Truth is a Construct – August 29, 2010

That’s going to make a lot of people bristle. “Truth is not something made up!” they will exclaim. “The truth is real!”

Well, not quite. If I pointed to a tree and said, “That’s true,” you would give me a funny look. A tree cannot be evaluated as “true” or “false,” it merely is. I am appearing to say something about the tree’s existence, which is self-evident.

However, if I pointed to a tree and said, “That’s a maple,” you might consult your knowledge of trees and agree or disagree. “No, that’s false. It’s an oak tree.” In this case you are not affirming or denying the existence of the tree, only my statement about the tree.

Only propositions about reality can be evaluated as true or false. And by “propositions” I mean statements, representations, affirmations, images, reproductions, and other … constructs.

Consider the famous conundrum of René Magritte’s painting of a smoking pipe that includes the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). Of course it’s not a pipe. It’s a painting of a pipe. It’s Magritte’s visual representation or interpretation of a certain style of briar pipe. In making that pipe image, Magritte has undoubtedly universalized, in certain small respects, the idea of a pipe. In the real world, no two pipes are alike. Every one has some tooth mark or burn pattern or other tiny flaw that makes it unique. Yet this painting is without such marks and represents an idealization of a smoking pipe.

We evaluate statements as true or false. We can evaluate a painting as more or less representative of its subject. We can evaluate a map—another kind of construct representing reality—as being accurate or distorted or just plain wrong in its details. (“The map doesn’t show a river here!”)

Even a photograph can be taken in such a way or manipulated in such a way as to distort reality. The photographer Ansel Adams worked hours in the darkroom to enhance the contrast in his photographs for dramatic effect. The sky and the mountain were indeed there, but after Adams got through, they looked better. Or rather, different. The eye, the retina, and the brain’s optic system interpret light differently from the lens and film of a camera, as anyone who has tried to photograph a sunset or a fireworks disply will quickly tell you.

All of this would seem to be an obvious and trivial fact of existence: trees are real and not actually open to question, statements about trees are constructs and therefore constantly under review and evaluation. So?

As conscious, self-aware beings, we care about those constructs—often more than about the things themselves. We cannot actually touch the world, only feel pressure against our fingertips, interpret light rays entering our eyeballs, evaluate sound waves against our eardrums. The world is out there, but all we have are the constructs that our brains make of this sensory data. What we think about the world is just a construct. And the representations of those constructs—in words, in paint, in manipulated photo paper—are all we can share with other conscious beings.

“Is that a maple tree or an oak?” “Does that look like a sky to you?” “Did you hear that?”

And these questions become more intense, more urgent, when the subjects of the representation are things that we do not, or cannot, directly experience for ourselves: the emotions underlying a piece of music or an abstract painting, the emanations of eternity and infinity—more constructs of the human mind—that we associate with the divine.

There is no physical, undeniable presence of God that we can point to like a tree. God is far too subtle for that—if He or She even exists as an entity separate from the world. So we must construct our meager sensory data and compare these constructs with other aware beings in order to understand the divine presence. Is God real? Is our perception “true”? It’s a question that seems to be important to self-aware beings.

And it is part of the human condition that the same mind that assembles and compares these constructs is simultaneously subject to hopes and fears, imagination, dream states, false memories, and simple errors in our sensory input system. (See “Bump in the night” and “Ghosts.”)

Sometimes, we cannot even know what we think.