What is True Depends on What is the Truth

This is a follow-up to Alec’s nicely written post on realism and its varieties. I put forth in the comments section the idea that what one believes to be the case with regards to realism v. anti-realism is going to color what one takes to be true in the world. Or, at the very least, what one considers to be a candidate of truth in the world. Here is why that is (and note that this is not merely my opinion, but is an established line of argument and belief among metaphysicians).

Realism, as Alec eloquently stated, is the view that the world is a particular way in a mind-independent fashion. Anti-realism is the view that the world is mind-dependent, and so derives many, perhaps all, of its features because of how it is perceived. Those are very quick takes on the two views and should not be satisfactory in and of themselves to anyone. Again, I refer you to Alec’s post.

Depending on which of the views you hold, your idea of what is true (or at least what you believe to be true) need not change, but what makes something true (its truth conditions) does change. Why might this be? First, let’s talk about the common sense view of truth.

Suppose a person makes the following utterance, “snow is white.” That utterance has a truth value. It is true if snow is white, and it is false if snow is any color other than white. How do we go about determining if it is true? Well, we go and look at snow. “Look”, you might say, if you live somewhere other than NYC or Chicago, “there is some snow, and it is white.” Hurray! We have verified its truth status. Or, dum dum dum, have we?

If you are a realist, you think that there are properties in the world that we can discover. This does not just mean that we can encounter snow, but that when we encounter snow, we can learn something about it, such as it being cold, malleable, crunchy, and white. If those are characteristics that we cannot discover or encounter, there is no way we can determine the truth value of any statements that make reference to such characteristics. The utterance, “snow is white”, is true only if snow is actually white. We laugh at a child who says, “snow is brown” because we know that snow is not brown (even in NYC, snow is white until it hits the dirty, dirty ground there). This is called the correspondence theory of truth. An utterance is true if it corresponds with what is actually the case in reality. “My keys are in the bowl by the door” is only true if my keys are in the bowl that is by the door. If they are in a dish, if they are in the kitchen, if I have no keys at all, the utterance is false because it does not correspond with how things actually are in reality. Hopefully you can see why a realist is drawn to the correspondence theory (though the two are not necessarily conjoined).

But I suspect you can also see why the anti-realist is not going to favor a correspondence theory of truth. For the anti-realist, most of what we believe to be the case about the world is due to how our minds project or create certain features or characteristics of what we perceive. For the anti-realist, the utterance of “snow is white” is expressing an opinion since there is no objective characteristic of ‘white’ in the world; there is only the experience that I refer to as ‘being white’. Whiteness, then, is a mind-dependent characteristic. It exists only because our minds create it. What does that do to the truth value of the utterance then? Well, as there is no objective reality to compare the utterance to, we cannot rely on the correspondence theory. Even if there were an actual characteristic of being white in the world, how could we ever know what that characteristic was like when our perceptions are so unreliable? And yet, the anti-realist does not want to say that there is no such thing as truth. Instead, what determines truth is something different from correspondence. It is called the coherence theory of truth. For the anti-realist (for many of them, at least), our mind-dependent experiences build up a large collection of beliefs about what we think the world is like. Since we cannot say what the world is actually like, we judge truth based on how well an utterance coheres (fits in) with our collection of beliefs. We want our collection of beliefs to be as coherent as possible. Note that coherence here does not merely mean understandable or rational, it means something larger: that our collection of beliefs not contain contradictions. We do not want to believe that we are both standing in the rain and we are not standing in the rain. We do not want to believe that snow is white together with snow is not white. (Of course, we can believe variations of those, but the contradictions are smoothed away by adding unspoken caveats to the utterance. For example, “snow is white” need not contradict “snow is not white” if we have the unspoken belief that the second utterance is about NYC snow which is changed or altered snow. “I am standing the rain” need not contradict “I am not standing in the rain” so long as we have the unspoken belief that I am standing beneath an umbrella which means that I am in the rain without being rained upon.)

Truth and Language
This can quickly become an issue of semantics or philosophy of language and so worth another, different post. Briefly, though, we know what we mean when we say what we do. When I point at snow and say, “snow is brown”, I do not literally mean that I believe snow is brown. Instead, I mean that snow, in such and such a state or condition (whatever condition is present, perhaps), is brown. If someone, maybe Alec, who knows, were to ask me, “do you mean to say that you think snow is brown?” I can honestly and reasonably say, “That is not what I meant when I said, ‘snow is brown.’ I meant that the snow here is brown, by which I meant to say, this is some really dirty snow.’” There is the demonstratrive sense of the utterance, by which I point and so indicate a particular batch of snow. Think of the old example about eskimos having eighteen different words for snow. That is a ridiculous example, I think, meant to suggest that eskimos like snow so much they talk about it a lot. But guess what? We non-eskimos have lots of different words for snow too: snow, wet snow, dry snow, soft snow, heavy snow, light snow, sleet, hail, etc. Wait a minute, you might exclaim, those are just the word ‘snow’ with an adjective in front of it. Yep — many of our words are like that. In fact, many words are like that: compound concepts captured in one word. What does ‘slush’ mean, if not icy rain? What is ‘beautiful’ aside from ‘pretty’ preceded by some number of ‘very’s?

