Can anything really be "true?"

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20 thoughts on “Poll: Can anything really be “true?””

Andrew Hall · July 7, 2011 at 11:39 am

I’ll get all Cartesian and Matrix-y for a moment. There is always a slight possibility that a demon (ala Descartes) or computers (Matrix) are controlling our senses.

The real question is “What is real enough?” as in what data can be verified to the best of our ability. Theists hold the bar fairly low in terms of what’s real (at least regarding their religion). Skeptics are more discerning in what they consider real.

Natalie · July 7, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I am surprised at the certainty of your poll takers here. And even more surprised I am the only “We’ll Never Know” vote. I guess I lack the capacity to assume I can know any truths. Even gravity may be disproved. I don’t think we’re at an evolutionary level to fully understand the complexities of it all. So that’s why I’ll stick to the we’ll never know answer; I don’t think anyone taking this poll can ever be certain of anything. I’m not even certain I’m right 😉

NDDave · July 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Certain things can be unquestionably true, if only by definition. For example, a=a, a != !a, or if a=b and b=c then a=c.

Sure these are logical and/or mathematical truths, but you didn’t specify. 🙂

As for other ‘truths’, such as gravity, the origin of the universe, whether or not I had pizza for dinner last night, etc, the best we can do is to determine probabilities. The higher the probability, the more likely it is to be true, without ever reaching 100% certainty.

TanitIsis · July 7, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Many things are true enough to treat as true. Worrying about ultimate “Truth” is a waste of time. 🙂

Skeptnik Garrison · July 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Depending on how you define “true”. Assuming we are talking about knowledge that we can be sure of, there are a lot of things that we can count on. However, our knowledge is always a current understanding, and is subject to revision upon gaining more knowledge and understanding. A crude example is gravity. It always works, and for awhile we thought we had a pretty good grasp on it thanks to Newton. Then Einstein revised our understanding, to the point now, where we are a bit confused on how it works, and are still looking, witness the Higgs-Boson particle theory and search. This is the wonderful thing about science. There is never a final absolute, but a constant openness to new information and understanding. Truth is always provisional, no matter how dependable.

Skeptnik

Stephen Moore · July 7, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Yes – There are some things that are unquestionably correct. This does not mean, however, that we human beings (or, indeed, any sentient being that inhabits this universe) will ever be justified in asserting that some specific thing is unquestionably correct.

Is it unquestionably correct that our solar system is heliocentric? No, but the evidence we have to support the assertion that it is heliocentric is compelling enough to say that we do live in a heliocentric solar system. And if we want to be more precise we can say that the objects in this solar system actually orbit a barycentre rather than the Sun itself (the Sun being one of those objects). But even so, the compelling evidence we have at this moment could be completely wrong, and that the Truth of our solar system is something else we may one day discover (or not).

However, as Andrew notes, this existence could all be an illusion. But even then the unquestionable truth would be that it is an illusion and this is all a deception a la Descartes’ demon. And that that demon is being deceived by another demon. And that it’s demons all the way down.

Whatever the case, at some point there is an unquestionable truth. But that doesn’t mean we’ll get to it.

Silus · July 7, 2011 at 11:19 pm

I voted for Yes, due to mathematics. 1+1 by definition equals 2, and will always be true.

My longer answer instead of just ‘Yes’ would be:
We can know some things with 100% certainty, but the list of said things is not long. There are many things I would hold to be true to the best of my knowledge, but cannot definitively prove. Gravity and evolution are examples of this.
For knowledge and trust of these other subjects, the question becomes ‘How do we know what we know?’
For myself, I have decided that we must ultimately trust our senses and memory. It could be that the world we perceive and the world that exists are vastly different, but positing that this is the case provides no benefit to us. If it is different, then I would still have no way of knowing so, and if it is more or less as I perceive it then I can trust what I see and learn. There are some instances where it is acceptable to doubt one’s memory, but doing so as a matter of daily life will greatly hinder living that life.
I place my own trust in my senses, memory and logic. I also trust that the scientific method will over time tend towards producing results that are either true or very close to true.

Godless Girl · July 8, 2011 at 12:56 am

These are all really fantastic insights and answers! I do realize now that I didn’t specify if this included logic and mathematics, but I enjoy those sides of the truth question as well.

I suppose a follow-up question would be, “Does knowing ‘truth’ (or ‘Truth’) matter in daily life? Is it necessary?”

Hope · July 8, 2011 at 1:56 am

I voted yes based on the logic/mathematical points others have already made so I’ll focus on your follow-up question.

