truth and grammar

I have had recent occasion to think more about these two popular and favorite topics, truth because despite my thinking it is a concept with definitive overtones, it seems as indeterminate today as it ever has, and grammar because, well, if you don’t know already, please continue reading.

Have you heard this phrase any time recently uttered, say by media pundits: You can have your own perspective but not your own facts. Well, facts too seem to be found in a variety of forms, some personal, some without verifiability, most eluding replication but still there nonetheless. The now old adage that we create own reality has a literal truth, and the power and at times loose subjective constraints of symbolization make civil society’s work at consensus (the result of a critical dialectic) all the more important. So facts bear some responsibility for consensual validation with the proviso that some people will agree with anything of the right emotional tone, e.g., righteousness, jingoism and other demagoguery are good examples (don’t say ‘baaa’). Since the late 18th Century (even before in way) empirical facts have born a standard of truth of logical verifiability, especially mathematical proof, determination of probability and when possible, replication of results. Indeed, the ancients knew the sun rises in the east and sets in the west even before any words labeled compass points, probably more than many moderns today. And now we have modern media pouring forth information at tremendous rates and often with a very low common denominator of factual truth, yet civil society depends upon a modicum, a necessary level of consensus in fact and perspective. Because we create our own reality, it would seem we could do so together quite readily, and we do in science and engineering but we don’t in religion and governance. An adaptive feature of humanity or a step towards our demise? Yes, if you believe in a dialectic.

Now grammar, at its inception, derives from feelings of fitness ranging from very awkward and frozen to quite comfortable and fluent. Consider your feelings of laterality, e.g., handedness. Cross your arms, right over left then left over right. One will feel more comfortable than the other. You can repeat this with folded hands (which thumb is on top?), crossed legs, kicking a ball, swinging a bat or pulling a rake, using one eye to view through a telescope, etc. A grammarian or linguist says a sentence and then intuitively tests its fitness in a similar fashion. These feelings vary across languages and within languages by dialect and social class. We can get creative violating grammar as in Yoda-speak. These feelings of grammaticality are how we apprehend the rules governing the linear construction of words and sentences as we formulate our thoughts for communication. My old English teachers taught grammar prescriptively, helping me fit into an educated class no doubt, but linguistics uses grammar more as a descriptive tool to trace relationships among languages, the nature of embedding and recursion, historical shift within a language, etc. We have been doing so for a long time. The earliest recorded grammars were by Sanskrit scholars in 6th-7th century BCE India. Here is a great stamp commemorating one, Panini. (I would not hold my breath for a stamp commemorating our greatest modern linguist, Noam Chomsky, though it is a good idea. He would probably refuse).


My point here is to use grammatical feelings of fitness as a general analogy for how we sense what is true, what fits together better, even best, and that this is as good, as knowledgeable about truth as we can be. Science uses mathematics to test our intuitions and confirm facts objectively (consensus or probabilistically) but even here, scientists operating under different paradigms have different intuitions of fitness. Thomas Kuhn illustrated this in his writings on scientific revolutions. For many years, the mathematical differences in accuracy between the Ptolemaic solar system and the Copernican one were negligible, but the latter felt more fit and upon further study proved to be truer. Last century physicist Paul Dirac is famous for a set of equations predicting previously unknown phenomena like the positron that were confirmed 20-30 years later, but he said at their initial formulation that they were “beautiful” and so he knew they were true. Even today some physicists challenge the standard model because some features do not feel right, and of course, our mathematical theorizing and ability to measure at increasingly smaller and larger scales has helped engender quantum physics, which leaves much of our intuition far behind. Extrapolating just a little from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, religions (and gods) have changed over the course of human history to meet the changing demands of humans and our society—the new ones have a better fit than the old, e.g., a spoken prayer over a blood sacrifice for example (you do prefer the former, don’t you?).

Let me be clear and distinguish facts and truth. Facts are a relatively modern conception, while truth in various forms has been around for a long time. We can find truth most anywhere including the myth of Sisyphus, the better poems, the best music, Newtonian mechanics and quantum theory.  Truth is a biological phenomenon with deep roots and is an important one for our species. We think our thoughts, and our thoughts come and go in trains. The trains follow various tracks and stop at or pass by various stations. Some are fitter than others. There is still a station at Truth, I have seen it out the window as I passed it by, but I do not think many trains stop there. Actually I think that some trains do stop there when we are about 3 ½ years old (see previous post long ago about that maturational milestone) and then for some of the great ones (Pythagorus, Mozart, Newton, Picasso, Einstein, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, etc.). I have heard from supposedly reliable sources that a station at Big Truth exists, lying far off in the distance, past the last nerve track, so it still waits for a train’s arrival. Namaste.

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