Posts tagged ‘truth’

June 3, 2018

Truth and reference

by Neil Rickert

I recently posted this in a comment on another blog:

We cannot just take a sentence and ask if it is true. We first have to inquire about everything referenced by that sentence. If people don’t agree on the references, they won’t agree on the truth of the sentence.

It’s a rather obvious point.  Yet it is often overlooked.

Earlier this year, I proposed a modest theory of truth, in which I suggested that we judge the truth of a sentence based on whether it conforms with standards.  What I mainly had in mind, and what my example illustrated, were the standards that we follow for settling questions of reference.  Likewise, my posts about carving up the world are really all about how we go about finding ways to reference parts of the world.


In a way, the problems of consciousness are also closely connected with reference.  The so called “hard problem” arose because people thinking about AI (artificial intelligence) did not see how a computer could possibly be conscious.  Well, of course it cannot be conscious.  For to be conscious is to be conscious of something, to be conscious of a world.  Consciousness depends on reference.  Or, as philosophers usually say that, it depends on intentionality.

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March 28, 2018

Saying true things about the world

by Neil Rickert

This continues my series of posts on truth.  Up to now, my discussion has mainly been technical.  But truth matters to us because we want to be able to say true things.  We use natural language statements about the world (where “world” is understood broadly) in order to say those true things.

Linguistics is not my area, but I cannot avoid it completely.  Chomsky’s linguistics is based on the idea that language is a syntactic structure.  Presumably the semantics are an add-on to that underlying syntactic structure, although Chomsky doesn’t say much about how semantics makes it into language.

I very much disagree with Chomsky’s view of language.  As I see it, language is primarily semantic.  I see the rules of syntax as mostly an ad hoc protocol used for disambiguation.  So today’s post will be mainly about semantics or meanings.  This has to do with how words can refer to things in the world, or how words can be about something.  This is related to the philosophical problem of intentionality (or aboutness) of language statements.  Here I will be presenting only a broad overview.  I expect to get into more details in future posts.

Carving up the world

I hinted at the idea when I presented my modest theory of truth.  There, I said:

Similarly, if I were to say “the cat is on the mat”, you would see that as true provided that I had followed the standards of the linguistic community in the way that I used the words “cat”, “on” and “mat”.

According to my theory of truth, we need standards for the use of words such as “cat”, “on” and “mat”, and we judge the truth of a statement based on whether it conforms to those standards.

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March 21, 2018

Truth and pragmatics

by Neil Rickert

We make decisions.  That’s a good part of what we do.  For example, I have just decided to compose a post about decision making.

But how do we make decisions?  How do we decide?

Generally speaking, we make some decisions on the basis of what is true.  And we make other decisions on the basis of what works best for us.  That latter kind of decision is usually said to be a pragmatic choice.


If I am solving a mathematical problem such as balancing my checkbook, then I am making decisions based on truth.  If I am working on a logic problem, again that is going to be making decisions based on truth.

I walk into a restaurant, look at the menu, and decide what to order.  That’s normally a pragmatic choice.  It need not be.  Perhaps I have created a rule for myself that if it is Sunday I should order the first item on the menu, if it is Monday I should order the second item, etc.  If I am exactly following those rules, then I am making a decision based on truth.  But that isn’t what we normally do when ordering a meal at a restaurant.

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March 5, 2018

A modest theory of truth

by Neil Rickert

I have previously discussed some of the problems that I have with the so-called correspondence theory of truth.  In this post, I shall suggest my own theory.

I am describing it as modest, because it does not attempt to settle all truth questions.  The use of “true” in ordinary language is a mess, and my theory will not attempt to address all such use.  Rather, it is intended only for technical uses, such as in mathematics and science.

In my last post, I made a distinction between ordinary mathematical statements such as 3+5=8 and the axiom systems (such as the Peano axioms)  that we use to prove those ordinary statements.  There is widespread agreement on truth questions about those ordinary mathematical questions.  But there is less agreement about whether axioms are true.  Mathematics can be done, without settling questions on the truth of the axioms used.

Coming up with axiom systems is also part of mathematics.  But when a new axiom system is offered, the main concern is on whether that axiom system is useful.  Whether the axioms are true is often not asked, perhaps because there isn’t a good way to decide.  Axiom systems are usually adopted on a pragmatic basis.  That is, they are adopted for their usefulness.

Something similar happens in science.  The ideal gas laws of physics are a good example.  Those laws are true only for an imagined ideal gas.  They are false for any real gas.  But although technically false, they provide a pretty good approximation of the behavior of real gases.  And that makes them very useful.  So, with the gas laws, we see important scientific laws that are adopted on a pragmatic basis, even though they might be technically false.

