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On a particular night, two friends, Coughy and Sandy, were sitting on a beach, listening to some music and seeing people go by. Coughy was passing the sand of the beach through his fingers.

SANDY

The idiots from my university say such stupid things you can’t even imagine. They said there is no truth!

COUGHY

Well, there is no truth.

SANDY

What? You can’t say that! For example: you have sand in your hands. Hold it! Do you not say it is truth?

COUGHY

Actually, I thought it was just sand.

Sandy starts fuming with anger and replies:

SANDY

I know it is just sand, but isn’t it true that you hold it in your hand?

COUGHY

Look, you are confusing things. I am absolutely certain that I have sand in my hands. It is obvious. But it is not truth. Do you forget that for the longest time it was obvious that the sun rotated around the earth? Certainty is not truth — and, might I add, certainty has two terrible habits, of being proven wrong and of being used to justify atrocity.

SANDY

OK, then, 2 + 2 = 4. Can you say that this is not true?

COUGHY

Look, I have been taught how to discern when a given phrase is true and false, but this is a completely different meaning for the word truth. It is logical truth, which is a simple rule of invalidating some expressions if they are not in accordance with the grammar of logic. This contains that, something is contained in another. It’s all just sentences. Logic does not say anything about the world.

SANDY

But then why do you speak at all? If everything you say is false?

COUGHY

It is not false. It is my opinion on things. What’s wrong with that?

SANDY

It’s just opinion. It is not truth.

COUGHY

Well, if I had two sets of ideas, one containing only opinions and the other one containing only truths, I would choose the one with truths. But as I do not have this choice to make, I will try to live my life with the other set.

SANDY

But then you can never be certain of anything!

COUGHY

Foolishness. Haven’t you been listening to a word I said? I am certain that I have sand in my hands. I can assign degrees of certainty to my ideas and the ideas of others. I can also ascribe to some a degree of certainty so high that it is worthless to question them. Like Newtonian physics and stuff. But they are not truth. They are ideas.

SANDY

Aha! But if you are ascribing degrees of certainty, how do you do it if not by their truth? Do they not have to be consonant with reality to be given credit?

COUGHY

No, they do not. They do have to be consonant with my own experiences. If in Argentina [the neighbour country] the rain did fall upwards and the sky was pink, I would still have much more regard for the ideas that the rain falls down and the sky is blue. Ideas have to be relevant and reliable, not true. And this means being consonant with the personal, subjective experiences I have. The idea of truth is only a shortcut we can sometimes use to measure the relevance of an idea, but it is not the transcendental value and connection that is implied when you say that the phrase there is no truth is nonsense.

SANDY

Don’t complicate things! If you use the idea of truth to measure relevance of ideas, then there exists truth.

COUGHY

Yes, but this is yet another meaning of the word truth. Something like consonant with my experiences. Which means: in accordance with my personal opinions. So, truth is based on opinion, if you really insist in putting things this way.

SANDY

No, it is not consonant with your opinions. It is consonant with the world you live in.

COUGHY

So you want to swap the word truth for the word world? The issue remains the same.

SANDY

No, I want you to admit that you, like everyone else, needs to use a little bit of truth, at least to live their ordinary lives. No matter how much rhetoric you waste, you still have to live, and for this you need truth.

COUGHY

Well, let me give you one example. When I am hungry, even if my fridge is empty, I will go to it and take a look inside. It was empty and I knew it was, but nevertheless I looked. Then, if I do not find food somewhere else, after sometime I will go back to the fridge and open it yet again, and again, and again! It might not happen to you, as you seem to know truth, but this is called exploratory behaviour or something like this, and has been extensively studied in psychology, and at least seems to be common to human beings. This behaviour is not based on truth. If you want to say it is based on something, it is on non-truth. That the fridge that was empty just now, and that no one else could have touched, will somehow have changed it’s state. So if your thesis was that the entirety of our daily lives is based on an assumption of truth, my one example is enough to disprove the thesis.

SANDY

But nevertheless, you still believe that the fridge is there. It was there the first time you looked, it was there the second time, you believe that it is still there.

COUGHY

Yes, but this is belief not truth.

SANDY

So is also all the progress of science only belief? You will tell me that science is not true?

COUGHY

Well, see, as logical soundness is so very useful in sciences, any search will reveal tons of references to the words truth and falseness. But it is also logic-truth, which I already said does not imply anything about the world. Logic is only about words.

SANDY

But it is not a question of logic. If science was not truth, the fridge would not be cold inside.