Back to the topics at hand though, for an utterance to be true for the anti-realist, then, just means that the utterance fits in with my already accepted beliefs. “Snow is white” is true if what I call ‘snow’ is associated with the characteristic that I call ‘white’, and it means nothing beyond that. So, which theory of truth is correct? The realist theory is not correct, as there is no way to verify if what we have said actually corresponds with what is actually the case in the world. There is the experience I have whenever I come across a sensation that I label ‘white’, but why think that particular experience matches up with the way the world truly is? Perhaps I am color blind. Perhaps I am hallucinating. But you are not, the realist might contend. But how do you know that I am not? Can you prove that you are sensing the world as it actually is? If you could, there would be no anti-realist camp.

The anti-realist theory is not true either though, at least not obviously so. Coherence is an important attribute for any system of beliefs. For any system of beliefs, we want there to be as few outright contradictions as possible. Yet, why think that coherence alone is enough to establish truth? Someone who is schizophrenic or just simply insane might have a very coherent view of their experiences, but it only seems coherent to them because they are crazy. The schizophrenic person believes he hears voices separate from his own; he may even believe he sees people talking to him. We consider him sick though, because he is experiencing what no one else is or can. We say that the schizophrenic is wrong, not because his beliefs are not coherent, since many of them are (perhaps even as many of his beliefs cohere as do our own), but because he has beliefs that do not correspond to reality, to what we think is actually true. A claim, by the way, the schizophrenic will agree with once he is on successful medication.

What is the upshot of all this? Well, the realist maintains that our intuitive conception of truth is based on correspondence, not coherence, and the anti-realist maintains that we can never know whether our beliefs correspond with anything external to the mind, but that we can determine if our beliefs cohere with one another. Which you favor seemingly depends on what you think is real (though, to be fair, some suggest that what you think is real depends on what you think makes something true). However, it more often depends on what you think you justify as being true. That, however, has to do with straight up epistemology, and so must wait for another post.

What Is Realism?

Do you believe in the existence of stones, trees, cats, and the other everyday objects around us? It’s not a rhetorical question — there are actually philosophers who don’t believe in the existence of this sort of thing. What about the objects of mathematics? — numbers, abstract triangles, infinite quantities? How about the entities and laws of science? Or moral and aesthetic properties? What sorts of furniture are you willing to stow in the universe’s metaphysical attic?

Realism and Language
There is a school of thought that categorizes realism as a doctrine about truth and language instead of existence — the idea being that talking about the existence of sorts of things, and what it means for our talking to correspond to some sort of truth, is the real job of this branch of philosophy. This school of thought will be blatantly ignored by me in this piece, though those who are interested in finding out more can get lots of great references from Michael Devitt’s Realism and Truth.

Realism in philosophy is, broadly, a belief in the existence of some sorts of things. If you believe in the existence of numbers, you are a mathematical realist. If you believe in the existence of unobservable subatomic particles, you are a scientific realist. And so on, through the rest of the disciplines into which philosophy delves — ethics, aesthetics, language, and logic, to name a few.

Of course, just as there are realists about each of these sorts of things, there are also anti-realists — self-proclaimed disbelievers in the existence of those types of objects — and many a heated battle has been waged between the two camps in just about every arena.

Common-Sense Realism

What I’d like to talk about initially is realism (and anti-realism) about a sort of object that many of us take for granted as having an uncontroversial existence: stones, trees, and cats; the everyday objects of the external world. Let’s call this doctrine common-sense realism.

I said “external world” in the previous paragraph as a hat-tip to the debate that pretty much gave birth to the very notion of realism in the modern era: Cartesian skepticism. Rene Descartes, in his Meditations, pondered the objects about the existence of which he could be absolutely certain. In the end, he cast considerable and powerful doubt on the existence of even such mundane and seemingly certain things as stones, trees, and cats, saving his indubitable belief solely for the existence of his own mind. Descartes’ skepticism was so powerful, in fact, that it spawned an incredible genealogy of philosophers arguing about it for centuries to come. In the end, Descartes himself, with the generous and dubious help of his God, wound up believing in stones, trees, and cats, but other philosophers would not so easily shake off the doubts Descartes had raised. George Berkeley, for one, posited that, post-Descartes, it only made sense to believe in the existence of minds — not in the existence of stones, trees, and cats at all. (Stones, trees, and cats, on Berkeley’s take, are actually collections of ideas, which are, as ideas, completely dependent on minds for their existence.) So, thanks in part to Descartes, we have a divide that persists in our thinking about these things to this very day: there is the internal world (our minds) and the external world (stones, trees, and cats). Thanks to the certainty Descartes uncovered, almost no one until recently has been an anti-realist about minds; but many have been anti-realists about the external world.

