David R. Henderson  

Is There Objective Truth?

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Short answer: Yes.

Co-blogger Scott Sumner wrote yesterday:

Richard Rorty once said something to the effect that if you claim X is actually true, despite most people believing it to be false, you are implicitly forecasting that most people will eventually recognize X as true. (As there is no such thing as objective truth.)

I haven't read Rorty and so it's possible that Scott is mischaracterizing Rorty's views. But on the assumption that Scott has Rorty's views right, I want to respond. So you can take this as a response to Rorty or as a response to Scott. In this latter case, I'm assuming that Scott holds the view he attributes to Rorty. If not, Scott can correct me.

Long answer

Who won the recent Super Bowl? Was it Denver or Carolina? In which century did Abraham Lincoln live? Was it the 19th century?

Are you sure?

QED.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods




COMMENTS (42 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Rorty is more offering a different way that we to think about truth than denying how we colloquially use the word. What you might call a banal truth like who won the Super Bowl the standards for Rorty are still the same as for tougher truths - the relevant community of observers has a clear consensus on who won the Super Bowl. The definitions get more important and diverge more on harder truths - such as when we say things about frontier scientific truths. They're also important for how to think about religion in modern society (that application goes back to William James at least).

It's an approach to thinking about truth that takes seriously the idea that our brains mediate and interpret the world around us and that we can't have concepts of truth that make strong assumptions about the correspondence between our ideas, observations, and interpretations on the one hand and reality on the other.

I'm an amateur on Rorty but I identify with him strongly - I've read three books of his and a number of papers (and not a ton of his really heavy duty work).

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Rorty also was hesitant to even talk in terms of truth, for obvious reasons. Youtube is always great for getting boiled down versions of this stuff and Rorty on truth is no exception - here it is in a nutshell.

Ricardo writes:

A lecture by Alan Charles Kors made this distinction clear to me. If I ask you how many people are in a room, and you say 6, I might claim that there is no way to answer this question objectively. (What if someone is hiding under a desk? What if you am not good at counting? What if there is someone behind you and whenever you turn around that person jumps out of your line of sight?) Whereas if you tell me that 6 is less than 5, I can be sure you are wrong, because by definition, 6 is greater than 5.

So you need to distinguish between empirical truth and definitional truth. It may be reasonable to claim that empirical truth cannot be proven -- in a strict sense -- to be objective.

Gabriel Puliatti writes:

Daniel beat me to it. :)

I want to quote an excerpt from another one Rorty's videos, on the End of Inquiry which I feel can further expand on what he said:

The Greek idea is that at a certain point in the process of inquiry you come to rest, because you’ve reached the goal.

The pragmatists are saying: “We haven’t the slightest idea what it would be like to reach the goal.” The idea that the aim of inquiry is “correspondence to reality”, “seeing the face of God”, “substituting facts for interpretations” is one that we just can’t make any use of.

All we really know about is how to exchange justifications of our beliefs and desires with other human beings and as far as we can see, that will be what human life will be like forever.

Pragmatists regard the Platonist attempt to get away from time into eternity or from conversation into certainty is a product of a time in human history where life on earth was so desperate and so unlikely that life could ever be better that people took refuge in another world.

To put your 'objective facts' in some context… what would you say about the winner of Superbowl 50 if in another 50 years, it came out that it was a result of match-fixing?

To complicate matters, there is a statute of limitations within the NFL for this type of things, and there is no official pronunciation from the NFL, and no legal investigation. This all comes about from a journalists investigation a-la "Making a Murderer" on Netflix.

Who 'won' the Superbowl?

RPLong writes:

The "forecast" part of that passage also bothers me, as it reads to be deeply "Bayesian" and Bayesian inference is far from being a foregone conclusion.

But, the issue reminded me of Greenspan's book. From The Economist:

Later he joined the circle surrounding Ayn Rand, a libertarian novelist-philosopher. In an early encounter, she baffled him into affirming the possibility that he did not exist. She called him the Undertaker because of his gloomy demeanour, and was to be heard for a time asking of her new follower: “Well, has the Undertaker decided whether he exists yet?”