COUGHY

Actually, it would. If the fridge had electricity connected, it would make it’s inside cold even if there had never ever in all times existed one human being, not to say a single scientist. The fridge does not depend on science.

SANDY

But it would not even have been built!

COUGHY

And still, if by chance the matter of space had formed in the shape of a fridge (and a battery, not to forget!) it would make it’s inside cold. Without a scientist to think about the principles of fridge-making.

SANDY

I am not talking about scientists, I am talking about science.

COUGHY

Yes, I know. And I knew you would answer that. But it is important that you understand that science is just a body of knowledge produced by scientists. And a scientist, being a human person just like you and me, has no more contact with truth than you and me. A scientist has opinions. He is paid to make his own opinions better and better, but that’s all.

SANDY

And a better opinion is not one that is more true?

COUGHY

No, it is just one that works. You are now swapping truth for effectiveness, or power. Do I need to warn you about the danger of accepting power as a measure of truth? Let me make a parable: if our culture died and our cities were occupied by people that worshipped the Goddess of Light and thought that the light switch was her cunt, their belief would be just as effective, it would make the lights turn on. And to make it even more dramatic, as they would believe the Goddess’ might to be true, and unquestionable because of the proof that the lights turn on indeed, they would never be able to learn the basics of electricity from the artefacts all around them.

SANDY

And nevertheless, our knowledge made the light bulbs, not the knowledge of your Light-Goddess invaders.

COUGHY

Because it is more effective, not because it is truth. Let me tell you something. The problem with your argument is that it is circular. The sand is true. Why? Because it is here in my hands. And why is it there? Because it is true. Therefore, you aren’t saying much. And you can’t allow anything in the middle, because anything you put there will be subject to an uncertainty you cannot allow. — I am seeing the sand. The senses have been proved to not be flawless. — Everyone else sees the sand. Besides everyone else being using the same unreliable senses, it is safe to say that many people put together can disagree on even the most obvious banality or attain consensus of the most outrageous falseness. — If you put reality in the game, reality is also a social construction, as shown by Berger and Luckmann. If you put God, it is just a dogma. And so on, and so forth.

SANDY

But you still believe your own words to be true, or you wouldn’t be speaking them at all!

COUGHY

Do I believe to be right? Yes, I do. But the bums in the street do believe themselves to be correct also. And the Goddess worshippers. This is no proof of truth, it is only proof of coherence. I try to be coherent on my ideas, that’s all. This seems to be effective. Self-coherence is also very effective: mathematics is all about a system that is self-coherent. Even if there exists no real perfect triangle. But, as you know, there exists no perfect triangle. If you really want to follow this train of thought, where you insist that ideas are true despite you being unable to point to Truth or examine Truth, you will have to end up with some platonistic plane of perfect ideas, where the perfect triangles exist, but which is not part of reality, and therefore, can never in any way be part of our lives. And then, your ideas would be guilty of the same things you were accusing me before: being separated from our lives, from experience, it would be impossible to question truth, and truth would become untouchable, irrevocable, unquestionable.

SANDY

You are twisting my words!

COUGHY

Actually, the thing is that you assume truth to be self-evident. And this also means that it can not be examined. Anything that you add to a self-evident truth is a truism. But the basic distinction the Greeks used between epistheme and doxa is already an analysis of it. If you allow yourself to look closer, and remain very strict about not confusing the words, like not using truth for certainty, sincerity, reliability, obviousness, effectiveness, goodness and so on and so forth, you’ll find out that truth is not so difficult to analyse at all.

SANDY

And then, to analyse truth, you will have implicitly accepted that it exists!

COUGHY

Me? No, not me. You have to analyse truth further. I already did. And got to the obvious conclusion. Truth is just a word. Like worches and zits. It does not exist.

SANDY

Even if it does not exist, we can feel it’s effects, exactly like Democracy and Socialism do not exist but we live under a world shaped by them. In fact, no society at all is possible without a basic assumption of truth. It does permit us to share our opinions instead of just daydreaming alone. It gives us a common goal to pursue instead of just living isolated subjective lives.

COUGHY

I’ll pass the bait for discussing politics. Though it would be interesting, it has nothing to do with our present dilemma. Now for society relying on truth, this is not in accordance with my own experience. Politics does not seem to be about truth, but about power. As I recall it, a politician’s speech is the main example of rhetoric, where what matters is not the truth of what is said but the effect it produces on audiences. When Obama says race is not important in the U.S. it does not matter whether this is truth, but if it is an ideal that people are willing to pursue. When Hitler said Germanic race was the best one it was not true. But it was not false, either. It was just a slogan, it was an ideal, and one that was able to produce feverish loyalty, despite the fact that black people just run faster. This is about leadership, not epistemology.

