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Truth?

08 October 2012, 15:32

‘If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ George Berkely posed this question in 1710.

Steven Wright answered it in 1994.’I was walking through the forest, alone, and a tree fell right in front of me, and I didn’t hear it.’ So there’s the answer. Jerry Seinfeld goes one further.

‘If a man is alone in the forest without his wife, and he says something, is he still wrong?’

Now surely this is logic in its finest sense, and even the great minds on MyNews24 would be forced to admit that this sort of logic is incontrovertible. Not so? Philosophy is the art of finding answers to the unknowable by posing questions, or thought experiments.

My brother-in-law posed a very interesting little conundrum, for the vegans and vegetarians out there. If we did not eat meat, then we would soon have to start culling sheep, pigs and cattle, because there would be too many of them to supply wool, milk and leather. And that would leave the poor dears fuming even more!

Douglas Adams writes of a cow that was specifically bred for slaughter, and would, in fact, come to your table and suggest a cut of meat for you to enjoy. And said cow would be insulted if you did not choose a cut of meat. I suppose that is another form of thought experiment. But it would drive the vegans crazy, and they would attempt to tell the cow that there’s a better life out in the pasture.

Many people, such as PETA, claim that animals are sentient, but we really have no way of knowing. All the experiments we’ve ever done, have produced results that contradict that thought, as well-meaning as it is.

In 1949, Konrad Lorenz wrote a book, King Solomon’s Ring, and relates a story in which his parrot would fly out over the village when lunch was ready, calling. ‘Where’s the doc? This is not amazing of course: this is learned behaviour. What follows is amazing.

The parrot went missing for two days, and he was beside himself with worry, when he saw the parrot return and fly straight down to his perch. He noticed the parrot’s leg bleeding and started dressing it. While dressing it, he muttered to himself, ‘I wonder what happened here?’

The parrot replied, ‘Bloody cat got me.’ That, I believe, shows sentience.

Now if that parrot came to your table and offered you, say, a leg, or wing, would you feel comfortable eating it? Remember, it’s alive and offering itself to you for your enjoyment. Could you enjoy it, knowing that it had been bred for that purpose, and that it would be hugely disappointed if you did not accept its offer?

That would be an objective truth, as the parrot is offering itself to you, regardless of your feelings. This would sweep aside, in that instance, all thought of relativism. Which brings us to the Law of the Excluded Middle. This postulates that a thing either is, or is not. As an example:

If something is white, the opposite of that statement is not that it’s black, but that it’s not white. The Law of the Excluded Middle. And a thing is either true or untrue, there can be no middle ground. It is no longer true for you, or me. It is true, or untrue.

If we apply that to truth in general, things become very interesting. Can we trust the evidence of our senses over the evidence of instruments designed to test and verify what we do? Flying being a prime example?

Many pilots have crashed because they didn’t trust their instruments. A famous example was a B29 bomber returning to Libya after a bombing raid on Italy. They picked up a tail-wind and got to their destination well ahead of schedule. This being the Libyan Desert, there was nothing to see, so they carried on flying, even though their instruments advised them to turn around and go back.

They crashed in the desert and were dead of dehydration within two days. They relied on their senses.

‘Surely it is more interesting to argue about what truth is, than about what some particular thinker, however great, did, or did not, think?’ says David Deutsch.

So, in the search for truth, many millions of words have been written, and much has been spoken, and we are still no closer to an objective truth. And taking the Bible out of this argument, or the Koran, or whatever objective standard there is, we still have a conundrum of sorts.

If there is no absolute truth, how can we trust anything? How can we trust what science tells us, regardless of the discipline? How can we trust, for instance, in those instruments that allow a pilot to land in a heavy fog?

And if everything is relative, why bother with the reading on whatever instrument you’re using. The Large Hadron Collider could just be someone’s opinion. His and those of his peers. That doesn’t mean it’s true! It might be true for him, but if truth is relative, how do we actually know?

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