Jon Murphy writes:

I am reminded of the Indiana Jones quote from "Last Crusade"

Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall.
Vincent writes:

Wikipedia has a good entry on truth. I think it is a very poorly defined term in English.
Quoting Wikipedia:
"All Germanic languages besides English have introduced a terminological distinction between truth "fidelity" and truth "factuality". To express "factuality", North Germanic opted for nouns derived from sanna "to assert, affirm", while continental West Germanic (German and Dutch) opted for continuations of wâra "faith, trust, pact" (cognate to Slavic věra "(religious) faith", but influenced by Latin verus). Romance languages use terms following the Latin veritas, while the Greek aletheia, Russian pravda and South Slavic istina have separate etymological origins."

Greg G writes:

Rorty was NOT claiming that the statement "Denver lost the recent Super bowl" should be treated as just as "true" as the statement "Denver won the recent Super Bowl."

He wants to point out that saying "It is true that Denver won the recent Super Bowl" really adds nothing useful to the simpler claim "Denver won the recent Super Bowl."

All human knowledge is held with something short of total metaphysical certainty even though we know many things with such a high degree of probability it is sensible to act as if we were certain of them. You probably weren't at the Super Bowl. You are probably relying on the reports of other people to reach a conclusion about who won and it is probably entirely reasonable of you to do so.

Levi Russell writes:

"There is no objective truth" is a statement about objective truth... so yes, there is.

Greg G writes:

Levi,

Rorty does not really claim there is no such thing as objective truth. His claims are much more modest than they appear at first glance.

He merely claims that humans lack the tools to prove objective truth to a metaphysical certainty even if it does exist and even if we stumble onto it. And so he thinks we ought to stick to just making our arguments and presenting the best evidence we have instead of making metaphysical claims. His intention was much more to puncture the pretensions of some professional philosophers than to change the way everyday language is used. He was well aware that it would have been a contradiction for him to claim it was possible to prove there was no such thing as objective truth.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ricardo,
So you need to distinguish between empirical truth and definitional truth. It may be reasonable to claim that empirical truth cannot be proven -- in a strict sense -- to be objective.
I don’t think that’s it. You’re right about 6 being greater than 5 by definition. But the Super Bowl and the Abraham Lincoln claims are empirical. And I’m quite confident that they’re true.
@Gabriel Pulatti,
To put your 'objective facts' in some context… what would you say about the winner of Superbowl 50 if in another 50 years, it came out that it was a result of match-fixing?
How would I know, assuming I’m around in 50 years, that it was a result of match-fixing?
@Levi Russell,
"There is no objective truth" is a statement about objective truth... so yes, there is.
Well done, Levi.
@Greg G,
He [Rorty] merely claims that humans lack the tools to prove objective truth to a metaphysical certainty even if it does exist and even if we stumble onto it.
I doubt that he merely claims that. Are you sure he does?

Philo writes:

This is (roughly) C. S. Peirce's pragmatic theory of truth. "Eventually" is objectionably vague: a year from now, a century from now, a millennium from now, 5 billion years from now are all "eventually," but public opinion will probably differ at different times, so a precise specification is needed. And *eventually* our species will die out, eliminating public opinion.

Philo writes:

But Scott is a fool for pragmatism. Best to ignore it.

A writes:

Superbowl imagery could have been faked. The game might have been bought by gamblers. It could have been a government experiment on memory and belief.

There is no reason to believe any of the above, and it's not really useful to explore those possibilities. But you do run into the limits of what it means to prove something.

Scott Sumner writes:

David, You lost me somewhere between "Are you sure?" (yes) and "QED" (what has been shown?)

The only way I can make sense of your argument is to assume that you view objective truth as "things Scott Sumner is sure about". I'm flattered, but not quite sure everyone will find that definition to be adequate.