SANDY

Yes, but when Roriz says he will give houses to the poor or when Iris Rezende says he will pave every road on Goiás, they are plainly lying.

COUGHY

Yes, but does that prove that, if they said they wouldn’t, they would be saying the truth? Hardly. They are being insincere, but you already know that sincerity has nothing to do with truth.

SANDY

Even then, the idea of truth is a slogan that permits us to seek a world where people would be sincere, and therefore would develop the effectiveness of their ideas, and trough it achieve obviousness, certainty and goodness and all the other false-synonyms you keep finding for truth.

COUGHY

Really? Do you imagine two Neanderthal men having a dialogue like: ugh! there is truth — grunf! you’re right, there is truth! — therefore, urf, urf, let’s team up and beat the hell out of our neighbour and steal the gazelle he did just hunt! I, for what counts, think truth is a much more sophisticated concept than a chimp can grasp, but nevertheless they live in society.

SANDY

But chimps do not have reason!

COUGHY

Well, biologically they are as close to us as it gets. They seem pretty capable of understanding the world around them, even if they do not create intricate theories or abstract logic. Basically, ideas, whether truth or opinion, are just complex electric and chemical patterns on our brains, and chimps also have them.

SANDY

But we are much more capable than chimps!

COUGHY

Yes, not because we know truth and they don’t. Instead, it is because our ideas are more complex. And the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. It is not truth against falsehood, but different sized repertoires of ideas.

SANDY

Nevertheless, now that we have developed our complex society, we need the idea of truth to give us a common goal.

COUGHY

And why can’t we just negotiate our goals? Like, for me it’s important that all people have a say in the collective decisions — maybe, but their morality is much more important — no, no, no, what really matters is education — and so on, and so forth. Or conversely the Neanderthal using grunts to agree to team up against their bigger neighbour. Actually, I fear that the very idea of truth impedes us from a fair negotiation, for if we hold anything as truth we will never ever allow that thing to be negotiated. It is important that something is shared, if we want to stablish society, as for example goals and values and culture, we have to share those things. And speak about them. But language does not depend on truth — we can say lies! And neither does the act of sharing constitute truth. The widespread of one nonsensical idea does not make it any more true. If everyone believes the world is flat, it does not make the world flat.

SANDY

Because in the end the world is not flat.

COUGHY

And by that you mean that the world is truly round?

SANDY

Yes!

COUGHY

But you are mistaken. The world is a complex shape. Seen from afar it seems round, but this is a simplification.

SANDY

Simplification or not, you can’t change it’s shape by believing it to be different.

COUGHY

But externality to the subject does not constitute truth. It is the other way around: to accept externality you have to abandon truth.

SANDY

What?

COUGHY

In order for anything to be true, what you think of it has to be forcefully equal to what it is. The idea has to be imposed on the outside world. To accept externality means that you accept that what you think is just a simplification.

SANDY

No, you’re wrong. Truth means that the external forces the internal, not the other way around.

COUGHY

Which also would be a stupid simplification. External and internal are in constant exchange. Even that is a simplification: the boundaries between internal and external are not clearly defined. And it is not important to clearly define them either. All of that is besides the point. And the point is: no matter how extensive your experiences are, how much scientist’s work-hours have been spent into testing and retesting a given idea, no matter how much detail you can put into a given model, no matter if generations and generations of brilliant men have looked over the details of the theories, it is all just experience. It is still just as fallible as my own personal dealings with things. It is the same as when you where in your cradle playing out with your toys. You learned a lot from them, but you where still a child who had a limited experience of the world. When you grow, you travel and explore and test, but it is still a limited experience. When we as a culture develop, we exchange our experiences and ideas and tricks, but it is still limited. The limits do not go away. Even if you have learned all you can about the toys in your cradle, they have become obvious to you, you have exhausted their possibilities, but you have not found truth. You only developed your particular repertoire to the point that your toys have become irrelevant. I do not deny that some things are obvious: the way I have to tie my shoes for them to stay firm in my feet, the way I have to heat the water for the coffee to be extracted from it’s grain, and so on. Those things are obvious, but are they true? They are the things I have learned. Would you say of a baby in it’s cradle that he knows truth because he has learned to solve a rubik’s cube? It is just a trick. We can learn tricks, and we can teach each other some tricks, and through the times our particular civilization has developed some wonderful tricks, but… are they truth? To say so is like going to a illusionist and saying he created a rabbit out of nothing.

