The Convergence Theory of Truth

Truth? part 2

Twenty years ago, in 1998, before I was a minister, and was still mostly the philosophy professor I had been, I gave a sermon on truth to a small fellowship in Clarksville, Tennessee. The gist of that sermon went like this:
When conservative temperaments talk about the Truth – as if with a capital T – it just makes me shrug. I want to say, look, if we have different beliefs about something, and we're having a dispute, let’s look at the best evidence we can find. That’s all we have to guide us – all we ever could have. But even the best evidence is never perfect, and is always incomplete, so calling any conclusion “true” is just a sort of rhetorical flourish.

The Commendatory Use

“Truth” is just this word we use to commend a belief, like when we say, “Oh, yes, that’s true.” The notion of “true” is rather empty. It doesn’t add anything – it’s merely a general way to say, “Oh, yeah, I agree with that.”

The Cautionary Use

The other way we use the word “true,” – less common than the commendatory use – is in a cautionary way. When we remind ourselves (as we probably don’t do often enough) that even though a certain belief is well-justified and fits all the evidence we have, it might not be true – then we are using “true” in this cautionary way. It’s a helpful caution to remember that no matter how strong the evidence seems today, it’s always possible that we, or our children, will grow to have incompatible beliefs instead.

So “true” and “truth” are merely these rhetorical devices for blandly commending, or sometimes cautioning. Not really much there. Certainly nothing that warrants a capital T. If there’s a claim at stake, let’s examine the evidence. "Truth" is merely a grandiose abstraction that is no help at all in the real work of finding of interpreting evidence.

Like Art

Sentences – the ones we commend to each other, and about which we caution each other – are human creative products, just as art and music are. We produce beliefs to meet our own needs, and we will always be re-creating belief and knowledge as our purposes guide our inquiry and what we learn in turn leads us to redefine our purposes.

According to the elephant model of truth, our problem is that we all have only partial perspectives, only part of the truth, and we have a lot more to learn. On this model, more inquiry and learning will lead our beliefs to gradually converge closer and closer to reality. Certainly, more inquiry is a good thing, but the problem goes much deeper than the elephant model supposes. There is no elephant. The truth -- to contradict the tagline of "The X-Files" TV show -- is not out there, waiting for us to get our hands around it. Someone might say that for billions of years up until 1822 Beethoven's 9th symphony was "out there" waiting for Beethoven to discover it, but this would be an odd theory. Most of us would rather say that Beethoven invented or created his 9th symphony rather than discovering it. In the same way, the sentences that we commend as true are invented/created, not discovered (or rather not simply discovered). In fact, inquiry produces at least as much divergence as convergence.

Like Evolution

Think of inquiry like evolution. It’s our beliefs evolving. We don’t think of there being a gap between a species’ genes and its environment and of that gap as gradually narrowing as the species evolves. Rather, we say that genes are either successful at perpetuating themselves or they are not. Likewise, we may say that beliefs either succeed at perpetuating themselves or do not. And if a belief does persist, that doesn’t mean that it’s “close” to reality any more than a genetic tendency that persists through generations is “close to” its environment.

Both beliefs and genes survive by virtue of helping us cope, not by mirroring objective reality. While many beliefs fail this test and die away, the number of possible beliefs that could survive and reproduce is as infinite as the number of possible species that could.

For instance: what, after all, is an elephant exactly?

In India elephants have long been construction equipment – good for knocking over trees and carrying large loads. For some Hindus, elephants are gods, or represent the god Ganesh. For biologists, an elephant is a species occupying such-and-such a spot in a taxonomic system. We know the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party, and also as a symbol of good memory. For poachers in Africa, an elephant is a source of ivory, and thus income. For others, an elephant is a living creature with a rich emotional life of its own and is therefore worthy of our concern and protection against poachers.

As we learn more and more of these perspectives on elephants, the picture doesn't look like a convergence, a gradual closing of the gap, between our beliefs and the reality of elephants. The picture looks more like an expanding diversity of possible points of view we become able to take.
Moreover, we are always inventing new meanings. Groucho Marx gave elephants a comic meaning when he said: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.” Ask 100 poets to write a poem each about what an elephant is, and you’ll get 100 very different descriptions. Some of them will be startling insights, and we will learn from those poems new truths about what elephants are.

Inquiry does not converge slowly toward the one truth. Rather, inquiry accumulates more and more divergent perspectives. Learning expands rather than narrows the repertoire of responses available to us.

As John Keats said: Truth is beauty. And just as the beauty of art and music do not converge toward the one true painting or the one true sonata – just as species evolution does not converge toward the one true species -- human learning does not converge toward the one truth.
That’s what I thought was important to say about truth 20 years ago. I wanted, as I’ve wanted throughout my adult life, to celebrate the human capacity for diversity, for creativity, for spinning out new and different perspectives. That’s still important -- in some ways, more important now than ever.

What I took for granted 20 years ago was that learning and creating diverse viewpoints would be done in a conscientious way – with a certain integrity – that the motivation was to make beauty in a context that honored the different arts, different perspectives. I wanted to go beyond the elephant story to say, “let’s not be limited by the idea that there’s just one true elephant out there.” Acknowledging the worthwhile moral of the elephant parable, I wanted to go the next step.

Instead, we’ve seen public discourse go the opposite direction. A little humble recognition that one could be wrong, that one’s view is partial, that other people’s views, while also partial, have as much connection to reality as one’s own – would now come as a great breath of fresh air.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Truth?"
See also
Part 1: Elephant Truth

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