Truth beyond Good and Evil
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche repeatedly presents and develops an interesting concept of truth. In the context of a profession (philosophy) which is often described as the intellectual pursuit of truth, he states that truth is meaningless, or rather, that it is an assailable position to state that truth is somehow superior to falsehood. In his typical style, which is suggestive, emotive, and at times poetic rather than reasoned, he supports this view adequately. However, let us approach his idea and see if it is defensible from a more traditional perspective, and whether it can stand when examined in the light of reason.
A proposition or premise in logic is bivalent, which is to say that it exist in an exhaustive disjunction of true or false. A series of premises followed by a conclusion, with a connected context, and arranged in such a fashion as to present a valid argument, can be said to be “true” only if the premises and conclusion are true. However, this idea is misleading, in that it is easy to create arguments which are contentless but are valid (all weebles are wobbles, all wobbles are woozles, therefore all weebles are woozles), are valid but are untrue (if a person is president in a democracy, then the people chose them. George Bush is president. Therefore the people chose him), or are invalid but are true (no person of intelligence would commit suicide. Hemingway was a person of intelligence. Hemingway committed suicide.) So how, exactly, does this concept of logical truth break down? And how, exactly, does the concept of logical truth relate to the concept of philosophical truth?
In each of the examples given above, it is obvious what the problems are. In the first example, I use premises which name valueless subjects (valueless in the sense that they have no assigned meaning, implied or literal; this is not the case in such works as “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, where words are replaced with nonsense but the implied meaning carries the work). In the second example, I present an argument which does not state all the pertinent facts. In the third, I use premises that make normative claims and personal estimations. So we see that logic may be flummoxed by spurious data (subjects or predicates which lack definition or where that definition may be false or nonsense), by a narrowing of the universe of discourse to exclude pertinent data (a favorite of pro-life advocates, who ignore the issues of individual freedom and volition and narrow the issue to one of “Murder is wrong, murder is the ending of human life, an embryo is a human life, therefore abortion is murder, and abortion is wrong”) or the application of judgments or normative claims (a premise or conclusion that adds some sort of valuation to the argument; applicable to the pro-life argument above…it is nowhere proven that murder is wrong, one needn’t accept the premise).
So, we find that the errors consist of: spurious symbols (meaningless or of doubtable meaning; lies, figments), lack of premises (unstated or missing premises that would, if included, change the content of the argument), and the addition of meaning to symbols by the interpreting consciousness (whether the one that poses the argument or reads it). This is important because it shows that truth is related to our selection of premises.
When we say that something is true, what we are doing is saying that a proposition belongs to a class of true statements. This class is problematic, because it is impossible to define it. One may separate the class into types of propositions, the a priori and a posteriori, the synthetic and analytic. But this does not solve the real problem, the one of how we decide what quality it is that certain propositions have that make them true. Is truth a predicate that we can assign to the subject of a given proposition? Is it a sorting function, by which we assemble a class of objects of discourse into a set? If so, is it not circular to state that what makes a proposition true is that it can be sorted into a set of true statements? Don’t we then need rules by which we can sort, that would define truth as the ability of the statement to be sorted into the set of true statements? Akin to numerable sets, I define sortability not as the one-to-one relation between the members of a set and another set, but as a property of sets which it is possible to sort into such a one-to-one relation. The difference is between actually sticking the spoons I am counting into cups to create the relation and simply being able to do so if necessary. Truth would then be defined as the ability to sort a proposition into the set, not whether the proposition was already sorted into the set. So how would we define the set of true propositions? Essentially, there is only one quality we can state a proposition must have if we are to accept it as true: do we believe it?
But one again we have a circle. How are we to learn what to believe by asking ourselves what we believe? But this is essentially what the study of “truth” is. When we talk about a priori and analytical ideas, we mean what we believe in a vacuum of information. When we speak of a posteriori and synthetic ideas, we mean what we believe in the context of what we know of our circumstances. It is clear why we believe a priori ideas; they are really just about definitions. Even the most complex truths of mathematics are really just very involved explanations of definition. When I prove that f(x) = 1/x has a vertical asymptote at x=o, what I have really done is made a complicated series of definitions wherein mathematical objects of study have certain meanings which, when placed into certain relations, have certain new meanings that depend on the original definitions for their truth.
