Monday, May 17, 2021

Thank you notes, again!

My philosopher friend Dan Lowe (at U Michigan) gives his students an assignment to write a thank you note to some author they read in his Intro to Ethics class who they appreciated in some way.

THIS IS A GREAT ASSIGNMENT and more instructors who run classes where they read and discuss living and email-accessible folks (like me and the philosophy friends here) should do it.

Here are 20 notes to me, in response to my "Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law" from Bob Fischer's Ethics: Left and Right anthology. (This paper led to the book Thinking Critically About Abortion and other writings with Kristina Grob, the Salon article with Jonathan Dudley, and a bunch of new e-friends and some reputation as being someone who can help people engage controversial issues in productive and "polite" ways.)

There are some nice themes to them!


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Truth, "Subjective" Truth, and "Objective" Truth

What is truth?

People sometimes find this to be a mysterious, deep, and profound question. 

And maybe it is!

But maybe it's not. 

One way of understanding the question "What is truth?" is that it's just asking what it is for something—a claim, or statement, or beliefto be true

When people find that question mysterious, that's usually because they are thinking about hard questions, like whether there's a God, or whether there's something everyone would need to do to make their life meaningful, or whether some controversial moral claims are true. 

In short, they think of examples from philosophy classes where it's hard to know what the truth is and so conclude that truth is really hard to understand. 

But to understand truth we are better off thinking about simpler examples: if we begin with simpler examples, we can then take what we understand back to the harder cases. 

First, we should notice that the kinds of things that can be true (or not true, or false) are beliefs, or claims, or  statements, or sentences: anything that can fit this type of blank: "I think that _________."

And, to understanding truth, these thoughts can be about mundane things, e.g.: I believe that:

  • "It's not snowing today."
  • "I have a stomach."
  • "2+2=4."
For these beliefs to be true is for reality to be such that it's not snowing, I have a stomach, and 2 and 2 add up to 4. If I think those things, and reality is like that, then my beliefs are true.

If I somehow believed there was a blue whale in my classroom (when there is no such whale), or that I can run a mile in 1 minute (I can't), or that 1+1=3, all those beliefs would be not true, false, because they don't fit or represent reality. It's as simple as that. 

So that's the basics of what truth is. A claim or belief is true when, and only when, it fits the facts of the world. 

The problem with hard cases is that it's often hard to know what the truth is: maybe that's sometimes even impossible: maybe we could never have enough evidence for our beliefs about these matters to be knowledge, and maybe there are no real facts of the matter or underlying reality for our beliefs to fit or match or represent. 

But that doesn't change the truth that our beliefs are true when they are accurate to the facts of the world and false when they are not. 

"Subjective Truth"

People sometimes say that truth is "subjective." If someone says this, it's fair for us to ask them what they mean. 

Sometimes what they mean to say is that people have different beliefs about various matters. And they call these different beliefs "different truths" and claim that truth is "subjective," meaning dependent on the subject, or the believer. 

While it's true that, about many issues, there are different beliefs, that doesn't seem to mean that there are different "truths" about the matter. 

For example, some people even now believe that the earth is flat. While they believe that, their belief is not true.

As another example, some people believe that vaccines cause autism. While they believe that, their belief is not true: careful investigation has shown that there is not good evidence to believe that. 

As another example, some people believe that the election was stolen from Trump. Again, while they believe this, their belief is not true and is not supported by all the available evidence on the issue.

So this idea of "subjective truth"—as some people understand that phrase—appears to overlook that there's a difference between believing some claim and that claim being true. And there is a difference: just because someone believes some claim doesn't mean that claim is true: e.g., your believing you are a billionaire (sadly) won't make you a billionaire; someone believing you are in prison (thankfully) won't make you be in prison. 

(This suggests another idea of "subjective truths" as beliefs that aren't supported by much evidence. This, however, seems to allow that some of these "truths" are not true, which is confusing.)

So, in sum, the phrases "subjective truth" and "truth is subjective" don't seem to make sense: people shouldn't talk this way. 

Objective Truths

So, in general, whether a claim is true or false depends on what the world like. And what the world is like is an "objective" manner: it is that way independent of what you, or anyone, thinks of it. So, most truths are "objective" in nature.

Since this categorization invites the question "What's the alternative to 'objective'?" and "subjective" doesn't make much sense, it's probably best to just call truths truths, not objective truths. 

What's important to remember is that there's a difference between whether a claim is true or not and whether there is evidence, or strong evidence, for that claim. And just because there isn't good evidence for a claim doesn't mean, or entail, that it's not true and it doesn't mean that it's false either: they are separate issues. Furthermore, we can have really good evidence for a belief that turns out to be false. 

But when it's hard to tell what the truth is because it's hard to get good evidence or there is competing evidence, that does not in itself mean that there is no truth to be found: there might be a truth, but it's just hard to tell what it is. 

P.S. Aesthetic Judgments

To return to "subjective truths," people sometimes call aesthetic judgments, about what's beautiful or attractive or pleasing, "subjective truths." E.g., 
  • "Raspberries are the best berry," 
  • "The bass player on Dua Lipa's recordings is really good," 
  • "They are a great band," 
  • "Chocolate is so tasty," 
  • "They are really attractive."
These types of claims, if ever true, seem very much related to subjective feelings about what you like and find pleasing: indeed, one view about aesthetic judgments is that they are reports about those types of preferences and feelings. But even then, it's not like just thinking that you like something means that you like it: you have to really like it, not just think you like it, and that's an "objective" matter: there are objective facts about your subjective experiences! 

Does anyone have better judgment about what to like or find pleasing? Does anyone have better "taste"? These are hard philosophical questions: trying to figure out the truth of the matter requires a lot of hard thinking. (Affirmative answers here though are suggested by the fact that it seems like some singers, musicians, and artists are much better than others, and that seems to be more than just mere preferences and more than just some people like them more.)

But most issues, aren't like that: trying to figure out the truth of a historical or scientific or moral or medical or any other factual question doesn't seem much like debating who is a better singer, and even if there is such a thing. So aesthetic judgments might be a case where "subjective truth" makes some sense, but the notion doesn't seem to readily apply anywhere else. 

At least, that's what I believe, and I think that's true, and although my case has been brief, I hope I have provided enough initial support for it. 

(If I have said anything false, is what I've said false, subjectively false, or objectively false? Which answers here make the most potential sense?).

Note: this was written to help someone in responding to people who talk about "subjective truth" and claim that "truth is subjective," since these terms seem to be based on confusion and misunderstanding.