Truth Before Dishonor

I would rather be right than popular

Archive for June 7th, 2011

Et tu, Peter?

Posted by DNW on 2011/06/07

When John first invited me to post a few comments on his blog, I hesitated, and reasonably so I think, because I was not at all certain that I had the appetite for the kind of incessant policy analysis one sees on political blogs.  The kind, that is, which assumes fundamentally shared social aims as a given, while confining itself to the wisdom of the various means for realizing these supposedly shared aims.

Nor do I think that I have the news-junkie taste for engaging in the quasi-journalism hobby that in part defines these new media.

But John assured me that he was not looking for product of any particular kind, nor any given quantity of output, and that I was welcome to post on topics or fancies as they struck me personally as comment worthy.

What strikes me as comment worthy at the moment is John’s blog.

Particularly what his title reveals of his core interest and perspective, and why he thinks it is worthwhile to put up a web-log in the first place.

Now there might be, probably is, a fairly prosaic and personal explanation of exactly what he meant to convey when he constructed the title “Truth Before Dishonor” for his blog.

Knowing that he is an ex military man, a conservative with a sense of honor and patriotism, and a believer in telling the truth, we might well anticipate the kind of explanation he might give for it, if asked.

In fact his subtitle reveals pretty clearly what that is: he’d rather declare the truth come what may, than enjoy a dishonorable popularity.

But that conscious formulation with its sense of defiance is not what I want to consider at the moment.

What I want to do instead is to reflect on, ruminate on if you will, the key ideas, or one of them, contained within his title, “Truth”, and what is revealed through the use of such a term about the conceptual furnishings of the mind of a conservative: i.e., what such a person finds important in experiencing a worthy and well-lived, and here’s the crux – an intellectually and morally coherent – life.

So, let’s consider that word, and the idea of “truth” itself, for a moment.

One of the most famous passages relating to the meaning of “truth” in all of Western Christian civilization is found in a 2000 year old Biblical text, John 18:38; wherein Pontius Pilate is quoted in the King James as responding to Jesus with the question, “What is truth?”

Leaving aside any shades of meaning not carried over into the English from the Greek or Vulgate, and whether the delivery was sardonic or reflective or even absent minded, we instantly recognize the question, and its preeminent importance, as one perennially arising.

And, if we cannot say what truth is, without seemingly first begging the question as to the real existence of “truth”, can we then at least sensibly ask what human employed concepts are historically known to be referred to with the use of the terms “truth” and “true”?

Well, that much we certainly can do.  And as we answer that question, it becomes obvious that whatever definition or concept we review, there are some important – to most people – core notions that these defining ideas refer to.

Now, the idea of “truth” has at least superficially, a number of somewhat culturally relative uses. It’s not uncommon in fact to see distinctions made between a Greek and the Hebrew sense of truth, or between a logical and propositional sense on the one hand, and an ontological notion of truth on the other.

In English, the word “true” spans both.

It is etymologically related, we are told, to the word “tree”. That which is true is like that which stands referenceable, and is reliably there, like a tree.

It expresses the sense of that which persists, is faithful, trustworthy, or sound; and we see this old use in English quite commonly, especially in familiar and traditional references.

A good and trustworthy friend for example, is be said to be a “true” friend.  An unfailing sword is a true blade.  A reliable and trustworthy method is “tried and true”.  A man pledges his fidelity to a woman by giving his plight and troth.

In the scripture, when Jesus references himself he does not simply say something like  “I announce veridical propositions” but also, in John 14:6, that “I am the way,  the truth,  and the life”.

Even assuming that the Christian Evangelist created the phrase to convey a general sense rather than to offer a court stenographic version of what was said, what could he have meant by “I am the truth …?”

Well, most informed Christians, probably, conclude that the scripture has Jesus announcing that he  represents the ultimate reality, manifest in flesh, and as that, is that in which one must trust – and as such he represents the way; to the salvation of the ultimately and eternally, forever lastingly, (certainly longer persisting than an oak tree)  real.

He does not simply tell the truth therefore,  but is a very manifestation of an objective in-forming reality: The Ultimate Reality in which one may, in which one must if one is to experience the ultimately real, place one’s trust.

“You may, you must, rely on Me”

This Christian scriptural sense of the word “truth” therefore, has some similarities and some differences with the idea of ontological truth as a kind of “actuality” waiting to be confronted.

Heidegger for some time maintained that there was an original and pre-dialectical sense of truth held and understood by the Greeks before the logico-philosophical sense of truth as propositional representation took over and replaced it.  Heidegger connected this primitive Greek idea of truth with an etymologically analyzed Greek word for the idea of uncoveredness or possibly disclosedness:  Aletheia

The sense that Heidegger once claimed displaced that primitive Greek idea of truth, is the now familiar propositional notion of truth.

