Thursday, July 01, 2004

True For and True

There are expressions that should be avoided by those who aim to think clearly and to promote clear thinking in others. Expressions of the form, ‘true for X’ are prime examples. In a logically sanitized world, the following would be verboten: ‘true for me,’ ‘true for you,’ ‘true for Jews,’ ‘true for Arabs,’ ‘true for the proletariat,’ ‘true for the bourgeoisie,’ ‘true for our historical epoch,’ and the like. That would disallow such sentences as ‘That may be true for you but it is not true for me.’

The trouble with expressions like these is that they blur the distinction between truth and belief. To say that a proposition p is true for S is just to say that S believes or accepts or affirms that p. This is because one cannot believe a proposition without believing it to be true. But S’s believing that p, and thus S’s believing that p is true, does not entail that p is true. This is obvious if anything is. There are true beliefs and false beliefs, and a person’s holding a belief does not make it true. If you want to say that S believes that p, then say that. But don’t say that p is true for S unless you want to give aid and comfort to alethic relativism, the false and pernicious doctrine that truth (Gr. aletheia) is relative.

A belief is always someone’s belief. This relativity of beliefs to believers explains why one person’s believing that p and another person’s believing that ~p is unproblematic. But truth is non-relative, or absolute. This is why it cannot be the case that both p and ~p. If you have truth, you have something absolute. There is no such thing as relative truth. Relative truth is not truth any more than negative growth is growth or a decoy duck is a duck or artificial leather is leather or faux marble is marble. In the expression, ‘relative truth,’ ‘relative’ functions as an alienans (as opposed to a specifying) adjective: it alienates or shifts the sense of ‘truth.’ Just as it makes no sense to say that there are two kinds of leather, real and artificial, it makes no sense to say that there are two kinds of truth, relative and absolute. Suppose someone sets out to list the kinds of leather. “Well, you got your horse leather, cow leather, alligator leather, artificial leather, real leather, artificially real leather, naugahyde, Barcalounger covering....” One can see what is wrong with this.

The word ‘absolute’ scares some people. But the only reason I use it is to undo the semantic mischief caused by ‘relative truth’ and ‘true for X.’ In a logically perfect world, it would suffice to say ‘true’ or ‘leather.’ There would be no need to say ‘absolutely true’ or ‘real leather’ – “This here jacket a mahn is REAL leather, boy....” If ‘relative’ and ‘artificial’ are (in the above examples) alienating adjectives, then ‘absolute’ and ‘real’ could be called de-alienating: they restore their rightful senses to words that semantic bandits divested them of.

One reason ‘absolute’ scares people is that it suggests dogmatism and infallibilism. Thus if I say that truth is absolute, some people think I am saying that the propositions I affirm as true I affirm as unquestionably or undeniably true. But that’s to confuse an ontological statement about the nature of truth with an epistemological statement about the way in which I accept the
propositions I accept. It is consistent to maintain that truth is absolute while being a fallibilist, where a fallibilist holds that either no proposition held to be true, or no member of some restricted class of propositions held to be true, is known with certainty.

In sum, my point is that ‘true for X’ should be avoided since it gives aid and comfort to the illusion that truth is relative. But why exactly is that an illusion? I’ll leave that question for a separate post.