Letter to Peter

Chapter 2: The Real World and the Truth of Words

The main aim of the Chapter is agreeing what are facts, what is knowledge and what "true" means. It seems ridiculously meticulous to discuss what "true" means before we decide what is true. I could not avoid it because most discussion about religion (and science) is about getting insights into things that we cannot perfectly express on paper.

We should start with what we know for sure. The breakdown in an individual’s belief in what other people consider "reality" is sometimes viewed as verging on the edge of madness. Let us be a bit mad together! This discussion is not very complex but might seem weird if it is unfamiliar; please bear with me.

I think that, if you are careful in your use of words, you should almost never say you know (=believe with certainty) anything, since on most subjects it is impossible to say anything more than "I am absolutely convinced of." This is because, for all you know, you could be in the ultimate virtual reality world, or be dreaming, or be drugged, or had an implant or even just be a brain in a box wired up to a super-computer (have you seen "Total Recall" or "the Matrix"?).


Do you even know you exist? You may wonder about this late at night, or on the contrary be wondering now why on earth I am asking a question to which the answer is so obvious. Someone called René Descartes (1596-1650) spent some considerable time thinking about whether the whole of reality could be a dream. The first "truth" which came out from the onslaught of Descartes’ doubt was that he himself could know he existed. He concluded, "I am thinking therefore I am existing" ("cogito ergo sum"), and tried to build a view of the world around it. People already knew they existed before Descartes, of course. Descartes was just the first person to capture the reason in a nutshell.

Descartes’ argument seems sound; there has to be someone to be deceived about everything else. The reasoning cannot easily be extended to similar "silly" questions though; do other people exist? Do you still exist when you are asleep? Are you are necessarily the same person when you wake up again? Some people postulate that the whole of reality is a dream and that things disappear when you are not looking at them. You cannot logically refute such people. So, are there any other facts, beyond your own existence?

Observation, understanding and decision

I think that before anyone can do any science, they have to assume that they can observe, understand and decide. This may only be an assumption, but since we take science for granted in so much of life, it seems reasonable to take the foundation on which it is built for granted also. Our decision-making ability and our consciousness are remarkable scientifically, and only seem less remarkable in human terms because of their familiarity. Logically, these assumed facts are more certain than any we build on them.

It is important to remember that these human abilities (observe, understand, decide) are fundamental. When we become tangled up in what science is, and what it can tell us about people, we have to remember that there are assumptions about people in the very foundation of science. Whatever we observe and understand in the laboratory, we cannot consequently decide that we are not observing, understanding or making decisions. We cannot conclude that we are simply automatons or robots, reaching conclusions and holding opinions which are inevitable from the outset. Whatever we may see, which might lead us to believe that we are just robots, is built upon an assumption that we are not. It is impossible to pick yourself up off the floor by the Velcro on your trainers. Even our use of logic itself assumes that we are really thinking and deciding.

Unfortunately, beyond this, what we observe of other people and ourselves starts to undermine any certainty. Our existence as conscious beings does not really give us an absolute foundation on which to construct knowledge. We have implicitly assumed that we cannot be a brain in a box. Even so, we can question the objectiveness with which we take decisions. After alcohol or when tired or hungry, for example, we may find we take decisions which would otherwise surprise us. It would be nice to have certainty in our observation and judgement, or certainty about our own rationality, but that’s just tough.

Perhaps I should digress concerning a discussion from quantum mechanics about whether the world really is based on facts (Einstein called this "objective reality") or just very high probabilities. Is there a minuscule probability that Henry VIII is still alive? You can rework the whole following discussion either way. I am going to speak of "facts" as shorthand for a real world of some sort, whether composed entirely of facts or ultimately of probabilities.

