What is the best way to be able to determine if something is true?
May 22, 2021 8:12 PM   Subscribe

As someone who identifies as an activist, I find that we should all be doing our best to address world problems as soon and responsibly as possible. The unanswered question as I see it, however, is: what should we be doing with our lives in an entirely just world/utopia (other than any maintenance that would be required for keeping said "just world" just)? I've been starting with formal logic to try to find the answer to this question but am wondering if there is a more intelligent way to go about answering this question.

PS - for all those who think that we should be exploring the galaxy in a utopia, why?
posted by defmute to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
“what should we be doing with our lives in an entirely just world”

Coming up with new philosophies to explain why this world is not, in fact, entirely just.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:16 PM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]


This is an amazing question that is the core concern of philosophy for 25 centuries! Personally, I think formal logic is deadass bullshit, but if it floats your boat, let it float your boat!

If I were you, and had no constraints, I would spend the next 18 months or so studying philosophy, just for funsies.

If I were you, and had many constraints, I would spend the next 18 months or so watching The Good Place and finding people to discuss it with!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:24 PM on May 22, 2021 [12 favorites]


From my perspective (which is heavily influenced by my religious practice) the best way to determine if something is true is to open up your eyes, ears and other sensory organs and experience for yourself whether it is true. If it's not something that can be related to your sensory experience in any way, it is probably not possible to know whether or not it is true-- in which case, if you must, place skeptical trust in a source you know to be reliable.
posted by dusty potato at 8:30 PM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]


As a lifelong activist and more recently organizer I think the big lie of 20th century activism was that there is an end point when things will be 'fixed' that we are aiming for.

There will never be an entirely just world or utopia. Human behavior and also the natural world are incredibly heterogeneous, and some human behaviors and also all larger systems are positive in some respects and negative in others.

As activists, and human beings, I see us all obligated to work to move human society toward greater equity, greater justice, less harm, less suffering, more freedom, more actualization, more love, more support. In a world where we have many more successes, we will have more free time for joy, making art and music, spiritual practice, science, creative projects, sex, introspection, parties, and sure, exploring the galaxy or whatever else! But there is and never will be an end point of struggle.
posted by latkes at 8:39 PM on May 22, 2021 [28 favorites]


what should we be doing with our lives in an entirely just world?

Be kind.
posted by SPrintF at 9:07 PM on May 22, 2021 [10 favorites]


what should we be doing with our lives in an entirely just world/utopia (other than any maintenance that would be required for keeping said "just world" just)?

Is utopia possible? Even if all the current ills were fixed, wouldn't others replace it? Is the aim utopia or is the aim fixing what is currently wrong?

I don't think that is possible for one to live a life that is free of problems, it's not in our nature to ignore things that can be perceived as problems. Even if all of the "utopian" goals were met, there would still be things to do to be better.

So I think the answer to this question is just to live the best lives we can, today, with our actions.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:12 PM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Just an aside about formal logic: real formal logic is, it seems to me, a perfectly good branch of mathematics which can be very misleading when applied to actual human thought. The Uses of Argument by Stephen Toulmin is an excellent book that explores why this is so. I would include it in your 18 month dive into philosophy! ;) Paul Grice was a philosopher who tried, in contrast, to rescue the universal validity of formal logic with a pragmatic theory of conversation which is itself super-worth getting into; Studies in the Way of Words collects some of his work.

Also, speaking more to your main question, in his book The Idea of Justice the Indian economist Amartya Sen argues that thinking about how things would be in an entirely just society is not a very good way of making our actual societies more just. Wikipedia summarizes.
posted by bertran at 9:34 PM on May 22, 2021 [10 favorites]


We will always be approaching a just world. There is no arrival.
posted by hworth at 9:35 PM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]


What is the best way to be able to determine if something is true?

Keep devising new tests that could demonstrate that it is false, running them, and having them all keep failing.

In other words: give up entirely on the project of knowing for sure that anything is true. Adopt a new philosophy based on ranking degrees of confidence in propositions rather than any notion of their absolute truth or falsity.

Personally, the proposition in which I have a greater degree of confidence than any other is that something is going on.

what should we be doing with our lives in an entirely just world/utopia (other than any maintenance that would be required for keeping said "just world" just)?

