as if / Philosophy

On Truth

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In my previous post, I argued that observations are always theory-dependent. However, theories might be wrong. Evidence for or against them comes from those same observations. If there is no absolute “bird’s eye view” from which to judge their truth, the absolute establishment of truth is impossible. There might be just one truth about reality, but we are not able to recognize it with absolute certainty. There is no absolute certainty and there are examples of drastic shifts of paradigms in the history of the sciences, when theories collapsed and where replaced by other ones.

This situation has not stopped scientists from making some progress. There are always some hypotheses that have to be taken without evidence and they may eventually turn out to be wrong. What is important here is a critical attitude that includes the willingness to give up or change theories if necessary and to take nothing for granted, paired with care to apply the best methodology available at a time. Striving for truth is a virtue, believing to have reached it, however, is a vice. It pays off to learn about the history and methodology of science (and its older manifestations, like “natural philosophy”).

However, the theory-dependence of observations does not only apply to science, it applies to everyday life and other aspects of life and culture as well. The ontology of our world – as individuals or groups – i.e. the entities that make up the world as perceived by us and interacted with, depend on our theories. These might be wrong and when we find out they were, the world as we thought it to be can suddenly change. Theories about the trustworthiness other people, about the freshness of food in the icebox, about the amount of gas in our car’s tank can suddenly turn out to be wrong. Observations that contradict them lead to a change in our theories. The resulting, revised theories might be wrong as well (we find out, for example, that the tank we thought to be empty actually is still filled but that there is another technical problem). But just like in science, critical and careful thinking is helpful.

To use a term I have introduced in other articles on this blog, such theories are “as-if-constructions”. As long as the theory has not been falsified (or we are operating within its scope of applicability), we can pretend as if the real world actually behaves as if the theory were true. Even if a theory is actually true, it is still an as-if-construction since we can never be absolutely certain it is representing the truth. They are fictitious, even if occasionally, they might be true. We never “have” reality; we access it only through our theories. In other articles, I have used the metaphor of a bubble for our theories. We are always inside such “as-if-bubbles”. In terms of this metaphor, the critical or skeptical attitude means that we should try our best to make those bubbles burst (even if some might survive these attempts).

However, the skeptical, critical and thorough thinking needed to sort out wrong or less likely theories cannot be taken for granted. It is itself the result of historical processes in which faulty patterns of thought have been replaced by better ones. As results of history, such patterns of thought are part of a culture. A group of people may refuse to share them. A theory for which there is no evidence (or for which there is actually counter-evidence) can be declared to be true and the methods of thought can be tinkered with so that for people holding this theory, it appears to be true and the world, as seen by them, contains entities that only exist according to that theory. The insecurity, complexity and instability of the open scientific world view is replaced by a simple and seemingly secure view.

Since such constructions can normally be undermined by evidence (or lack thereof), by critical and skeptical reasoning and application of logic, such groups will tend to become irrational to some extent and, where they gain power, they will tend to use violence against those “heretics” who do not share their views.

Such theories – ideologies – can be viewed as as-if-constructions that contain a theorem saying that they are not as-if-constructions, but the truth. Viewed from the inside, their fictitious nature (that they share with all other theories, including scientific ones) becomes obscured. You don’t see the wall of the bubble from the inside. The result is a twisted ontology. People will believe in and actually (from their point of view) observe things that, viewed from outside the ideology, clearly do not exist. Dialogue with them will often not be possible since there is no common basis for discussion. Such a common basis would be provided by accepting common standards for evidence, logic and discussion, but this is exactly what is tampered with in ideologies.

In many cases it might be impossible to get those who are caught up inside such a trap of thinking out of it. But it might be possible to protect those who have not yet stepped into those traps, by analyzing and exposing the faulty thinking of ideologies, and by generally promoting critical and skeptical thinking, careful and logical thinking, evidence-based science and a broad understanding of philosophy. Many are drawn into ideologies, especially religious ones, during their childhood and youth, and we have to gain an understanding how this is happening, how it can be influenced by education, and how countermeasures, educational or others, can be influenced on all levels of society, including politics.

The project of enlightenment is not yet finished. In fact, it cannot be finished completely. It is necessarily ongoing work in – and on – progress; and it is necessary.

(The picture is from

16 thoughts on “On Truth

    • Indeed. We should not invest ourselves emotionally into our theories. We should train to have an attitude of non-attachment (in the Buddhist sense) to theories and beliefs (the opposite of faith).

  1. I don’t have much to say about this post as I’m still ruminating on the last one. I don’t think my thoughts are going anywhere, but the theory-dependent observations (which I read about in Thomas Kuhn) is something that I’ve only thought about in terms of science, not all perception. So now broadening that principle to all observations is something I’m not sure about. If what is meant by “theory” is something like a priori ideas, that makes more sense to me.

    Sorry, this comment really doesn’t belong here!

    Hope you had a nice trip. Glad to have you back.

