Correspondence and Coherence Principles of Truth Lead Us to Believe Trump Team Guilty of Deception and Obstruction
As pointed out in the last blog, establishing the truth of a statement or theory requires analysis of the most complete set of attributes or facts about the assertion being considered. To emphasize that point, the blog included the following statement: CAUTION: Selecting or verifying an incomplete set of elements or attributes does not establish the truth of the statement or theory being considered. People sometimes select or “cherry-pick” an incomplete set of facts in order to prove something that they want to be true. Be sure to identify the complete set of facts that are necessary and sufficient for the truth of the statement you wish to prove.
Nonetheless, there are a number of stories in the news these days where people are selecting and highlighting incomplete sets of facts to support the conclusion they desire. So I thought I would highlight one case where I see this happening just as an illustration of why it is wrong to do this. Let me preface my illustration with the following disclaimer: I don't care what you believe about climate change. I DO care, very much, that whatever you believe about climate change is based on your personal evaluation of the best and most complete set of facts available.
When senior government officials claim that specific cold weather events or the phenomenon of expanding ice sheets in Antarctica show that the overall theory of climate change is invalid, they are arguing from a partial set of facts. For instance, the severe cold weather in the eastern United States a few weeks ago sparked a flurry of such statements. But the theory of climate change deals with climate, not discrete weather events. Climate is usually defined as long-term weather patterns or the boundary conditions within which discrete weather events occur. Furthermore, the theory of climate change predicts that those boundary conditions are changing in such a way so as to cause, in the near term, more frequent weather events that are extreme by historical standards. These extreme events include extreme cold weather events and super strong hurricanes (like the ones we saw in Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida last year).
As far as the expanding ice sheets near Antarctica are concerned, the theory of climate change also explains and predicts that this is happening because of more extreme wind conditions in the southern hemisphere, coupled with thinner ice sheets overall. When you include the data from the northern hemisphere, the correct set of facts presents quite a different picture. First, the increase in southern ocean ice is predicted. Second, the average total changes in the earth's polar ice sheets as of 2014 show that, globally, we are losing surface ocean ice around the poles equivalent to two-and-one-half times the area of the state of Mississippi every 10 years.
Again, I don't care if you have a legitimate way to argue against the theory of climate change as long as it includes ALL the facts. A great start on getting those facts is the Contemporary Debates series volume entitled Climate Change: Examining The Facts (cover shown). I have total faith that, if we all work off the most complete set of facts available to us, we can arrive at conclusions that work and that effectively address the challenges we face.
The principle of “correspondence” can help establish the truth or falsity of a statement or theory.
First, identify the set of elements or attributes that make up the statement or theory. For example, the statement “there is a white pickup truck parked on the driveway at the house where I live” consists of the following elements:
(1) there is a pickup truck; (2) the pickup truck is white in color; (3) the truck is parked on a driveway; (4) the driveway the truck is on corresponds to the address of the house where I live. These elements are individually necessary and collectively sufficient to establish the truth of the statement in this example.
Next, compare those elements or attributes with the way the world is: (1) go to the address of the house where I live; (2) walk out to the driveway; (3) confirm there is a pickup truck on the driveway; (4) confirm that the truck is parked; (5) confirm that the truck is white in color.
If we can verify all of the elements or attributes that are individually necessary and collectively sufficient for the truth of the statement in the example, then we can establish that the example statement is true: its elements correspond accurately to the world we experience.
CAUTION: Selecting or verifying an incomplete set of elements or attributes does not establish the truth of the statement or theory being considered. People sometimes select or “cherry-pick” an incomplete set of facts in order to prove something that they want to be true. Be sure to identify the complete set of facts that are necessary and sufficient for the truth of the statement you wish to prove.
What is Truth--Part II
(Over the past few days, we have discussed four criteria that can be used to establish the truth or falsity of a proposition or theory. We also made the case that our personal feelings toward a proposition or theory--whether we like it or not--are irrelevant to whether that proposition or theory is true or false. Tonight I want to review the four criteria we discussed yesterday, with the kind of emphasis on the coherence dimension of truth that we put on the correspondence dimension of truth yesterday.
