Truth: Classical Heritage, Elusive Ideal, or Illusory Chimera?
(a focussed inquiry into, and beginner’s guide to, the
nature, potential, and limitations of inquiry itself)

Outline of a course proposed for the
Wesleyan Center for the Humanities’
special 2004/2005 semester on Truth

    Most folks accept that some things are known — the truth about such things, if one is not already “in possession” of it, can be found in encyclopaedias, looked up on-line, learned from courses or text-books, or conveyed by others already in possession of it. Historical facts, the traditional principles of musical harmony, the laws of physics, the identification of birds in the field — these are “accepted” bodies of knowledge whose truths we can learn and believe.

    But the “truth” of some “facts” is more variable. Does there — or did there ever — exist a Lady Macbeth? As the simple Yes/No question it appears to be, any answer must depend on the intent of the questioner: for, as a matter of historical fact, as a question about the real world of living breathing human beings, whether now dead or perhaps still alive, the truth is best captured, probably, by the answer “No.” But in the world Shakespeare’s Macbeth unfolds before us, Lady Macbeth is uncannily real: here she most certainly does exist, and the best answer is “Yes.”

    History, Physics, Mathematics, Theater, Logic — these domains and many others all have divergent understandings of what to understand as facts, what to take as true, even what to mean by truth. It is easy to formulate questions, even of the simple Yes/No variety, that do not admit of simple Yes/No answers — or, indeed, of any answers at all (“Are the electrons in hydrogen atoms blue? or, if not, what color are they?”), beyond the affirmation that the question — like the one posed to a person never married to anyone, “When did you stop beating your spouse?” — is inherently meaningless, hence incapable of admitting any fruitful answer at all. The relevance here of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or of the difficulties inherent in extrapolating to individuals statistical data for large populations, should be so evident as to go without saying.

    Again, our perception of the world around us can be severely flawed, in unavoidable ways, as numerous optical illusions depending upon the inherent fallibility of our ophthalmic structures can demonstrate (spinning black-and-white disks unexpectedly displaying colors, an obvious black blotch “disappearing” as its image on one’s retina falls on the zone where the optic nerve bundle exits the eye for the brain).

    Moreover, “received wisdom” is subject to change, as the relativistic and quantum revolutions in physics, for example, illustrate. Where then do we find certainty? Where do we find truth? And, once we think we may have found it, how do we assess what we have found? Can things have various degrees of truth? The mathematical specialty known as Topos Theory relies quite heavily on the availability of “non-standard” truth values, lying somehow between, or beyond, simple Truth and Falsity.

    All these ideas, and more, including a semi-formal presentation of the algebraic character of the logic of inference, and the nature of possible lattices of truth values, will be fair game as focus of attention for this course, which it is hoped will take the form of discussion-spiked lectures by the instructor, interlaced with equally discussion-spiked student presentations.

    Readings are likely to include selected writings of Cummings, Descartes, Diego, Hume, Kant, Lawvere, Margenau, Moore, Tarski, and almost certainly others. Depending on the number of participants, papers will be assigned either weekly, but of modest scope, or twice during the semester, but of grander scope, on themes, in either eventuality, somehow arguably consistent with the purview of the course.

Last modified 13-Nov-2003 Contents © 2003 by Fred E.J. Linton