Bits and Pieces — Truth and Ontology

by Daniel A. Kaufman

‘Truth’ and ‘is true’

The most popular view on truth is some variation on the correspondence theory, according to which saying that a statement is true is saying that it “corresponds” to “reality” or “the facts” or “states of affairs” or some such thing.  The trouble with this to my mind is at least threefold:  (i) As per Donald Davidson’s observation, it’s not at all clear that saying “ ‘S’ is true to the facts” tells us anything more than simply saying “ ‘S’ is true” (p. 16); (ii) The notions of “reality,” “the facts,” etc., at play seem either obvious and uninteresting or else hopelessly vague and obscure; (iii) Worst of all, even if one sets (ii) aside, I don’t see how one could give an account of any of these things – “reality,” “the facts,” etc. – without either explicitly or tacitly employing the concept of truth, which makes the correspondence theory circular.

For quite some time, it’s seemed to me that going too deeply into the concept of truth is a mistake, which is why I’ve found deflationary accounts of the expression ‘is true’ appealing.  To say that ‘snow is white’ is true is simply to say that snow is white.  (As you might expect, there are umpteen versions of this account, each with its own peculiarities.)  As Kant maintained that ‘exists’ is not a predicate – and that consequently, existence is not a property – so the deflationist thinks that ‘is true’ is not a predicate and truth is not a property.

Some want to make hay of the fact that ‘truth’ can appear as a subject in sentences, as in “The truth is important” or that we can say things like “something he said must be true” and that such uses demonstrate that there must be something more to the words ‘truth’ and ‘true’ than deflationary accounts give credit for.  I must admit to having always found such objections petty and irritating, not to mention insensible to the even broader, myriad uses of these terms and their variations:

“What he said is nothing more than a truism,” meaning trivial and uninteresting.

“She remained true to me, through good times and bad,” meaning faithful, in both the broad and narrow senses.

“His arrow flew straight and true,” meaning “without deviation.”

(Slang) “That shit is the motherfucking truth,” meaning “the best.”

“This is my grandmother’s tried and true method of getting rid of red wine stains,” meaning “effective.”

If anything, the diversity of such uses would seem to suggest that there is no single account of ‘truth’ and ‘true’ to be had; that like a multi-bit tool, the words can be used for a number of purposes, in a number of contexts and that at best we can describe what some of these uses are, as the deflationist does with ‘is true’.

Ontology and Physicalism

When we talk about ontology, we are talking about what exists.  In this regard, most philosophers and scientists are physicalists, in that they think that everything that exists is physical.  But it seems quite obvious to me that physicalism must be false.

Before anyone gets too excited, I’m not thinking about gods, angels, demons, ghosts or anything like that.  I don’t think there are any.  Nor am I thinking of mathematical objects like numbers, sets, geometrical figures and the like, though I don’t think I believe that those exist either, at least not strictly speaking.

But the State of Missouri certainly exists.  As does the United States.  I am a resident of the first and a citizen of the second, which means that residents and citizens also exist.  The money in my bank account definitely exists (thank goodness), and if it ceased to exist, I’d be in serious trouble.  The laws requiring that the tags on one’s cars be up to date certainly exist, which is why, several years ago, I got a ticket for having expired tags.  You get my drift.  All these things exists.  Obviously.  Straightforwardly.  And yes, strictly speaking.  Yet none of them is physical on any plausible interpretation.  The constitution of the United States exists, and if you burned every extant manuscript of it, it still would exist.  The same is true for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Some have thought that these things can be given a type/token treatment.  As this strategy goes, any instantiation of my money will have to be physical – in paper, metals, electrical signals, etc. – and this might lead you to say (as it has made people like Jerry Fodor say) that you are, with respect to everything, at least a “token” physicalist.  This still leaves types unaccounted for, but one might deal with them like one deals with mathematical objects and say they don’t exist strictly speaking.  Still, I don’t see any of this is going to help you with residents or citizens or civil and criminal laws.  It’s not at all clear that the ink markings in a book in some law library are “instantiations” of laws, in the way that a piece of paper is an instantiation of $5 or a performance is a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and even as I write this, I am beginning to wonder if the latter really makes sense in all of its applications.  After all, if I burn a $5 bill, I’ve lost $5, not an instantiation or token of $5.

