be true, I think that we must have an eye for it that truth doesn't need to be something absolute and eternal. As I see it, your comment is a confirmation of my point of view. Definitions of terms are also a kind of perspective.

Grace said...

Speaking of privacy, I know that in the USA people are obliged to report any suspicious activity as they are brought up from their childhood as obedient citizens. It's a contradiction I think. People there are so obedient, they'd call police on any matter.

"At first sight, what is true is not as plain as you might think but it may depend on where you stand." I agree with the statement. Although I think that understanding something "true" also depends on other people's opinion about this "truth".
Sometimes I'm so tricked about my first impressions of situation and the more I ask people about certain situation, the more subjective answer I get - that is from their point of view, not my own one. And I agree with the most adequate to my understanding statement and I accept it. That leads to doubts about my understanding: so does my perception really fail me? :(.
Sometimes I want to hold on to my own truth, however crazy, infantile and unacceptable for others it may be.

HbdW said...

Thank you for your comment, Grace. I have nothing to add. We all often doubt about whether what we think is valid. I also want to refer to my reply on your comment on Double truth (2).