What is taken to be relevant to the idea of truth, is an accurate predication, or a saying of something about something which verbally reflects the reality it purports to ideationally represent.

Placing aside any difficulties with the ultimate coherence of this relational concept of truth, note that the idea of reliability is implied by it too.

For what is untruly said, does not reliably represent the fact situation, and therefore cannot be trusted as a predicate for action based upon that propositionally misrepresented state of affairs.

In order then, for something to be considered as true under any of these concepts, there must be something that is, that can be at least in principle, by the willing or intelligent, or undeceived, be referenced, and relied upon as there.

In a universe where nothing, not even the ever-changing substrate of phenomena, is held to remain as objectively referenceable, can there be no idea of socially meaningful truth?

Well, wait … before we get there, doesn’t any attempted denial of the notion of truth  fail even as a coherent proposition?

Doesn’t an assertion that there is no such thing as truth, contradict itself by claiming to be “true”?

The flip answer to this liar’s paradox style conundrum is of course, that just as one may refer to sets of sets and to contentless sets, one may refer to different domains reference.

But if we accept this “explanation” as to why you can truthfully say there is no truth, we notice that these qualifying formulations don’t really refute the core idea of truth.

As is done with the conventional logic of propositions, one is merely pointed to the desirability of employing logical context parameters such as time or place or number when attempting to convey ideas precisely.

And this point is the place at which the difference between the conservative mind and the liberal mind really roots: around the concept of change and it’s implications for “truth”.

The run-of-the-mill liberal mind stops at Godel’s theorem (or before), satisfied that it has plunged deeply enough into the common store of public ideas to successfully frustrate his potential social critics, and to ensure that his dialectical acid is not counteracted by a counterfactual base.

The leftist then can remain content that his ideological thrusts will go un-parried, and revel in pseudo-critical historical conceits such as the belief that it was psychologically timid Greeks trembling before Chaos, who originated an obsession with “truth”.  These trembling types, supposedly, and their intellectual or emotional descendents, so the criticism goes, are driven to generate myths about absolutes because they are emotionally fearful of change, and psychologically deluded by an attachment to the illusion of self.

It’s a game however, that can be played by two sides.

There may well be conservatives who are conservatives merely because they are temperamentally averse to change, but there are many liberals who have a fuzzy minded and purely self-serving notion that relativism not only goes all the way down, but goes all the way up too.

The fact is however, that when a liberal finds himself lied to, or cheated, or deceived, he typically doesn’t say, “Well, one man’s truth is another man’s falsity”. When the liberal is harmed, he doesn’t generally chalk it up to the lapsed observance of a culturally relative norm.  Astoundingly, he often says he is wronged.

So, it seems that on liberal average, we are to understand that there is an “objective” problem there after all – when it concerns their fate at least.

This conveniently flexible attitude is nothing new of course.

On my shelf sits an old college logic text written by E. A. Burtt of Cornell, and once used by my father.

This particular book used in the 1950’s, represents a Post WWII revision of a work written almost 20 years before that.

In it, Burtt writes regarding his current revision that ” … I became especially convinced that there is a serious need for inclusion in such a volume of a systematic treatment of reasoning as evaluation …  If there is any distinction between wise and unwise evaluation, particularly in choosing ends of conduct, the student needs to be shown that there is, and on what rational ground that distinction rests. And in this connection I should be distressed to appear to leave the theme on the note of skeptical relativism which dominated its treatment in the earlier book …”

But of course Hitler was then a fresh memory, with the world’s experiment in celebrating the fact-value dichotomy and actually implementing programs of moral relativism, a part of the very recent past.

Within a half-generation however, the children who replaced the World War II veterans in American colleges, were back sitting at the feet of the likes of A. J. Ayer and Margaret Mead.

Thus, when the conservative’s house was subsequently burned down by progressive politics, or the conservative’s life was expropriated by coercion, the liberal was able to complacently observe that any objection on the conservative’s part was a mere verbal symptom of an immature social element’s resistance to change; the product of an insufficiently socialized and ungrateful beneficiary of an evolutionary process that had given him all he had in the first place.  A beneficiary, that is, who egotistically thought that he could halt the turning world at the place which most suited him.

And yet, disquieting second thoughts continue to surface on the part of progressives.  As pointed out by Professor Edward Feser on his blog, when a liberal-relativist utilitarian like Peter Singer finds his conceptual house threatened by the torch of his own reasoning, he might begin to change his mind about the necessity of the concept of an objective truth, and the reality of objective values derivable from it.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/may/25/peter-singer-utilitarianism-climate-change

Godel aside: It seems that even those who say there is no realm of objective value and no such thing as “truth”, demonstrate when faced with the consequences of their own logic, that they cannot bear to live without it.

This is, all in all, very amusing.

And that’s the truth.

Posted in Conservative, Liberal, Philosophy, politics, society, truth | 8 Comments »