Here is a quick review of the four criteria we have established as part of a checklist to determine whether something is true or false. (1) Evidence that there is an independently verifiable correspondence between some statement or theory and the actual physical world is evidence that the statement or theory is true. Last night we used a picture of a sketch of Trophy Point juxtaposed with an actual picture of that scene as a metaphor to convey the idea of correspondence. (2) Evidence that a statement or assertion or theory is coherent with other facts, assertions, or theories supports the truth of the statement, assertion or theory under question. The phrase "is coherent with" means the assertion or theory under consideration "fits" with other assertions, facts or theories that are commonly held to be true. The picture association with tonight's post--a jigsaw puzzle--is a great metaphor for coherence: we assemble jigsaw puzzles by determining where pieces "fit", and that process usually consists of some consideration of what the surrounding pieces look like. (3) Independent verification of the correspondence and coherence relationships identified in (1) and (2) above. As we have made emphatically clear, consensus is not enough to establish truth by itself. However, as part of a set of criteria for truth, the ability to have independent agents verify the correspondence and / or coherence is legitimate support for the truthfulness of an assertion or theory. (4) The fourth criteria for truth we identified last night is the ability to predict. If a statement or theory allows people to accurately predict future outcomes, that ability to predict is evidence for the truth or validity of the assertion or theory under consideration.
In graduate school, we spent large blocks of time discussing each of these aspects of truth. Entire books have been written focusing on different aspects of these criteria. The point of accountability citizenship is not to engage in an esoteric philosophical examination of this subject. Rather, we simply aim to provide everyday Americans with a set of valid tools that anyone can use to assess the truthfulness of the myriad conflicting assertions that populate our news cycle these days.
What is Truth? -- Part I
In yesterday's blog, we demonstrated that our personal feelings about some assertion--whether we like it or agree with it or not--are completely irrelevant to whether that assertion is true or false. Yet we hear our leaders on all sides condemn the views they do not like as "fake news." How can we determine whether news is true? What processes and standards should we use?
The first characteristic or attribute of the truth that comes to mind is that the truth corresponds with the real, physical world independent of our personal mental perspective in a way that can be verified by others. The picture appended to this post contains a photograph juxtaposed with a sketch of roughly the same view--Trophy Point at West Point, New York. The sketch was made by a friend, and as soon as I saw it, I knew it corresponded well with the actual view. Later, when I had the chance to get an actual photograph of the same general view, I was struck by the accuracy of the sketch. These pieces of art rest next to each other in my home. For me, they represent the correspondence dimension of truth--the correspondence of what our minds "see" with what is actually, physically "there". Independent evidence that such a correspondence exists is evidence for the truth of a proposition or theory. Likewise, evidence that such a correspondence DOES NOT exist is evidence that a proposition or theory is false.
Of course, there's a catch, and it's one we've been aware of at least since the "Allegory of the Cave"--the famous passage in the Republic where Plato depicts our individual perception as imperfect glimpses of shadows cast by some reality that we cannot see directly. Modern cognitive science concurs with Plato's intuition--Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow captures the tension between our visceral, emotional response to the world we perceive and our more deliberative, rational response to the same phenomena. The lesson of both Plato's metaphor and Kahneman's research is that we should be skeptical of putting too much confidence in our individual perceptions of what is right and true. For that reason, we should seek independent verification of the correspondence dimension of truth.
So if truth is comprised by correspondence with the external world, but our individual ability to perceive that correspondence is imperfect, how can we determine if something is true? After all, we said last night that it cannot be a matter of what is agreeable to one or more of us. While mere consensus is not sufficient to establish truth, there is clearly some additional measure of credibility that comes from having additional verification by independent observers. Another aspect of truth that can reinforce correspondence is the degree to which a perception is coherent with other perceptions held by the same individual and by others. It seems then, that we have identified some conditions of truth that are necessary: correspondence with the physical world outside of our individual perceptions, the coherence of a single perception with some broader set of perceptions, and the independent verification of that correspondence and coherence by other observers. Yet another dimension of independent verification is the ability to predict: we have more faith that a description of physical processes is "true" when that description can be used to predict future states.
So we have identified four attributes of truth. We may not have the luxury of having all four present in every case. Clearly these attributes reinforce one another. Perhaps we can say that all four together create strong evidence for the truth of a proposition or theory. And some subsets of the four attributes create varying degrees of confidence in the truth of a proposition or theory. That is where we will leave our discussion of the criteria for truth, at least for tonight.
Whether or Not you Like Something Is not a Reason to Think It is True or False...
