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September 20, 2010

In preparation for my philosophy of religion course I’ve been reading about what it means to be able to say that a statement is true. At a simple level there are two answers to this question, the realist stance and the anti-realist.

The realist says that a statement is true if it corresponds to an actual fact (i.e. it accurately describes the world as is). Thus the statement the chair is blue is true if the chair to which it refers is, in fact, blue. The realist view says that a statement cannot be both true and false.

Anti-realists hold a coherence theory – a statement is true if it coheres with other true statements (i.e. does not lead to contradiction to other true statements). The statement above (the chair is blue) is therefore true if the thing to which it refers matches my definition of a chair and is coloured in a way matching my definition of blue.

The anti-realist position leads naturally to a relativist view. People from other cultures, other walks of life etc. may have different statements to which to compare a statement when looking for coherence. Taking the example above as a starting point, what if the person making the statement was colour blind but unaware of the fact? They may see what to them matches their definition of blue, despite the chair actually being green. Not being colour blind I would say the chair is green, whilst they would say the chair is blue. Both statements are taken as true as they cohere with our pre-existing notions of chair and colour.

It is possible to be be realist about some things and anti-realist about others. I could for instance be an epistemological realist but a moral anti-realist. There are also interesting questions to be asked of both theories about how they deal with the future. Is the statement I will have a glass of wine with dinner tonight true or false?

God exists. Ignoring what exactly I mean by God, realists and anti-realists will obviously have very different approaches to this statement. It would seem to me that the realist would have a harder time answering this question. We would have to pin down an exact meaning of God and look for evidence that this God does, or doesn’t, exist. The anti-realist on the other hand can look at the other statements held as true by the person making the claim and check that God exists coheres with these statements, and from my experience with some people’s definitions of God this then just becomes a tautology.

Anyway, there’ll be more on this once the course starts. I’ve been thinking about how to use this blog to help me with the course, and am going to try to write about each lecture and the arguments I’ve taken from it. So starting next week, there’ll be a piece appearing sometime midweek about what we covered the Monday previously. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Carl permalink
    September 24, 2010 3:48 PM

    I thought you might like this related passage from Hawking’s new book The Grand Design:

    “A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved goldfish bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted view of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?

    The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl. For example, due to the distortion, a freely moving object that we would observe to move in a straight line would be observed by the goldfish to move along a curved path. Nevertheless, the goldfish could formulate scientific laws from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true and that would enable them to make predictions about the future motion of objects outside the bowl. Their laws would be more complicated that the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste. If a goldfish formulated such a theory, we would have to admit the goldfish’s view as a valid picture of reality.”

  2. September 26, 2010 10:58 AM

    Awesome, I like the analogy.

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