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February 26, 2018

Mathematical truth

by Neil Rickert

While this post is about mathematical truth, it is really intended as part of a series of posts about truth.  The mathematics here will be light.  I am choosing to discuss mathematical truth because some of the distinctions are clearer in mathematics.  But I do intend it to illustrate ideas about truth that are not confined to mathematics.

Mathematicians actually disagree about mathematical truth.  But the disagreements are mostly peripheral to what they do as mathematicians.  So they usually don’t get into intense arguments about these disagreements.


First a little philosophical background.

There is a school of mathematics known as Intuitionism.  This differs from the more common classical mathematics, in that it has a more restrictive view of what is allowed in a mathematical proof.  And, consequently, it has a more restrictive view of truth.  In particular, Intuitionists do not accept Cantor’s set theory.

The mainstream alternative to Intuitionism is usually called “Classical Mathematics“.

This post mainly has to do with truth in classical mathematics.  I mention Inuitionism just to acknowledge its existence and indicate that it is not what I will be discussing.

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February 20, 2018

What is truth?

by Neil Rickert

Pilate famously asked the title question (John 18:38).  I expect people have been asking that question for as long as they have been asking questions.  For a good discussion of theories of truth, check the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Truth is a central concept in philosophy.  But I am not at all satisfied with the way that it is used.  Hence this post.


If you ask about truth, you may be answered with the correspondence theory.  But the idea of “correspondence” is usually left unexplained.  I sometimes see statements similar to:

  • A sentence is true if it corresponds to the facts.
  • A sentence is true if it expresses what is the case.
  • A sentence is true if it expresses the state of affairs.

The trouble with all of these, is that they seem to be roundabout ways of saying “A sentence is true if it is true.”  And that does not say anything at all.

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January 22, 2015

A heretic’s take on scientific realism

by Neil Rickert

Note that the “heretic” in the title refers to me, and comes from this blog’s title.

I have long considered myself a scientific realist.  At least, on some definitions, a scientific realist is one who believes that science provides the best available descriptions of the natural world.  And, in that sense, I surely am a scientific realist.

I’ve been noticing that some people have been suggesting that I am an instrumentalist or an anti-realist.  So they must be using a different notion of “scientific realism.”  There’s a post, today, at Scientia Salon which gets into such an account of scientific realism:

Here, I will discuss that post and where I have difficulty with the way that it looks at science.  My own view of science, and how it works, should be apparent from that discussion.  And I think it will be clear that my own view is non-standard (and, in that sense, heretical).

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February 23, 2014

On David Snoke on Nagel’s book

by Neil Rickert

Physicist David Snoke has written a review of Thomas Nagel’s book “Mind and Cosmos” (h/t Uncommon Descent):

In this post, I shall discuss Snoke’s review.  I suppose that makes it a review of a review.

I have previously discussed Nagel’s book on this blog — you can find those posts with a search on the main blog page.  I clearly disagreed with a lot of what Nagel wrote in his book.  By contrast, Snoke seems to like the book.

While I disagree with Snoke about the book, I do think Snoke’s review is well worth reading.  Nagel’s book is not to everyone’s taste, and some might find it a hard read.  Snoke, in his review, gives a synopsis of what he sees are some of the important parts of the book.  So I’ll recommend that you read the Snoke review, particularly if you want to get an overview of what Nagel was arguing.

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November 13, 2013

Convention (7) – Relativism

by Neil Rickert

When I mention my ideas about the role of conventions in science, I am often accused of being a relativist or a social constructionist or a post-modernist.  Those seem to all be related.  I am not any of those.  Today’s post will look at why my ideas about conventions do not have any relativist implication.

What am I

I’ve just said that I am  not a relativist or a social constructivist or a post-modernist.  So perhaps I should say something about what I am.  It’s not easy to say what I am, because my views don’t fit any of the standard labels.

In his book “Science and Relativism“, Larry Laudan presents a discussion between four philosophers of science, whom he labels as a positivist, a realist, a pragmatist and a relativist.  I disagree with all four of them.  For each of them, there are places where I agree with what they say.  But, overall, I do not see science the way that any of them see it.

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November 2, 2013

Convention (1) — introduction

by Neil Rickert

I am starting a series of posts on the idea of conventions, as in social conventions.  It has long been clear to me that conventions are important.  This, however, seems to be controversial.  As best I can tell, philosophers are deeply suspicious of convention.

As a self-declared heretic about philosophy, I am not troubled by opposing what seems to be the conventional view of convention among conventional philosophers.

Here’s some background reading:

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