I maintain that truth matters…a lot.
There should not be too much controversy in such a statement, right? …but what IS truth? How do we define truth? How do we vet truth? How do we identify that which is UN-true?
I am of a mind that it is only in the field of mathematics where we can…really and truly…claim absolute truths even exist. At one level, that makes perfect sense. We humans invented the rules of mathematics just as we invented the rules of checkers. That two plus two equals four is true because we say it is true. (If you’d like to burn up some time on an existential idea; try asking yourself whether “two” even exists absent a thinking mind to contemplate the concept of “two”)
What about things outside of mathematics? Can I prove that the Earth orbits the sun? Can I prove that one economic theory is better than another? Can I prove that I love my wife? These examples are pretty representative of the range of ideas for which we can have a range of confidence in their absolute truth. That range of confidence correlates with how directly we might apply the rules of mathematics to vetting the concept.
That the Sun sits at the center of our solar system is driven home (in part) because it behaves precisely as we would predict it mathematically. Prior to likes of Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo; great minds did try to mathematically define the movement of the planets as though they circled the Earth, but it was torturous and convoluted as they layered on compensating equation after compensating equation trying to explain why…for example…some planets sometimes seemed to move backwards in the heavens. Remarkably; they got pretty darn close…at least to the level of precision necessary to get along in the pre-first century. Once we contemplated that Earth actually wasn’t the center of the universe (non-intuitive and highly heretical at the time), everything simply snapped into place as though into a crystalline lattice. We could suddenly, mathematically predict the motions of planets with then-unfathomable precision without fudge factors. That being said; it’s still not an absolute truth that our heliocentric theory of the solar system is accurate. There could be some undiscovered force making everything simply appear as though we orbit the Sun (as some desperate ideologues would like to have us believe)
If we look at the example of the better economic theories, it becomes somewhat more difficult. A nation’s economy has a gazillion moving parts; rate of employment, debt-to-GDP ratio, natural resources, natural disasters, trade imbalances, marginal tax rates, war, other world economies, demographics and collective emotion just to name a few. Each of these factors, individually, might be amenable to mathematical (i.e. statistical) analysis. Such analysis might show us how adjusting…for example…marginal tax rates affects revenues, GDP, employment, etc.. The problem is that many of those moving parts are dependent on one another. Tweaking economic factor ‘A’ may be effective when factor ‘B’ is high, but not when factor ‘B’ is low. As we layer on different economic factors, the complexity of the problem grows exponentially and puts definitive, mathematical modeling out of reach. This is not to say that economic theory is impervious to mathematical analysis or that we can’t vet some aspects of economic theories. It just means that we are unlikely to achieve anywhere near the level of certainty that have with the movement of our neighboring heavenly bodies. There are broad aspects of economic theory that we can be confident in. Each economic up and down through history provides economists with lessons that we can learn from and analyze statistically [mathematically] and improve our level of confidence. One recent and notable area of consensus was bank bailouts. The bailouts stunk like rotten meat, but economists and both political camps recognized that the role that banks played was, unfortunately, vital to the recovery from the near economic implosion that the banks were largely responsible for. (Why there weren’t more strings attached, I may never understand) Conversely, we can look at the far-right mantra that [paraphrasing] lower business taxes will cure the economy, make you more virile and make your clothes fit better. A recent analysis shows that it doesn’t necessarily hold up under mathematical scrutiny.
On matters of love; that is completely out of reach of empirical/mathematical analysis, right? Well…maybe…maybe not. Setting aside that it may seem off-putting that we sully the primal passion of love with dispassionate mathematics; we do know that there are physiological and neurological changes associated with that emotion. These changes can be measured with technology such as fMRI which, at it’s core, statistically measures changes in blood flow to different areas of the brain. Can we use brain imaging to determine if you are experiencing love at any one moment? Kinda. Can we define love mathematically? Not by a long shot…yet.
I try to maintain standards for “truth”, but I apply it differently depending on how important the issue is. In the absence of contrary evidence, if you tell me that you love your dog, I am going to take that on faith. If you tell me that homosexuality is a choice, then you will have to mathematically prove it.
What really chafes my butt, though, is when “Truth” is capitalized. Capitalizing “Truth” betrays a complete lack of evidence and somehow asserts that the claim has special dispensation from any critique or scrutiny. This is an abandonment of the standard rules of discourse. If your truth claim affects the well being of others, then you should be called to task to show that it is “true” and not “True”. Nothing, no matter how deeply held or how personally comforting or how ideologically affirming, has dispensation from critique or scrutiny if it affects the well being of others.
In the words of Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”