Michael Stack writes:

This is one of my favorite topics. I especially enjoy thinking about things that are true BECAUSE most people think they are false. I would say things like, "Voting is a waste of time", or "Just put your savings in a mutual fund because nobody can beat the market".

Modern science tells a story about the evolution of life on Earth. In this story life has grown from prokaryotes (like bacteria) to single-cellular eukaryotes, to multi-cellular forms, to humans. I am willing to believe that story, to take it as an axiom underlying any human-thunk-up philosophy.

If you also accept that story, do you think that primitive bacteria had a word, or a concept for truth? I guess probably not. We humans prefer to believe that lower forms act only on impulses or instincts; lower forms get along without a concept of truth. I guess that our human concept of truth developed more recently in evolution.

Truth is a fancy concept needed for the first time in evolution, I propose, when a mind can consider a proposal and judge the proposal. The evolution of brains did indeed cook up that concept and a word for it, “truth”.

If you accept that story, doesn’t that imply that “truth” is a word in natural language, having no more definition than required by circumstances? Words in natural language have fuzzy meaning. Words are signals discovered between (or among) entities which are striving to coordinate their efforts for mutual gain. When a signal succeeds somewhat it becomes part of the lexicon.

But to get the full story, you will need to wait (sorry) for the draft of my chapter on Philosophy of the Critters.

Bob Murphy writes:

David wrote:

Who won the recent Super Bowl? Was it Denver or Carolina? In which century did Abraham Lincoln live? Was it the 19th century?

Are you sure?

QED.

That works, David (at least for me, though Scott didn't think it was persuasive), but that's much stronger than what you need.

All you need to ask is, "Do you think there is a correct answer to the question, 'In which century did Abraham Lincoln live'?"

Greg G writes:

David,

You ask if I am sure about my interpretation of Rorty. I have read several of his books and I am very confident I am understanding him correctly. Surely you realize it would only undermine my position on this to claim absolute certainty. Rorty is a a very talented and entertaining writer. You might enjoy some of his stuff.

Any of us could be wrong about anything even though we are likely right about a great many things. At one time Newton's theories were thought to be the most certain bedrock objective truth that applied everywhere and at all scales. When that turned out not to be the case, the model of certain scientific knowledge came to be replaced by the idea that all knowledge should be regarded as provisional and possibly vulnerable to new evidence.

I am curious why you think that it would be more likely Rorty would hold an idea that is easily disproven than that he would hold one more easily defended.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob Murphy,
All you need to ask is, "Do you think there is a correct answer to the question, 'In which century did Abraham Lincoln live'?"
Yes. That’s better.
@Greg G,
Surely you realize it would only undermine my position on this to claim absolute certainty.
Exactly. That’s why I asked.
At one time Newton's theories were thought to be the most certain bedrock objective truth that applied everywhere and at all scales. When that turned out not to be the case, the model of certain scientific knowledge came to be replaced by the idea that all knowledge should be regarded as provisional and possibly vulnerable to new evidence.
Are you sure “that turned out not to be the case?"

Scott Sumner writes:

Bob, Do you really think that one of the world's most famous philosophers during the 20th century would develop a theory of epistemology that could be refuted that easily?

Steve Z writes:

Ricardo -

Invoking definitional truth does not help. How can you be sure of your definition? If it's private, it's not rule based or verifiable; if it's based on definitions you've received, you could be mistaken.

Steve Z writes:

Ricardo -

Invoking definitional truth does not help. How can you be sure of your definition? If it's private, it's not rule based or verifiable; if it's based on definitions you've received, you could be mistaken.

Gene Callahan writes:

Yes Scott he absolutely did. Philosophy is in a debased state today, and you can become quite famous spouting nonsense.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I'm not understanding how these statements about the world that we'll all answer yes to - whether David's or Bob's - are supposed to arbitrate between a pragmatist theory of truth and whatever is behind David's sense of objective truth (I assume some kind of correspondence theory?). Aren't we going to answer "yes" under both theories?