What we are talking about is social and cultural reality and the ontological status of the things that belong to it.  Since Anscombe, it has been somewhat common to distinguish “brute” facts – which might have existed independently of any human intentional activity – from “institutional” ones – which only exist because of human intentional activity.  Terry Diffey uses this distinction to make the case that artworks are institutional facts in “The Republic of Art,” and John Searle employs it in his book,  The Construction of Social Reality, where he maintains that institutional facts arise, when certain brute facts are assigned various “status functions,” by way of “collective intentionality.”  Searle, however, is not particularly interested in the question of the ontological status of the things that comprise social reality, indeed, he thinks it’s all physical, all the way down:

I see the human ability to create money, property, government, and marriage as an extension of more basic biological phenomena such as the ability of human beings to engage in cooperative behavior, and their innate capacity for linguistic symbolism. My concern, in short, is with institutional reality, which is a special case of social reality. It is a matter of status functions, it is about the deontic powers accruing to status functions, and it is utterly naturalistic.  (p. 300)

Searle’s chief concept – he refers to it as a “mnemonic” – is X counts as Y in C, the idea being that an institutional fact is a brute fact that comes to be counted by people as being and doing something, which could not have occurred solely as a result of the physical features that make up the brute fact.  This is all very well, and it certainly is Searle’s prerogative not to be interested in social ontology, but it seems quite clear to me that (a) there is nothing wrong with the ontological questions – What is a citizen?  What is money?   What are laws? and (b) that one cannot slide smoothly from talk about facts to talk about things and that “X counts as Y in C” is not going to make sense of all of the different kinds of social facts we have been examining.  It’s not me, the biological organism that is a resident of Missouri or a citizen of the United States, but me the person, and my personhood is not a brute fact as Searle has defined it, and with respect to something like a law or currency, the idea that these things are physical objects upon which certain statuses or roles have been imposed just seems obviously wrong.

My own view, to the extent that I have one – it really is only partially formed at this point – is that the brute/institutional distinction might be of some use, but only if we drop the identification of brute facts with physical ones.  Anscombe did not – for her, what is “brute” is simply defined in relation to that which is not – i.e. “he has potatoes” is brute, relative to “he supplied me with potatoes” – (p.3) so on her view a social fact may itself be brute relative to another social fact.  Indeed, I think this is the case not just with social facts but with social things, and with Wittgenstein, I would say that much of the things we have been talking about are “social all the way down,” and I mean that ontologically.  People may want to object to this as being mysterian or involving some “queer metaphysics,” but those who do are simply conflating the Manifest and Scientific images.  In the Manifest Image, things like persons and points of view – and thus, intentionality – are ontologically basic, and social reality only exists within it.  The Manifest Image is neither reducible to the Scientific Image, nor eliminable in favor of it, and I would argue that with respect to our ordinary, lived lives, it is primary.

So yes, all sorts of things exist, strictly speaking, that are not physical, but rather social and cultural, and this doesn’t involve any Platonic or Cartesian entities, but only the most common, ordinary things in the world – i.e. persons and their intentionality and agency.

58 Comments »

  1. Don’t know what to say about it really. I don’t think the laws regarding registration for your car are any less real than rocks

    Then I regret to inform you that you have not been reading all my comments.

    I have already conceded the reality of the world of thought. But what I am claiming, though, it is a very different kind of reality that cannot be equated with the reality of physical objects. I only denied the reality of thought in the first place as a means of drawing attention to its very different nature. But I think my methodology was clear to you.

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  2. Hi labnut:

    I do think you have sown some confusion here. You started out by saying that everything that exists is made up of elementary physical particles. Then you say that there is also a non-physical cognitive reality made up of we-know-not-what. There are, you now say, two kinds of reality. This contradicts your first claim.

    Recall your first “test” of what is real:

    “The simple test is to imagine what would happen if an especially virulent virus wiped out the memory and capacity to read of the human species. The cultural construct would have disappeared. The rest of the universe would look the same. The same laws of nature would continue to operate. The disappearance of the cultural construct would not change the universe even one iota for the simple reason it is not real.”

    But the “disappearance of the cultural construct” would amount to wiping our your second kind of reality. The universe would be greatly changed.

    I really can’t tell whether you want to be a monistic physicalist or a mind-body dualist.

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  3. Alan,
    I do think you have sown some confusion here.

    Then you didn’t understand my rhetorical ploy(probably my fault). Dan-K said

    In this regard, most philosophers and scientists are physicalists, in that they think that everything that exists is physical.

    I devised simple, intuitively obvious tests, grounded in science, for what ‘physical’ means. I then proceeded to use these tests to deny cognitive reality. My intention was to show that cognitive reality was an entirely different kind of reality. If we accept only physical reality then cognitive reality, by those tests, cannot exist. It must be an illusion or a fiction.

    But, simple introspection and shared experience tells us that cognitive reality does exist and Dan-K made this point rather well. Therefore we are talking about two kinds of co-existing reality, physical and cognitive. I therefore agree with Dan-K, when he says

    But it seems quite obvious to me that physicalism must be false.

