What is truth? The more I study it, the less I seem to understand it. How do we know it when we see it? How do we hold on to it? Is it stable? Are the truths of the present moment, the truths of the next as well? How can we tell?
Take this: the proof that the square root of ‘2’ is irrational. A real number. A number that if you wanted to write it down, you would never in all eternity finish. It is endless in its extent, but here are the first 10,000 numbers to get you started:
Now look at this proof that the square root of ’2′ is an irrational number.
Were you convinced? I followed it, but when I get to the end I cannot hold it all in my mind very long after. It seems to slip away. How did that go again? I have to trust my memory. I’m done reading it now. Do I still believe it? Did I miss something? Is it still true if I can’t remember the details? I could reconstruct it, I suppose, but then, when I turn away again for just a moment, it’s suddenly gone again and I have to trust that I did it right, or the person who wrote it did. Faith has entered in. Faith in the past. Yet, if you asked me if I thought that the square root of two is an irrational number, I would say, ‘you betcha.’ If you asked for some probability on how certain I was, I would say 100%. If you pressed me to lay down a wager, I would put a house up against a dollar bet.
Yet a lot of what goes into my sense that this is the truth is held in in places I just don’t think about at any given time. It relies on much other knowledge that I just don’t keep in front of me: Definitions of number; square root; what marks on the paper mean; what the words used in the proof mean, e.g., what ‘the’ and ‘is’ mean; what ‘odd’ and ‘even’ numbers point to; the context for my trust in rationality itself; my memory of what elements a proof must have; what it should leave out (is it relevant that it be written in black on white?); to what the symbols refer; how the order of presentation makes the proof coherent . . . Get the idea? I could go on for pages and pages. Most of this depends on brain structures that we barely have conscious access to. It depends on memory, which cognitive scientists now know is mostly a construction and is very loosely connected with what happens and matches reality only in broadest brush strokes. What does this imply for the proof given above?
A man at a meeting I recently attended stood up and said he did not believe in real numbers (numbers like the square root of ’2′). An eminent historian of science had just given a lecture in which real numbers appeared and in the question and answer session this man stood and declared that there was no evidence for real numbers existing and they should be left out of physics. A philosopher next to me whispered, “He’s crazy.” “Yeah,” I said. I also knew he was crazy because he had cornered me in an opening social and I could tell he was wacky after a short conversation. After the session, several of us said, “How about that crazy guy?” (being in Canada, we said of course, “How ‘aboot’ that crazy guy?”)
He did not find the proof convincing for some reason, it would seem. Something, that formed the background assumptions necessary for structuring the proof had broken down in this man. We all referred to him as ‘crazy.’
We use ‘truth’ a lot in our religious discourse. But much of what we mean, relies on a memory of spiritual events. It is embedded in a matrix of other beliefs and framings about our world, personal history, personality, language, cognitive structures for which we have only limited access, and a host of other beliefs about the world.
This is not a bad thing. It is grounded in whatever we mean by ‘truth.’ But we seem sometimes to assume that by ‘the truth’ we mean something simple and accessible. Something that forms a recipe for which we all would agree has these x elements.
I don’t really have a profound point here. This man just set me thinking about ‘truth’ as such and I wondered: What do you mean by ‘truth?’
(And when is not believing some line of evidence worthy of being dubbed crazy?)