Advanced Search

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."

Why are there so many different theories of truth in philosophy and does the

Why are there so many different theories of truth in philosophy and does the concept of "truth" have a different meaning compared to how it is generally used by non-philosophers? "Truth" for us non-philosophers seems to denote that which is absolutely incontrovertible and not open to debate. As an example, for non-philosophers, it is the truth that JFK was shot on November 22, 1963; it is debatable as to exactly WHO shot him and HOW but there is no denying he was shot that day. So do philosophers agree that it is the truth that JFK was shot on that day or is even that open to interpretation using the multiple theories of truth out there and what does that even mean?

Perhaps so many philosophical theories of truth exist because the concept of truth is central and fundamental and because philosophers have been discussing it for such a long time. See the SEP entry on truth for a survey of various theories.

As for non-philosophers, I doubt that they're as united in their view of truth as you suggest, and I doubt that they're united around the conception of truth that you proposed: "that which is absolutely incontrovertible and not open to debate."

I've met many non-philosophers who claim that both sides in a debate can have the true answer to the precise issue being debated: my side of the debate can be true (for me), while your side can be true (for you). I don't accept their claim, but it certainly seems to be popular.

And given how strange human beings often are, few if any statements are going to be "absolutely incontrovertible" if that means "beyond any possible controversy." If, instead, it means "not rationally deniable," then the controversy will simply shift to who counts as rational.

I think philosophical theories of truth are meant to be about the concept(s) of truth used by ordinary people: there isn't an exclusively philosophical concept of truth. Some philosophers say that philosophical controversy and confusion about truth result from trying to theorize about truth as if the concept were deep or complex, when in fact it's neither deep nor complex (see section 5 of the SEP entry linked to above). I favor that view, although I recognize that it too is controversial!

who decides what is "true"? What if I believe that it's TRUE that Santa Claus

who decides what is "true"? What if I believe that it's TRUE that Santa Claus exists? Wouldn't it be "true for me"?

I'm not sure how to interpret the quotation marks in your first question; I'll assume they're inessential. Who decides what's true? No one, as far as I can see. One can recognize what's true, discover what's true, conclude that such-and-such is true, etc. But I don't think any of that amounts to deciding what's true. I'm not sure that even the president genuinely decides that it's true that so-and-so is pardoned; I think he decides to declare that so-and-so is pardoned, and his declaration then makes it true that so-and-so is pardoned. But he doesn't decide that his declaration makes it true.

I'm not sure how to interpret the capitalization in your second question; I'll assume it's inessential. If you believe that Santa Claus exists, then as far as you're concerned Santa Claus exists. If that's what you mean by "true for me," then it's just another way of saying that you believe that Santa Claus exists, which of course doesn't make your belief true. If it did, then the concept of a false belief would be incoherent and wouldn't play the important role in our conceptual scheme that it does play.

Do cameras and microphones always "capture truth?" Suppose a surveillance camera

Do cameras and microphones always "capture truth?" Suppose a surveillance camera in a store captures undoctored video of a person stealing. Does this video satisfy all of the correspondence, coherence and epistemic theories of truth that the person did indeed steal? Since the other theories of truth are primarily sentence based, how can a video be turned into "truth by words?"

This is not an issue of theories of truth but of what is involved in stealing. It is not just an action. If I absent-mindedly put my hand in your bag and withdraw your wallet I may not be stealing it, there needs to be a mens rea, an evil intention. I may think your bag is my bag, I may be thinking about something else entirely. I used to live in a country where supermarkets put goods on offer in shopping trolleys around the store as well as on the shelves, and sometimes in the US I forget where I am and help myself to something from someone else's trolly. Often there is an indignant reaction, but whatever the camera shows, I am not stealing.

What is the the truth value, if they have one, of propositions whose subject do

What is the the truth value, if they have one, of propositions whose subject do not exist? "The current king of France is bald" is the famous example. Is that true or false, or neither? I have a hard time understanding how the current king of France can be neither bald nor not bald, even though I have no trouble understanding that there is no current king of France.

There are (at least) 3 ways to handle the assignment of a truth value to sentences with non-referring subjects, like "The current king of France is bald":

1. Bertrand Russell's solution (as Stephen Maitzen's response points out) was to argue that the subject-predicate (or noun-phrase/verb-phrase) "surface" structure of the sentence was not its real, "deeper", logical structure, and that its truth value could only be determined by examining that logical structure, which would be a conjunction of three propositions:

(a) There is at least one current king of France,

and (b) there is at most one current king of France,

and (c ) he is bald.

Because (a) is false, the entire conjunction (and hence the original sentence) is false.

It's apparent negation, "The current king of France is not bald", can then be seen to be ambiguous between:

(i) It is not the case that the current king of France is bald,

i.e.: It is not the case that: (a) & (b) & (c )

and

(ii) The current king of France is not bald,

i.e.: (a) & (b) & it is not the case that (c )

Then (i) is true (as the negation of a false sentence should be), but (ii) is also false(!), for the same reason that the original sentence is false on this analysis.

