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.

Eco’s Pendulum

By strange coincidence, on Friday I finished Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum and the next day I woke up to the news of his death at 84 years old.  I really enjoyed the novel (his second, published in 1988) and wanted to explore my reactions and lessons I drew from it.  I’m going to cover real plot spoilers, so don’t read on if that’s not your thing.

The book’s plot follows a narrator, Casaubon, and two of his colleagues at a publishing house where they’ve been publishing books on the occult and similar subjects.  As a joke and a lure to attract more of these authors, the protagonists fabricate an elaborate Plan that weaves together many of the crazy threads they find in the manuscripts sent to them.  For many years they had mocked the conspiracy theories they found in these manuscripts until finally, with the creation of their own Plan and evidence of murder and death threats regarding it, they begin to believe in it themselves, and it becomes their undoing.

In part, Foucault’s Pendulum is a critique on those who would take history, stories, and literature too seriously in their quest to find connections and interpret hidden reasons and intentions behind events.  So it should be with a sense of irony that any of us attempt to read more into Eco’s work, probing beneath the surface, but nonetheless, as we’ll discuss, this kind of process can be very rewarding and is ultimately a key to innovation and the improvement of our real understanding of the world.

The biggest metaphor that runs wholly throughout the novel is that of the pendulum.  The pendulum is obviously important on the surface: the novel’s title comes from the invention of Léon Foucault, whose device was the first to demonstrate the earth’s rotation without relying on celestial observation.  His instrument is basically a large pendulum, big enough that its path can be easily traced and observed for slight changes as the earth rotates throughout the day.  Casaubon, lost in a sea of conspiracy theories and falsehood, fetishizes Foucault’s invention as a demonstration of a fixed point of reference.  Wobbling around in the multitude of false connections he and his partners have made, Casaubon longs for the ability to look up and see himself attached to something fixed.  Casaubon’s observations reveal the obvious fragments of what Eco is trying to tell us: that we can look for fixed points of truth when lost, that we long for that fixed point in the universe to tell us we’re okay, or that science may hint at where we can find truth and fixed points in life.

But that only scratches the surface!  I don’t know of anyone who has really examined all the ways in which you can spot a pendulum operating throughout Eco’s work.  There are several in the plot structure alone: from how the first and last few chapters take place in the Conservatoire, with the bulk of the plot in the middle; Casaubon’s time in Brazil, where he escapes from his occult readings, only to be interrupted by a ritual that preempts his return to Milan; as well as Casaubon’s back and forth between his work on the Plan and his relationships and wife’s pregnancy.

Eco's Pendulum Slides.001

Examples of the pendulum throughout the novel Foucault’s Pendulum.

Beyond the concrete plot movements, our protagonists are constantly struggling with the choice between two opposite sides of a pendulum: to believe or disbelieve a theory, to decide whether a claim is truth or conjecture, to trust a surface explanation or seek hidden meaning, and whether to act with bravery or cowardice.  For much of the book our heroes swing back and forth between decisions on either side of this spectrum, but inevitably their aggregate choices begin to favor one side, setting them on their spiral towards doom.

Sensing their compounded failure, the protagonists desperately seek an out.  It’s here that Eco introduces one of his best jokes in the book and one of the most important semiotic concepts: the power of no.

Early in the book Casaubon attempts to access his colleague’s computer, which is password protected behind the very specific phrase “Do you know the password?” After a few hours of trying the most clever combinations of words and phrases he’s sure his friend would use, out of exasperation Casaubon decides to answer the phrase literally, with NO.  This ends up being the password and is a key mirror to the final moments of the book.

The Plan, invented by Casaubon and his colleagues, once heard by the various crazies and devout occultists across Europe, sends these lunatics into a frenzy over getting access to the secret weapon the Plan is said to reveal.  In their final moments, as they are interrogated and face murder by these occultist lunatics, the protagonists realize they still have the power to use no.  “Do you have the secret location of the weapon?” “No.”

Eco's Pendulum Slides.002

“No” as a source of inertia for getting to the other side of the pendulum.

No is important to Eco for two reasons, the first is its power to restore agency in someone who feels they have no control.  Casaubon and friends, in their search for outside sources of truth and reference, decide they must accept any theory or connection, no matter how far fetched.  Their personal lives devolve similarly, as they accept whatever happens to them with indifference.  It’s only through their rediscovery of rejection and saying no that they realize they can swing back to a position of agency and personal standing.  By rejecting the Plan and saying no to the occultist’s query, they are able to reassert their position and identity as non-occultists.

The second way in which no is important to Eco is in how concepts acquire meaning through defining what they are not.  This is the via negativa sense, the idea from theology where you attempt to define God by reasoning about what (s)he is not.  No is used to disconnect concepts from others, to break connections and to establish boundaries.  It’s key to determining which side of the conceptual pendulum you are on.

Eco’s life is a bit of a pendulum in its own right: his writings go back-and-forth between academic publications and popular fiction.  If we leave the world of Casaubon and look to Eco’s work in semiotics, we quickly find references to the same challenges he presents in the novel.

In his chapter of the book The Sign of Three, Eco delves into the various processes of abduction.  Abduction is likened to the process of hypothesizing, or guessing, about the cause of an event after one has observed the result.  When working in a process of abduction, you entertain possible worlds that may differ from experience: “…abductions… are world-creating devices” (pg 214).

Eco goes on to give examples of the detective or scientist that operate through abduction, highlighting the different incentives for each in their respective domains.  The homicide detective, in trying to find who-dun-it, is able to entertain a wide variety of hypotheses in their process of finding the killer.  We encourage detectives to consider and not overlook any possible suspect or explanation.

In contrast, scientists may find a very different tolerance for conjecture in their domain.  The further their theories deviate from accepted dogma, the more they’ll find difficulty in funding their theories.  Science and human progress depends on radical new ideas, but it can be very hard to determine when it’s a good bet and worth proving out.



Eco's Pendulum Slides.003

“Scientific discoveries, medical and criminal detections, historical reconstructions… are all cases of conjectural thinking.(The Sign of Three, pg 205)

Eco doesn’t paint much of the bright side of conjecturing and world-creation in Foucault’s Pendulum.  But we find elsewhere in his work the nod towards the benefits of this process, especially for those at the boundary of some important field or line of inquiry.

Progress everywhere depends on the back-and-forth between truth and conjecture, between hypothesis and verification.  If we are to advance our present reality, we must suspend disbelief and entertain alternative worlds.  But this is not a one-way process.  It requires a delicate balance and teeter-totter, and a consciousness of the consequences.

If you’re a scientist working on a new theory, or an entrepreneur entertaining a new business idea, you would do well to read Foucault’s Pendulum for an instructive lesson in the process and consequences of letting your hypotheses run away from you.

RIP Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016)