Anything that takes our fancy and does not increase the maintenance burden on others without their enthusiastic consent.
posted by flabdablet at 9:59 PM on May 22, 2021 [8 favorites]


I'm a bit confused by this question -
because the universe is not just, randomness exists, people will fall ill and die through no fault of their own, and the work of being good humans is creating justice, attempting to create justice because it doesn't exist by itself, it's something we try to create as humans, trying to give people fair shots at health and life when they might not have otherwise had them.

If you're wondering what people should *do* if they aren't *all* needed for that work...???
Create? Create art and beauty and humour and efficiencies and things intellectually and socially interesting and discover places, beings, facts, *whatever*. For reasons of passion, love, dedication, fulfilment. And those things will differ from person to person, as individual as a fingerprint? You don't need to convince everyone in a culture to do the same thing, people will do these things because they want to, *love* to.

And if you're having trouble understanding *why* people would want to explore the galaxy, or even support other people in exploring the galaxy... Why wouldn't loving it be reason enough?
I'm going to take it right out of the philosophical and into the practical, and suggest you look at something like "I could do anything if only I knew what it was" by Barbara Sher, because there seems to be an underlying presumption that doing something you would love to do isn't enough of a *reason*, and sometimes people get stuck on these kind of philosophical questions because they don't think they can justify doing things they love in their own life, and that book is about figuring out the stuff that's happened in your personal history to *make* you think that. Macrocosm /microcosm.
posted by Elysum at 10:01 PM on May 22, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: "for all those who think that we should be exploring the galaxy in a utopia, why?"

because extinction level events (asteroid, super volcano, etc) mean the end of our utopia on this planet unless we have colonised and extended to other planets.
posted by alchemist at 10:30 PM on May 22, 2021 [1 favorite]


Scientific methods of observation (often easily defined in a tenth grade science text) have strangely gone farther than a significant amount of existentialist reading or philosophic literature.

Truth is relative to many people, I think it helps to approach by weighing the mind, heart, and 'spirit'/central-philosophy, which is repeated in centuries old texts/culture/ritual.

Seek those definitions for yourself, then apply.
posted by firstdaffodils at 11:30 PM on May 22, 2021


Addendum: By "relative," I obviously don't mean truth on a platitude of white lies or baldface lies, but a spectrum of truth, relative to cultural values and often circumstantial perspective.

Exploring perspectives in truth is a gateway to empathy and understanding, careful now.


(Sorry mods, I'm relearning to condense responses (I am incredible annoyed by the process, myself)
posted by firstdaffodils at 11:46 PM on May 22, 2021


I mean, what should cats do with their lives? Fish? Birds? Monkeys? If things weren't messed up wed probably do doing something like that
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:03 AM on May 23, 2021


what should cats do with their lives?

Something like this, I expect.
posted by flabdablet at 5:09 AM on May 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I have two answers to this question.

First, logic will not answer the question you are trying to answer; instead, this question could be answered by exploring your values. Values are not derived from logic. (But logic is fun, so study it anyway if you like!)

Second, to actually contribute something to answering your question, some recent writing that has helped me a lot is the articles about Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Blackfoot Nation beliefs.

You're wondering about what there is left to do when Maslow's individual needs (like food, shelter, safety from violence, self-esteem, etc.) are met. Look to the Blackfoot model (which Maslow ripped off) which places self-actualization at the bottom of the tipi, followed by community actualization, and at the top cultural perpetuity.

Remember also that even in a utopia, new people are born and old people die, and part of community actualization is helping the new people develop their talents and authentic selves, ensuring that the knowledge, talents and wisdom of the old people are passed on, and transmitting and enriching the culture that will evolve and continue into the boundless future.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:43 AM on May 23, 2021 [2 favorites]


I think the maintenance required to keep a "just world" just sounds like quite a lot of work on its own, and would profoundly shape - and to some extent, constrain - our personal and social lives. (I am assuming this utopia has emerged due to cultural transformation and not some post-singularity magic trick.)

I also think you should read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is essentially a meditation on your question.
posted by toastedcheese at 6:45 AM on May 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


I tell you, we are on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:03 AM on May 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


I don't know exactly how your headline question relates to the body of it, to be honest! But I can say that studying mathematical logic is not liable to help you answer these existential questions with much certainty, were that possible, we'd have mapped out all of the great answers humanity is searching for a LONG time ago.

