The Truth Is Not ‘Out There.’ Or Is It? Also, Is Truth Always Propositional?

A given proposition, or idea about the world, could be false. But what would it mean for something out in the world, independent of our thoughts and ideas about it, to be false? That would make no sense. The world isn’t made of propositions, and if it were they’d probably all necessarily agree with each other (otherwise the world would explode in a puff of ex contradictione quodlibet). The stuff of the world outside of thought just is. It’s just the existence of things, or maybe a continuum of quantum foam or whatever. Something that simply is can’t be false.

So, in a domain in which nothing can possibly be false, what does it mean for anything to be true? Nothing! Because that qualifier can’t distinguish anything in any way. If the fact of the trueness of all worldly things is logically necessary, then that fact isn’t intrinsic to the worldly things themselves, but rather it follows from, and is intrinsic to, our own logic/epistemology. If it were a property of the things themselves, then, on some sufficiently fundamental level of consideration, it would be incidental that those things are true, and hence it would be hypothetically possible for them to be false. But it’s not.

So, truth isn’t a property of things “out there,” but is solely a property of our ideas of things.

Since that kind of raises the question of what makes an idea true or not, I’ll get into that too. Let’s first debunk the correspondence theory of truth. It’s commonly explained using something along the lines of the following: “the cheese is in my pocket” is true if and only if the cheese is in my pocket. The problem with that formulation is that it’s essentially just a tautology. It’s merely repeating the original proposition, and the fact that it does so without quotes doesn’t mean much. Presumably, reality isn’t made up of propositions (those are semantical or semiotic and therefore can only be ideas in our heads), so the reality of the situation doesn’t exist in a form anything like the contents of the second occurrence of the sentence “the cheese is in my pocket.”

The relationship between the proposition and the reality isn’t nearly as direct or simple as it’s made out to be, and that raises deep questions of how the truthiness of the correspondence between the proposition and the thing itself can be objectively verified. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily have to be verified to be true, but a process of verification needs to be defined in order to establish what it means for the correspondence to be truthful, or at least that’s one way to establish it. I talk about an inherent problem with the idea of defining an objective way of measuring the truthiness of the correspondence of any proposition with reality, involving an infinite recursion of uncertainty, in this essay.

Another standard theory of truth is pragmatism, which kind of says that the truth of something is established by its utility, but has some attendant stances that I don’t necessarily agree with. So I’ll give a name to that one aspect of the theory: the utility theory of truth. I think truth really is, or largely is, established by utility, or at least I can make a strong philosophical argument for it. There’s really no other way to determine truth. Our models of reality are developed solely through interaction with reality, which is indirect (via motor impulses as output and sense perceptions as input), and success in predicting reality and manipulating it to our will are the only possible metrics for judging the fitness of a model. A model’s utility/fitness in predicting or manipulating reality doesn’t necessarily mean it’s metaphysically or ontologically true (if “metaphysical or ontological truth” could even mean anything), so what we call truth is limited to being merely useful.

(Okay, there are also the coherency theory of truth (which I’d call an aspect, type, and/or managing principle of truth) and truth from authority, which I won’t go into except to say that truths such as names of things and the grammar of a language are a completely different, non-substantive type of truth.}

But the above arguments rest on certain common-sense premises that I used for the sake of establishing the respective arguments, that aren’t necessarily true and that I tend toward disagreeing with. The first such premise is the idea that external reality must be non-propositional, or at least non-ideational. This isn’t necessarily the case if philosophical idealism is true, and I make a case for philosophical idealism here. So, in contradiction to the title of this post, the truth just may be “out there.” I just wanted to make an analytical argument that holds under standard assumptions.

On second thought, even if philosophical idealism is true, the ideas that compose reality outside our individual minds probably can’t be false, again because of ex contradictione quodlibet, and also because, how absurd would that be? Unless all the ideas composing reality are necessary contained within various minds, which may hold falsehoods or disagree with each other. But this kind of impossibility of truth by way of the impossibility of untruth seems to be of a weaker sense, and I don’t particularly like it. I like to think that, if philosophical idealism is true, truth is “out there in the world” only waiting to be internalized.

On third thought, since the form of the ideas outside of our heads under philosophical idealism could potentially be so similar to the form inside, perhaps we might as well characterize an outside idea as truthful if and only if its internal representation in a person’s mind would be true. I don’t think that’s cheating too much. Or perhaps we could just group all the outside ideas together with the ideas in one’s mind in terms of what logic applies to them, and call them true in contrast to the potential falsehoods in one’s mind.

One small detail: I may be wrong when I say that ex contradictione quodlibet would necessarily be a problem if there were a false idea “out there,” in philosophical idealism, independently of one’s mind. People contain incorrect ideas all the time, and it doesn’t automatically cause explosions of contradictions every which way in their minds, so it’s conceivable that outside reality could be just as fault tolerant. Under non-ideational external reality, however, I think that internal coherency is much tighter, and something that was in fundamental violation of that coherency would cause an explosion of contradictions.

Of course, there’s the tiny issue of what it could possibly mean for something to be in “violation” of that fundamental coherency (or what it means for everything to be fundamentally “coherent”) outside of it being the presence of a semantic/semiotic/ideational falsehood, and it can’t, of course, be the presence of a semantic/semiotic/ideational falsehood because non-ideational reality can’t be semantical/semiotic/ideational. Maybe what simply is can’t possibly be in contradiction to anything else that simply is?

The second such premise is the idea that we can only synthesize models of reality or true ideas through indirect interaction with reality via our motor impulses and sense perceptions. This excludes any kind of psychism, including telepathy, clairvoyance, premonition, divination, mystical intuition, near-death experiences, being an empath, having the ability to see auras, and divine revelation/religious experience. Or even the light of truth just seeping through your skull and into your brain by way of something like osmosis.