    • What I mean be “theory” is any knowledge about the world or parts of the world. I think the way we perceive the world and the entities in it always depends a lot on our knowledge about it/them. By knowledge I just mean information we have that we use to interpret out perceptions. What we get, I think, is always an interpretation.
      There is no pre-existing separation of science and non-science. The separation emerged over time.
      The world we are looking at is the same but we see different things, depending on our preconceptions which are individually and culturally different. If you look at an airplane flying above you, you will see something different from, say an Andaman islander from Great Sentinel Island. You will look at the same material object but probably have totally different ideas about what it is.
      When I use the term “ontology”, what I mean by it is the system of entities the world consists of from the point of view of some person or group, depending on their system of knowledge and ideas (theories). For example, where one person sees a human being, another on might see an enemy to be killed, or a slave. If you are a Hindu, you might perceive different people in terms of their caste, if you are not, you might just see people. Some white policemen in the US seem to perceive black people as threatening and as a result easily kill them. Some people group others in terms of “race” while in the ontology of others, there is no such thing as “race”. It’s all in the head. A traditional Inuit might see building material for a house in one case, or something for making drinking water from it in another, where you and me only see snow. One person will perceive certain cloths as “cool”, fashionable, desirable etc. where the other one just sees cloths. A lot of advertising, I think is about altering perception in this way (see about the use of the distortion of the self-image as a business-model). See also

      • So then there are real objects, but we, with our relative theories—the condition that makes perception possible—will never be sure that we know these real objects since other people have different and possibly contradictory theories? And if this is right, the epistemic problem of science (in the modern sense) is not special. It’s not that science relies on induction to a great degree and this puts theories at the level of “as-if” but ALL knowledge is then “as-if”?

          • HAHA! I totally agree. When I saw your response I was sitting here in Oklahoma with a brain fog thinking, “Oh crap.”

            No need to respond if you don’t feel like it. Sometimes ideas need space and time. And these are some big ones.

        • I would answer “yes” to these questions. I think that we are approaching truth in some areas, but we can never completely eliminate some hypotheses that we cannot prove (except by deriving them from other hypotheses) and that are “metaphysical” in that sense. For example, I assume that a world independent of me exists but I cannot prove it to somebody who insists on a solipsistic view.

          I think the distinction between science and non-science is gradual. There is no clear border. In science, we are trying to be as reflected as possible and as methodologically clean as possible.

          One could view my view as a kind of constructivism, but it is bounded by reality. “Anything goes” does not work. But yes, all knowledge is “as-if”. Even if in some areas, we might actually hit upon the truth, we cannot distinguish these parts of our knowledge from others. The traditional view of “knowledge” as “justified true belief” does not make much sense, in my view. Knowledge is always subject to revision. Lets say, it is “justified belief” and we always have to apply skepticism, criticism and reflection as well as careful observation and experiment to it.

          • So then we might hit upon the truth without knowing it? But surely there must be some sort of measuring stick by which to distinguish true knowledge, or else how do we recognize one theory to be more correct than another? Or do we? And how is something bounded by reality if we can’t know reality? (Upon reflection, I realize this is really a form of the last question).

            In other words, don’t we have to have a grasp of what shape reality would take in order to have degrees of knowledge and progress?

            • I think my view is similar to that of Quine, to the view called the Duhem-Quine-Thesis (

              Let me give one or two examples. Scientists might find a sequence of sediment layers on the bottom of a lake and realize that there is a new layer every year. Now, counting the layers, they conclude that this process started 11000 years ago.

              Now some evangelical reverend father comes along and tells us that the world has been created only 6000-something years ago. His basic assumption is that the bible is literally true.

              If we point out to him our result about the sediments, he can save his “the bible is true”-axiom by assuming that while the upper 6000 layers might be true sediment layers, the lower 5000 have been created like they are. They look like sediment but they are not.

              The scientist rejects the “the bible-is-true” axiom. Instead, he employs a principle that says that things that look alike are instances of the same laws of nature. The world is homogenous. There is no reason to assume that some layers are not true sediment. They look like the same kind of thing, so they are, as long as there is no evidence for another process, like creation. The bible as a scientific theory, from this point of view, has been ruled out for good.

              Second example: If the scientist observes a star that is 400 light years away and one that is a million light years away, he assumes that space, time, and the laws of nature are homogenous and there is no reason to assume that while the light from the star 800 light years away actually originated in a star, the light of the more distant star is a simulation. In fact, how did the reverend father’s universe look like 5800 years ago. Did that star 800 light years away not yet exist, and it was created later? Is there an expanding shell of creation around earth? Or does the Andromeda Galaxy actually exist, but the light we see coming from it now did not actually originate there, but was created somewhere in the middle of nowhere, to give us the wrong impression that the universe is much older? The reverend father might pick one of these possibilities or refuse an answer. He might also refuse to look through the telescope.

              So we have two layers here. On the outer layer, “anything goes”. If you decide to believe that the world was created last week Thursday, that nobody except you exists or whatever, you might be able to construct a theory where everything is consistent. You might also reject the requirement of consistency. If somebody wants to believe he will go to paradise if he blasts himselself and 20 other people on a market place, I cannot prove him wrong (but I might fight such people).