Words and "the real world"

The next piece of the jigsaw is about data! I know you have played around with pictures and video clips on your PC. You must have noticed how little disk space words or numbers take up compared to even simple colour pictures. The amount of disk space needed for a picture grows rapidly as the resolution gets better. Time clips take more space still. Three-dimensional moving pictures, like the ones they used to make the film "Titanic", take far more space again. Unlike the real world, if you "zoom in" a couple of times, these pictures become very grainy.

In the real world you can zoom in or out as often as you like... out to a satellite picture of the world, in to microbes or even molecules. So how much data is there in the real world, where each little cube contains so much more than just a colour? When you think about it, you realise that capturing the "real world" by picture or video or measurement is impossible. There is so much data in it that any actual hard disk, complete with data, is just a tiny part of it. From a mathematical perspective even one single exact number (say, a length), just like an infinite resolution picture of only one dimension, could not be put onto any hard disk. This all sounds obvious until you think about what languages try to do. They try to capture elements of this huge data set into a few bytes of information. In the confines of formal logic, truth is simply about comparing sentences, but when you try to include the real world into the equation, you have to be more careful.

How do our brains interpret the world?

The world is a huge data set but somehow we manage to understand parts of it enough to live. Every time we speak, we state things (i.e. express things in a few Bytes of data) about this unimaginably massive data set. How does "that eggy smell", "a dying tree", "the sea was rough" or "he was driving dangerously" relate to all the data? Try programming your PC to identify if there are trees in any picture or just to play "Where’s Wally" and you will see the problem. We are trying to characterise this massive data set using a very small one. Of course, we instinctively say things about the world all the time and so forget how remarkable a thing this characterisation is.

I believe that language is secondary to the structured way that we think, and in some sense is instinctively determined by it . You probably remember from childhood the frustration of not being able to explain things you understood perfectly. We have a complicated mush (not onion) of symbols and words sloshing about in our heads; some conscious and some subconscious. One of the interesting parts of parenthood is participating in the way my children learn to interpret the world, and describe it.

Our brains can store far more data than in any written document but still far less than is flooding in from the real world. How do we manage to model this complex world in the relatively small data bank in our brains? Good topic for another day , but we would not be here if we did not have a way of doing this.

In part, we simplify things by finding patterns we understand. We then expect, and interpret, everything in terms of these patterns. When other people seem to react with unexpected strength of feeling, you have to try to understand the mental model they have for the world. Without our using patterns, the world would be beyond our limited minds. The natural instinct to do this explains our liking of brands or nationalism. It also has unfortunate aspects when, for example, we develop prejudices from patterns about other people in, say, minority groups.

What is language?

Words form a bridge between the mental models of two people. They help the two of us share insight into the world and learn together. This sort of common understanding is passed down to babies as they learn to speak.

Words (with actions, sounds and other communication) also build internal mental discipline within each of us on how we understand things. Some of our thoughts are just words.

Where do we start in working out what words mean? Not with a dictionary, because that only refers words back to other words. Logically, we can define new words using ones we know but we are eventually forced to appeal to things everyone knows; to "the man in the Clapham Omnibus"; to some common understanding we think we all share.

The development of logic allows us to extend the things that "everyone knows" to discover or prove new theories. However, even in mathematics, formal logic itself requires reasonableness on the part of the reader and this reasonableness cannot be tied to words. There is even a proof (Godel’s incompleteness theorem) that no finite number of "everyone knows" will wrap everything up .

"Everyone knows" as a judge is obviously very culturally dependent. We have some common perspective, can deduce interesting things logically and even send people to jail on the back of our logic. Globally, however, neither our everyday description of the world, nor a scientific one, has any ultimate anchor or basis.

There are many analogous situations where no description is uniquely the truest. For example, in physics your "frame of reference" affects your judgement; for example, on what is moving and what is still (is the Earth still?). Another example of conflicting self-consistent viewpoints can occur (behind the cynical rhetoric) in trying to work out whose fault an argument between two people, or countries, was. Please note that I say nothing implying that everyone is right in their perspective or that all perspectives are equally good, just that there is not necessarily one which is uniquely correct.

