In a society wrought with crises and treachery, the importance of two concepts become more and more pronounced; truth and justice. Countless adages and proverbs were associated with the two ideas; the truth will set you free… the truth hurts… justice delayed is justice denied, and so much more. The sheer influence of the concept of truth and justice also served as mediums for rhetoricians of history to put their mystified advocacies forward, even boldly claiming that â€œtruth is on their side.â€ But what does it mean to have truth â€œon your sideâ€? Heck, what does truth even mean? What is the nature of truth? What makes something true â€œtrueâ€?
It would be important to first identify the context upon which the word â€œtruthâ€ is being used. Consider the usual mudsling of the irate supporters of our President, which they usually make use of when backed into a corner, which goes something like this; â€œthe truth is on our side, and the truth will prevail.â€ It seems like a harmless tantrum at first, albeit irritating, but if viewed through philosophical lens, this haughty declaration has something more than meets the eye; the societyâ€™s skewed view of what truth is.
Letâ€™s discuss the most superficial interpretation of this statement. At face value, this statement could mean that you speak the truth, which will be defined as â€œstating whatever is in the observable reality as is.â€ However, to complete the idea of the statement, that truth is on your side, you must also assert that the truth cannot be possessed by your opponent; in essence, your opponent cannot speak the truth. If these conditions hold true, then you have a logical argument. Now, letâ€™s put this to the test.
A: I believe PNoy is the best president.
B: I respectfully digress, for the following reasons…
A: Whatever; the truth is on my side, and there is nothing you can do about it.
B: My name is B.
To this extent of the argument, Aâ€™s assertion has been legitimately disproved.
This is because B demonstrated something that contradicts our previous assumptions. The assertion that only A can tell the truth (which is necessary to complete the essence of the statement in consideration) entails that B cannot tell the truth, yet B did. His name is indeed B. This kind of scenario, which is fairly mundane, flies in the face of Aâ€™s assertion that truth is on his side, since B is also capable of telling the truth. Well then, who has the truth to begin with?
Such absurdities stem from the fallacy of reification. The said fallacy involves the treatment of an abstract concept as a concrete one; something that can be touched, owned, and transferred. An abstract concept is of a clearly different nature from concretes, but the glaring contrast is usually overlooked by people, since reification comes with profound emotional appeal. One could say that â€œreligion destroyed civilizations and claimed many livesâ€ and commit a fallacy, but intellectuals who recognize the wrongdoings of religious zealots might be taken by the sheer rhetorical charms of such a statement.
So, going back to the original question, who has the truth? The answer is no one, because truth, being an abstract concept, cannot be owned, unlike a concrete concept. One could then begin to ask, â€œSo what can we do about truthâ€? I shall attempt to answer this after we consider another interpretation of the â€œtruth is on my sideâ€ mudsling.
Of course most people would then refuse to acknowledge the first interpretation and attempt to blur the exactness of their definition a bit. One might argue, â€œThe truth Iâ€™m talking about is not â€˜truthâ€™ truth, but the truth of a specific issue weâ€™re dealing with. In other words, the â€˜truthâ€™ Iâ€™m talking about is just a fraction of the whole domain of truth.â€
To make things simpler, suppose that A and B are arguing on whether apples are better than oranges. A claims that apples are better, and resorts to the same mudsling, only this time, A specifies that the truth he is concerned with is just the fact that â€œapples are better.â€
A: Apples are better.
B: I respectfully digress, for the following reasons…
A: Whatever; the truth is on my side, and there is nothing you can do about it. To be specific, the truth Iâ€™m talking about is that â€œapples are better.â€
B: I would like some proof.
A: Okay, according to studies…
B: No. You said that truth is on your side. Prove your case within your statement alone.
To the extent of this argument, Aâ€™s assertion has been legitimately disproved. Again.
This is because B raised something that exposes the problem of Aâ€™s claim despite the clarification; something that can be explained by GÃ¶delâ€™s incompleteness theorem.
The incompleteness theorem, discovered by mathematician Kurt GÃ¶del in 1931, demonstrates the impossibility of proving the truth of a consistent (non-contradictory) system (like mathematics, or the English language) using the elements from that very system. Simply put, you canâ€™t prove the truth of something using that something. The mathematics of the theorem is too rigorous to be of use to the article, so allow me to simply demonstrate it in the above argument, and discuss its implications in the main topic at hand.
B has raised a valid point; A must prove that his assertion is true. However, by claiming that â€œtruth is on his side,â€ it implies that he possesses the â€œtruthâ€ of that statement (for a moment, forget the fallacy of reification), which entails the fact that he can show this â€œtruth,â€ without relying on other information. However, to prove â€œtruthâ€ is not like proving the existence of a concrete. When a friend tells you to prove that you have money in your pocket, you can just show the money in your pocket and watch the utter look of envy on your friendâ€™s eyes. However, you canâ€™t just show â€œtruthâ€ from within your pocket in front of your friend. The existence of an abstract concept requires a philosophical proof.
Now, can A prove that â€œapples are betterâ€ by simply using that statement? By GÃ¶delâ€™s theorem, he cannot, and even without the knowledge of the said theorem, common sense would tell us that such an endeavour is simply impossible. To force that you can prove this statement would be nothing short of begging the question.
