This morning’s search for meaning!

Finding the Foortpath website logo
Finding the Foortpath website logo

This morning’s search for meaning!

Finding the Foortpath website logo

This morning’s search for meaning!

“What do you know?”

Date Published: January 19, 2021
A man leaning over staring into the eyes of a seated metal statue of a man looking up from his newspaper

“What do you know?”  Is a greeting given among Irish people; I’ve heard it, and said it many times down the years. An invitation to stop, and give and receive some titbit of news, or small exaggeration of local feats or events, to raise a smile and share a moment.

Coincidentally, it is also a profound question of existential investigation. What do we know?

Epistemology  –  ‘from the Oxford dictionaries’ …  “ From the Greek episteme meaning knowledge  –  The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.”

Now ‘ologies’ are important, “you get an ‘ology’… you’re a scientist!” so Maureen Lipman said. A cultural reference too far for the under 40’s: but that’s not to downplay the importance of ‘osophies’ either (not to be confused with ‘osophies of state’). Philosophy, theology, and the hundreds of ‘ologies’ within the sciences; I hope to be exploring all of these within this blog. So this a browse through how others have been approaching it before.

You may find, like me, a number of definitions of modern philosophical theory in this blog, in some ways are quite academic (boring!… be quiet class – you can go out to play after this), but I thought it might help me anyway, to look at how current analysts of modern theory, study knowledge and truth. Even if it was beyond my comprehension; I thought it would be rude not to endeavour once. We don’t have to go back in there if you don’t like it, I promise.

I try loosely to differentiate certain scholars of truth into categories (for what purpose I’m not sure on reflection!), but the disciplines of philosophy, theology and science have ebbed and flowed into each other down the ages. Many of the thinkers in question span the boundaries of those categories (if there are any!) anyway. Especially in earlier times when the pursuit of knowledge took you where it may, rather than the more modern approach of specialisms.

They say a little knowledge is dangerous, so forgive me if I have misinterpreted any of my brief studies here as I research different schools of thought and their insights into truth.

Firstly, I looked into modern Western philosophical theories of truth.

Michael likes chocolate. Jane doesn’t like chocolate. ‘I like chocolate.’ Is a true statement for one person to make, and not another. Is truth subjective to the individual? (We all like chocolate anyway so the point is moot.)  It is raining in Donegal and not in Roscommon. ‘It is raining’ is a true statement relative to time and space.

I have been wading through these, and similar conjectures; it was a bit of a journey down a few rabbit holes. I popped up in a few places to see my feet disappearing down another one, but it made me think anyway.

A white rabbit emerges from a hole in the ground in a fenced pen

 I discovered there are many theories, and at different points they interchange and overlap, but the most prominent ones are (although there are sub-divisions within these);

Correspondence Theory –    Loosely sourced back to Plato and to Aristotle in his Metaphysics, and proffers that truth is a relationship that holds between a proposition and it’s corresponding (accurately described) fact.

Does this mean that the fact isn’t true until the proposition is made? I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something. It was once offered to me that – “The truth was the truth before it was spoken.” Which I thought was beautiful and I never forgot it.

Semantic Theory –   Apparently a successor to Correspondence Theory accredited to Alfred Tarski, where talk of correspondence and of facts are eliminated. I tried hard with this one, there are reams written on all these theories, the example this one kept throwing up was – “snow is white – if and only if – snow is white.”  Which seemed fair enough… I think.

I love philosophy; not as a scholar but just an enthusiast. It is a fun way to spend an afternoon of cerebral gymnastics through the lockdown, ‘lounging and learning’ I call it. Although, reading up on philosophy is a bit like entering a maze; the anticipation as you start, the excitement of the challenge as you get deeper in, until… a wrong turn or two, a wave of panic and you feel the walls closing in and your breathing starts running ahead of you and you bolt straight out through the hedge to the safe zone, or ‘tea making area of the kitchen’ to give it its full title.