When are words "true"?

Here, we are talking about "true" in the sense of "correct" and "words" meaning nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. Cynically, you might say if we could make no progress on whether words are true, there would be no point bothering with words at all.

I guess you know how an "IF" function works when you are writing a program. Roughly, you write "IF(A=B; 1; 0)" and it takes the value of 1 if A=B and 0 if not, same for IF(A>B; ;) and so on. You must understand that there is no "IF" function which works on most normal sentences. The "IF" function has an easy job because it is comparing a number with a number, like with like. In life, you are comparing a string of words with a physical situation. How can you tell if two data sets match when one is small (the sentence) and the other virtually infinite (the real world)? "Was she a good teacher" depends on what the person who asked the question really wanted to know; you could not answer it definitively with a month of video clips! Sentences, when isolated from people, are not really true or false because, in general, they do not have a definitive tie to any meaning.

There is a book called "The Ocean of Truth" which was written apparently in answer to the popularist "The Sea of Faith" . I mention this former book because it gives us a starting point for understanding what we mean by truth. I promise it is the only formal definition in this letter, and it is never used to prove anything! As I recall the tentative definition is roughly: "X is true if the person who said X would still maintain that X is true, when presented with all information relevant to X".

But wait a minute; that leaves everyone as the ultimate judge of the truth of what they say! Oh dear, it would have been much more satisfactory to have a way to prove anyone anywhere wrong. Not my fault! In a way, the door was already open to every religious or scientific crank in the universe, but maybe we can still argue even with a stubborn toddler. "All information relevant" will not suddenly make an irrational person rational, nor a dishonest one honest, so we are forced to act on our opinions without definitive proofs and discount some dissent if really necessary. Absolute proof was never the historical basis on which people were deemed wrong in any case; rightly or wrongly, it was done by a consensus of power-holders using brute force. Again, this idea upsets some "rationalists" who think their logical framework justifies a claim to a uniquely correct perspective. That is tough: you can assert you are right, but you cannot do so claiming humility and that the facts force you to make such a claim; you have to be brave!

Truth requires two reasonable beings

If you were the only being, you could invent your own definitions without argument. If there were two beings, you and a lunatic, how could you show it was the other one who was wrong? Who says which of you is the judge or what the tests are? If you finally cannot convince each other, you just believe your view. Truth only becomes important as a concept when there is at least one other being whom you consider reasonable and whom you wish to convince. We can reluctantly judge others as irrational or dishonest. Of course, they can reach a symmetric decision about us.

The tentative definition of truth may do, but we may have to limit any communication to people who ultimately, underneath their culture, language and so on, approximately share our concepts of being rational and honest.

The definition "X is true if the person who said X would still maintain that X is true, when presented with all information relevant to X" might also make a mathematician shake her head sadly. There is a "closure problem"; you cannot boot up an analysis of your brain-RAM into your brain-RAM, there is only enough space for one copy of the actual data and nothing else. If, for example, assessing a statement about your state of mind required comparing two complete brain configurations, you could never do it. There is also a question about who judges "relevant".

Nonetheless, it will do for now. Thinking ahead; we need to be able to differentiate between "good" and "bad" science, which is still possible with this definition. Equally, we will discuss good and bad religion, which is still possible with this definition.

I would stress that this absence of an absolute foundation in words does not open the door to anarchy. I still believe in the existence and meaningfulness of reality, simply not in our ability to capture it uniquely or completely in words, and therefore not in our ability to judge whether words are ultimately true or not. Even if we cannot express exactly what I am, or good is, or evil is, this does not blur whether I exist, nor that some things may be good and some evil. I will always find it difficult to have an absolute logical basis for correcting what other people do or say. This does not mean that I should not do, or say, what I believe to be moral, and seek to communicate my views with others. For example, I believe in general, that ceremonial clitoral excision is immoral. I have tried (ineffectually) to argue this with people profoundly convinced of the opposite position. Why did I bother, and how dare I interfere with ancient cultures that make up the rich diversity of humankind? Because I thought that the suffering caused was real and unnecessary (perhaps wrongly; I have to concede that there may be reasons I do not understand) and because I believed it was worthwhile to try to stop it happening. Sometimes you just have to get on with it.