It is true that when human animals reproduce they have human babies whereas feline animals have feline babies and, as others have pointed out 1=1. Knowing these things affects my life in a fundamental way I suppose. I am able to balance my checkbook, purchase food, etc. and when I decided to have children it never once worried that I might have kittens instead. 😉

The big picture however, is unknowable. A friend and I are amused that some scientists like to use the phrase, “We used to think (X) but now we know (Y).” How about we used to think (x) but now we THINK (Y).

And honestly, Christianity was a hard fall. I don’t think I’ll ever again believe in anything I can’t see, hear, taste, touch, smell or feel with 100% certainty. Science may tip the scales but 100% went away when I realized that Jesus wasn’t who I thought he was.

Feminist Activist · July 8, 2011 at 6:49 am

A professor I had in graduate school quoted someone once, “We are not the keepers of truth.”

What may be true for me, from my perspective and my reality may not be true for you.

Think about this especially in terms of crimes of necessity (from both the perspective of the “criminal” and the “victim”) and in terms of “mental ilness.” Who am I to say who is sane?

Amy-jean · July 8, 2011 at 10:55 am

I didn’t think of mathematics… I suppose that could possibly change my vote to “yes definitely,” but I voted “we can never really know” simply because of the slim matrix-y possibility that nothing is real. I have a friend who likes to bring up this topic a lot; he seems ironically certain that we can never be certain of anything, ever, and so knowledge is something unattainable. While he is probably right that we can’t know for sure, with absolutely certainly, about most things, I feel like it’s a very useless view on life to have. As I skeptic I think there are things that we can call completely true that are true enough for life as we all know and experience it. Like that the Earth orbits around the sun, 1+1=2, water freezes at a point we call 0°C, and gravity keeps us from falling up. Truths like this are incredibly important for deciding how to live and understanding the world around us, whether or not it’s “all real.” And it’s important that everyone recognize these truths! As long as there is enough reason to believe something, if all the evidence points to something, it’s important to take it as true. Otherwise it leads to harmful things like people not thinking human-influenced climate change is real, for example.

I hope that made any sense at all.

ChristopherTK · July 8, 2011 at 8:03 pm

At some point you must take a stand or nothing gets done. Me thinks this is where the “piss or get off the pot” statement originates.

At the same time, I must admit that I always had difficulty with true/false or multiple choice tests in school. I always had arguments against the testers line of questioning.

adam · July 11, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Consider the following statement:

P: There are no truths.

Either this statement is true or it is not true. If it is true, then there are truths, and we have a contradiction. If it is false, then there are truths. The only case left is to determine if P is a statement that is neither true nor false like the statement

Q: This sentence is false.

Stephen · July 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm

I’m shocked to find the inordinately large number of people who believe the glaring self-contradiction “There are no truths.” Really….? They need to take a Philosophy 101 course…

Barking · July 13, 2011 at 1:39 am

In the field of mathematics, yes, those things can be unquestionably true.
In science, yes, those things are true, but that does not mean that we completely understand them or can explain them.
In morality, no, nothing is true. Nothing is right. Morality is relative. Nothing is inherently right or wrong. Religious people might like to think that their holy doctrine gives objective morality, but the truth is (haha, get it?) that even that is completely subjective, even if it does come from a deity (which aren’t real).

Sheff · July 13, 2011 at 7:58 pm

There is room in the universe for “X is definitely true”, just as there is also room for “I was wrong about X”.

Michelle · July 15, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I voted ‘Yes, but for other reasons’, but on a very simplistic basis. At the very core of this thought process, in regards to existance, the universe, or whatever you want to call it, there is either something or there is nothing. Although by the very fact I’m writing this, nothing is a hard sell for me, if there is nothing, than that is “true”. If there is something, whatever that may be, and whether we ever stumble close to it or not, that thing is “true”. If we attempt to define truth “as we understand it”, we may or may not discern what that “truth” is; regardless, it is. I do, however, believe the scientific method is best tool we have at the moment to uncover it.

limey · July 18, 2011 at 8:20 am

I voted for the popular Yes – somethings are unquestionably true. Truth being the truth is something of a ‘thing’ for me. I can’t stand the the relativism of truth that some sections of philosophy love so much.

I could probably rant all day about this, but I’ll keep it brief and summarise my position which, reading some of the above, I don’t think I am alone in holding.

Truth is not defined by what we believe, nor by what we know. Truth is what is. What we know, comes from our understanding of what we observe and what we believe will sometimes be utterly wrong.

Some truths might be self evident, others are much more difficult to discern. The latter are no less true. We may struggle to understand them, or even may never even get to know them, but they are still no less real.

smelly girl · July 20, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I think Limey has a good point — even beyond the mathematical truths that we know, there are plenty of things which are true.

Because even if we grant that solipsism might be right and we can’t know much of anything, there is still a true nature of the universe, regardless of whether we can know whether we are right about it.

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