What do I mean by truth? The answer is not as simple as you might think. My definition is an understanding of the world as it really is out there. A corollary to this comes in the criterion for establishing that we have discovered the truth: things have turned out the way we thought they would. Having said that, this kind of truth is very hard to establish, which fact means there is always some possibility that our actions will not turn out the way they should. When we are sloppy in efforts to unearth the truth (it is always hidden), the possibility grows larger and larger.
There is a whole class of truths we can rely on as accurately portraying the world out there: scientific facts. These are truths that have been revealed by rigorous applications of the scientific method, a proven way of finding ways to describe the world of natural phenomena that almost always can be relied upon to produce the results we seek. But not always. Scientific facts are always subject to revision. When subatomic particles were discovered, Newtonian mechanics failed to describe their behavior. Quantum mechanics became the truth.
Also, even scientific truth is context dependent. If you want to build a very complicated vehicle or even a simple toy, Newtonian mechanics will do. If you are careful in your use of the truths of this system, the products will behave as designed, but with an asterisk like the one next to Barry Bonds’s baseball records. The exception comes whenever a human uses the artifact, which is most of the time. The context changes from the lab and design studio to the world of the user. The truth about the artifact becomes subsumed by that of the whole system. The same is the case for any isolated of general truth, otherwise called facts or beliefs; isms or ideologies. Their truth in isolated get fuzzy in real, worldly situations.
However the isolated truths have been created, they must be tested in the real world. The only test of their truth comes in observing the outcomes or effects they produce. Such is the heart of pragmatism. Pragmatism argues that the only test of the truth of something can be found in its resulting effects. A concept or description of a thing is true if the intended outcomes of its use match our expectations. Conversely, we can back into the truth by thinking about or observing all the effects related to the object or concept. It should be obvious that observations are more likely to approach the truth than predictions.
It is possible to observe relatively stable systems like forests or other natural systems over long time periods, and come up with a truthful understanding that can be used in interventions to protect the system. Part of the understanding of such systems is what is good for them, that is what would allow them to flourish. The work of Buzz Holling and his coworkers on complex adaptive systems management represents a very careful application of pragmatism toward this end. Unfortunately, whatever learning we have gleaned is being ignored because natural systems, or the environment as we usually call it, is valued, not for its inherent nature, but only in terms of its value for human use.
In ignoring the truth about the environment, we are rolling the dice about our plans for the future. We have been relying on some “truth” that we can cope with or remediate whatever happens as we continue to upset the global environmental system. This conclusion is based on some untested concept that technology can solve any problem, large or small, but, also, that we are smart enough to be able to design and build whatever is called for. This hubristic sense is largely paving the path we are on today, ignoring both signs of danger that are observable and many we can predict with some confidence in them.
It is not too late maybe it already is) to start seeking and working with a better set of truths about the world in which we live. Yes, truths can be better or worse, depending on how well they produce our intended effects, large or small. We are going in the opposite direction at this moment in the United States. It is very difficult to produce truths about systems as large and complex as a whole society, such as ours. It is impossible to do that if we ignore, misrepresent, or lie about the actual facts. It is, perhaps not impossible, but very unlikely to produce the results we want if we lie about the truth of the concepts used to construct and run our major institutions.
Pragmatic truth results from careful observation or deliberation by a collection of individuals committed to finding it. It involves careful argumentation or debate, certainly in the absence of real data about the effects, but even in the process of understanding the significance of the data. Our political and legislative processes have abandoned any semblance of adhering to the truth. The danger to everybody should be clear. The truth about complexity is that the truth about what is going to happen in the future is very hard to predict. Just take a look at the recent behavior of the stock market.
I think there is a real opportunity to restore some sensibility to the process. Stop worrying about the penchant of the President to stretch or ignore the truth about most anything. He is just a symbol of the misunderstanding of the word, truth, itself. Newton could not have told us anything about quarks. The Founding Fathers could not have predicted how social media could subvert the electoral system they envisioned. Even our most fundamental truths are not “self-evident.” We must keep examining them under the light of the present Sun. The real swamp is not inhabited by the political hacks; it is the home of all those who believe they hold or can produce the necessary truths about the world from whole cloth. Maybe it will take philosophers to straighten us out. Karl Marx wrote, “Hitherto, philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” We need to do both.