Challenge: Truth Is Empirical

Posted: October 26, 2010 by Amy Hall in Truth Matters, Weekly Challenge

For the challenge this week, I thought I’d take a quote from the video Brett posted yesterday of his conversation with a man on the U.C. Berkeley campus.

When asked to define truth, the man responded:

Truth is something that can be empirically shown to be the best guess that we have.

Stepping away from the context of the video and how this particular man further explained his view, let’s take this quote by itself. If your friend made the claim that we can only call something “true” if we’ve scientifically tested it, and all other untestable claims about things are merely subjective opinions, how would you respond?

What questions could you ask to help him clarify his view? What counterexamples could you offer that he might not have considered before? What definition of truth would you offer for his consideration? How would you defend that definition? Respond as much or as little as you like–we want to hear from you! As usual, Brett’s video with this week’s training will be up on Thursday.

  1. I would ask him what he thinks of ethical claims or even aesthetic claims, because they can’t be empirically verified either. The claims “rape is wrong,” “honesty is good,” and “that painting is beautiful” must be either meaningless or meaningful only to certain people at a certain time (meaning it’s not objective) if truth can only be verified through the five senses. I’d simply want to know if he can actually accept that conclusion because that’s where it clearly leads.

    • Matt Taylor says:

      I think Kyle has a good idea but do we need to go beyond the statement itself.

      I think I would ask if the speaker believes his statement to be true. If so, how would he prove it empirically?

      That would probably lead to a conversation along the line of Kyle’s.

  2. Peter Freund says:

    If truth is empirical, then all propositions can be true only if they are verified or falsified emprically. But, what about the statement “truth is empirical”? That statement can neither be verified or falsified through emprical means. Now, this statement is either true or it is false. If it is true, then it must be false. If it self-refuting. But, if it turns out false, then there must be some other method by which truth is defined.

    However, this response is somewhat indeterminate. It doesn’t leave the other person with anything to walk away with. All they know is that the statement “truth is empirical” cannot be correct. So, rather, it might be better to respond to “truth is empirical” with “and you believe that your theory about truth corresponds better to reality than any other theory does?” you’ve now raised a complex question that assumes the correspondence theory of truth. If they agree, then you can agree as well, but say “all the more reason to think your theory is false.”

    At this point, show why the correspondence theory is required to affirm ANY theory of truth (the dialectical argument), and then show how, in addition, that makes it impossible to affirm truth as empirical because it is self-refuting.

    • that which is empirical is based on observation and experience.

      while observations of creation can be wrongly denied, the experiences of god’s chosen people of israel, etc., are recorded for our proof.

  3. I’d ask him how he came to the conclusion that truth is necessarily empirically shown, and then maybe I’d ask him if it’s actually true that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, and what empirical method he used to determine that.

  4. Sam Harper says:

    I think he is confusing epistemology and ontology. It’s possible for something to be true even if nobody knows that it’s true.

    I’d bring this out by asking something like this: “Are you saying that unless we can verify something empirically that it can’t be true?” If they say, “Yes,” then I’d ask, “So before there were any people around, and there were just dinosaurs, was it not true that the earth was round?” In case they are confused about my point, I might explain to them that things can be true even if we don’t know they are true. In fact, that’s what it means to discover something. Whenever we discover something, we learn that something has been true all along. Like when we discovered that the earth was round–unless the earth was already round, we would not have been able to discover that it was.

    Once that distinction is clear, I’d try to find out if their real point is that we can’t know something unless it can be empirically verified. I’d just offer some counter-examples, like our knowledge of our own feelings, thoughts, or perceptions. I actually did this in a conversation one time. I said, “Think of a number between one and ten, but don’t tell me what it is…Have you got it?” “Yes.” “Do you know what number you’re thinking of?” “Yes.” “How do you know? Is it empirical?” Obviously, it’s not. I’d also offer the laws of logic, math, geometry, the uniformity of nature, causation, the external world, other minds, Ockham’s razor, and however many other counter-examples it took to get them to realize that there are plenty of things we can know but that can’t be empirically verified.

    And I might also ask them how they know that their own claim is true.