So there are two facets to being a common-sense realist. It means, for one thing, that you believe in the existence of things like stones, trees, and cats; but for another thing, it means that you don’t think such things are dependent on minds for their existence. A tree, for a common-sense realist, is a real object in the real world, and would exist whether or not humans ever thought about it.

Mind Dependence
What sorts of things would be dependent for their existence on minds? Unless you are a disciple of Berkeley, this might be an odd question. But ponder things like dreams, emotions, and ideas. Clearly these sorts of things are mind-dependent. A stone, on the contrary, if you’re a common-sense realist, exists whether or not any minds exist. The fact that, e.g., dreams are mind-dependent puts them in an odd metaphysical category based on our criteria here. But we can put this to one side for the time being, noting that the fact that mind-dependent entities are mind-dependent is more of a boring truism than an earth-shaking metaphysical revelation.

So if you believe that stones, trees, and cats exist even when you’re not thinking about them, you are a common-sense realist. You might, naturally, be wondering why anyone would be an anti-realist about this sort of thing, or bout anything, for that matter. Well, actually, not a lot of philosophers since Berkeley are common-sense anti-realists. But anti-realism becomes a lot more attractive in other realms.

What other sorts of realism or anti-realism might you buy into?

Scientific Realism

If you’re a common-sense realist, you are also likely to be a scientific realist. Scientific realism is the doctrine that not only do stones, trees, and cats exist, but so do the objects that science posits. If you’re a scientific realist, you include amongst the furniture of your universe such so-called “unobservable” subatomic particles as electron, bosons, and quarks, as well as objects and phenomena on the other end of the magnitude spectrum such as black holes, gravity, and an expanding universe. One problem with scientific realism is that scientific theories are sometimes wrong, and so the objects that these theories posit can be fictional in the end. One favorite example in the literature is a 17th century theory of combustion that posited the existence of a substance called phlogiston. The theory, while scientifically accepted at the time, turned out to be wrong, and phlogiston was shown not to exist. So a 17th century scientific realist would have been put in the awkward position of believing in the reality of something that didn’t in fact exist.

How does a scientific realist come to grips with such uncertainty? Well, the general response from scientific realists is that this is the best we can do. Sure, science is sometimes wrong, but it’s still our best bet for uncovering the true nature of the universe. There is no non-scientific, privileged position from which we will ever be able to see the entire truth about the world — there is no window into the room that holds all of the furniture of the universe. Our current scientific theories provide the best view we can get.

Mathematical Realism

If you are a scientific realist, you might also be a mathematical realist, seeing how science and math seem to be so tightly bound together.

Actually, though I am a common-sense and scientific realist, my favorite brand of anti-realism is mathematical anti-realism. I have a hard time stomaching the idea of numbers and similar abstract objects existing independently of minds. I’m not alone in my distaste of mathematical realism, but those of us so disposed do face many issues — chief among them the seeming indispensability of math to science. If one is a scientific realist, and science relies indispensably on math, then on the face of it it seems as if one is committed to the existence of mathematical entities, whether or not one likes it. This indispensability argument has kept philosophers of math very busy over the last few decades.

For many of us on the anti-realist side of the mathematics debate, the big problem is that of causal inertness. Mathematical objects are, by consensus at any rate, abstract — that is, they take up no space and have no causal powers whatsoever. You can’t throw the number 8 through a window, for instance. And yet for a mathematical realist the number 8 still exists, somehow, and is indispensable to science. This sort of existence, for many of us, is just a completely different sort of thing from trees and quarks, which are just the sorts of things that can be thrown through windows. (Though you have to be pretty skilled to throw a quark anywhere.) For a mathematical anti-realist, it makes more sense to think of the number eight as a useful fiction; like Holden Caulfield with an advanced degree in particle physics.

Moral Realism

I’m probably the worst person to be writing about moral realism, because I never really understood what it was supposed to accomplish to posit actual entities/properties (philosophers talk more about moral properties than entities) of ethics. And yet, on certain takes, this is exactly what moral realism posits. At least mathematical entities are tightly bound to the entities of physics. Moral properties, if they were to exist, would be tightly bound to human psychology and systems of justice — both clearly dependent on human minds for their existence.

Mostly, the case for moral realism is stated in terms of semantics instead of existence — moral realists say that moral statements can be taken to be objectively true or false, in opposition to some common-sense intuitions that moral statements are subjective and/or dependent for their validity on the cultures in which they are uttered. But if “that cat is black” is a true statement because there is indeed a black cat in front of you, then “that person is virtuous” could be held to be true in the same way: there is indeed a virtuous person in front of you. This would, on a naively reasonable take, put virtuousness on a par with blackness; but while one is easily cashed out in terms of low-grade, mind-independent physics, the other is all bundled up with arguably less objective mind-dependent concepts. That’s why I am a moral anti-realist.

What Kind of Realist Are You?

Chat us up in the comments!