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Can a painting be *false* by not depicting reality? Suppose that some painter

Can a painting be *false* by not depicting reality? Suppose that some painter paints something that really happened, but adds or subtracts details that do not correspond to reality. Or suppose that the painter not only does that, but adds a title that makes it cleat that the painting to the real event. Or think about "photoshopped" photos. The reason why I am asking this is that I often read on the internet that (only?) sentences and "propositions" can be true or false, and a painting is not a sentence nor a proposition.

A nice question.

Suppose a painter paints a scene with a person in it. Apart from very special circumstances, we wouldn't take this to be a matter of the painter telling us that the event really happened and the person depicted was really there. It might be that a real person is depicted who really was in the place pictured. But that's not how paintings are ordinarily intended, and it's not how they're ordinarily understood. Calling the painting false because what it asks us to imagine never really happened would be a bit like saying that the Sherlock Holmes stories are false because there was never any such person as Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, a painter could use a painting as a way of conveying information intended to be factual. I take that to be the point of your example. And in many cases, some aspects of paintings are intended in just that way. Suppose a portrait depicts a blue-eyed person as having brown eyes. Depending on the larger story, this might be a genuine inaccuracy in the painting. We could certainly say things like "the painting gets it wrong," and no one would be confused.

The case of the doctored photo is a good one. Pictures are often used as a way of conveying information, and they can be used deceptively. I can lie by using a picture. That means I can use a picture as a way of asserting a proposition that I know is false.

So why not say that in such cases, the painting is false? We could, I suppose, and there could even be a set of conventions governing the use of the words "true" and "false" when applied to paintings. That said, it's not hard to see some reasons why we don't do that. Close enough for present purposes, the content of a proposition is definite. And in typical cases, which proposition a sentence is used to assert is unambiguous. "Schenectady is in New York" is a good example. There's very little ambiguity, if any, about what proposition someone is asserting when they use this sentence, and so the question of whether the sentence is true or false has a clear answer. The semantics of sentences like this is reasonably clear and the way in which they can be combined with other sentences to produce yet other sentences more complex truth-conditions is clear. That's not so for pictures. We can use sentences to assert disjunctions ("or" statements), negations, conditionals, etc. What sort of picture would say that Mary has one or two children? Or that if Mary gets to work late, she will be fired? We can dream up ways of doing this, no doubt, but we'll mostly do it ad hoc.

Or for that matter: which features of pictures would we take to be part of what's asserted? Again, in particular cases we could have ad hoc rules that settled the question. But when pictures are used to make assertions, it will be a matter of some features of the picture being used in this way, even though other features that equally well could have been used to make assertions aren't.

To tie all this up, one important difference between pictures and sentences is that sentences usually have a reasonably clear syntax and a reasonably well-settled semantics. (I don't mean that the theory of syntax and semantics is well-settled; I mean that in practice we can generally agree on the structure of actual sentences, and we can generally agree on what they do and don't mean.) This allows us to talk about truth and falsity in a precise and structured way. Pictures often have rich representational content, but it's a considerable stretch to say that there's a full-blown syntax and semantics for pictures. This doesn't mean that we can never apply terms like "false" to a picture, but pictures are very different from the sorts of things to which we paradigmatically apply words like "true" and "false."

A nice question. Suppose a painter paints a scene with a person in it. Apart from very special circumstances, we wouldn't take this to be a matter of the painter telling us that the event really happened and the person depicted was really there. It might be that a real person is depicted who really was in the place pictured. But that's not how paintings are ordinarily intended, and it's not how they're ordinarily understood. Calling the painting false because what it asks us to imagine never really happened would be a bit like saying that the Sherlock Holmes stories are false because there was never any such person as Sherlock Holmes. Of course, a painter could use a painting as a way of conveying information intended to be factual. I take that to be the point of your example. And in many cases, some aspects of paintings are intended in just that way. Suppose a portrait depicts a blue-eyed person as having brown eyes. Depending on the larger story, this might be a genuine inaccuracy in the...

I have read that the statement "There is no absolute truth" is self-refuting

I have read that the statement "There is no absolute truth" is self-refuting because it relies on absolute truth to be true. I have also read that the idea expressed in the previous statement commits the fallacy of begging the question. I am thoroughly confused by the debate here...?

Relativists do seem to be in trouble with having to live with a relative notion of truth for their own claims. But I am not sure that Allen's worries are decisive. Suppose the claim is that there are no absolute truths, but there are truths relative to standards that you and I accept. You can try insisting that you adhere to a valid standard according to which my claim is false. But then we could argue about whether that is right. Insisting is one thing, being rationally persuasive is another. Similarly, I might claim that a given proposition really will be true by some standards and really will be false by other standards and further say that that claim itself is true relative to standards that we both accept .. but false by others.

This sort of relativism might not be motivated by a desire dogmatically to insist that one has a right to one's own opinion ... it might be motivated by deep philosophical views about the relationship between language and/or thought and reality ... I think this would apply to most philosophical relativists, like Quine in some of his moods.