A woman’s hand holds a cup of tea on a wooden table that also has flowers and philosophy book on it

I did think about including more extracts from the philosophical tomes I have been dipping a toe into, like ‘The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’ and  relaying articles such as –

“The idea of using satisfaction rather than truth, approach these via the process of recursion. Take a simple proposition such as expressed by ‘Socrates is mortal’ by saying:

If ‘Socrates’ is a name and ‘is mortal’ is a predicate, then ‘Socrates is mortal’ expresses a true proposition if, and only if, there exists an object X such that ‘Socrates’ refers to X and ‘is mortal’ is satisfied by X. For Tarski’s formal metalanguage of predicate logic, he’d put this more generally as follows:   If ‘a’ is a name and ‘Q’ is a predicate, then ‘a is Q’ expresses a true proposition if and only if there exists an object X such that ‘a’ refers to X and ‘Q’ is satisfied by X.”

(Exactly!)

but I didn’t want to be seen to be trying to take all you lot down with me as I buckled under the weight of this ‘Too Heavy For Me Theory’ and was flattened into the dust.

By the way, I think the takeaway from the above pronouncement is – that Socrates is dead….I think.

Deflationary Theory –   A twentieth century approach asserting that truth has no property in of itself.  Gottlob Frege said in 1918 “It is worthy of notice that the sentence ‘I smell the scent of violets’ has the same content as the sentence ‘It is true that I smell the scent of violets.” So it seems then, that nothing is added to the thought by my ascribing to it the property of truth.”    It must be noted he was firstly a mathematician, and almost didn’t see a logical purpose for truth which is the heart of deflationary theory. Further, related and overlapping it is Nihilistic Theory which states that there is no objective or universal truth, truth doesn’t exist.

This I find hard to accept. There are laws of nature that are constant across the universe, that is true, even if we are yet to understand their full workings. Without them the universe would be in chaos, and it is not, even the empiricists of science acknowledge the underlying laws of nature.                            

And by the way, if you can smell violets, it’s true whether you say it is or not isn’t it?

Purple and yellow crocuses in a field

Coherence Theory – A belief is true if it “coheres” with other beliefs that we regard as true. Not correspondence between a belief and a fact in the real world, but coherence between a belief and other beliefs in one’s mind.

We’re just building a fantasy universe here aren’t we?

Pragmatic Theory – Dissatisfaction with the Correspondence and Coherence theories of truth have led some philosophers to develop the Pragmatic theory which says that a belief is true if it works and is useful, for example, letting us make accurate predictions, and using the practical consequences of beliefs to decide truth and validity.

This is the most incomprehensible position of them all for me. What we want to be true and what is true… are two very different things. Something cannot be true because it is convenient. Maybe I am misunderstanding some premise here but the rational escapes me otherwise.

A young man skims a stone across a lake amongst rocky hills

I am very aware that I have only skimmed across the surface of the current Western philosophical study of truth but, to be honest, it did feel like I was being drawn down in theory quicksand if I tarried too long in one place. In any regard, there are those who understand its complexities far better than myself and I wish them well in their endeavours. It’s great to explore, great to learn.

Personally, I found a lot of the modern theory a bit of an exercise in trying to define your first crush by way of mathematical formula. I couldn’t follow maths in school at the best of times; especially with Natalie Foster sitting two desks down.

The term ‘scientist’ was first used by William Whewell in 1833. Before this, right back to classical antiquity, ‘science’ as we understand it – the study of natural phenomena – was termed as ‘natural philosophy’. So scholars from all backgrounds explored all fields of knowledge to find their truth, making connections where they could. More recently, as science has become more and more materially based, and technology has helped us intensify our scrutiny of each individual issue, studies have become more isolated in narrower and more specialised fields of research. Good for that field, but less helpful to finding the ‘Theory of Everything’ Steven Hawkins hoped for.