Good paintings versus photographs.

This looks like a digression but is actually a simple extension to the perspective on what is "true". Both paintings and photographs contain less information than the three-dimensional moving, smelling, situation that they are representing. Both lose resolution compared to the reality, but this is not the issue here. The issue is that a camera makes a simple projection of a scene on to two dimensions, whereas a painter produces a 2D representation that is not a projection. (I know; I am not doing justice to the art of photography.) For example, where the feeling of depth is more important than accuracy of tone, a painter might vary tone to restore depth. Equally, where an important part of the scene is, say, the rippling of foliage in the wind, a painter might choose to blur colours, even where, at every moment, they were sharp. Perhaps, if an artist can smell a flower out of picture, they might include it to allow the viewer’s imagination better access. Is the painter being correct in his representation?

That depends on what he was trying to do. If you believe that his job is to inform you of the photons which would have come in through one eye (i.e. without depth of vision), the painter is wrong. If he has entered a competition "to recapture the experience", good painter could be more correct than someone who simply records "right" detail. It all depends on intent.

Again, this question is fundamental, when we regard the question of what is true. We cannot separate truth from intended meaning. A true document written about a historical event need not be historically accurate unless it intends to be. This point seems obscure, but becomes important later when we look at a "narrative" approach, versus listing "facts", as a means, for example, of "knowing" somebody who lived a long time ago.

Infallibility and fundamentalism.

You should jump this and go on to the next Chapter, if you are not concerned about infallibility, as believed by fundamentalists. The comments here are not needed for the rest of the discussion. Fundamentalism itself appears elsewhere.

Differing religious groups call themselves "fundamentalists" for a variety of different reasons. Christian fundamentalists tend to call themselves this because they believe in what they consider the "fundamentals" of faith. Biblical fundamentalists tend to believe that the Bible is unfailingly (infallibly) true and Roman Catholic fundamentalists tend to believe "the Church", as embodied by the Pope, in particular circumstances (when speaking ex cathedra), is infallible.

Before you can understand why people might believe in infallibility, you have to understand the idea of "revelation"; all about how religious truth might be revealed in particular ways or places. Here, I am not going to discuss why people believe these sorts of thing, just what such beliefs could mean.

The main conceptual issue with "Biblical infallibility" is the question of intent. Once we realise that words can never be true in any absolute sense, then we have to try to establish what the writers’ purpose was. If I jump out of an aircraft at thirty thousand feet, holding the Bible above my head as a parachute, it seems unfair to blame it for failing in this role. In these circumstances, the Bible has not really failed since it was not intended to be a parachute. I am to blame for misuse. "Failure", "fallibility" and "infallibility" are meaningless as concepts without prior purpose. Equally anyone can be infallible simply by being sufficiently unambitious; if you do not try to do something, you cannot fail.

The example of the parachute is ridiculous; of course, although there are historical examples of people who thought touching a physical transcript of the Bible itself might cure them. It is not up to us to choose what we want the Bible to be for. Something intended otherwise will not be a correct foundation for building up a science-style picture of truth. The words written cannot have some absolute truth, out of the context of what they were intended to mean. To be more precise, unless you know that the intention of a writer was to allow you to build a specific theory (which he implicitly understood) on his words, doing so gives an unreliable outcome regardless of the writer’s fallibility. The process of construction ("deducing" new "truth" from pictures, using "logic") is routine amongst cults.

The problem of intent, of course, does not affect ex-cathedra statements by the pope. It is easier to understand his intent, and the text is less enigmatic with fuller context. However, this does not remotely establish whether the claim to infallibility in such circumstances is correct.

Letter to Peter next chapter

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