Truth & Beauty: Deceptive Abstractions

shinI love this playful, yellow stylization of the Chinese character for
“Truth” — it is on wheels and has measuring devices and all that is grounded (The top “T” shaped symbol means “ground”).   But “Truth” we should always remember, Truth can be misused as an abstraction.  Plato, even as bright as he was, was tricked by abstractions.  Plato’s realism viewed abstractions as things to be discovered.

Let’s look at “Soul Music”:  Someone coined that expression when they were trying to generalize about a certain group of artists or songs.  The phrase caught on, for whatever historical complex reasons, and then other people all started using it in their own way.  And society negotiated various meanings of the word until it settled into a fairly accepted range of meanings.  But it never has one meaning.  So when people argue about “What is Soul Music?”  they are forgetting that we invented the word and it has no meaning in and of itself.

Similarly, “What is Existentialism?” is debated in many undergrad philosophy programs.  But even the so-called existentialists did not call themselves that.  Existentialism doesn’t really exist, it is just a convenient abstraction to discuss apparently (though often not actually) related ideas.

Now, on to “Truth”.  We often debate when a claim is true or false.  In medicine, we have rules about how to debate these issues.   The rules have evolved slowly.  But not everyone agrees with all the rules, so the “truth” about medical facts can still be debated unless the debating individuals agree upon the rules.

Here is my working definition of “Truth”:  Truth is the set of things found to be true according to an agreed upon set of rules.  The problem is, that not everyone may agree upon the set of rules or upon the set of items that pass the rules.  So in this way, “Truth” is always allusive.

Now many folks feel “Truth” exists, as Plato felt, in a rather ghostly fashion, just like “Table” or “Person” exists for us all to discover in the realm of forms.  But this sort of thinking is mistaken.

So here is my definition of “A truth” (not “Truth” as an abstract). A truth is the best approximation to agreed upon tests of desired outcomes.  That is probably the best we can do as mere sensory-limited organism.  Asking “What is Truth?” is a loaded question where the word “Truth” carries ephemeral images and hints that there are desires all will share in common if they just think clearly.

What is Beauty?” carries the exact same problems.  A person can subjectively decide what they are attracted to.  Cockroaches may find a pile of feces gorgeous, for instance.  There is not such thing a “Beauty” in an ethereal sense.  There is only Beauty in that the speakers agree on what the rules of testing their judgements.

Hmmm, that does not sound half as tight as I expected.  I am sure qualified philosophers have already put this much better.  I felt like I had a clear idea what to say as I began this — can anyone help me ?

Did any of that make sense?   If nothing else, I hope you enjoyed the graphic!

Smile !

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11 Comments

Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Truth & Beauty: Deceptive Abstractions

  1. Ian

    Excellent brain-food for a Wednesday morning Sabio!

    I was riffing on a similar idea this weekend. In your phrasing it would be “What is Christianity?”. In particular thinking about the diffuse map of Christian self-understanding as having some center of mass, or inertia. And thinking about how that center changes over time.

    In the UK, evangelical Christians are importing US-style right wing evangelicalism because they are influenced by the mass of media and resources generated by relatively rich US churches over the last decade. This is shifting the balance of UK Christianity slightly: in a sense what Christianity means is changing.

    At the same time US Christianity is facing up to its comparative political impotence by partly radicalizing and partly mainstreaming – again changing what Christianity means.

    So a follow on question I never got to answer, but fits your questions too is this: are what point does a word like ‘truth’ or ‘christianity’ stop having one diffuse meaning, and start being better understood as having more than one center of mass? Is that even a meaningful question?

  2. What I find interesting is that people will claim that if an abstract concept is on a sliding scale, then somehow it loses meaning or impact.

    Theists, for instance, claim that without a concrete moral guideline, the Bible in their case, then morality ceases to exist. They posit that if morality has some relativity to it, then it loses all meaning.

    Of course this is ridiculous. People do have different notions of morality, even the most structured, button-down Christians. I don’t even mean this in a bad way, even though pointing at the pastors of these megachurches who are caught evading taxes and hiring prostitutes. No, even then, there are gaps in moral code in the Bible and, even in these instances, people fill it in with their own understanding of morality.

    Likewise, the Bible gives many examples of what is moral that, today, we find repulsive. Marrying a virgin that you raped may have been gentlemanly in ancient Israel, but today it’s horrific. The very notion is disgusting to us.

    This is morality as a sliding scale. There are structures that are in place to make sure that people do not allow themselves enough leeway as to be destructive to society, to themselves, and to their fellow man, but within these gaps, people should be free to explore what it means to be right and wrong.

    In this same vein, there are certain hard truths in the world, but, among them, there is much up to debate. When we start to approach abstract concepts and what it means to be human and what truths lie there, then it is very much open to interpretation.