The philosophers of the past, rather than modern schools of philosophy, speak to me in a more real sense. My limited knowledge of the subject comes from having read on it more in my later years. I come to write about philosophy, and science for that matter of course, unburdened by scholarship (joke!) on the matters; and armed only with my curiosity.  I am very much aware that there is much more reading to be enjoyed on the subject across many more authors from different cultures and times than I have already. So I look forward to expanding my knowledge of them in the coming times. So, for now, forgive my Eurocentric understanding of this subject, but know I am conscious I have much more to learn and will revisit different philosophers and thinkers, known and as yet unknown to me, in future blogs.

From Parmenides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece; In Rome… Seneca, Cicero and my philosophical heart throb – Marcus Aurelius. These, and many more from this time, made studies of mathematics, engineering, biology – the word biology comes from the Greek words “bios” [meaning ‘life’] and “logia” [meaning ‘study of’]; but also the abstract, like virtue, ethics, justice, courage, logic, deities or a deity, and much more. All enquiry was linked to a common cause of the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

In Asia, Confucius, Lao Tzu, just two in China. In India, the history of philosophical and theological thought is represented in a mass of ancient texts, such as ‘the Vedas’ are so old, most of the authors and dates of writing are unknown. Buddha and Gandi we know of course and many more before him, but I don’t know enough yet, to list them here. As the rest of Asia, Africa, the Americas and beyond.

Two young Buddhist monks cradle a posy of flowers with a lit candle in the centre

Through the middle ages, Peter Abelard, St Thomas Aquinas, John Duns, William of Ockham to name just a few great thinkers of their time. Most still heavily wedded to their religious orders and studied their world view through that prism.

Then the European Reformation came; started, by most accounts, when Martin Luther produced his Ninety-five Theses (or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences). Seems pretty reasonable now doesn’t it; to dispute that rich people could pay monetary ‘indulgences’ to the church and buy absolution for their sins and entry into heaven. It was the catalyst however, especially with Luther’s confrontational approach, for the division of the Christian church. This was the beginnings of the end of the churches monopoly on knowledge and understood ‘truths’ of the day. Luther’s contemporary, and probably the most read Christian scholar and philosopher of his time, Erasmus of Rotterdam who also could see the need for reform in an over powerful church, was more sanguine. According to theconversation.com  –  ‘Erasmus was greatly inspired by the classics. For Erasmus, ancient Greek and Roman authors – while technically pagan – were “the very fountain-head” of “almost all knowledge.” Because of his love of the ancients, he is often called a Renaissance humanist, or, more appropriately, a Christian humanist.’ Erasmus translated the Bible from Latin to Greek in 1516. Luther used this to translate that into a German Bible. This inspired William Tyndale to make a translation into English in 1525. For which he was burnt at the stake. I mean a fine would have done it surely? The point of all this is that Bibles, before this time, were written in Hebrew or Latin and only accessible to a few clerical scholars. Consequently, all knowledge and truths contained within it were not available to the common man or woman and epistemological power remained in the hands of the church. These translations to common languages and the spread of the printing press gave commoners the chance to study scripture themselves and develop their own ideas about truth.

A hooded monk walks on a path through wheat fields at sunset

Then in the 17th and 18th centuries, came ‘The Age of the Enlightenment’. With power now ceding from the church to some degree, and a new era of ‘reason’ orientated thinkers, new ground was broken in philosophical, political, social and scientific exploration. Renè Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine ‘Rights of Man’ all published great works of intellectual and philosophical debate during this period. Many of these thinkers spoke to questions of freedom for the individual from political, social and economic bondage. This was understandable after centuries of religious autocracy and feudal, political and class inequities. It fed the stirring minds of those who struck out for liberation from this antiquity in the American, French and Irish revolutions (among others) of that era. The church and landowners yolk that the populous had laboured under for a millennia, had started to loosen. Along with the availability of fresh conceptual ideas of the fundaments of existence, as printed books and world travel became more commonplace, it stretched the imaginations of people to what might be. This was synthesized with new understandings of material science and the rise of empiricism (the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the [known] senses). It was the advent of secularism, as belief in God began to be left behind, along with, as some saw, oppressive religious doctrines, in the search for truths of known existence sought by people of the day.

