Picking on Mulberries

Over at Mere Orthodoxy, the possibly pseudonymous tex has been pondering unassailable truths. While I don’t have the facility with philosophical jargon with which he is comfortable I’d like to offer some thoughts on the matter.

tex is considering the problem of the existence and utility of unassailable truth. He writes:

Something is unassailable in two possible ways:
1. There is no way of testing the validity of the thing and so it cannot be assailed in any way
2. All the things that support the thing are tested and found to be true and to rest upon a final principle which is itself true; that is, the attempted assailing if you will, was unsuccessful.

And it seems he is not so happy with the first, and thinks the 2nd is rare. tex also points out that the there is another possibility, that

A foundation need not be unassailable at all; however, an assailable foundation comes with a price. It must constantly be defended and upheld, and all the beliefs that flow from it cannot be known to be true (insofar as the foundation is not known to be true and is thus assailable).

Now, it might be that “truth” is not the most useful criterion. Mathematics in the 20th century failed in the Russell/Whitehead programme to axiomatise and make itself internally consistent. Godel’s little theorem showed that programme to be flawed. However mathematics, while thus not being able to be shown as “true”, still has two other, perhaps better, criteria which drive it along in the remainder of the 20th and 21st centuries. The other virtues of beauty and utility drive mathematical intuition and research. Perhaps these two criteria when taken hand in hand in an indirect fashion touch truth in a way more fundamental than is immediately apparent.

In the same way that Riemann’s seminal doctoral defense was beautiful and in fact useful giving rise to differential geometry and general relativity, good philosophy and theology can be internally (logically) beautiful and useful. If a foundation and its accompanying edifice touches, ala Aquinas and Augustine, and unites natural science, philosophy and ethics with the spiritual and theological … if it is useful and beautiful (and perhaps Good), is “unassailable truth” even still a requirement?

Physics uses the assailable yet beautiful Mathematics to develop a representation or a model of the truths hiding in Creation. These models are not “truth”, but are in fact representations and models of reality, i.e., the truth for which they seek. Likewise, philosophers and theologians should (if in fact they do not) realize their models as well are merely representations of the truths for which they seek. Beauty, utility, and perhaps the guiding light of the Spirit are signposts lighting the way. Godel dooms any particular model, but … not the project.

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  1. tex says:


    Thanks for the response.

    If I understand you correctly, you are offering that, instead of asking, “Is it true?” but rather, “Is it useful?” or “Is it beautiful?,” we may have better success in discovering a foundation from which one may work to gain knowledge about the cosmos.

    I fail to see how this would offer more success except insofar as utility and beauty are criteria for truth. If something may be useful but false or beautiful but false, then it fails to move us any closer to the discovery of what is true.

    I think you may have snuck truth in the back door with your inclusion of utility. In mathematics and physics, the models and theories are only useful insofar as they solve problems. If the problems are real, then the solutions are real as well, thus proving the truthfulness of the model or theory (at least as applied to the particular problem or situation).

    To take the example of a grand worldview like Augustine’s, which united natural science, ethics, philosophy, and theology–a worldview that is internally coherent and even beautiful; its utility is measured only by how well it meets its purpose. If it was constructed to be a thing of beauty and intricacy or interesting ideas or whatever else, its usefulness may be measured by how well it meets those criteria. If it was constructed to be an accurate representation of the cosmos, its usefulness is measured by how well it corresponds to reality, in other words, it is usefulness is measured by its truth.

  2. Mark says:

    Actually, what I am saying is that in most cases “what is true?” is not attainable, but that what is has beauty and utility is humanly attainable, and perhaps all we can/should strive for.

    Also, I’d like to point that a “representation” ala group theory or models in physics have an understanding of a regime to which they apply. They are not universal, unassailable, or in fact internally consistent inasmuch as they are built largely on mathematics which is not and cannot be consistent.

    Can truth be so flawed? Or if truth must necessarily be flawed as we understand it, might not beauty and utility be a better signpost than unassailablilty, logical consistency, or any other measure of truth.

  3. tex says:

    Are you offering beauty and utility as better signposts than logical consistency, and unassailability along the way to truth?

    “It is true if it is beautiful and useful,” rather than “It is true if it is logically consistent?”

  4. Mark says:

    Yes I guess that’s where I’m headed. If logical consistency is logically impossible (ala Godel w.r.t mathematics) that doesn’t mean we need give up.

    Modern physics doesn’t claim an electron “is” a complex wave function the norm of which represents a probability of its location. It just says that’s a “representation” of it. It is less ambitious, not aiming to be truth, just a glimpse.

    Beauty and utility can give us a glimpse. Perhaps that’s all we can get? But that may be enough, eh?