SANDY

And what that has to do with the external world?

COUGHY

We, not living forever, can’t have access to every possible instance of anything. Therefore, in order for an idea to be true beyond any doubt, you would need access to an essential, transcendental, and ultimately unquestionable, aspect of reality. You would have had to look behind the scenes, opened up the covers of reality and looked inside it’s true workings, to have explored something beyond our own experience. Otherwise, any knowledge is an inference. And we can live with inferences, but they are not absolutely reliable. They are not truth.

SANDY

I realise no idea can be applied universally, but this is easy to solve. Make a specifying clause. This is truth for all that I know. Newtonian physics are true except near light speeds. The baby knows truth in regard to his cradle.

COUGHY

The problem is that you never know what clauses are necessary. If you simply say: that has been true for all that we have lived until now, in effect you are saying that traditions are enough to maintain truth. For example, it was what scientists said to Einstein when he presented his relativity theory. No one had tried to measure what his theory said would be different, but they just assumed that it wasn’t possible. It was in discordance with their experiences up till then. And Newton did not specifically made his equations for speeds lower than light. He did not know that the reservation for too high speeds was needed. For as much as he knew, those speeds were not reachable for a heavy body. It might be that relativity is invalid when Neptune is at the particular position in the sky that it is now — since relativity was formulated Neptune has not yet gone around the sun completely. It is unlikely, I know, but how would we know? Almost all of the reservations that we do for scientific theories were seen as unlikely before they were discovered. Some couldn’t even be understood before! The example of the cradle is intended for you to see that what maintains the stability and predictability of the baby’s world is not truth, but his parent’s care. In the same vein, we do not know exactly what maintains our world. We have revoked some of the frontiers by ourselves, and expanded our world. But this is not truth. It is creativity. It’s new tricks.

SANDY

You have beautiful answers to my questions, and stuff, but you are still listening to music only because of the electronic equipment the band has, which was created by scientists that believed truth exists and is possible. Einstein claimed that God doesn’t play dice! It is incoherent that you do use their inventions but does not believe in what they believed.

COUGHY

Is it? Descartes believed there was a flame inside the heart, and Newton was a practitioner of alchemy. They in turn used the arabic numerals invented by mathematicians from India, whose belief system was completely different. They did not believe in Satya or Shiva, but used the numbers. Are they to be disregarded?

SANDY

That’s not what I meant!

COUGHY

What you meant is that your fabled scientists knew truth. But they did just exactly as much as you do. They were people. And they might even believe that the world was knowable, but none of them whatsoever was content with the state of knowledge of his time. They developed. They proposed new things. They had new ideas. They were not contented with just accepting their direct experiences as unquestionable ideas, or what people older than they thought was truth. Even if they thought truth was possible, they definitely didn’t think it was there, or ready. Just as I do not believe my knowledge is complete. Not even about the things I take for obvious. Like the sand. The sand is obvious. But there is so much more I could discover about it, if I tried. To make it dramatic, what makes Galileo’s physics brilliant is exactly that it did defy ideas taken for obvious. In the end, what you find lacking in my ideas is not truth, it is an ultimate authority upon which to rest our knowledge. You don’t really want truth, you want a safe reference in order to avoid being the sole arbiter of what knowledge is relevant to you or not. In this way, what you call truth is like a cradle. But the word you should really use for it is God.

SANDY

Are YOU accusing ME of superstition, now?

COUGHY

Yes. The sand is truth because it is because it is truth because it is because it is truth. What you are really saying is: truth is self-evident. And the power of this slogan, or the power you would like this slogan to have, is that it prevents me to question truth. And that would prevent me to question what you know to be truth also. It makes all that you know safe, it makes all that you know valid. And still, you can not show or analyse or question it’s relation to any of your ideas. It is the frame of reference to all that you know, even though you know nothing about it. And what’s more: you feel you are always subjected to it, that you are completely powerless against it. And still more, instead of being a threat, it is what makes you feel comfortable. In every palpable aspect but the name, in all it’s consequences, in everything we can observe about your belief, it works as a final authority and as a deity. Truth is your God.

SANDY

But I don’t worship Truth.

COUGHY

I’ll take that as your opinion. I guess you call it truth.

One Comment

  1. No evidence of truth does not mean that there is evidence of no truth. Study epistemology. Collectively, all of your beliefs (at best) can logically produce only the idea that ‘there might be no truth’.


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