              Once you accept certain basic assumptions, however, you have to play the game according to certain rules. Certain observations will then lead to the conclusion that the Andromeda galaxy actually exists. Inside this framework, the Andromeda galaxy or conditions of the lake 9000 years ago or the last ice age are observable and have certain properties. If, on the other hand, you assume the “the bible is true” axiom, you will arrive at very different conclusions from the same observational data.

              I wrote above that my view is “bounded by reality”. On this outer level, that might not be correct. On the inner level, from within the scientific world view, it seems correct, but I cannot prove that what I think reality to be is the true reality.

              I choose the scientific view. I choose the principle of homogeneity and some other basic principles that I find reasonable. Based on the theory that this principle holds, I embrace the scientific view and reject the bible and other “holy books”. But I see no objective measuring stick by which I could convince Mr. evangelical reverend father to do the same.

              To choose the scientific view is a metaphysical position. There is no way to prove it. I think that principles like that of homogeneity are reasonable, but I see lots of people who think differently and I don’t see a way to convince them.

              • “I wrote above that my view is “bounded by reality”. On this outer level, that might not be correct. On the inner level, from within the scientific world view, it seems correct, but I cannot prove that what I think reality to be is the true reality.”

                So reality (especially or specifically scientific) turns out to be certain things acting in accordance with presupposed laws, but those presuppositions can’t themselves be proved?

                If so, I wonder if the evangelist could be shown that he actually relies on those same (scientific) laws when he’s not doing his evangelist thing? Or that maybe even if those laws can’t be themselves proven, they could at least be proven to be essential to thought or at least expedient? Or something?

                I checked out that webpage. Interesting thoughts there.That illusion is still tripping me out. I keep putting my fingers up to the boxes to see if the shades really are the same. I’m still skeptical. 🙂

    • The trip was a business trip, so it was just office and hotel (the weather was cold). My wife’s laptop is broken and she needs one for business so I left my own at home. But I have no problem with that, I had a couple of books. Back at home, I became ill and did not really feel like writing.

  2. Saṃsāra (Sanskrit: संसार) (in Tibetan called khor ba “སམསར”, pronounced /kɔrwɔ/, meaning “continuous flow” and in Sinhala called sangsāra “සංසාර” meaning “eternal cycle”), is the repeating cycle of birth, life and death.

    “Release from samsara
    In the Pāli Canon and the Āgamas, the majority of discourses focusing on the five aggregates discusses them as a basis for understanding and achieving liberation from suffering.

    Liberation is possible by insight into the workings of the mind. Traditional mindfulness practices can awaken this by understanding, release and wisdom.

    In the classic Theravada meditation reference, the “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta” (“The Foundations of Mindfulness Discourse,” MN 10), the Buddha provides four bases for establishing mindfulness: body (kaya), sensations (vedana), mind (citta) and mental objects (dhamma). When discussing mental objects as a basis for meditation, the Buddha identifies five objects, including the aggregates.

    Through mindfulness contemplation, one sees an “aggregate as an aggregate” — sees it arising and dissipating. Such clear seeing creates a space between the aggregate and clinging, a space that will prevent or enervate the arising and propagation of clinging, thereby diminishing future suffering. As clinging disappears, so too notions of a separate “self.”

    “The Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon contains the teachings of the Buddha, as preserved by the Theravada tradition.

    The five “skandhas”
    The sutras describe five “aggregates”

    1)”form” or “matter: external and internal matter. Externally, rupa is the physical world. Internally, rupa includes the material body and the physical sense organs.
    2)”sensation” or “feeling”: sensing an object as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
    3)”perception”, “conception”, “apperception”, “cognition”, or “discrimination”: registers whether an object is recognized or not (for instance, the sound of a bell or the shape of a tree).
    4)”mental formations”, “impulses”, “volition”, or “compositional factors”: all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, prejudices, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object
    5)”consciousness” or “discernment”:
    a)In the Nikayas/Āgamas: cognizance, that which discerns
    b)In the Abhidhamma: a series of rapidly changing interconnected discrete acts of cognizance.
    c)In some Mahayana sources: the base that supports all experience.

    • I would not deney that I am personally influenced by Buddhism in my views, although I would say it is a secular form of Buddhism. I do not believe in karma and reincarnation. But if you take the religious elements out, what remains has some similarity to my own way of thinking.

  3. I left this out:

    “No essence”: Sunyata
    “The aggregates don’t constitute any ‘essence’. In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha explains this by using t”he simile of a chariot”:

    A ‘chariot’ exists on the basis of the aggregation of parts, even so the concept of ‘being’ exists when the five aggregates are available.

    Just as the concept of “chariot” is a reification, so too is the concept of “being”. The constituents of being too are unsubstantial in that they are causally produced, just like the chariot as a whole.

    The chariot metaphor is not an exercise in ontology, but rather a caution against ontological theorizing and conceptual realism. Part of the Buddha’s general approach to language was to point towards its conventional nature, and to undermine the misleading character of nouns as substance-words.”-Śūnyatā

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