The goal of any philosopher is to find what can only be referred to as “truth.” Truth is the undeniable, that which can be relied upon in any circumstances, obviously the one thing in life that has real meaning. Unfortunately, truth is quite elusive, as philosophers have been going at the question since Socrates, and no one has produced a definitive answer yet. In the course of my years of reading about the subject, I have accepted only a few concepts as being valid, and I would like to share them now.
Rene Descartes’s essay “The Search For Certainty” should be considered the jump-off point for any discussion about truth. In it, he expounds one of the few hypotheses that possesses no holes—solipsism. It states that a person’s own existence is the only thing that they can truly be sure of. The existence of others or of external objects, while it may be quite likely, cannot be completely relied upon. Firstly, any perception one has cannot be trusted. Our eyes regularly see things that later prove not to be there, our ears hear voices that do not exist, and so on. If we accept that our senses can deceive us, how can we be sure that they’re ever being truthful? At any given time, or all the time, our sensory perception may simply be playing tricks on us, and therefore it cannot be trusted. Similarly, we can never be sure that other supposedly sentient beings are, in fact, thinking and acting.
They could be complete figments of our imagination just as easily as non-thinking things. But now that all these different things have been ruled as “not necessarily in existence,” how can one be sure that they, themselves, exist? At first, it seems like a difficult question, and Lord knows that any number of pseudo-intellectual beings have posited that our lives could just be someone else’s dream, but in actuality, the answer is quite simple—though. Independent, creative thought and action are sure signs of true existence.
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Now, while it cannot be proven that other humans think, everyone can be sure that at least they do as individuals. I know I exist, for I feel control over my body, and I actively compose thoughts in my mind. This remains one of the most important ideas in all of philosophy, because (a) it has never been effectively countered, and (b) it can put an end to almost any debate (“Well you don’t exist, so there!”).
However, while solipsism technically makes sense, it is of very little use in the actual world. To go through life not acknowledging other humans or any objects would be incredibly difficult. So a more practical view on the issue was created—pragmatism. William James, one of the early pragmatists, wrote an essay on it titled, simply, “Truth.”
A pragmatist is not so much concerned with the issue of truth itself, but more with whether or not something being true will affect life. The question that defines a pragmatist is, “Let’s assume it’s true, what does it mean to me?” Besides being a more useful way of looking at things than most philosophical theories, it also has some logical roots, but one has to readjust one philosophical mind. First, we must acknowledge that the only true thing in life is existence itself. We are alive, and we can say with some certainty that someday we will die. This agrees with solipsism enough. But we must also recognize that there are functions necessary to sustain our living conditions.
Now, this would not be excepted by the more cynical of philosophers, but for a more realistic theorist, this is easy enough to accept. Well, since life is truth, what about those actions that sustain life? Wouldn’t they have to be true as well? Something that is integral to truth itself must contain the truth as well. Therefore, any action one takes, or an object that is required, to live is a true one.
Bertrand Russell, in his essay “On Induction,” laid the groundwork for the recent Chaos Theory. While I have never heard or seen the association made, I can see the simple jump from Russell’s revolutionary thoughts to Chaos, which would deny any possibility of the idea of “cause and effect.” The principle of induction works like this: each case of an event A being found associated with event B, providing that A has never been found without B, makes it increasingly likely that the next time A appears, B will as well, and that as the number of cases increases, the probability of A only being able to occur in the presence of B approaches certainty without limit. Induction asserts that in order to find something to be true, you must first be able to establish the basic ideas of cause and effect, in order for the logic of your argument to work, and it hopes to clarify exactly under what circumstances can a relationship of cause and effect be identified.
Russell starts by questioning why it is that people believe the sun will rise tomorrow. In fact, he manages to make an excellent case for asserting that the very laws of motion run just as good of a chance of not being in effect tomorrow as they do for being in effect. Then, he decides to turn it around on you and show you exactly why it is completely logical to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow—because we have never experienced a morning without a sunrise. In cases such as this, where one event is always found in the company of another, the odds of them occurring in that same way in the future is as certain as self-existence is to a solipsist. Russell was not really attempting to identify truth itself, because after all, who really can? Russell was simply trying to clarify the logical procedures that other philosophers could use to pursue that same question. Personally, I believe that his thoughts had a much greater effect on current philosophy than many people realize.
I hope that I have presented a wide-reaching overview of various philosophers’ attempts to find the truth. I consider the three writings I chose to be created by men who are among the greatest minds the world has ever seen. They have dedicated their lives to pursuing the single most difficult question that exists within the human mind, and sometimes actually seem to have answered it.
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