Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Objective Truth & the "W-Word"

In my MCCC Logic classes I tell the students that, in philosophy, "logic" is about:

  1. 1. evaluating arguments
  2. 2. arguments are composed of statements (or propositions)
  3. 3. a "statement" is a sentence that is either true or false
  4. 4. an argument has only one conclusion
  5. an argument has one or more premises
  6. 5. for an argument to establish (either deductively or inductively) the truth of the conclusion, there must be a "claim of inference" from the premise(s) to the conclusion. That's the "logic" part of logic.
    6. then, if the premises are true, the conclusion follows either deductively (necessarily) or inductively (probably)
When I get to (3) some interesting things happen. I use, as an example of a statement, The lights in this room are now on. That sentence is a statement; viz., a sentence that is either true or false. Now imagine that this statement is true. What that means is that, objectively, the lights in the room are on. Put another way, this means that the statement The lights in this room are now on is true. Now if this statement is true, it is true independently of our human subjectivity. That is, the truth of this statement is not a function of how we think or feel about the lights being on in the room. Even if everyone in the room thought the statement to be false, that would not make the statement false, and we would all be wrong.

Here's where the trouble begins. My use of the 'w' word ("wrong") strikes a chord of offensiveness. For some of my students it is wrong to say that anyone else is wrong. W-language comes from another planet. The w-word marginalizes people into two groups, and that's wrong to do. On the planet where some of my students live it is wrong to say anyone is wrong because they might not be wrong and how could someone ever know for sure that another person is wrong and maybe I am wrong about the other person being wrong and besides telling someone "You are wrong" is so very, very wrong. My experience, on the other hand and from the POV of the planet I live on, is that when I say (3) above, and use the words "So if you were to think that the statement The lights in this room are now on is false when, objectively, they are on, then you would be... wrong."

Every semester I have students who cannot bear to hear that. They think I am arrogant to call someone else wrong. They think I am wrong to do such things, and some of them walk me to the parking lot letting me know how very wrong I am to talk like that. When I try to tell them that they are using the w-word against me, it is as if they are placed in a position above me and thus can use the w-word in a non-offensive way to let me know how offended they are. Logically, I get ad-hominized.

This kind of response happens within the minds of some, not all, students. Yet it seems to be a moment of stunning revelation to a number of them to hear a professor utter words like "true" and "false."

Welcome to the world of philosophical logic, which caters not at all to human felings and desires. It is only after truth. Truth is a function of statements. Statements are sentences that are either true or false. You have just finished reading this. Arguably, that is true.