To define something is to list the conditions or attributes that are necessary and sufficient for that thing to exist. The point of today's blog is to assert that whether or not you like or agree with some statement is NEITHER necessary nor sufficient for that statement to be true. Popularity is neither necessary nor sufficient for truth. You may like that, at sea level, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You may hate that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The fact that you like, or hate, the freezing point of water is completely irrelevant to the determination of whether it is true or false that water, at sea level, freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Truth is determined by whether water, at sea level, actually does turn into ice at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. How you or I feel about that just doesn't matter. By extension, the fact that you, or your neighbors, or the entire population of Kalamazoo, Michigan, LIKES something that some politician says has absolutely nothing to do with whether that politician's statement is true or false. Whether such a statement is true or false is determined by some set of necessary and sufficient conditions which we will examine further over the next several days. For now, I simply want every one to understand and accept that, whether you like or dislike something has absolutely nothing to do with that thing being true or false.
There was a time when nearly everyone, in Europe at least, believed the earth was flat. I mean, it certainly looks flat from the perspective of the average person, right? Changing that perception took time. It wasn't easy for people to accept the possibility that what seemed to be obvious to them, was, in fact, wrong. And who wants to be the first one out of all your friends to start talking about the earth being "not-flat"? I mean, people might make fun of you. But facts are facts, and sooner or later, enough people were willing to consider the evidence that the earth was not flat. And guess what? It isn't.
But if everyone had locked their brain into "flat-earth" mode, and refused to consider the evidence that the world was not flat, we might have been stuck in the flat-earth paradigm for a lot longer. And that would have been bad because, when we adopt more accurate beliefs and theories about the way the world works, we generally gain advances in a host of fields that make human life longer, more enjoyable, and more productive. The theories we embrace today as the most accurate depictions of the way things work are undoubtedly not perfect. Making them better requires an open-minded approach to the experience of life.
A few days ago, I recommended that people reading this blog go see a movie. I was shocked at the number of people who responded with "Nope, never going to another movie with that actor in it again.," or "Nope, I'm boycotting Hollywood." I was shocked at the number of people who are living in America in 2018 with a mind that is absolutely locked against people who don't think and speak and act exactly the same way they do. That is not the spirit of America. The First Amendment gives us all the right to free speech. The whole point of freedom of speech is that we have to be willing to listen to each other. You don't have to agree with people who say things you don't like, but if you absolutely lock your mind and heart against them because of something they said yesterday or last week or last year, then we might as well not have a First Amendment. We might as well just make a list of what's acceptable to think or say, and get on with it. That is certainly NOT the spirit of America or the spirit of our Constitution, but it does seem to be the mind set of an awful lot of people living in America today.
I encourage all of you to step outside of your philosophical comfort zone. Open your mind and listen--really listen--to what people who are not like you are saying. Try to understand it. You may not be able to accept it. You may find it is inconsistent with the principles of reason we talk about frequently in this blog. That is all fine, as long as we all keep listening to each other, and challenging our individual prejudices and perceptions. I guarantee some of those prejudices and perceptions are wrong--for all of us. What a shame it would be to live in a land with as much freedom as we have, and to remain locked in a mental prison of our own creation because we are too lazy or too afraid to challenge our personal beliefs.
Voltaire said, "Common sense is not so common." Applying reason to our thoughts in a disciplined way is a learned skill, but most people never take the time to learn it. A number of simple, short guides are widely available, such as Anthony Weston's A Rulebook for Arguments. In this context, an "argument" is the conclusion you want to propose or evaluate, coupled with the statements offered in support of that conclusion. It is not the contentious exchange of ideas most of us think about when we think of the common definition of an argument.
Applying reason to arguments is a process of evaluating the truth of the statements offered in support of a conclusion, and then evaluating whether the statements together really do support the conclusion. Guides such as Weston's Rulebook provide clear, simple rules for using reason to develop your own arguments as well as for evaluating the arguments of others. I recommend finding a guide you are comfortable with using. Invest the time to read it and then refer to it periodically to keep from falling back into bad habits.
Accountability Citizenship, p. 40, Stephen P. Tryon, Xlibris, 2013
Author of Thy King Dumb Come and Accountability Citizenship, Stephen P. Tryon is a businessman and technologist with extensive experience in e-commerce, a retired Soldier, and former Senate Fellow.