Philo writes:

@ Scott Sumner:

Your faith in academic philosophers is sadly misplaced.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Scott Sumner,
The only way I can make sense of your argument is to assume that you view objective truth as "things Scott Sumner is sure about". I'm flattered, but not quite sure everyone will find that definition to be adequate.
Really, Scott? That’s the only way.
Well, here’s what I intended, and it’s what I was saying with my other responses to commenters who apparently share your view: You can’t say both that there’s no absolute truth and that you’re sure of something, including that statement.
And no, I do not view objective truth as “things Scott Sumner is sure about."

Bob Murphy writes:

Scott, I have never read Rorty; all I know of him is your paraphrasings that you mention from time to time on your blog and on here.

But if Rorty actually said "There is no such thing as objective truth" then yes, I think David's questions, and then my reformulation, are fine ways of getting people to really consider whether they want to endorse such a statement. Incidentally, it doesn't mean I refuted Rorty (if indeed that is his position). A Rortian could say, "There is no fact of the matter about which century Lincoln lived in." I couldn't get him to see why that was wrong, if he didn't see it himself.

Bob Murphy writes:

I realize tempers are flaring up around here so let me just ask for clarification. I am not posting anymore; I'll just read what others say.

In his previous post (which David quoted above) Scott wrote, "As there is no such thing as objective truth." So David's whole post here is an attempted (I would say successful) refutation of the claim, "There is no such thing as objective truth."

Now it seems that there are two lines of response. One is to say, "David, Rorty isn't claiming that." The other is to say, "Yes Rorty believes that, and he was a smart guy, so do you think a quick blog post disposes of his position?"

It's placing a hard burden on David to have to wage a two-front war, with critics who are contradicting each other. I personally didn't know whether Rorty believed there was objective truth before this episode, and after reading his defenders here, I still don't know.

(Perhaps there is no objective answer to the question, "Does Rorty believe in objective truth?")

I should add that there is a way in which I agree with David Henderson's belief in objective truth. The model of life which I am pushing stands upon some assumptions: Resources exist in the universe, distributed in patterns which allow survival of those living things which are smart or lucky enough to discover and exploit the patterns. Life requires only a working knowledge, not a perfect knowledge, of those resource patterns.

So there, in my model's basic assumptions, is something like objective reality, prior to and outside of the conception of any living thing. Living things can never master the complete truth about any piece of objective reality. But that does not stop life.

I have not read any of Richard Rorty either, but I find myself in complete agreement with what I've learned tonight and with the quote of Rorty which Charlie found (in comment above).

Greg G writes:

Rorty is attacking the concept of "objective truth" because he doesn't think objectivity can be achieved. He understands that there is likely some fact of the matter in reality. He just thinks the claim of objectivity can't be justified and that, when it falls, it takes the usefulness of the claim of "objective truth" with it.

He was very clear on the fact that he thought people could and should continue to advocate for what they believe in and produce the best evidence they can when doing so. It's important to understand that he was trying to change the way philosophers use the term. He was not that concerned with changing the way people use the term in everyday conversation.

Charlie writes:

Here's a Rorty quote I found on wikipedia:

"Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own unaided by the describing activities of humans cannot.”(5)

I'd be very interested in a big debate about the objectiveness of truth. My guess is that Scott has thought a lot harder about his position than DH, but that it is also a harder (less intuitive) position to defend.

Jeff writes:

This sounds a lot like this from Boswell's Life of Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

Craig Maxwell writes:

Is there objective truth? Of course, since to answer "no" would be, in effect to say, "it is true that there is no truth"--a contradiction.

As Roger Scruton put it:


"There are philosophers who have repudiated the goal of truth -- Nietzsche, for example, who argued that there are no truths, only interpretations. But you need only ask yourself whether what Nietzsche says is true, to realize how paradoxical it is. (If it is true, then it is false! -- an instance of the so-called 'liar' paradox.) Likewise, the French philosopher Michel Foucault repeatedly argues as though the 'truth' of an epoch has no authority outside of the power-structure that endorses it. There is no trans-historical truth about the human condition. But again, we should ask ourselves whether that last statement is true: for if it is true, it is false. There has arisen among modernist philosophers a certain paradoxism which has served to put them out of communication with those of their contemporaries who are merely modern. A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is "merely relative," is asking you not to believe him. So don't."