These modes of truth acquisition, being more direct and not limited to the paradigm of utility, would be more objective. Some of them would be more objective not only because of their means of transference, but also because of the nature of the truths’ contents. For example, the truth learned through a divine revelation/religious experience would be of a kind that’s more beautiful, profound and spiritual/mystical, and hence arguably more connected to the universal, divine aspect of the cosmos, than a more mundane or tangible truth.

Scientistic/skeptical/rationalist/atheist/physicalist types would of course see these modes of apprehension as woo/fantasy, and might even believe them to be debunked by science. I address the sources of this mentality, point out some of its flaws, and clarify some relevant concepts in this essay and this essay.

What I said about the nature of what’s learned through divine revelation/religious experience of course implies that truth isn’t necessarily propositional or even semantical/semiotic, which I believe is actually the case with or without divine revelation/religious experience. It was just easier and more amenable to analysis to limit what we call truth to the propositional or semantical/semiotic. Is it necessarily even symbolic or language-based? (You could posit that the term “truth” has multiple senses/uses and one is propositional and one is so-called “feeling-based” or otherwise non-propositional, but that would be too easy. I think the essential meaning of truth is the same in all cases.)

One way of thinking, for example, is visually or even quasi-visually. Are the elements of visual thinking necessarily symbols, and do they necessarily work together according to a language? I guess they must represent real-world things or else they’d be useless, so they’re probably symbols, but then maybe the structures of visual thought holistically refer to real-world things rather than individual parts of the structures referring to different real-world things.

As for language, I couldn’t find a definition that’s not about languages of communication, and also I think I’ve heard that it’s been proven that there can’t be such a thing as a private language (but I’m highly skeptical/incredulous of such a claim), so I can’t really be sure if visual thinking constitutes/uses a language. I suppose, insofar as the answer depends on the definition of language, it reduces the question to a semantical one and hence isn’t very substantive anyway. Well, only partially to be honest.

But anyway, let’s not forget that a visual or quasi-visual representation of truth isn’t even the only alternative to a propositional one. And, I think, all thinking is really pre-linguistic and freely creative; language alone can’t be used to determine how to pick and arrange a bunch of words or symbols or whatever into a meaningful linguistic string. Language is only something we use to translate our thoughts into something communicable using freely creative processes.

Or maybe I’m just thinking of the term “language” too narrowly. I suppose, internally, if we think that a dog has a bone, we think of a dog, we think of a bone, and we think of a specific type of relationship or process of interaction between the dog and the bone. Maybe the dog is a subject, the bone is an object, and the type of process of interaction is a verb. Though, to be honest, a mere relationship is probably thought of as a noun and not a verb (i.e., a state and not a process) (“has” seems to be only shoehorned into verb form because it links subject and object and in English only a verb can do that) (but I guess a language could conceivably support noun, noun, noun?), and a process of interaction probably isn’t thought of as a categorical type or token, at least depending on what exactly the dog is doing with the bone.

Well, I suppose he must be either eating it or playing with it, but then, the actual idea of what he’s doing is a lot more detailed than that. And, for that matter, so are the actual ideas of the dog and the bone. The categories all those things exist under are merely details, only to be invoked upon communication with another. Or are they internally more overarching than that? The dogness of the dog, the boneness of the bone, and/or the eatingness or playingwithness of the action may be top-level (as if an idea exists as a tree of categories, which it doesn’t), but then the whole ideas still contain all the juicy details either way, and I’m quite certain that the juicy details, like the shape of the dog’s face, don’t exist as linguistic or semantic/semiotic constructs.

However, if we were to do some thinking about what we could do with the fact that the dog is eating/playing with the bone to produce a particular result, in a complex series of steps or with many other elements involved, would we reduce the concepts to categorical tokens to make it easier to think logistically? I’m not sure. Though I’m quite sure that, even if we would (and I think they would only be somewhat or mostly reduced), pre-linguistic, pre-conceptual, freely creative thought must be used underneath that linguistic manipulation, so the thinking is only partially linguistic.

But the original question was whether truth is necessarily linguistic/semantical/semiotic/propositional. Not to mention the question of whether it’s even necessarily conceptual. I think we can conclude at this point that it’s not necessarily linguistic/semantical/semiotic/propositional (as your thought about the dog, his bone, and his relationship to it, in all its juicy detail, could be considered knowing truth about that dog and his bone, and at least the juicy details are not categorical/symbolic, let alone propositional), but what about conceptual?

My feeling is no (for example, take a divine understanding of your true nature or essence, or the true nature of the cosmos, perhaps as revealed by a religious experience), but that raises serious questions about what truth actually is/means. I’ve heard there’s a specific part of the brain that activates when you know something is true, or maybe when you learn that something is true, I forget which, so maybe whatever thought or emotion you associate with the feeling of that part of the brain activating is truth.

Of course, that kind of defers the question to what mechanisms lead to that brain part’s activation, which in turn requires an understanding of how thought structures, thought processes and emotions are represented or expressed in the brain, and I don’t know if neurocognitive scientists have that kind of understanding yet. I’d bet they don’t. And, if they do, they may not know specifically how it relates to the activation of that one part of the brain.

(I don’t believe mind reduces to brain processes as the above seems to imply—see or—but it seems to be tightly coupled with it enough that thoughts, thought processes and emotions may be measured through their expressions in the brain. I’m not sure about emotions, though, since their loci of feeling don’t usually seem to be in the brain but in other parts of the body. However, I do know that religious experiences can be measured in the brain, or more precisely they’re know to have a measurable effect on the brain.)

Sorry if this post sucks because I know nothing of the rules of linguistics, the difference between linguistics, semantics and semiotics, which of those things propositions belong to, or whether symbols/tokens are necessarily categorical.

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