Truth in ordinary life

by Neil Rickert

Last week, I posted about truth in mathematics. So now I want to move to discussing our use of “true” in every day life.

Ordinary statements

As with mathematics, there are many statements on which people can agree as to their truth. These are typically simple descriptive statements such as “it is raining” or “the grass need mowing” or “there’s a pothole down the street.” These are the kinds of statements that we can check for ourselves by looking around. There are others that we cannot quite check for ourselves, such as “the Yankees won today’s baseball game”, but we generally accept the rulings of the umpires or other officials. The statement “Biden won the presidential election” should be of this type, though there is surprising disagreement this time around.

For these types of statements, we judge their truth based on our ordinary language use, including the meanings of the words. We can perhaps say that they are true because they follow to implicit rules of language use, or the implicit conventions of language use. For such statements, truth is usually not controversial because of the shared agreement about these implicit rules.


There are other statements which have generated disagreement. A traditional example is the question of whether heliocentrism is true. Galileo got into an argument with the church because of his insistence on heliocentrism. Today, most people accept heliocentrism without much disagreement. Clearly this is a different kind of question from those I considered to be ordinary statements.

If I posed the statement “the earth goes around the sun”, anybody who has accepted heliocentrism would be likely to see this as an ordinary statement which is clearly true. But a person who is clinging to geocentrism would likely see it as an ordinary statement which is obviously false.

Recall that an ordinary statement is one whose truth we can judge by following the implicit rules that we all accept. What happened with heliocentrism, is that the rules themselves were changed. So heliocentrism itself was not an ordinary description of reality whose truth could be judged by accepted rules. Rather, it was a change of the rules themselves. And that is what makes it a “not so ordinary” statement. In a way, it is more like a system of axioms in mathematics, for it sets the rules that we follow when describing the solar system.

When heliocentrism was proposed, there were tests of whether it should be considered true. Astronomers asked whether we would see parallax in the positions of stars. At that time, no parallax was observed, and some use that to argue against heliocentrism. Today, we do observe parallax. The problem, back then, was that we were not able to measure direction with sufficient precision to detect the parallax. And the stars were much more distant from us than was realized at that time.

These sorts of test don’t seem to me to be tests of truth. Instead, I see them as the tests we would use in making a pragmatic judgement. Undoubtedly, heliocentrism is far better than geocentrism, but I see that as a pragmatic issue rather than an issue of truth.


In evolution, we see an example where there is still disagreement. Most scientists agree with evolution, though they might disagree with some of the small details. But many religious people are still opposed. Again, this really isn’t an ordinary true/false question. It’s a question of pragmatic judgement. Science is pragmatic, so it goes with evolution. Religious people might also see themselves as pragmatic. But pragmatic judgements can vary between people. The pragmatic judgements of a scientist are weighted toward having a detailed understanding of the world. The pragmatic interests of some religious people are weighted more toward what they see as important to their theology. Hence the disagreement about evolution.


What I have been trying to illustrate in these posts, is that truth is not as straightforward as some people have taken it to be.

One Comment to “Truth in ordinary life”

  1. “Science is pragmatic,”

    Yes, that is right. A lot of people forget this and follow science as religious people follow religion. They take the currently accepted theories of science as absolute truth.

    Seems to me that as now a days as people are more and more getting free from the chains of old religions, they have found the new chains of the religion of scientism to be slave to and not take responsibility for their own thinking and actions.

    Liked by 2 people

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