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Notes on the evasiveness of truth

In brief-- The notion of 'truth' can be confusing, especially given its complex relationships with fact and fiction. The application of 'truth' is likewise problematic. Religion is tied up in this.

In long--

There are fictions few believe to be actual, but which are spoken of as though real. "Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit," "Captain Hook is obsessed with 'good form'," "Hamlet is troubled by the facts of his father's death," and, "Superman wars a cape," would all count as true statements in a test on any of their respective works. These statements are all true to their respective fictions, and do not seem to require qualifying notes in general speech. It helps that most native English speakers are at least somewhat aware of The Hobbit, Peter Pan, Hamlet, and Superman as works of fiction. An ignorant eavesdropper might just as well assume discussion including such statements applied to the real and actual world of nonfiction.

There are also fictions which many or most believe to be true of the real world. These are often based on legends, lies, or propaganda. For example:

"Paul Revere's ride is historically documented in the famous poem."
"The Jews clandestinely seek (or have attained) world domination."
"The Puritans who landed at Plymoth Rock desired a land with freedom of religion."
"King Richard III of England was [relatively speaking] an evil tyrant."

These are all documentedly and conclusively false, as a fair number of historians and laymen have shown throughout the years--often to little or no effect. People who express belief in such falsehoods are not typically lying, and they may very well be intelligent, ethical, and otherwise educated individuals. --I am not concerned here with lies and liars, per se, but in apparently false statements which at least some people would attribute truth to.--

Both sorts of fictions may be expressed and discussed earnestly and seriously. I recently read a letter written by adults (one of whom held a PhD) addressed to pulp fiction author, Robert E. Howard, regarding the life history of Conan the barbarian. It came complete with a hand drawn map. Howard responded with further details, a map of his own, and a dearth of irony.

--As a curiosity, there are some statements which may function both as true-to-fiction and decidedly-false-yet-believed, such as might appear in a discussion of the WWE.--

To muddy the waters even further, we find that facts may be twisted to form or further fictions. Tobacco companies, anti-drug groups, attorneys, and politicians are notorious for such acts, speaking generally. Extremely convincing arguments have been made that the administration of George W. Bush engaged in such tactics while pushing for war with Iraq.

More, it is odt held that fictions may express truths, metaphorically and otherwise. Many pretentious artists claim to only be interested in such works. Pieces of what may loosely be called historical fiction sometimes expose truths long covered-up, forgotten, or ignored by the general public (e.g. the bombing of Dresden as described in Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse 5, or the magnanimity of Richard III as rediscovered in Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time).

If we are to be guided by daily or general use, it appears plain to me, fact is not truth, and truth is not fact. This, despite regular intersects. There are truths which pertain to falsehoods and fantasies, as well as fictions which are treated as facts (including heretofore undiscussed convenient fictions, such as Newtonian physics has become when applied to simpler feats of engineering, ballistics, or education). In regular speech, 'truth' is anything but clear and precise. This is so, even ignoring questions of subjectivity and relativity.

Religious beliefs (though they vary in character, source, specifics, justification, application, and matters of culture) thrive on this chaos. It is nearly impossible to dissuade a believer of his faith when his idea of truth is informed and constrained by his religious worldview.

While religion may not be able to offer any less vague a definition of 'truth' than some other system, it is perfectly capable of providing a neater one; as, for example, "God is truth." That the self evidence typically ascribed this claim by competing sects does not clear up their disagreements--and appears plain only to those who already assent to their faith--doesn't seem to jar belief in such an idea. At least some religions and some sects must be wrong (no matter their follower's surety or justifications) in order for any particular theist or atheist view to be correct; this only seems to convince most their own stance is true and factual.

People cannot agree upon a single or generalized use or definition for truth. Nor can they agree upon what is or is not true. Confronted with a worldview which doesn't roughly match my own, whatever I may take away from such an encounter, I find I usually associate it with the aforementioned fictions-treated-as-facts. Others are like to do the same to me, if they do not consider me a lying or deluded scoundrel.


  1. Hey this is blkcowboyhat from the forum. I just wanted you to know I really liked that essay/post/blog/whatever. I actually identified more with your WWE analogy, than reference to false historic literary legends like Paul Revere and Richard III. I don't know what that says about me though.

  2. I don't find anything in this that I am substantially in disagreement with.

    I am curious if it is an intentional thing to begin the study of truth in terms of statements, as that may unnecessarily narrow your investigation into the correspondence of enunciation/language with enunciated/reference. For example, there is definitely a wealth of slide in "Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit," as we intuitively take it as a statement about a world-fiction. But "Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit," is also a statement appearing as itself in our world-lived, and its own appearance as a phenomenon is its testimony/justification for itself as the statement 'Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit.' The statement itself is as much a phenomenon in appearing as apples or clouds or nation-states. The overdetermination of meaning can often exclude the presentation of a statement as itself, in that the meaning summons forth an entire world-system for interpretation, when little to no such world-system is present for "meaningless" phenomena such as apples, clouds, nation-states.

    Where truth, then, goes wrong, is perhaps in that overdetermination... Afterall, I can just as easily arrange apples into a sequence that spells out "Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit," ...

  3. Josh, it tells me you either like trashy television a great deal, or hang out with dudes who do. Nothing wrong with that. Anyway, thanks for the compliment. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Charles, I suppose I have a bias towards approaching such matters in terms of propositions. I am not sure how an apple can be true, or how an apple on a table can be true, but I think I have some vague understanding of what it means for, 'There is an apple on my dining-room table,' to be true, and why, 'Captain America eats an apple every day,' cannot be true except with reference to fiction. While certain states may attain irrespective of anyone's ability to phrase them, it is difficult to see how truth can arise, especially as a concept (as opposed to, say, an inherent or independent property), without language to frame it. Attendant content and concepts seem equally indispensable to understanding of 'truth' and judgment of how and whether or not to apply the title to any one statement or set thereof.

    As such, I don't know that I'm particularly concerned with objects or phenomena here. I don't know whether or not that constitutes a significant disconnect in a discussion of truth (or reveals on in our handling of related concepts). If it does, I am not sure what can be done to fix the problem.


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