Q. 514 Some thoughts on ‘Truth’

Q: Are true and false relative opposites, like fast and slow?

A: Wow – a difficult one!

To some extent, I think both depend upon context (so would have to be ‘relative’). Fast and slow are a good analogy. These still have an ‘absolute’ sense: ‘Fast’ (with capital letter) must be speed of light; ‘Slow’ must be stationary. Similarly, most statements can be construed as true or false ‘to a degree’, can’t they?

Here is the opening from the Philosophy Foundation website on ‘Truth-Falsity’:

Are these a) true, b) false, c) neither or d) both?

    ‘I am 20.

    ‘I am me.’

    ‘The Simpsons is a really good programme.’

    ‘I am shopping in Lewisham’ (when the speaker is shopping, but not in Lewisham)

    ‘This cake is made of jelly’ (when it is half jelly and half something else).

    ‘2 + 2 = 4’

    ‘Unicorns only have one horn.’

    ’10 grains of sand make a heap.’

    ‘This sentence is false.’

    ‘Aliens exist.’

Makes you think, doesn’t it?!

I just happen to be looking at a photograph I took of a fungus (Boletus discolor) about 35 – 40 years ago, on slide film. Is this statement true?

Well, it depends what you mean by ‘take’ I suppose. It might be more accurate to say that the camera ‘took’ it. All that I did was press the shutter release. And, really speaking’, it was the light reflecting off the fungus, being focused by the lens onto the film’s emulsion that effected the ‘photo’. And the film actually had to go through some chemical processing before you could see anything. But, apart from all of that, it isn’t really a photograph of Boletus discolor anyway. It was back then but now it’s a photo of Sutorious luridiformis. Back then, this genus did not even exist. It was invented some time ago following examination of the genetic makeup I suppose, following which the experts re-allocated it to some entirely new genus.

Actually, the essence of that story is not actually true anyway. I don’t have a photo of that fungus – it only occurs in North America and I have never been there. So definitely false then?

In my dream last night I spoke to my friend, Mike. In the context of the dream, with ‘I’ as the dreamer, this could perfectly well be true, even though Mike died over 40 years ago. And, relying on the accuracy of my memory, it could certainly be true from the vantage point of my waker-I, now, that I had such a dream last night. But, of course, such a dream could not be ‘true’ in any ‘real’ sense. (In any case, I didn’t have any such dream last night, although Mike does appear quite often in them…)

I guess you are actually looking for an ‘Advaitic’ answer. The only reference I can find is to Pa~nchadashI 3.29. Effectively, it says that truth is that which is not negated in all three periods of time. But the word for ‘true’ is ‘satyam’, which can also be understood as ‘real’. False is equivalent to tuchCha, isn’t it? In which case things like ‘son of barren woman’, ‘square circle’ are unreal. (And you could say that statements that claim otherwise are ‘false’ (!).)

Advaitically speaking, we differentiate 3 orders of reality:

  • pratibhAsa is used (in vyavahAra) to refer to dreams. These seem real at the time but are ‘sublated’ when we wake up. They are then recognized to have been unreal. But it is true that we dream, even though the dream itself is not real/true. If someone asked us, in the dream, if what was perceived was real, we would almost certainly say ‘yes’. If it occurred to us, in the dream, to question the reality of what was seen for ourselves, we would probably enter into the ‘lucid dream’ state, in which we could manipulate the dream, knowing it was not real. I know this from personal experience.
  • vyavahAra is used to refer to the waking state of ‘empirical’ reality, where things perceived have utility. (But note that things seen in dream have utility in the dream!)
  • paramArtha is used (in vyavahAra) to refer the absolute, non-dual reality. This cannot be experienced, by definition.

Consequently, reason must tell us that no experience, in any state, can be absolutely real or true. And truth/reality must therefore be relative.

It is true that I have answered your question, but is it true that I have answered it to your satisfaction? Have I answered it to my own satisfaction? It would be false to claim that I am entirely happy with my response, but not entirely false…