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Posted by Harvey on August 1, 2003 03:13:20 UTC

Harv: We are back to truth conditions, eh? In order to die the condition of doing so is to be alive. Mike: 'Conditions' are all we can talk about. We can establish the truth of 'conditions', but not of 'causes'. 'Conditions' do not depend on observables, they are a matter of linguistic conventions. If your conventions have been set up in a particularly effective way, no observable can prove that a given phenomena may occur in the absence of 'conditions'. Not so with 'causes'.

We can talk about explanation. A good explanation should satisfy us, whereas talk of good conditions don't satisfy. Let me give an example. If we want to know the cause for the origin of life on earth, we aren't just asking for the conditions that existed on the young earth. Rather, we want to know an explanation that makes rational sense based on what we know of life and the possible conditions at the time. The truth we seek is the causal explanation, whereas the conditions we seek is what makes the explanation suitable to the given environment at the time.

To the best of my understanding, 'truth-like' is synonimous with 'illusion'. It's not what I'm talking about.

By truth-like I mean that a proposition conforms to a number of criteria that not only justifies the proposition as truth (e.g., provides enough evidence that the criteria of truth has been met), but in addition the truth-like proposition adds an understanding of the proposition that tells us why the proposition is truth-like. For example, if a ball X rolled down a hill and hit ball Y and ball Y moved, then the justification that ball Y moved is that we saw ball X hit ball Y causing it to move. However, we look for a reason on why ball X moved ball Y, and in that sense we look for causal laws (e.g., classical mechanics, quantum laws, etc) to make this explanation of cause to be sensible (i.e., provide us with understanding). Since all of our current scientific reductions eventually come up short (e.g., quantum theories are still a work in progress), we still do not have a complete explanation as to why ball X moves ball Y, but this we have a satisfactory set of reasons such that we have a general understanding (although not exact) on why ball X moves ball Y. Therefore, I don't see truth-like propositions (e.g., physical laws) as synonymous with illusion.

Logically speaking, there are no causes. There is no logical reason why one should die of pneumonia but not of 'breathing', 'thinking', or anything at all. But there is a very logical reason why one must be alive in order to die, because logic is embedded into the definitions of 'living' and 'dead'. The words themselves reveal the truth.

We lack a complete causal theory for causal events (i.e., events that are typically seen as causally related). However, we have incomplete causal theories which science has identified. They do break down eventually, but they are still seen as satisfactory in terms of describing approximate causes. For example, homo sapiens evolved from an earlier hominid existing a few hundred thousand years ago. This evolutionary 'process' is an identified 'cause' of homo sapiens (us) from an earlier species. What's wrong with it? Nothing much, except the details of the evolution require that we explain every little nook and cranny detail of each specific cause that led from one species to another (even so much as distinguishing what we mean by 'species', etc). This is where scientific causes begin to breakdown and the metaphysical issues become very mirky indeed. However, this is not to take away from our general understanding that homo sapiens evolved from an earlier hominid and evolutionary causes are responsible for this transition. I think much of this conflicting issue can be handled by talking of causes in general and reduced terms. We can generalize causes to general issues (e.g., evolutionary processes, classical mechanics, quantum events, chemical reactions, etc), but we have to be careful about how reduced our causal explanation is at each point. It is possible to reduce causal explanations beyond our capability to give an empirical answer, but we still have our more general causal explanation as a 'general cause'.

And that is simply because all 'why it died' hypothesis are essentially false.

Not false, just not complete.

Think about it this way. If "Bob Hope died of pneumonia" were true, then it would follow that, had he not caught pneumonia, he would not die, which is a blatantly false statement. The same applies to any statement in the form "X died of [cause-effect relationship]". All those statements are false. All ordinary medical explanations for people's deaths are falsehoods, yet everyone knows a fundamental truth about death (that they are going to die because they are alive). Can you explain to me why such an absolute truth is knowable in the absence of any knowable cause-effect relationship? In other words, how is it possible for people to know with absolute certainty that they will die while remaining completely ignorant of what will cause their death?

It gets back to general cause versus reduced cause. The general cause in this case is that human bodies become frail and wear down to where they cannot any longer function well enough to ward off disease and accidents, etc. A more reduced cause is that older people are susceptible to more pneumonia and their lungs begin to experience problems in bringing in enough oxygen to feed their cells, and so on and on. We cannot perfectly reduce each level of explanation to a lower level (e.g., molecular to atomic, or atomic to sub-atomic, etc), but we do have models that give us a satisfactory understanding that we have identified causes. Again, they are not complete causes, but they suffice to provide enough confidence in our theories that we understand the generalities involved. We know this because of model prediction, model explanation which allows us to extend our models to previously unknown phenomena, etc.

All I'm proposing is a more rational view on explanations which allows us to explain things in a true way. A focus on language, which we are able to master, as opposed to reality, which will forever elude us.

