Hard Truths

The subject of truth has been coming up quite often these days.  More of us are concerned with the information we get from the media or the president, and rightfully have questions about what we should or shouldn’t trust.

When debating these issues we’re covering well-trodden ground by philosophers, especially in metaphysics.  Since at least the time of Aristotle, this brand of philosophy has posed questions like “what really exists?” and “what is knowable?”  A work from 2009 by Elijah Millgram, Hard Truths, explores the history of this field and provides some surprising answers.

Millgram starts his book by breaking with the historical line of philosophers on this topic. Most works from the past use a classical view of logic where true conclusions follow from true premises.  These involve statements like “if P then Q,” which allow for valid, deductive arguments so long as P is true.  If your initial premises are true, and you make valid sequential inferences, then your argument on the whole will preserve truth and remain valid.

However, outside of the clean, symbol-manipulating world of formal logic, this reasoning breaks down.  Classical logic, Millgram points out, presupposes that the premises are bivalent: they are either Fully True or Not True, with no in-between.  This assumption severely restricts the domains in which it’s safe to use this kind of model, and frustrates attempts to use it in real-world contexts.  Instead, Millgram claims that we are nearly always stuck with some form of Partial Truth in the real world.

Partial Truth is something that is true ceteris paribus (all things being equal), or true in certain circumstances.  A phrase we might typically consider to be Fully True such as “the sky is blue” is only partially true: check it out on an overcast day, or at dawn, or at night.  If you were limited to making only strictly true statements that come out true 100% of the time, you’d need a lot of hedging in your statements to make something like “the sky is blue” work: “The sky appears blue under clear meteorological conditions, with no other atmospheric disturbances (such as pollution), and only in the time period between 30 minutes after dawn and 30 minutes before dusk.”

Screen Shot 2017-02-28 at 9.10.51 AM.pngIs the sky blue?

That sentence is not easy to construct.  It takes real effort to properly hedge and guard one’s arguments against exceptions and ceteris paribus clauses.  This brings us to one of Millgrams core points: Truth, with a capital T, does not come for free.  Every time we wish to make something come out as true in a greater number of circumstances, we have real work to do in front of us.  Interestingly, Millgram points out that this work is not always conceptual, but often resembles engineering physical, real-world phenomena in order to match our assertions.

That is to say, the class of things in the world for which we can make declarative, 100% True statements are typically man-made.  A simple example would be everyday man-made items like car parts.  It’s only the case that we can say this is the proper engine bolt for a Honda Civic because thousands of man-hours of design and engineering made this True.  Only through costly design and engineering efforts are we able to state with metaphysical certainty that this is the True replacement part.


Through design and engineering work we can have True statements about everyday items.

Beyond so concrete of an example, we can look to more long-term engineering efforts, such as those that are at work in biology and cultural evolution, as providers of bivalent distinctions.  Biological evolution gave us distinctions among sexes and species, while cultural evolution gave us institutions and legal frameworks to produce bivalence around things like citizenship and property ownership.  Take time, and our ability to make clean, bivalent statements about it.  Only as a result of both real world engineering, through the invention of the clock, and cultural evolution, through adoption of timekeeping norms, are we able to take statements like “I arrived at 3pm” as true.

To summarize Millgram’s points so far: most metaphysicists and philosophers of the last several thousand years believed they could deal with the world in terms of a bivalent True or Not True attitude.  Instead, they must accept that what they are dealing with most of the time is Partial Truth.  And if you expect to be able to advance Partial Truth towards a fuller Truth, you will have to do real work: either in the real world, as in the case of manufacturing Civics, or conceptually.

Unfortunately this doesn’t give us any clear answers for how to properly deal with truth in political discourse.  Instead, we’re stuck with partial truths flung from both sides: “immigrants are stealing our jobs!” (yes, that’s true sometimes, but…) versus “immigration is good for the economy!” (yes, that’s mostly true, but…).  If anything, an appreciation of Partial Truth might help you treat your own assumptions as less absolute, and allow for finding better compromises and empathic solutions.

I happen to think Partial Truth is an interesting metaphysical ground-layer for what goes on in early stage entrepreneurship.  I will take that up next time, when I’ll unpack some more of Millgram’s ideas from Hard Truths and his latest book, The Great Endarkenment.

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