Is Truth, What Is?
In Jesuit high school, we learned the traditional Western definition of “Truth.” “Truth is, what is.” This statement can be disallowed (you can’t define a thing by itself) or (what we now realize) was very profound if you take “what is” to be the objective state of the dynamic world. Because then, you can deal with Truth’s practical consequences along its three main dimensions: Moral, Science, and Social. We will discuss each in turn.
In traditional societies, truth is moral. If you consider land-locked Persia in its wars with Greece, during the 5th century BCE, truth was simply the will of the Great King, inspired by the God, that ordered social behavior. Greece, however, was a land of craggy peninsulas. add: The Greeks, and their predecessor Bronze Age civilization (of storied Illiad and the Odyessy fame), therefore looked outward to the trade routes of the Mediterranean to make a living.
The Greeks were the merchants, sailors, soldiers and settlers of that ancient world. They founded sister city-states far west as Sicily and as far east as present-day Turkey. What we wish to discuss here is philosophy and mathematics, for these have direct impacts on the modern world.
To the peripatetic Greeks, encountering different languages and outlooks, what did the Egyptians have in common with the Persians? What is it about the universe that we hold in common? According to historian Thomas Cahill:
…the first philosophers were relatively traditional sages who gradually (and probably painfully) created a new job description for themselves.
They wanted to find out what made the universe work. In the Greek cities of sixth-century Ionia-the west coast of Asia…which had been settled by Athenians-there rose a series of thinkers who inquired in the nature of things. Having no Book of Genesis to consult…they assumed the world -or kosmos (their world meaning “elegant order”)-was, in some profound sense eternal: it had always been there, so far as they could determine and always would be….there must an underlying …thing that never changes, never had changed, and never will change, the uncreated material out of which mutable things spring. 1
The Greeks, however, were not scientists who sought to explain the world we live in. They were geometric generalists who sought to explain a static universe and a constant human nature, the universe of forms and archetypical ideas. Their scientific tools were simply the geometric divider and the ruler. But what they also passed down was the precision of thought (then applied to Socratic moral issues) that characterizes modern science.
Algebra came to us from the Arabs. (Al-jabr) is the process of restoring what is missing. In other words, if the dependent variable (y) can tell us something new about the world if we know something else about it (x1,x2,x3…) – the independent variables. So applied, both simple mathematical tools, geometry or algebra, assume a static universe at equilibrium, and so does most economics.
This situation applied for most of Western society until the Enlightenment of the 18th century. This movement then contained two very significant phases. The first phase, as exemplified by René Descartes (the inventor of the precise Cartesian coordinates), sought, as we have been discussing, certain knowledge. The second phase of the Enlightenment is the science of today that emphasizes “…that knowledge claims are invariably corrigible and subject to revision. 2
Michael Nelson, Emeritus Reader of Public Health at Kings College, London well understands the current science:
“It is clear, however, that most of the laws which are derived are soon superseded by other laws (or truths) which are meant to provide better (our note) understanding which of the ways in which the world behaves. This process of old truths being supplanted by which by new truths is often a source of frustration to those who seek an absolute truth which is secure and immutable. It is also a source of frustration to whose who believe that science provides us with objective facts, and who cannot therefor understand why one set of ‘facts’ is regularly replaced by another set of ‘facts’ which are somehow ‘more true’ than the last lot. It is possible, however, to view this process of continual replacement as a truth in itself (our note): this law states that we are unlikely ever to find absolute truths or wholly objective observations, but we can work to refine our understanding and observation so that they more nearly approximate the truth (the world ‘as it is’).” 3
What makes the journey of scientific inquiry possible is the “wild math” that describes the quantum physics of the transistor, the self-regulating control systems of cars or the Colonial pipeline, and the increasingly necessary technologies related to climate change. (If you are a supporter of the sulfurous Donald Trump, consider the sophistication of the technologies that underly your cell-phone communications.)
To a mathematician a number is just a number, an archetype ideal. There are natural numbers occurring in a line, stretching from positive to negative, for instance the number of objects occurring in nature. There are irrational numbers, for instance 2 along the same line, on to the negative numbers like -1. Mathematicians spent hundreds of years trying to figure out what the imaginary number, -1 x -1 = -1, meant until one of history’s greatest, Carl Friedrich Gauss, expanded the numbers on a line to a plane that included an imaginary (additional) dimension. What this did for mathematicians and engineers was to enable the solution of high dimension equations, resulting in the “miracles” and problems posed by modern technology. 4
In 1782, the French philosopher Condorcet said, “…(that) the ‘huge progress the physical sciences had now assured the progress of the moral sciences,’ so that they would ‘preserve’ us from a return to barbarism.” 5 Considering the over-all the growth in incomes and increasing life-spans around the world, the goals of rational Enlightenment progress continue to be attainable, but there are obviously problems.
The main problem, as the Greeks knew, is human nature itself. It ought to consider the facts of its environment, be more rational, more even-tempered; but often isn’t, especially when stressed. To focus only on bad leadership, the most stressing former president in U.S. history, has denied that Joe Biden won the election for the presidency in 2020.
The ex-president of the United States threatens our democracy because he denies truth, a truth which can best be ascertained. Shapiro writes, “Democracy is a system in which those who are disadvantaged by present arrangements have both the incentive and the resources to point to the defects of those arrangements, show how the truth about them is being obscured, and try to get those arrangements changed. In a world in which those contending for power must appeal to the human interest in knowing and acting on the truth, there will always be those who try to twist the truth to their purposes, taking advantage of others. (A real) democratic competition for power…is the best response to this state of affairs.” 6 In this way, the democratic system constantly renews itself.
The best response for the U.S. electorate is not to wallow in the ex-president’s continued leadership failures. 7 The best response for the U.S. electorate is to look ahead to the objective problems we face as a nation. The three major challenges facing the U.S. are global warming, globalization and a reckoning with its minorities. To meet these challenges, there are new ways. The following is a surprise.
The International Energy Agency is comprised of the energy ministers from 30 member countries, including the United States. The unanimous outcome of Board meetings are binding on all member countries. In May, 2021 the IEA issued a very detailed road map of what it would take for the world’s nations to slash carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050. This would likely keep the average global temperature from increasing 1.5º above the preindustrial level. (Its around 1.2º now, with 2.0º the tipping point, affecting life as we know it.)
One can imagine such a top-down agency citing dire climate circumstances, issuing a set of orders and crudely saying, do it! This is, however, not the way to operate in a diverse environment, where people need to be convinced. The head of the IEA writes, “The clean energy transition is for and about people…The pathway laid out in our Roadmap is global in scope, but each country will need to design its own strategy taking into account its own specific circumstances…The IEA stands ready to support governments in assistance in implementing them, and to promote international cooperation on accelerating the energy transition world-wide.” 8
The result of this process should be the means to deal with global warming. 9
A previous essay, “Values and Society,” discusses John Rawls’ distinction between the “public values” of liberal democracies and the "personal comprehensive values" (of temperance, fairness and courage) that are taught in the family and by the educational system. As it turns out, the former are the source of the latter. “The classical personal virtues of prudence, temperance, fairness and courage…make possible the public values of reason, proportionality, justice and timeliness. It therefore logically follows that chaotic or inappropriate policies are the result of a lack of these personal virtues by policy makers (n.b., as previous events amply illustrate). We think this is nearly obvious: leadership in government or business is keeping the organization on track to realize certain values like justice, in government, or customer benefit…in business.”