Part One

Modes of Being

Section 1

Knowledge and Facts

Chapter 1

Objective truth?

I suppose you could say that the thesis of this book is that Scholasticism is not dead. True, the revival of Thomism has pretty well played itself out, largely, I think, because either it stayed back in the thirteenth century and ignored the serious problem that philosophy since Descartes has seen but not solved, or it tried various gimmicks with "transcendental Thomism" to get at Thomism from a phenomenological start; but, though these all asserted that they were realistic, they suffered from one or another version of the problem that has plagued phenomenology, and as a result convinced no one: neither the phenomenologists nor the dyed-in-the-wool Thomists.(1)

Contemporary philosophy has finally, I think, got through just about all the permutations and combinations of assertions and denials of the basic misinterpretation of "truth" made by Galileo and Descartes: that "truth" consists in matching the "idea" with the "outside object." The mistake consisted in thinking that the idea was the percept or the sensation(2)

. Galileo recognized that the sensation of red was not a reproduction of what we would today call that frequency of electromagnetic radiation; but he and Descartes thought that measurements were the same mentally as what was measured "outside" us.

Of course, by Hume's time, this was repudiated, even though science held onto the dogma that measurement got at "the truth" and nothing else did. Unfortunately, with the advent of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, we find that measurement is not necessarily measurement of something "real," and that there can be various equally valid (and incompatible) measurements of the same thing.

Einstein showed, for example, even in the Special Theory of Relativity, that each of a pair of observers in motion with respect to each other would perceive the other clock as going too slow (not one too slow and the other too fast); and that two events could be either simultaneous, the first before the second, or the second before the first, depending on where you observed them from--and there was no way to say any observation point was the "right" one.

As to quantum mechanics, the idea there is that the very act of measuring interferes with what is being measured, and alters the measurement in significant ways (so that, e.g. an object is in two places at once, but in only one of the two places, depending on how you want to measure it; and in principle, your decision to measure it can take place after the event). A recent popularization of quantum mechanics, called In Search of Schroedinger's Cat, has an early chapter heading "Nothing is Real."

"Matching" theories of truth, then, seemed hopeless, and now even physics has caught up with the philosophy of two centuries ago (and, of course, because science now says it, we had better listen). Since Hume, and especially since Kant, the quest for truth has basically been one or another version of internal consistency; but though these different theories themselves seemed internally consistent at first, they didn't for one reason or another fit the way we think of truth; and they all, even to the present day, do a very poor job of applying to themselves.

That is, why should I accept an "internal consistency" theory of truth as the right one, if I can make up another one that's just as internally consistent?(3)

That is, if someone is going to try to convince me that truth does not in fact consist of a matching of what's in my mind with what's out there, but is in fact nothing but internal consistency, how can he do it merely by being internally consistent?(4)

The upshot is that no one knows where he is any more. Truth has become a "value," and can yield to other values which happen to be more pressing. And since values seem to be subjective (they are, though morals aren't), then truth is of course subjective too.

But then is it the truth that truth is subjective? Or do we just think it is?

--By the way, I do not intend here to give a technical definition of "truth," because it presupposes too much. Suffice it that here "truth" has its ordinary meaning: the fact that what I think is the case is in fact the case. It is my knowledge or opinion that is true, not the facts "out there" (they just are what they are). In the ordinary sense, then, my knowledge is true when it "matches" the fact it is supposed to know.

Similarly, it turns out that "fact" is not the simplest of all terms. It's not the same as a "thing"; but what it in fact is is something we will have to investigate in detail much later. For now, what a "fact" is taken to be is "something to be known 'out there.'"

If one's theory of truth is that it's not the matching of what you think the fact is with what the fact in question really is, then the burden of proof is on the theorist who holds this, since presumably his own theory of "truth" should agree with what truth actually is (i.e. what it is for everybody, not just himself), or why would he bother to formulate it?



1. For instance, Joseph Marechal in Volume V of Le Point de Depart de la Metaphysique tried to get at the "x" outside experience by noticing that experience is teleological, and tends beyond itself. The problem with this is that he asserts this of all experience, and so there is nothing to distinguish imagining (which doesn't "tend toward" any object) from perceiving (which does). The same goes for Bernard Lonergan's notion in Insight of "being" as opposed to the naive "already-out-there-now-real"; this sense of "being" could be the "being" of what is imaginary as well as perceived; and if there is no distinction, who is to say that it's not all imaginary? Again, Emerich Coreth wants to ground realism by the "horizon" of being against which we ask questions. But this also applies to the world of imagination just as much as the real world. So all of these people are really idealists, however much they might say they are realists. After all, Hegel thought that he was a "realist" in the only sense "realism" had any meaning. He was wrong, as I hope to show. The point here is that until one has a mechanism by which it makes sense to say (a) that there is a difference between imagining and perceiving, and (b) that the difference is impossible unless perceiving "talks about" some "already-out-there-now-real" and imagining doesn't, one is stuck inside the mind, and truth will only be internal consistency.

2. I will try to show later why this was a mistake, and what it missed.

3. In this connection, I recall a talk given in the mid 80s by Henry Veatch, who was chiding Alvin Plantinga for something like this. Veatch claimed that Plantinga had shown that you could construct just as consistent a world-view on the assumption that there is a God as you could on the assumption that there isn't one (which is the assumption that most "internal-consistency" theorists use). But as Veatch commented, all this amounted to is that there's no reason for choosing either of the theories over the other. Plantinga hadn't "proved" there was a God; he'd just showed that to say there is a God is just as objectively irrelevant as to say that there isn't one.

4. The same goes for texts. I once attended a meeting in which a person defended Kurt Gadamer's position that there is no way to assert that any one interpretation of a text (as long as it's internally consistent) is "more correct" than any other. When he got through, a member of the audience objected, "I was a student of Gadamer, and he vehemently denied that your view was what he meant." Then obviously his text had a "preferred" interpretation. This also applies to Jacques Derrida's thesis that any text doesn't express meaning or truth, but is simply a way to gain "hegemony" or power over others. Either Derrida is "telling it like it is," in which case there is at least one text that expresses "the truth" (and if one, why not others?), or it is simply a way for Derrida to gain prestige or power, and doesn't mean what it says, in which case why listen to it? In either case, Derrida's thesis has to be false.