That said, perhaps you will get more comfortable if you settle into a place where you know the difference between objective fact and personal truth. Logic and its many applications can help you sort out the things that can be proven and accepted as objective reality by more than one person, whereas some things will be wholly true to you and everyone around you will just have to take your word for it.

Of course we are also always searching for ways to make our internal worlds known and to make our inner truths concrete. You might enjoy, if you haven't already dived in, to studying Descartes? I've really enjoyed going back and reading how the older philosophers wrestled with this question. It helps me see just how human this perspective is and also how our thoughts today will shape future thoughts on this for centuries.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:06 AM on May 23, 2021 [1 favorite]


I can say that studying mathematical logic is not liable to help you answer these existential questions with much certainty, were that possible, we'd have mapped out all of the great answers humanity is searching for a LONG time ago.

Not necessarily the case. There's even stuff inside mathematics that we will demonstrably never be able to use mathematical logic to to prove the truth of.
posted by flabdablet at 11:44 AM on May 23, 2021


As firstdaffodils suggests, the scientific method has proven the most reliable way to determine truth. In order to prove a statement true, determine what it implies, and then test to see if it's true. For example, most of the big conspiracy theories can be tested by asking how many people must know about them if they are true. In the case of chemtrails as an example, the answer is probably millions, involving every pilot and mechanic of jet airliners, most of whom have no reason to keep the secret.

There are shortcuts, like Occum's Razor which favors the simple explanation over the complex one.

Another lesson: aside perhaps from Mathematics, you can't accept the proof of anything with pure reason. Outside information is necessary.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:34 AM on May 24, 2021 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised no one has mentioned the is-ought problem, which basically says there is no way to use logic to make the jump from what "is" to what "should be." What "should be" is more a function of belief, and to quote the swami in the Monkees movie, all belief can be said to be the result of conditioning, whether by seeing someone unjustly suffer and deciding to take a stand, or by getting fed lies through facebook.
posted by jabah at 6:41 AM on May 24, 2021


I'm still thinking about this interesting question. I think pazazygeek is very right when she writes:

Logic and its many applications can help you sort out the things that can be proven and accepted as objective reality by more than one person, whereas some things will be wholly true to you and everyone around you will just have to take your word for it.

Finding your inner truth is tremendously important and hard. To quote from a song by New Order:

It takes years to find the nerve
To be apart from what you've done
To find the truth inside yourself
And not depend on anyone.


But thinking in a rational way is part of that -- if only part -- and talking with others in good faith about what is true and what is not is also. Both of which are cases, as pazazygeek puts it, of 'applications' of logic. Just not of formal a.k.a. mathematical logic.

Dorothy Sayers -- whom we know mostly as a writer of detective fiction -- wrote a wonderful essay pleading for a revival of Medieval (!) methods of basic education, the so-called trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. 'Logic' here covers both the evaluation of given arguments and the communal or inter-subjective search for truth, a.k.a. dialectic.

Anyway, there is more to logic than mathematical logic and some things called logic are useful for discovering the truth -- even where empirical science doesn't have much to say, like in moral matters -- the 'ought' jabah brings up -- which includes questions about justice. (No one nowerdays, for instance, takes seriously or is much interested in ancient Greek philosopher and founder of logic Aristotle's theories of physics, but his views on and reasoning about ethics and politics are considered as relevant as ever and are widely read. Go ahead and put his Nicomachean Ethics in your philosophy queue!)
posted by bertran at 8:09 PM on May 25, 2021


(Re-reading the Sayers essay I find she uses the expression 'formal logic' to refer to the sort of logic practiced in schools in Europe in the Middle Ages. So perhaps the expression is ambiguous. They were taught a type of Aristotelian logic which was superseded by a mathematical logic discovered by Frege. But perhaps both can be contrasted as 'formal' to contemporary 'informal' logic which attempts to analyze and assess the validity of actual thought and argument as opposed to stylized scholastic performances? Logic in the Fregean style was for a long time appealed to by analytic philosophers as the model of legitimate thought, it seems to me erroneously. But honestly, I'm probably over my head here on the terminology and perhaps not clarifying matters, so I'll sign out.)
posted by bertran at 9:49 PM on May 25, 2021


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