â€œApples are better because apples are better!â€
To properly substantiate this claim, A would have to cite information beyond the idea of the statement he is asserting. He could cite scientific studies stating apples, say, have more nutritional value than oranges, or that survey results from a randomized population show that people generally prefer apples, among others. Only then will he stand a chance in this argument. But what does all of this imply?
In order to prove the truth of Aâ€™s statement, he has to consider something beyond his statement. This means the Aâ€™s original statement is insufficient to confirm itself; another statement is required to confirm it, something which neither side claimed to â€œown.â€ Needless to say, once again, the truth is owned by no one.
But what if A asserts that the truth heâ€™s talking about includes those research data? Well, as long as the notion â€œthe truth is on my sideâ€ remains, even if you could prove your initial statement with the research data, you would now have to prove the truth of the data itself without referring to any outside information. And then GÃ¶delâ€™s theorem applies once more. It goes indefinitely.
This epiphany of GÃ¶del shocked the intellectual community, who for ages were obsessed with proving anything and everything. To sum it all up, this was what GÃ¶del wanted to say:
â€œAnything you can draw a circle around cannot explain itself without referring to something outside the circle â€“ something you have to assume but cannot prove.â€
This is GÃ¶delâ€™s explanation of why axioms remain axioms; we use them to prove things, but we can only assume them to be true and not be able prove them to be so. But one might ask, what becomes of tautologies, which are logical statements that are always seen as true?
Answering this is no problem, since tautologies, first and foremost, are different from axioms. Axioms are presumed to be true but cannot be proven true, while tautologies prove themselves; theyâ€™re always true. But thereâ€™s a catch-22 on these curiosities; they donâ€™t mean anything. They have no valuable idea whatsoever.
Take the statement A is A. Okay, we know for a fact that itâ€™s true no matter what, regardless of the universe of discourse. A rock is a rock. A bluck-a-heebee is a bluck-a-heebee. Such statement is a tautology. However, you canâ€™t infer any new information from it. You can expand the â€œA is Aâ€ statement and say something like, â€œif a thing exists and it is A, then it is A,â€ but youâ€™re still basically saying the same thing. Therefore, tautologies are not meant for inference, and are not considered in the scope of the incompleteness theorem. GÃ¶delâ€™s theorem still holds.
With the facts laid before us, we now consider the interesting conclusions that can be inferred:
1. A theory of everything might well be impossible. GÃ¶delâ€™s theorem says that you canâ€™t prove something to be true without assuming something as your standard which you consider true, but cannot prove to be so. This means that no matter how far you go, coming up with standard after standard to prove a standard after standard, GÃ¶delâ€™s theorem predicts that youâ€™ll always need to have an â€œun-provableâ€ truth to substantiate your findings. Kind of a letdown for nigh-omniscient mathematicians and scientists out there.
2. An absolute or â€œcompleteâ€ truth is un-own-able and unknowable. As Iâ€™ve repeatedly demonstrated back there, nobody can â€œownâ€ the truth, and that is guaranteed by the incompleteness theorem. To â€œownâ€ a truth would mean having to prove something which supposedly contains the â€œtruthâ€ using that statement alone. But then you would have to search for information outside your statement which can prove the â€œtruthâ€ of that statement; otherwise, you only have a tautology, which is meaningless. This, in effect, contradicts the central idea that you â€œownâ€ the truth in the first place. Furthermore, the incompleteness theorem prevents the human mind from forming a theory of everything; hence, it follows that the theorem prevents the human mind from arriving at a â€œcompleteâ€ truth.
But the second conclusion flies into the face of our dearly-held principles which withstood time; justice. If weâ€™re not destined to know the â€œcompleteâ€ truth, then what of the verdicts our judicial system has come up with over the years? Do you mean that theyâ€™re nothing but lies?
The short and straight answer is no. In fact, the foundation of our judicial system, which includes justice, is still truth. But then, shouldnâ€™t we conduct an infinite series of proofs to arrive closer and closer to the â€œcompleteâ€ truth?
Needless to say, it would be impractical. The truth the judicial system deals with, as with the rational debates intellectuals engaged in over the ages, is a part of the theoretical â€œcompleteâ€ truth; a pragmatic truth.
Theorized by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey, a pragmatic truth is something that is of practical use to society; something that is useful for the discovery of things and â€œpredicting the future with accuracy and precision,â€ as my philosophy professor would say.
Basically, the reason why it doesnâ€™t take eternity for us to hand out verdicts and arrive at compromises in debates is because we donâ€™t have to. We only need truths which are of practical use to us; things which can help us understand the world better. We only need the truth which is a part of the â€œcompleteâ€ truth; pragmatic truths.
I guess this is why Alfred Tarski went so far as to say that truth (in an absolute sense), is in fact, trivial. So what becomes of truth? If we canâ€™t own it, what do we do with it? How can we overcome the roller-coaster of contradictions and paradoxes that ensue in trying to own truth? Well, I have a suggestion. We donâ€™t own it. We pursue it.
In a world full of falsehoods and deceit, when even the ones claiming to be holy and just lie to get into power, where politicians and even religious figures lie through their teeth at the expense of the people, where the truth cannot be owned but only pursued, perhaps itâ€™s time for everyone to stop claiming monopoly of power over truth, adapt critical thinking, and start questioning the system. Pursue the truth. Only if we learn to let go of truth-based dogmas and prejudices, among other things, can we hope to salvage our dying culture.