    He doesn’t say what it means for physicalism to be false. He quite reasonably believes in cognitive reality, but where does it come from? Probably he thinks that cognitive reality is in some way derivative of, or emergent from physical reality. The problem with that is there is no plausible mechanism to describe how that could happen. I instead argue that there is a second, co-existing cognitive reality that overlays physical reality. Of course you can throw my criticism back at me and say there is also no plausible mechanism to describe this. That is quite true and so the argument is at an impasse.

    But the point is not to win the argument but instead to be open to other avenues of thinking about a deep problem.

    I really can’t tell whether you want to be a monistic physicalist or a mind-body dualist.

    No, I am not a monistic physicalist. I really do think that is a completely unsupportable position. But I don’t like the term mind-body dualist. It is redolent of too many unwanted associations. It implies that the mind is a separate, independent entity, which I do not believe.

    Let me use an electrical analogy to give an idea of how things might work. Electric potential is necessary for electrical circuits to work. Electric potential(at the battery or the power station) has an existence independent of electrical circuits. However the electrical circuits shape the way electrical potential is transformed, through the flow of electric current, to perform useful functions. Without the electrical circuits electric potential remains just that, a certain kind of potential.

    In the same way one could argue that cognitive potential exists independently and becomes transformed by its intersection with brain tissue, igniting consciousness and all that follows from that. Just as electrical circuits need some kind of interface with the external world, through sensors, so too does our cognition, through our bodies sensory system.

    So the dualism I am describing is not a mind-body dualism but a cognitive potential – physical world dualism. This is the same kind of dualism we observe in electronics where we have electric potential – physical circuit dualism.

    At this point you might ask what’s the difference? Aren’t we really talking about the same thing? No, because electrons cannot exhibit any choice in the way they flow through electrical circuits. Their behaviour is wholly determined by the electrical circuits. Cognitive potential, on the other hand, can stimulate behaviour which is partially independent of its brain circuits. Its behaviour is under-determined by the brain circuits. It is this mysterious potential for independent agency which must lead us to conclude that cognitive potential is something wholly different and standing apart from the physical world, since it is not possible solely in the physical world. That is because the physical world is driven by the strict determinism of the laws of nature.

    Finally you might ask me where the place is for the soul in all of this. After all I am a Catholic and therefore I should believe in the existence of a soul. I do. I see the soul as being the information state of the brain, preserved in the memory of God. It is immortal because God’s memory is immortal.

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  4. Labnut:

    You say you believe in a soul but not in a non-physical mind and thus you are not a dualist. The soul is “the information state of the brain”. God’s memory is the repository (the Cloud?) of these information states. This is a “cognitive potential — physical world dualism”. Cognitive reality overlays physical reality. There are, you think, two kinds of co-existing reality.

    My objection was that you had contradicted yourself when you defined “reality” in such a way as to exclude this “cognitive reality”. You say you proposed three “simple, intuitively obvious tests, grounded in science, for what ‘physical’ means”. Not so. What you said is: “There are three simple tests for reality.” That’s a different animal altogether. Either your tests apply to “reality”, in which case they should apply to God and the soul as much as to the physical world, or they apply only to physical stuff, in which case they are not tests of “reality”. Take your pick.

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  5. Alan,
    You say you believe in a soul but not in a non-physical mind and thus you are not a dualist

    This is what I said
    I don’t like the term mind-body dualist. It is redolent of too many unwanted associations.

    I believe in a kind of dualism but the conventional phrase ‘mind-body dualism‘ does not convey what I mean. Think of a program running in a CPU. That is the kind of dualism I mean. They are two separate, distinctly different kinds of things but the one needs the other for its full function.

    God’s memory is the repository (the Cloud?) of these information states.

    the Cloud ‘ is not a useful metaphor at all. It has a well understood meaning in the IT world which confuses the issue, so better not to use the term. The word ‘repository’ also brings in unhelpful meanings.

    My objection was that you had contradicted yourself when you defined “reality” in such a way as to exclude this “cognitive reality”. You say you proposed three “simple, intuitively obvious tests, grounded in science, for what ‘physical’ means”. Not so. What you said is: “There are three simple tests for reality.”

    You were intended to read that phrase in the context of talking about physicalism. That was certainly what I intended. So let me add another pesky little adjective to clear up the confusion:

    There are three simple tests for [physical] reality.

    Either your tests apply to “reality”, in which case they should apply to God and the soul as much as to the physical world, or they apply only to physical stuff, in which case they are not tests of “reality”. Take your pick.

    I have taken my pick(physical reality), see my remark above. My tests apply to physical reality. That was my intended meaning from the outset and I think that is clear when all my comments are read as a whole.

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