Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Relativism, Opinions, Truth and Facts

Relativism, Opinions, Truth and Facts

People often give their views on a topic and then declare those views to be “True to them.” About someone else’s views, they might say those views are not “true to us.” "My truth," "Not our truth" and so on are common.

(What topics do people sometimes say things like this about? What topics do people generally not say things like this about? Thoughtful lists here would be interesting and, likely, useful.)

Two questions:
  1. What do people mean by saying things like this, that “This is true to me,” or “To us, that’s not true”?
  2. If something is, as they say, “true to [fill in the relevant individual or group],” then does that really mean it’s true? If something “is not true to them,” does that mean it’s false?  

The second question is easy.

One example: suppose a person with no money somehow comes to believe he is rich: he thinks he just won the lottery and says, “It’s true to me that I am rich, rich rich!” (Suppose worse that he declares this, sincerely, out of the blue, for no apparent reason.) If he misread his lottery ticket, then what’s “true to him” is false: it not true. Another example: some students fail a test but somehow sincerely declares that it’s “true to them” that they passed. No, they failed. Do we need another example? No.

This outcome -- that what’s “true for me,” or “true for them,” is not true, etc. -- is possible for just about anything anyone could declare “true for me” or “true for us.” I or we could be mistaken about what is “true for me” or “for us”: what I or we think is true is really false. Believing something to be true doesn’t make it so, whether it’s just an individual person or all or nearly all of us. That’s good: nobody can, say, make you wind up in prison just by sincerely thinking it, just by it being “true to them” that you are in prison, or worse.

To answer the first question -- What do people mean by saying things like this, that “This is true to me,” or “To us, that’s not true”? -- then, it appears that to say that some claim, some belief, is “true for me” is to say that I believe it, I think it, I accept it: these all different ways of saying the same thing, that I hold the proposition or claim in question to be true. To say a claim is “true for us” is to say that we believe it, that we hold it to to be true, and so on.

Again, though, just because we believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. Our believing something doesn’t make it true. We could be mistaken, we could be in error, in what we believe: we sometimes have false beliefs. Sometimes this is our own fault; other times we are blameless.

Now what?

Two lessons.

First, don’t ever say “true for me” and the like. Instead of saying “This is true for me,” etc. just say, “I believe this ..” or “I accept or hold this view: …” or “I think this: . .”

Second, recognize that just because someone believes something, that doesn’t mean that belief is true.

We all usually realize this, so why do we sometimes forget it, as when people say “true for me,” “not true for us,” and so on?

There are a number of possible explanations.

First, we might want to be tolerant and accepting of what other people think or believe. And so we might think that beliefs being “true to you” but not “true to me” displays that tolerance and acceptance and, perhaps, respect.

These desires can be noble motives: we don’t want to seem like know-it-alls or arrogant. But we can be “OK” with what others believe, and not be judgmental of them, and be humble and kind, even if we think they believe false things, or things that we don’t accept. We can disagree and be nice about it. We can even discuss why we believe what we believe, and do that in a respectful, fair and tolerant and accepting manner. It doesn’t have to “get personal,” even when you think that what I think is false and that I really have no good reason or argument for what I believe. So a desire to be tolerant and accepting doesn’t have to lead to anyone saying “true to me” and the like.

(Also, what if someone says it’s just “false to me” that tolerance and acceptance are often good? Wouldn’t that mean, on this way of talking, that they really don’t have to be tolerant and accepting? If we want to avoid that, we should avoid this way of talking and thinking).

But aren’t there some beliefs -- or expressions of beliefs -- that we really should not tolerate and accept, e.g., racist beliefs, hateful beliefs, violence-promoting beliefs? And, maybe, sometimes shouldn’t not be “nice” in our making that known? Some beliefs are very hurtful, and lead to all sorts of harms, unfairness and injustice, and we shouldn’t just let that slide. At least not in our thinking about what people say, although what we might say or do about what they say is another matter. Some people say, “Yes, but this is my truth! This is my opinion! This is what I believe!” and that’s all true, but your ‘truth’ might be false: your opinion might be based on no good evidence: what you believe might be profoundly wrong to believe, from both intellectual and moral points of views.

A second possible explanation for the “true for me” and “not true for us” language is a just an inadequate vocabulary to describe and evaluate beliefs.

On one hand, there is whether a belief is true or false. That is determined by the facts of the world, not anyone’s beliefs (with the rare exception of beliefs about beliefs: “I believe that I am having a belief about an apple pie right now”!)! Facts are the way the world is, and they make beliefs true or false. The above person’s belief that he won the lottery was false because of the fact that he didn’t. It is true now that you are reading this essay because of the fact that you are reading this essay.

On another hand, there is the quality of the reasons or evidence in favor of believing or disbelieving some claim. These are related, but separable. There are truths, facts, that nobody has any beliefs about, especially any beliefs supported by any good evidence or reasons. And there are beliefs that are not true, but are supported by good reasons: at one point in history, the best reasoning and evidence supporting thinking that the earth is flat (it’s not!). And there are true beliefs supported by good reasons. And there are false beliefs that are supported by bad reasons.

All this suggests that maybe when someone says this is “true for me” she is saying that she thinks has good reasons or evidence to believe this. And when people says this is not “true for us” they are saying that we have better reasons to not believe this. Maybe. Maybe sometimes people mean “I just think this!” and other times they mean “I just think this, with good reason!” The rub here is to observe that just because someone has good reasons to believe something doesn’t always and necessarily mean that something is true.

What else should be said? One thing is that the above discussion can be repeated about the word “opinion.” Saying “That’s my opinion!” seems to be just about the same as saying, “That’s true to me!” Opinions can be true, they can be false, they can be supported by good evidence and not. Saying “That’s just your opinion’ appears to avoid all that.

In sum, it might be that people say things like this to try to avoid discussing issues that need to be discussed, and discussed with great care, precision and seriousness. Hopefully not talking these ways will improve the quality of our thinking and discussions on all sorts of important issues and questions.

To be continued ...

Some potentially relevant follow up sources:

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