Juan Bernal - November, 2012
What we mean by truth is just the recognition that someone (or some group) has correctly affirmed some fact or other. In this sense “truth” is nothing more than a term in the vocabulary of an intelligent, language-using culture.
The contrary to this – that truth stands apart from the truth seekers – seems plausible only because people tend to equate the term ‘truth’ with reality or with some actual event. Thus, we get such metaphorical phrases as “seeking the truth” and “look to the truth,” which misleads insofar as they suggest that truth lays ‘out there somewhere’ waiting to be discovered.
So is truth a fiction then? Is it not real?
Truth like happiness and moral good is real only in relation to a society of intelligent beings who seek to learn the truth about their world. ‘Truth’ is real only in relation to human thought, language, the sciences, culture, history, and the society of active, striving human beings. Such ‘realities’ — as truth, happiness, and moral good — evolve or emerge in the context of a human culture. When we notice and articulate them, we might say that we discover them. But such ‘discovery’ only happens with regard to something that we created in the first place. The apparent discovery is very different from that associated with the sciences, historical inquiry, or exploration of the planet.
Normally by the term truth we mean “what things are really like.” Use of the term “truth” is just a preferred way of talking or a short-hand way of talking. “We learn the truth” is short for “we learn what things are really like.” (or learn “the nature of things out there” or “learn what events actually occurred.”)
Truth, happiness, and moral good are all human-based notions, sometimes associated with the actual nature of things, but often dis-connected with the ways that the universe works.
We build a large portion of our reality (social, cultural reality), and then forget that we originally built it. So we come to see that social, cultural construct as objective reality that we discovered, a reality that was there separate from and independent of our human work.
There is much that we discover (by the sciences and other rational inquiries) and much that we construct. We should not confuse the two.
The world is of a specific sort. Scientists investigate, discover things, propose and test hypotheses, analyze, and ultimately issue descriptions and reports. A subset of philosophical tribe takes what the scientists issue and work to sort and clarify things for the rest of us.
Contrary to what much of Western epistemological thought has assumed, human’s primary activity is not simply that of perceiving the world (surely not just visually perceiving the world), and the primary philosophical problem is not to certify those perceptions as valid. Humans act and interact in the world; we effect changes in our environment and in turn are changed by our environment. And philosophical problems of pragmatics are just as vital as those of epistemology.
The world is real, and our being-in-the-world is a fundamental reality. It is not something that has to be proved! Hence, statements like the following are very misleading:
“The world we perceive is an artificially constructed environment whose character and properties are as much a result of unconscious mental processing as they are the product of real data. Nature helps us overcome gaps in information by supplying a brain that smooths over the imperfections, at an unconscious level, before we’re even aware of any perceptions.”
(Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal, How your Unconscious Mind Rules your Behavior, Pantheon Books, 2012)
Why is this misleading? Because it rests on a bad assumption, namely, that analysis of the process by which we experience the world undermines, instead of explains, our experience of the world.
One can issue explanations (scientific, neurological, psychological, quasi-psychological) of the processes (neural processes, workings of the sensory faculties) which under lie sense perception. These result in analyses or breakdowns (e.g., reducing things to neural processings) of the processes that underlie a person’s perception of the world. It could be called an “examination of the machinery the makes perception possible.”
But nothing about this work refutes the common-sense proposition that we perceive (see, hear, touch, taste, smell) aspects and objects of the real world. Nothing precludes the idea that we see things as actual existents in the objective world, although these things perceived can be described and analyzed in different ways.
Mathematical physics breaks down the objects of ordinary perception to a level far removed (and unknown by) ordinary experience. This scientific analysis amounts to a “deep probe” of physical reality. It does not amount to a replacement with a separate, inaccessible world. Nor does it show that we never perceptually experience the real world.
When scientists analyze (explain) the processes that underlie perception and behavior they do not negate the fact that the subjects who perceive things and act/interact in the world are persons existing in an environment and interacting with other persons. The work of scientists in this respect does not give any reason for thinking that the perceiving subject is the brain itself or a little homunculous within the brain.
The brain (or something within the brain) does not perceive the world; rather the brain enables the perceiving subject (an animal existing in a natural and social environment) to perceive aspects of his environment.