Jeff writes:

I wonder what Rorty would make of Schrodinger's Cat. The truth is neither out there nor in our heads. It's determined by the very act of observing.

It is hard to take philosophers too seriously when it seems the universe is even stranger than any of us can imagine.

Max writes:

It strikes me that choosing Superbowl to argue about objective truth is an extremely poor decision.

It's a made up game with made up rules and criteria of winning. It does not exist outside general humanity's subjective consensus that it does exist. Superbowl winner can never be an example of objective truth, if such a thing even exists.

Ditto about centuries. We cannot agree on calendar with all the people on this planet and Lincoln living in 19th century is being presented as objective truth? "19th century" as a concept exists only in the mind of a minority of humans.

Please try to think of something better.

Khodge writes:

There are people throughout the third world who will swear that Carolina won because that is where they dump the losing team's victory paraphernalia (if media reports are true).

James writes:

In the comments under the post titled "EMH update" Scott said that the distinction between subjective belief and objective truth is meaningless. That's a pretty distinct claim from saying that there is no such thing as objective truth. It would be helpful for the Rortians in the room to clarify which of these they believe before this line of debate goes on any further.

I also notice that these sorts of debates often start with the anti-objectivist side initially getting a rise out of people by stating an extreme view about whether or not truth exists and then changing the subject to some fairly uncontroversial position about psychology or language. It would also be helpful for the Rortians to make clear what the actual subject matter of their position is.

Pertaining to the question of who won the Super Bowl: Join me in imagining that somewhere there is a community where they have a local event which, through happenstance in their local history, they call the "Super Bowl". They know that people in the larger, surrounding language community have a famous event also called the "Super Bowl". But let us suppose that in this particular local-language community, someone who mentions the "Super Bowl" will be understood as referring to the local event, and not to that other Super Bowl unless somehow indicated. The answer to who won the recent Super Bowl would depend upon the language-community within which that question was asked.

Perhaps this seems like a frivolous objection to David's objective truth about the winner of the Super Bowl, and surely it is a small and annoying snare on the path to positive knowledge. But I believe that such nibbling away at the meanings of words, meanings which have been assumed objectivity concrete, can remove strength from most sentences which claim to express objective truth.

I do not intend to cast doubt on all truth. We thrive by finding subjective, good-enough truths, within language communities.

James writes:

Richard O Hammer:

The existence of different understanding of the meaning of "Superbowl" only implies some people might experience confusion in a conversation about the Superbowl. Just because people may find the conversation confusing, that does not imply that there is no fact of the matter. It's a red herring.

Greg G writes:

James,

I agree with everything in your last comment. So does Rorty. This is why no one has produced, or will produce, a quote where he claims to be able to show there is no fact of the matter.

Rorty is making the point that the fact of the matter is not ever changed by the claims people make about it. CLAIMS about truth are properties of sentences produced by humans.

Rorty is arguing that claims of personal access to objective truth are themselves "confusion in a conversation" to use your term.

All the people who are so sure they know what Rorty is saying without even reading him should read him if they are really interested in the topic. I think most people will be surprised at what a clear and entertaining writer he is.

J Mann writes:

It's what Scott Alexander discussed in his "fish/feesh" essay.

Consider the statement: "There are an odd number of grains of sand within 15 kilometers of the Empire State Building at this very instant."

Most people would consider that statement probably either true or false at any given moment, but unknowable.

If Rorty wants to define "truth" in such a way that the above statement isn't capable of being true without being known, then that's his definition. The more interesting question is "how does 'Rorty-truth' differ from the the common understanding of the word, and is the concept useful or interesting.

(Disclaimer: I read Rorty back in college, but literally can't remember a single word, so all my knowledge is second-hand at best).

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