Theologians of good religions have searched for truth down the millennia also.  Earnest work has been done here, by many wiser than I, on uncovering human and universal truths. St Augustine of Hippo, Bede the Venerable, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and St Thomas Aquinas to name just a few. For me, as much as religions contain great jewels of wisdom, inspiration and truth; the only potential problem that might arise in the search for truth within a religion, is that one’s field of knowledge could be a little confined by the scope of that particular religious doctrine. One could consider that if we had been born in a different country, and grown up within another culture, we might just as easy follow a different religion but have insight to truth just as well.

St Thomas Aquinas, 13th Century, Italian Dominican friar, philosopher and theologian said “Beware of the person of one book.”

This certainly is not to decry anyone who has a faith in their God, for me, as a theist, that is a good thing, and I am just the same, on an intuitive search for meaning beyond the material. Only I wonder if there is truth to be found in all religions… and outside of religions, in the sciences, within ourselves, in the natural world; but really, aren’t all things part of the natural world? What if at the creation of the universe, laws were laid down to hold the whole cosmos in balance, and that the spiritual D.N.A. was to be found in all things; large and small, in all laws, structures, patterns and building blocks of life both physical and metaphysical.

A mural of Albert Einstein on a wall

“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and this sense alone, that I am a deeply religious man.”         

Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist

Francis Bacon, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, Sir Issac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Alessandro Volta, Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, Guglielmo Marconi, and Gerty Cori are just a few of the greats in the story of the sciences, who saw no contradiction in their faith of a higher power than themselves, and their understanding of the natural laws of the physical world. More latterly, this has been dismissed by vocal authorities within science as ignorance. Arrogance makes minds close down, not open up.

Again, I am not a scholar here in this field, simply an enthusiastic reader of popular science, I understand that scientific truth could be described as verified, reproducible facts. It asks questions of the natural world and confirms agreed truths through theorising and observational experiments to attain empirical evidence.

Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the field of quantum electrodynamics in 1965. He gave a short definition of science to university students during one lecture class –

“I am going to discuss how we look for a new law. We look for a new law by the following process; first we guess it. Don’t laugh! (to the students) that’s really true, then we compute the consequences, to see if this law is right. To see what it would imply. Then we compare those computation results to nature, or we say compare to experiment or experience. Compare it directly with observation to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the guess is, how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.”

So there it is, minds extremely educated in the fields of science, do brilliant and necessary work peeling back the workings of the laws of nature. Most scientists are humble enough to say that known laws are only ‘what we know now’, and concede that they could be superseded by new information. This indeed is the stated strength of science that it is led by the facts and does not rely on faith. For my part, reason has to lead the way in the search for truth, but to those who say they are atheistic in their viewpoint because they see no ‘proof’ of a spiritual field of science, my simple logic would say, would it not be better to keep an open mind on the matter rather than limit the possibilities in the field of your studies on principal. All breakthroughs in science start with imagination, instinctive ‘feel’ or a guess as Richard Feynman told his students.

Dark matter is thought to make up approximately 85% of the matter in the known universe, although its presence is merely implied in astrophysical observations, including gravitational effects that cannot be explained by accepted theories of gravity. Primary evidence for dark matter comes from calculations showing many galaxies would fly apart, would not have formed, or move as they do were it not for containing a large amount of unseen matter.

A man looks up at The Milky Way across the night sky

Quantum theory is the theoretical basis of modern physics that explores the nature of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level. The theory implies that tiny particles, like electrons or photons can be in different states at the same time, and can influence each other instantaneously even over large distances.

So at the macro and micro level, there are forces within our material universe that influence it, but are unseen but still not understood. I am not here to say to anyone, that one ‘must’ believe this is proof of anything, I am hardly a junior observer in the ways of cosmological or quantum sciences, but for me it makes sense to keep an open mind until we do learn the truth of what we are trying to understand. Surely it benefits our potential to learn to be open, curious and receptive to new ideas.

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

Socrates

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