Some Thoughts on Truth
It was the movie Matrix that raised a question to me- “Are we real?” I had never thought of the possibility that the world we see can be just a programmed illusion. This question has been in my mind for years after I saw the movie. There have been several points at which I made some progress in understanding the question and finding a more convincing solution. After I took the Introductory Philosophy class, I came to realize that this has been a major philosophical question for centuries. Many philosophers have already thought about these questions and found different answers. A basic understanding of the philosophical debate on "reality" or "truth" leads to more and more other debates like the debate of free will versus determinism. Right now, I am trying to focus solely on truth, and document some of the ideas that have been going on in my mind for years. Personally, I believe that it is possible to know the ultimate truth, the exact description of how things are, but we cannot determine if what we know is the ultimate truth. This limitation arises because of our physical and mental capabilities, and us being a part of the same world of which we want to know the truth.
The first step to knowing the truth is defining the truth. What we normally understand to be true is the correspondence between a statement and the reality. If we find that the statement made matches exactly with what we observe in the world with our senses, we get convinced that it is true. For example, if somebody says that a football is bigger than a ping pong ball, we recall in our memory, the image of these two objects. Then, we find that the size of the football is larger than the ping pong ball and we get convinced that the statement just made was absolutely true. This method of determining the truth that we just followed is known as the correspondence theory. In this method we make the use of our sense organs and the capacity to think in order to determine if a statement is true or false. So, the accuracy of this method depends on our sense organs and intellectual capacity. If our senses can be deluded, it is possible that we will believe a false statement to be true.
Optical illusions are common examples of some false concepts that we believe to be true. One of the examples of optical illusions is the increased size of the sun at dawn and dusk. At dusk, when the sun is about to set, we see that the size of the sun is larger than usual. So we are tempted to believe that, during sunset, the sun is larger than in the afternoon. However, the size of the sun does not actually change. The sun appears bigger because our mind perceives the size of an object by comparing with the surrounding objects. Such limitation of our sense organs prevents us from knowing the things the way they actually are. Also, an intellectual limitation is another part of this story.
Whenever somebody tries to explain a very complicated topic to us, we get perplexed. This is due to the lack of prior information on the topic and our ability to process the information that we receive. If we try to explain even a simple thing to a child, he might not be able to grab what we are saying because his mind might not be ready for that yet. Likewise, it might be that the truth is too complicated for us to understand. Before few centuries, the fact that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun was not accepted by people. They were not ready for the truth yet. However, with more evidence and discoveries, they eventually accepted this fact. These limitations support the skeptic point of view that truth can never be known.
Skeptics have always opposed the idea that we can know the ultimate truth. They believe that since the truth cannot be known, it should be the purpose of every human to make the things in his favor by using rhetoric. However, philosophers like Aristotle have opposed this idea. Aristotle firmly believed on our ability to know the truth. He introduced the method of syllogism to determine whether a statement is true or not. The truth or the truth values can be determined for statements or propositions. Not all the assertions are eligible for this. For example: the statement “My Car” cannot have a truth value. Syllogism involves three statements. The preceding two statements serve to prove the third one. One of the examples is given below:
All animals are mortal.
Man is an animal.
Thus, man is mortal.
Here, the term animal serves to merge these two statements. For the third statement to be true, the preceding statements should have been already established in a similar fashion. This creates an infinite series of loops in which each statement should have a predecessor syllogism. Aristotle addressed this issue by proposing the theory of first principle according to which there are certain facts which are already inherited in the soul and need not be proved. These facts are known as the first principles. Although Aristotle has given a very beautiful way of determining the truth, the theory of first principle does not have enough grounds. Some of the basic facts have to be established by the theory of correspondence. Having already discussed that the senses can sometimes be misleading, higher levels of statements should not be observed by using this theory.
Suppose we are able to establish the truth by using the aforementioned philosophical tools. The next question that arises is how do we know what we have established is the ultimate truth. This, again, is delimited by our sensory and intellectual capability. Therefore, it’s not possible to know if we have reached the ultimate truth or not. Even if we do not reach the ultimate truth, as intellectual being, our purpose should be to reach the point at which it sounds good by all the means we have. Why should we bother to know about the truth is, again, a great philosophical question. In short, according to Socrates, we are intellectual beings and the focus of every organism should be the betterment of its species by the use of inherent capabilities. Therefore, our purpose should be to know the reality in order to make the best use of our capacity.
It could also be that what we see is a total illusion as depicted in the movie Matrix, and we are not capable of knowing that we are in a false world that does not really exist. This can be because we are part of the same world of which we want to know the truth.We cannot be aware of this fact unless we are able to get out of it and see this world from outside. The view of the earth from the outer space gives a much clearer insight to how the earth really is what we see from the earth. We might not be able to see how reality is until we view this world from outside.
Does the ultimate truth exist, or is there always a better truth? The world behaves a certain way. If we are able to find exactly how it is then that is the ultimate truth. However, we might not be able to directly see the ultimate truth. So, the process of reaching the ultimate truth starts with exploring how the world really is. Then, the next step is to search for a better truth. After we reach such a point that what we know does not contradict with any of the already established facts, or any of the observations, we can claim know that this is the ultimate truth that we can know. However, our sensory and intellectual capabilities will be a barrier to know the ultimate truth.