Wednesday, February 29, 2012


(revised March 14, 2012)

by James Craig Green

I have all but abandoned the word truth, by which I mean here "an irrefutable claim of absolute knowledge about reality." More often than not, people who claim to have found some universal truth in human knowledge are either 1) quoting some guru or hero which they worship without criticism, 2) stating a meaningless tautology ("A" is "A"), or 3) sloppy thinking through a lack of critical examination of long-held views (dogma).

By this more restrictive definition, I am not talking about common use of the word truth to mean beliefs in principles that may change slowly over time within a human lifetime. My friend Don Kirkland uses truth in this way. What I mean to criticize here is the dogmatic belief that our words can somehow represent reality for all time. This seems highly unlikely to me.

Here's an introduction to my current beliefs on this and related issues:

1. I gave up on truth decades ago. What people usually promote as truth is too often the result of sloppy thinking, or just belief in knowledge upon which they can rely for a while, maybe even a long while.

2. Most human knowledge is obtained through written or spoken words from others (as opposed to direct experience). Therefore, it is mostly subjective because language is subjective, beginning with circular logic (each word depends on other words, ad infinitum) and going downhill from there. In addition, human senses are limited in what they can perceive, so many aspects of reality are filtered through multiple layers of human thought, disguising parts of their nature from the human mind. Think atoms (too small) and galaxies (too large) - especially the assumptions, inaccuracies of measurement and other uncertainties that prevent direct, unbiased knowledge of such phenomena. We know about black holes in deep space not because of what they are, but what they are not (we "see" them as apparently empty space, but speculate on their nature due to their apparent gravitational effects on other bodies).

3. The study of general semantics (NOT common language semantics - the definition of words) is often necessary to identify errors in one's perception of reality. It has become part of some sciences, but is not, in itself, science. Even the most widely-known guru of general semantics (Polish Count Alfred Korzybski) himself made serious errors in thinking on the subject, typical of the dogma and chauvinism that dominate most, if not all, fields of knowledge.  This use of the phrase "general semantics" is not commonly known to most people with whom I have attempted to discuss it. However, I think it is one of the most profound and useful aspects of human knowledge I have ever encountered, because it attempts to pierce the veil of confusion about what is real and what is not. I credit my long-time friend Dr. Dick Jones (retired medical doctor and lawyer) with my most recent and profound understanding of this subject. The essence of general semantics is "how do you know something is real instead of fantasy?"

4. Only science - frequently fraught with error (demanding revision of theories) - contains procedures for identifying errors and correcting them. This destroys popular paradigms and careers, which is why science is so easily corrupted by politics and the self-serving importance of those careers. Think global warming (AKA climate change). Among my libertarian and objectivist friends, think first principles - claimed to be without assumptions or other antecedent beliefs. It is easy, but most likely wrong, to claim that because one cannot think of an exception to a claim, it is absolute. I call this "sloppy thinking" instead of expressing some eternal truth.

I discussed my general theory of science in Science = Induction + Deduction in May of 2011, recently updated to better comport with this article.

5. Word definitions are arbitrary, tentative and subject to change. Definitions contain no truth (only clarification of intended meaning), so I prefer to call them assumptions, propositions or labels. This may seem counterintuitive, but think of the word "rock" to describe that large thing sitting in front of you and me in a field. The word "rock" contains very little specificity about the complexity of the object you, I and others may agree is real. For example, if you and others agree to call that thing "rock," this says nothing about its sub-atomic structure, which is mostly empty space. Also, it does not distinguish between different kinds of "rock" from geologists' use of terms like "granite," "shale" or "gravel." THE COMPLEXITY OF REALITY, especially our limited understanding of it, is a subject about which even people with advanced degrees in the sciences may not understand very well. This suggests caution to me in claiming to know some reality with absolute certainty. At best, we glimpse pieces of it, hoping to improve our understanding with future advances in instrumentation, observation and experimentation. This is why our knowledge about reality is incomplete and tentative.

6. According to Karl Popper, a statement is not scientific if it cannot be refuted by experiment. For example, neither "God exists" nor "God does not exist" are scientific theories by this definition. Both can be argued forever without end, since neither deals with testable hypotheses that could be wrong. My friend Don uses these as what I would call "tentative truths," which are by definition not the absolute truth subject of this article. It is easy for humans to see the limits of practical knowledge that can be achieved by an amoeba, but not themselves. Similarly, a more advanced species than humans could see our inherent limits, which so many of us cannot. HOWEVER, positively asserting that something (like God) does not exist is a fool's errand, although not believing in its existence (as I do not) may be sensible. Until black swans were discovered, "all swans are white" was apparent to all who had only seen white ones, though wrong based on our current knowledge of genetics. However, keep in mind that if swans were defined as WHITE birds, then the discovery of black swans would not contradict it, though it was prudent to re-define what swans were based on new evidence.

7. My general belief today is that practical knowledge about the real world (that which exists outside our minds) is discoverable, but not completely, nor can it be known well enough to be sure one's ideas about it will survive forever under scrutiny. The uncertainty of knowledge is the beginning of learning new things about the world around us. Certainty is the end. Dogma dominates so-called "science" among PhD's as much, if not more, than anybody else. Two decades ago, I described this as the "arrogance of orthodoxy," which I called "arrogoxy." Most people seem to adopt "truths" through osmosis; not critical thinking or the natural uncertainty that underlies our most honest and self-critical knowledge of reality.

8. Semantic games, hero worship and sloppy thinking are rampant in all fields of human knowledge - especially science, philosophy and other intellectual pursuits normally thought to be above reproach and "higher" forms of thought. Too many non-scientists have no idea how much faith, imprecision and confusion permeate science and other subjects they regard as "advanced." I've known engineering PhD's who couldn't problem-solve their way out of a paper bag, and auto mechanics who were brilliant, creative and incredibly productive at what they do. I worked in my dad's auto wrecking yards and garages from ages 12 to 22, when I left home with my first engineering degree in 1969. I had some technical jobs along the way in college, but never forgot how intelligent and creative some auto mechanics were.

9. Most people make and/or repeat these mistakes frequently, even without including those who profit from deception and intentional falsehoods. It is a struggle to avoid them, like Bastiat's Broken Window Fallacy is unknown to most professors of economics, which leads to the worst and most destructive of public policies. The essence of this extremely important fallacy is the idea that looking at only the benefits of destruction (like a broken window) such as the jobs it creates (glaziers and those on whom they spend their newfound money) are only the least important part of the story. The most important part - largely unknown to economists - especially those whose careers focus on justifying public policies - is that had the window not been broken, the money spent fixing it would have been spent on a whole chain of other things. This means there is no "stimulation" to the economy from such destruction, but a net loss (the window). If only government could understand this, but it is not in the interest of those in and around government to do so and naive to expect it. This lack of understanding is why some government-subsidized solar energy companies are going belly-up - a direct and predictable result of massive government subsidies without financial accountability or a real market demand. This fallacy permeates almost everything government does.

I welcome any and all criticism, and seriously look forward to those among you who can point out errors in my thinking on this subject. However, as I implied in my previous blog posts  Rand's "Nature of Government" and  Science=Induction+Deduction, conveniences in language shorthand are neither serious statements of absolute belief... nor their refutation. Too many semantic games fail to be serious attempts at better understanding reality, but succeed in promoting and protecting existing dogma.

Let the games begin...

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