It is confusing, isn't it? What does it mean to say that there's no absolute truth? It certainly seems to mean that all truth is in one way or another relative. That, in turn, seems to mean that for any potential truth, there are different and conflicting standards, equally valid, and the claim at issue might be true relative to one of these standard and false relative to another. But if this is really how things go for any potential truth, then it seems to go for the claim that there is no absolute truth. In other words, it seems to imply that the claim "there is no absolute truth" is true by some valid standards and false by some other, equally valid standards. This seems to make for a kind of trouble without invoking absolute truth. If someone tells me that there is no absolute truth, I seem by their own lights to be perfectly justified in insisting that I adhere to a valid standard according to which their claim is false. Perhaps they'll shrug and live with that. But there are...

How could we distinguish facts and interpretations of facts? Some say that facts

How could we distinguish facts and interpretations of facts? Some say that facts are given, others say that they are constructed by theories. Could we still say that facts are independent or previous to theories?

The tricky thing about this issue is to decide what the issue is. Some people seem to want to say that all facts are constructed, but I've never really understood what this is supposed to mean. Let me yank at a few threads and see if any of them are connected to the worry.

Some facts depend on our conventions, institutions and so on. A well-worn example: I have a shiny round bit of metal in front of me. As a matter of fact, it's a quarter; it's worth $.25. That really is a fact, but it wouldn't be a fact if we didn't have certain practices, institutions and so on. In at least some sense of "constructed," it's a constructed fact.

We also classify things in various ways. Some of those classifications grow out of our interests, beliefs and so on. Classifying music according to genre is relatively benign; classifying people according to the racial categories of apartheid-era South Africa or the antebellum American South is anything but benign. Sometimes we take our classifications to mark deep distinctions in nature when all they really reflect our our own shallow points of view. But it may be, all the same, that some ways of classifying things "cut nature at its joints," as they say. Protons and electrons are arguably real kinds, and among the basic things from which nature is built. Charge and mass may be basic, perfectly natural properties.

Some philosophers -- nominalists of various sorts -- reject the very idea that some ways of classifying things are more true to the world than others. Others -- David Lewis is an important recent example -- would say that we can't get around presupposing that there really are natural properties, even though there's room to fight over just what sort of beast a property is. If this sort of view is right, then there are facts independent of any theories.

Interpretation is a slippery concept. Sometimes my interpretation of a situation is just plain wrong. I may have seen you through the window and interpreted the expression on your face as deep sorrow. In fact, you may have been laughing hysterically. My interpretation was wrong. On the other hand, when what we're trying to interpret is an artifact, "better" and "worse" are sometimes more useful ways of judging interpretations than "right" and "wrong." (Is Hamlet a story about a man with an Oedipus complex? That interpretation got a good deal of mileage, but it's not clear whether there's any hard fact of the matter.)

Here's a view. (It's a crude version of what David Lewis believed.) At bottom, there are perfectly natural properties, distributed in space-time in some particular way. There are facts about all that, whether we know them or not. And everything else is fixed by those facts; there couldn't be any differences at the level of ships, shoes, food fights and French literary theory without differences at that basic level. If Lewis was broadly right (and I've never seen any good reason to think that he was wildly wrong), then the idea that it's interpretive mush all the way down is a mistake.

The tricky thing about this issue is to decide what the issue is. Some people seem to want to say that all facts are constructed, but I've never really understood what this is supposed to mean. Let me yank at a few threads and see if any of them are connected to the worry. Some facts depend on our conventions, institutions and so on. A well-worn example: I have a shiny round bit of metal in front of me. As a matter of fact, it's a quarter; it's worth $.25. That really is a fact, but it wouldn't be a fact if we didn't have certain practices, institutions and so on. In at least some sense of "constructed," it's a constructed fact. We also classify things in various ways. Some of those classifications grow out of our interests, beliefs and so on. Classifying music according to genre is relatively benign; classifying people according to the racial categories of apartheid-era South Africa or the antebellum American South is anything but benign. Sometimes we take our classifications to mark deep...

Does a proposition about the future have to be true today? If so does this

Does a proposition about the future have to be true today? If so does this preclude contingency and is every proposition of the future necessary?

In connection with Professor Stairs' last two paragraphs, you might also read Question 997 and some of the further entries referred to there.

Let's start with an analogy and see how far it gets us. Suppose I consider a proposition about some distant place. Suppose I consider the proposition that the population of Woodstock, New Brunswick (my home town in Canada) is over 6,000. [To keep things simple, assume that I mean the population today, August 5 2007.] I'm contemplating this "here" in Washington DC. But it's a proposition about some other place -- "there," not "here." And now consider the question: "Does this proposition about Woodstock have to be true or false here in Washington?" The question seems a little odd. What the proposition asserts refers to a particular place, but the idea that the truth of the proposition is, as it were, tied to the place where it's being contemplated seems off. We might put it this way: the proposition picked out by my use of the sentence "Woodstock has a population over 6,000" is true if the population of Woodstock really is over 6,000 and false otherwise. Asking if the proposition is true ...