    This doesn’t make Morality or Truth any less potent. If anything, it creates a beautiful gamut to spark discourse and create the ever-shifting plane of human thought that drives society and mankind as a whole.

  3. Laurance

    Here’s how I see it: “truth” implies a kind of relationship, a similarity between the word and its referent. Something matches. I tell you it’s raining. You go over to the window and have a look-see; and sure enough, it’s raining. My words match the condition. I told “the truth”. But I have some difficulty conceiving of “Truth” as some sort of abstract Thing just kind of floating around.

  4. Cathy Sander

    For me, there is no such thing as a free-floating abstraction. They are created by humans based on what they consider to be important. No wonder I find debates about the definitions of words to be, at times, quite silly.

    As for the notion of truth: every truth has a finite domain of applicability, which means that they don’t apply everywhere, all the time. Talking about truth without context doesn’t make sense to me.

    In short: Truth is contextual

  5. @Cathy
    I agree, Cathy. You sound like you work or study in a field of science.

  6. Cathy Sander

    Well, yes I am (currently studying physics at uni). I actually like the notion of truth as akin to having a closer alignment with how the world is–it’s kinda Taoist in attitude. To have a greater affinity with the universe which allows our brief existence is so awe-inspiring that this sentiment of affinity feels beyond human language.

  7. @ Cathy :
    Good to hear from you a half a year later ! :-)

    Concerning a “Taoist Attitude”
    Taoism in Asia, like Buddhism, is packed with incredible silly superstition. When it was imported to the West, the folks that grabbed (and continue to grab) a text or two of it, transform it into their own New Age mouthpiece. That New Age view is then digested further and synthesized again into yet another person’s favorite comforting notions.

    “Awe” is a wonderful feeling – but it is a feeling, not a thing. I don’t believe in “A Universe” (as if it is a something) or “Reality” or “God” or any other such abstraction. I think the temptation to substantiate (a milder form of ‘anthropomorphizing’) one of your own unexplained feelings, is universal. The question, for scientists like you, is — how deeply should we trust such intuitions?

  8. Cathy Sander

    I know it’s just a feeling of affinity, not a premise in an argument! We still have to do a lot of hard work to find out a tiny part of how the world works. There’s no royal road to knowledge, after all. I know that abstract notions are deeply misleading, since they do give me the illusion of knowledge, the most dangerous issue a researcher has to face. “Get more specific!” is the motto for me.

    So in my case, I strive to remember that it’s just a feeling that we have, not a property of the world (whatever that means). That’s wonderful in itself, without the pointless rationalisations of what it supposedly means. I avoid getting into the ontology business when it comes to that. I just let ii BE!

    As for Taoism, yeah I do know it’s packed with superstitions :) But to me, it’s often mixed up with Buddhism as well in Chinese culture. Chinese horoscopes galore and feng sheui as well! My mum and grandma did inform us of such things, such as not sweeping on Lunar New Year to prevent good luck from disappearing.

  9. Cathy — well stated. I am pretty sure I agree. Interesting background on your Mum’s side.

  10. @Cathy
    The only reason that definitions really matter is because we want to communicate with each other clearly and efficiently. In our discussion, if we are using the word “definition” in different ways, then we will not communicate effectively until we realize the ideas which we are each referring to with the word “definition.” Once we agree upon a set definition for the purposes of our conversation, the debate may continue more effectively. But yes, I think it would be ridiculous to assume that a given word means the same thing in all contexts or has any kind of objective link to any particular reality.

    @Sabio
    I think I follow what you’re saying and agree with you as far as you go in this particular post. What I think you’re doing is defining how the word “truth” should be used, at a semantic level, in logical discussions; that it should refer to ideas or realities that are judged to be true according to a certain agreed upon standard, for the purposes of a given conversation.

    I think where people might get hung up is if they believe that you are refering to objective reality as opposed to the semantic convention. Objective reality is not subject to change according to any agreed upon standard, at least not without the intervention of some other objective reality attached to the will which has defined the standard. So, the sun always sets in the west, this is objectively true even if everyone in the world got together and agreed that it should begin setting over the other horizon. Of course the sentence “The sun always sets in the west” would be subject to being accepted as truth by a variety of standards: scientific, semantic, philosophical etc. and may only be used as a truth, for the purposes of logical conversation once these standards are satisfied; and these issues might be opened back up for discussion at any time, but even if the sentence is rejected as false; the objective reality behind the sentence will not be affected.

  11. @ jonathan,
    Yes, whatever words we use, and whatever we are going to measure together, we must decide on common usage and on what counts.

    Sure, I believe in objective reality, but not objective people. Understanding each other and coming to terms with how we evaluate reality takes a lot of work (unfortunately).

    I think you understand me. Thanks for stopping in.

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