Meditation on truth

How do we meditate on the idea of truth? Philosophers have written about it for many centuries. We will not revisit the theories of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Kant, Frege, Derrida. We don’t need to remember anything if we think for ourselves. Take a long breath. Truth is a property of statements, not of things. We distinguish statements that are necessarily true like mathematical theorems and such that depend on their context like statements about the world. Is there anything we could know with absolute certainty about the world? Can we discover context-free truths about the world?

The law of gravity, or the second law of thermodynamics are true statements about the world, given a universe that was fine-tuned in a specific way. Otherwise we can only speak of their absolute truth in terms of mathematical models, not in the physical world. There seems to be no escape from this, but the debat becomes rather hair splitting at this point.

Let’s breathe some more. Is this meditation going anywhere? Should it go somewhere? It seems like there is some sort of instinct at work when we think about truth, and we could try to explain this instinct in terms of evolutionary pressure. Under primitive circumstances, when survival is not guaranteed, the propagation of true statements is clearly beneficial. A tribe must discover and share the truth about poisonous plants, dangerous animals, terrain, water sources, and the individual who discovers such truths can’t benefit from hiding them by telling a lie. This is different in complex societies. Lying can become a strategy to get what you want. False beliefs in others rarely endanger the survival of the group, but can be leveraged by shrewd individuals.

From the possibility of gainful lying arises the idea of truth telling as a virtue. The Enlightenment considers this self evident, but we know of cultures that explicitly allow lying as a strategy to enhance the influence of a religion, which itself is considered the highest truth. The problem of lying in the service or truth ought to be taken seriously, even if we don’t believe in some overarching, eternal truth. We only fully understand the virtue of truthfulness if we also understand there is no such thing as truth-in-itself. Our line of defense against untenable, universal relativism, is an informed vantage point of irony, from where some statements are clearly more true than others, but none is entirely and unequivocally true.