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Truth and Phlogiston

Truth as a flock of verdicts

If truths are for the most part verdicts, and those that are absolute say nothing about the world, then why do we have the sense that there are true things? We feel that certain things about the world are true and certain things are not. And this seems greater than our own opinion. The answer here is that truth's flock like the mumuration of starlings.

In biology there is a saying "there is no such thing as the blue heron". It means that a species does not exist as a concrete entity in its own right - rather there are a multiplicity of individuals each of which express unique but related morphology and DNA. The species arises emergent from the similarity of individuals, but no individual is 'the blue heron'. Truth in the world has the same property.

If we take an idea - that the world is round, for example, then in each individual that holds this idea it is a verdict. But the reasons for holding this verdict and so the relationship to it are different in each individual. A very few people have seen the sphere of the earth directly with their own eyes. Most have seen countless images taken from space. Most understand the common models of the universe - the related truths - in which gravity coalesces supernova dust into bodies which become spherical under their own gravity. Many understand the ways in which the spherical nature is revealed through the cycles of day and season and their variation across the globe, many will have measured the circumference through countless experiments which can confirm it, more will have heard of such experiments and accepted the results. In all cases every individual has a unique collection of beliefs and understandings which contribute to the consensus 'fact' of a spherical earth which we are happy to call 'round'.

Of course when it comes to the earth being round, there are those who hold contrary beliefs. The shape of the flock extends to its own contradiction. A mumuration of starlings occupies three dimensional space ℝ3, where truths flock in a high dimensional abstract space which may or may not be a Hilbert space. A property or dimension of the space is the degree of belief, since our verdict of truth is malleable. There is no fundamental difference in our verdicts between a true thing, something believed in, something which may be true, something improbable and so on. A verdict becomes truth by the goodness of fit to the metaphors we hold of the world.

We have a strong tendency to see the flock as a single entity or else to divide it into two points - for and against. This tendency is an abstraction that might even be necessary for managing complexity, but it is the source of a great deal of confusion, conflict and disharmony in a great many debates. Understanding that two people do not mean the same thing when they refer to almost any concept: 'left wing', 'right wing', 'Christianity', 'Islam', 'feminism', 'Italian food' can add instant clarity.

In the 17th century, the prevailing theory of combustion among the intellectual and scientific community was that materials were composed of a combustible stuff called Phlogiston (fire stuff). Wood, for example was largely composed of Phlogiston, and stone had none in it's composition. This could be demonstrated scientifically by weighing a substance, then burning it and weighing what remained. The difference in weight was the phlogiston that had been released. At that time the flock of truth gathered around the principle of phlogiston, with some people understanding it deeply, others accepting it, having heard of it, etc.. At a certain point some scientists were lead to understand the world as composed of elements: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen etc. At the Royal Society when a presentation was first given showing combustion as a chemical reaction between carbon, hydrogen and oxygen the comment from the distinguished audience at the end was "Yes, that is all well and good, but what happens to the phlogiston in your model?"

At this time the theory of phlogiston was true. It was not, as we are tempted to look upon it now, some foolishness that was soon to be replaced by the truth. It was, at that time, both true and real. Materials were composed of properties such as phlogiston then just as much as materials are made up of the elements of the periodic table today. The stuff of the world did not change between times, but the best fitting metaphor did. The world used to be like one in which materials were composed of phlogiston, now it is more like one in which materials are composed of carbon, hydrogen etc..

How did the new truth arise? The classic explanation is that a new theory starts as a hypothesis which is then tested to become a theory, which then becomes established with ever greater evidence. This is not wrong, but we get a more detailed and nuanced picture by watching the flock of truth move. We have to make a story for this because we do not, of course know. The initial researchers, aware of phlogiston are also aware of some limitations of its associated model. Perhaps there is another way to describe the makeup of matter. There will be some point of 'what if' and 'yes, that seems right' until eventually the initial researchers start to say things like "I believe that matter is made up of different kinds of elements." At this point there are some starlings that have moved away from the flock. Truth has not changed, even they have not yet claimed the truth, but over time more starlings join them. At some point enough starlings have gathered around the chemical elements that the flock takes on a two node shape, and a debate starts to happen about truth and 'reality'. The question 'does phlogiston even exist' becomes a current question. Again as more time passes the majority of the flock moves over to gather around the chemical elements leaving only a few stalwarts 'believing in' phlogiston, who eventually die off.

This shift happened because the elemental model, which formed the foundation of chemistry, biology and particle physics, was a better model of the world than the less specific and less operant model involving phlogiston. While there are outliers in the flock of truths around the shape of the world the flock does not move towards 'flatness' because it is not a better model.

There are some truths that do not have flock nature - for example I saw a heron on a walk. Had I not mentioned it no one but myself would know, and yet it would still be true to me. It would not be a true fact in the world of any another, but neither would it be contested or false. One reason that this fact seems to be as true as a more widely shared consensual truth is that to hear it and accept it does not require the adjustment or subversion of any other existing model. If my walk took place in Antarctica, the report of seeing a heron would be less readily accepted and seem (indeed be) less likely to be truth.

Understanding reality as the best fitting metaphor and truth as the flock of verdict allows us much greater sophistication in understanding the values and limits of different perspectives and belief systems. Discernment is possible - everyone has their own reality but some realities are more real than others. In other words some metaphors provide a better fit to the world under question than others. We can rationally say that the world is round and not flat; that materials are composed of atoms of the elements and not phlogiston or other substances. But significantly for the first time discernment in truth and reality does not belong to objective reductionism. The world is not exclusively, not even predominantly, like one in which all concerns are objects interacting outside of the influence of any subjectivity. Rather the world is predominantly second order cybernetic, systemic, emergent and subjective and the best fitting metaphors (reality) for these realms have no responsibility to concord with those of the scientific world.