All we can do to understand the world is make our poking attempts to model reality and compare the model results with our experience. This is done by finding satisfaction in our model making such that we can form certain opinions and theories. Causes and truths are all about forming these models and finding them either satisfactory enough to use or finding them unsatisfactory and using infrequently or not at all, at least until we come upon something else that does the job for us. For example, if I go to my tool chest, I might actually grab a tool and find out that I took the wrong tool. That's okay if it works, but if I finally get aggrivated enough, I might go back and get the right tool. I am really focused on 'modeling reality' (i.e., applying my tool to the job at hand), but that doesn't mean my tool is working well enough to be satisfied with my tools. Similarly, any causal explanation or any claim to truth is a tool that produces sometimes very satisfactory results and sometimes very poor satisfactory results. An expert might come along and look much more carefully at something that we are pleased with, and tell us how bad a job we did. After showing us our poor workmanship, the expert might be able to convince us that our tools we used were completely inadequate (even though 10 min ago we might have thought the tool was perfect).

The problem with focusing on truth conditions is that they make for poor explanations. Taking my tool analogy further, it would be similar to having a picture of the finished product as we are taking our tools to finish the work in progress, however we have no instructions as to how to complete the task. Just having the conditions for the end product does not explain what it means to have a good product with the tools and knowledge at hand, nor does it explain how to do it (causal explanation). In short, if I had bought a unassembled product at a store and it did not have the directions and an explanation of how to use my tools, then I would consider those very poor directions. Concentrating on language (truth conditions) is a lot like this. It only helps us if we already have an idea of how to perform the task of satisfying the truth conditions or finding a mathematical proof. Truth conditions by themselves are almost worthless without this ability. Here's a big problem for computers. Having a computer test a truth condition is not such a difficult feat in computer programming. The tough task is finding a means by which the computer can find a solution. It's even a tougher task for the computer to understand that it has a satisfactory explanation once an approximate solution has been found. Very tricky programming to say the least. So much of it is actually beyond our current software technology (I think Penrose has made the case that computers will never be able to do math in the intuitive way that mathematicians do).

There are truths in ontology, epistemology, psychology, economics, paganism, you-name-it. Those are all language-games capable of expressing true statements.

Yes, but the truth-like statements in all of those categories depend on a human perspective of truth that requires a satisfactory explanation. The explanation is more than the truth conditions, and being able to understand the explanation seems to be key in passing the university courses in those subjects (assuming that pagan courses are taught...).

I don't have an 'ontic' view of truth, I'm just looking for linguistic attributes which make sentences 'true'. You seem to be grasping at straws trying to defend the notion that 'truth' is something mysterious. It isn't. Reality is mysterious, truth is just a matter of conventions. It would be very funny if we thought our conventions are mysterious; that is a sure sign of confusion, isn't it?

Truth conditions aren't mysterious, the actual truth-like propositions are for the most part mysterious. They are very context driven and computers have a difficulty at arriving at new truths in something as formalized as mathematics. Why? Humans have a pattern recognition ability to understand a 'good explanation' (or things that satisfy the human need for a 'good explanation') once they are exposed to it. That's not to say that a good explanation in a Christian culture is also a good explanation to a Hindu culture, but within cultures (i.e., within contextual systems), truth is identified with good explanations and seems to be readily recognized by humans and not computers (generally speaking). That means to me that truth isn't just conditions, otherwise computers could compare conditions quite readily. Rather, it requires a deeper understanding of what is being explained, and some theory of meaning that resides within a humans' abilities such that they can understand whether that explanation satisfies their contextual scheme's sense of being a good explanation. There are criteria that can be identified in many instances, but philosophers have failed to identify a workable theory of truth that works universally in language and in modeling reality (even deflationist or minimalist definitions of truth such as ones that try to discount the notion of truth entirely).

That's far beyond my ability to understand and debate. A three year-old child need know nothing about "reductionism", "empirical results", but if he doesn't know what truth is he can't even ask his mom for candy.

This is what is absolutely fascinating not only of the human mind, but animals too have a instinctual ability to discern truthful situations that they depend upon for survival. The ability to ignore some irrelevant data and focus on the pertinent details appears to be key to our evolutionary survival. The ability to understaning a good explanation when you are exposed was probably an evolutionary advantage that nature exploited to its greatest benefit, with us the heirs of that exploitation by being able to understand truth-like propositions. Yes, a child possesses within him or herself the intricacies far beyond our ability to understand. Asking for candy and knowing that the best candy has been given to the child is far beyond our understanding of the mind.

Why do I have the feeling you think "truth" is the exclusive domain of the philosopher? Do you think Karl Popper knew more about truth than a hot-dog vendor? If you do, then we need to talk!

The study of truth and its properties is studied by philosophers. Other than that, philosophers have no special claim to the concept.

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