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Issue B: Truths that describe the world, and truths that make the world

Consider the following statement: “There is only one metal which is a liquid at room temperature, and it is mercury.” And now consider this one: “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His messenger.”

These statements have a very similar grammatical form, but they are completely different in nature. The first is a statement of fact and, once we have agreed on the definition of “metal”, we can easily verify whether it is true or false. The second could be interpreted as a statement of fact, but for the believer who utters it, it serves a very different purpose. It is not saying something about the world, but doing something in the world. It is an act of allegiance; in uttering it you are signing up to a religion, a code of behaviour and ethics, aligning yourself with a specific group of people.

Now consider a third statement: “Barack Obama was not born in the US.” What sort of thing is this? On the one hand, it is a factual statement similar to the one about mercury, one which can be resolved by examining evidence (a birth certificate, hospital records). Yet, many people who made this assertion maintained their position in the face of whatever evidence was produced to the contrary. The reason that the birthplace controversy was so heated and long-lasting was that the two sides, although supporting or opposing the same statement, were doing completely different things. Those maintaining that Obama was born in the US were speaking factually. Those maintaining that he was not, were not deluded; their meaning was “I am opposed to Obama,” or even “He does not represent my view of what an American should be.” It was a pejorative view.

It is the difference between a statement about the world, and an expression of how the speaker thinks the world should be, or what they think about the world.

Once you start looking, these confusions are everywhere. For example, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen argued in 2014 that “for people who aren’t deep into math and science and technology, it is going to get far harder to understand the world going forward.”1 Really? The world is quite hard to understand at present – Brexit, Trump, North Korea, the Middle East – but it’s not clear that studying maths or technology is going to help anyone make sense of it. What Andreessen is really saying is “I am deep into Maths and Science and technology and think those disciplines are the only ones that matter.” The danger is that Andreessen is a very successful person in Silicon Valley, which creates the risk of his statements being taken as statements of fact rather than as statements of allegiance (techies vs. woolly humanities graduates).

And that is just the start. I could argue that the whole discipline of Economics suffers from the same problem, but that is a much longer story…

 

 

References

1 Andreesen, M. (2014). ‘Why I’m Bullish on the News’ in Politico. Accessed on: 02-08-2017. Available at http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/marc-andreesen-why-im-bullish-on-the-news-105921

 

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We are excited to have recently published our second issue of THECUBE‘s magazine, with contributions from both members and friends. For this issue we have been looking at the thematic of ‘TRUTH’. This article by member Alastair Dryburgh, is just one of the many that can be found in the magazine. If you would like to read the entire magazine please click here. We hope you will enjoy it, and feel free to get in touch if you are interested in contributing to our next issue for more details.