2. Peter Strawson objected to Russell's analysis, and argued that such sentences have no truth value.

3. Followers of Alexius Meinong would argue that some such sentences can be true, such as "Pegasus the flying horse is a horse and can fly" or "The golden mountain is golden and is a mountain").

To read more about this, take a look at:

Bertrand Russell, 'On Denoting', Mind 14 (1905): 479-493

Peter F. Strawson, 'On Referring', Mind 59 (1950): 320-344

On Meinong, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/meinong/

esp. sect. 4.4 ("Beingless Objects---Russell versus Meinong")

Is pragmatic truth inherently less valid than other forms of truth? If a Hindu

Is pragmatic truth inherently less valid than other forms of truth? If a Hindu believes in the truth that Vishnu exists and a Muslim does not, how could they both be right? I don't know how to word this, but are the correspondence and epistemic theories of truth the most "true?"

This is a complicated matter. Realist views of truth, including versions of the correspondence theory, hold that reality cannot or should not be split into different venues in which, say, Vishnu exists and is divine for one person, but not for another. Realists, then, hold that if Allah exists, then it is false to claim that Allah does not exist. The term "pragmatic truth" is a little puzzling to me, but perhaps what you are getting at is the idea that matters of what we call "truth" may be treated in terms of justification. So, for Saladon to claim that there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet, is to claim that he is justified in making such a claim. I suggest, though, that such justification or epistemic theories of truth are themselves pretty hard to justify (and, hence, on its own assumptions, a justification theory of truth might not be true because it is not justified).

There may be one other angle to consider. Some apparent disagreements may not be radical. Consider a dispute in which one person claims that The Morning Star exists, but not The Evening Star. And her friend believes the opposite. Fortunately, they may both not be too far apart, because it turns out that what "The Morning Star" picks out or refers to is the same thing that is picked out or referred to by "The Evening Star": the planet Venus. So, to go back to your example, there might be room to debate whether what the Hindu believes is "Vishnu" might be the same reality that the Muslim believes is Allah. For a philosopher who explored and defended this position, see the work of John Hick.

They say that relativism can not be affirmed without contradiction because to do

They say that relativism can not be affirmed without contradiction because to do so would imply that relativism had truth in an absolute sense. Is this simply an oversimplification or a strawman?

I suspect that one can affirm relativism without contradiction provided one is willing to embrace an endless regress. One can affirm the following statements:

(R1) No statement is true except relative to some perspective (or worldview, or standard, or set of assumptions, or conceptual scheme).

(R2) Statement R1 is true, but only relative to some perspective (or worldview, or standard, or set of assumptions, or conceptual scheme).

(R3) Statement R2 is true, but only relative to some perspective (or worldview, or standard, or set of assumptions, or conceptual scheme).

...and so on without end. The endless regress allows one to postpone indefinitely any commitment to a non-relative truth. To be fair, however, one might wonder whether such a position has any cognitive content and, even if it does, whether our finite minds can truly understand such a position. For more, you might consult the detailed SEP entry on relativism available at this link.

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.

Could you please recommend about some books or paper which deals with the

Could you please recommend about some books or paper which deals with the question of the meaning of being true? I mean - What does it mean to say about something that it is true?

Both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy have good articles on truth. Two books I would recommend that get into some related issues would be:

Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton 2002)
Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide (Oxford 2005)

Hope this helps!

According to Wikipedia, which I grant isn't always a reliable source, William

According to Wikipedia, which I grant isn't always a reliable source, William James believed that truth is what is useful. To me that just sounds stupid. Certainly truth is not just whatever is useful. Should I be so dismissive or is there more to his theory of truth to be appreciated?

Oh, where to begin! Yes, James said this; no, it is not the case that James was stupid and it would be a travesty to dismiss James! But Lordy, have you stepped into a huge question- it is no wonder the Wiki-machine makes it sound so simplistic.

Scholars of James, Peirce, and Royce (to name a few) make their livelihoods debating this particular question and I think it safe to say that you will not find consensus among them. Heck, at a table of four James scholars, there will be at least 5 opinions! [A great James scholar I know answers any question about James' thought with the caveat "Well, it's very complicated."]

As a reader of classic American philosophy, with a deep regard for James, I confess I am at a loss to reply in simple terms - and will delight in the responses of others who go where I fear to tread. I am most familiar with Royce and therefore I offer this humble suggestion: if you wish to get a very quick course in James, you might start with his Lowell Lectures of 1907 called "Pragmatism." It is well worth the effort - and while it won't settle the status of truth for James, it might get you enticed into sorting through the question more ably as a worthy contribution to Wikipedia.

-bjm

Pages