But a posteriori ideas are different. In the case of these ideas we find ourselves creating an assimilative truth rather than a relational truth. Assuming tabula rasa at birth, we start with no a posteriori truths at all, but the a priori truths are still there if we can understand them. Our a posteriori ideas begin as relational, a priori ideas, such as mother = comfort, food, love, warmth. But as we have more experiences, we assimilate more and more relations for such definitions until finally there are very complex ideas (mother = comfort, food, love, warmth AND nagging, spankings, chores, judgment AND adult person with own personality and life AND…) and we start having to make judgments about them, to decide what we really believe. As an infant, a person may see the mother as the very source of life, as a teenager see her as a pain in the ass, and as an adult have to find some accommodation between the two that involves what the person chooses to believe to be true. I am here saying that our ideas always start out as a priori and analytical, as definitions and consequences and the relations between the two. Our first ideas of mother, home, and food are simply denotations, true by definition and relationship. Some ideas (triangle, bachelor) retain this truth, while others (mother, self) accrue more and more complex meanings until eventually it is not possible to simply have a definition or consequence of definitions. One must decide what one believes is true.
This a posteriori, assimilative truth is fundamentally different from a priori, in the sense that an a priori statement is bivalent. A word either is or is not defined as such-and-such. The relations of certain definitions either do or do not have certain consequences. But in the case of a posteriori ideas, there are degrees and approximations of truth, and as we assimilate new data the “truth” changes. In a former era, the statement “the king is the law” was true. Due to a change in time and political ideas, it is no longer true. So, in the case of a posteriori ideas, truth is a matter of framing in relation to other ideas. A proposition not true (Quantum Theory) becomes true due to new data (experimentation), while the proposition of physics as a description of reality becomes a more true approximation of reality. Thus an a posteriori idea is true precisely to the degree to which it faithfully represents experience (this is true even of ideas like ethics…in this case the experience represented is internal).
So consider two ideas, gravity and the book Lord of the Flies. In the case of gravity, we have a series of premises added by time and experience, starting with “things fall down”, moving on to “things fall down because of a force acting on them”, still later becoming “things fall down because of a force acting on them we will call gravity that behaves according to these formulae”, and then to a series of “things fall down because of a force acting on them we will call gravity that behaves according to these formulae which we have modified thusly”. This is a series of approximations to what is actually occurring, and each approximation is more “true” (we hope!). In the case of Lord of the Flies, we have a suggestive tale of how very close we all are to savagery, how thin a veneer civilization is, and how little it takes to make man into monster. This idea is instructive, in a sense, and evocative (we hope, which is why we make grade school kids read it in the hopes they will realize they have made the playground into a jungle and themselves into beasts). This idea is one which I believe to be true, but it is one presented in a work which is patently fiction.
It may be here protested that true ideas may be presented in a fictional context. I agree, but say that this is no protest at all. The fact that a collected series of untruths may contain enough truth to be “true” is my point. Physics is, very simply, wrong, and can probably never be right. It is an approximation, a fiction which is suggestive of a larger truth that allows us to understand the world. So is Lord of the Flies. A lie can lie so well that it tells the truth.
So if an idea is a posteriori, it is assimilative, as I have shown. Which means any proportion of the assimilated data may be true. This allows for a continuum of truth. I propose that this means that a priori, analytical ideas may be considered as existing in one of two sets, the set of true statements (definitive or relational) and the set of false statements (inconsistent, invalid, and non sequitur) and that these are exclusive and disjunctive sets. Synthetic, a posteriori ideas, however, cannot be bivalent or sorted into sets. Truth is not a condition of the statement, as it is in a priori ideas, but is instead one of a series of properties a statement about an object of experience might have.
An example from earlier: the concept of mother. It is true that mother is source of life and it is true that mother is a nag. The view of mother is modified based on these truths, wherein one judges not only what is true, but other properties as well, such as what view is most conducive to a good life, a good relationship with family, etc. Therefore, a person with a horrendous mother may still choose to believe her wonderful, because it suits his needs more. The truth of the statement “mother is wonderful” is only one factor in a larger calculation of what one believes and acts on.
So this comes back round to whether the “truth” of a statement or idea is somehow inherently better than falseness. If, in all a posteriori ideas, there exists a continuum of possible truth, and if an idea may be considered to have many properties of which “truth” is merely one, then it is reasonable to conclude:
An idea’s value may exist not in proportion to its truth, but as a function of its degree of truth in relation to other properties the idea possesses. As has been said, to the degree that geometry is true it is not about nature, and to the degree that geometry is about nature it is not true. Geometry would have no applications in physics were we to stick with pure truth…we can only apply it by allowing it to loose itself from absolute truth.
That an idea’s absolute truth may not exist at all…mother may very well be a monster AND a saint but is, in fact, most likely neither. It becomes necessary for some sort of choosing faculty to come in, one that chooses what to believe is true based on properties other than just truth.
The essence of this is that we decide what to believe based on more properties than just absolute truth, in the sense of approximation to some reality.
This means that our entire reality is, to some degree, fictitious. A priori ideas can be true, but they aren’t very interesting because of their tautological nature. A posteriori ideas are what we live in, and to a very large degree only over-educated sophists like myself are interested in a priori ideas at all.
Nietzsche was right, I think. Not only is the superiority of “true” an assailable position, but fiction itself is the basis of why many ideas are useful at all.