Wednesday, 31 August 2011


My late husband sometimes used to introduce me as, "My first wife."  This caused amusement to people who knew us and disconcerted those who did not.  He was witty, sociable and loved to play with language and ideas.

T's teasing introduction is philosophically similar to 'Ishmael's problem', as quoted by Simon Blackburn in his book, "Truth a guide for the perplexed".  At the end of "Moby Dick" Ishmael says, 'I alone escaped to tell the tale', which would be impossible if his account of the sinking of the ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean is true.  For my husband's statement to be true in so far as the accepted meaning of 'First wife' he would have needed at least a second wife which, is not the case,so far as I know.

'So far as I know', or 'to the best of my belief',  are caveats to the truth that are fundamental to the smooth running of society.  We sign legal documents and declare our good faith with such phrases.

Does this mean that truth is relative or that ultimate truth is unknowable?

Right away, I must say that, although I find it easy to accept that ultimate truth is unknowable, I do not believe that truth is relative.  I do not believe that what is essentially true in one context will not be essentially true in another.  If I lie I lie.  It does not matter where or when, in front of whom I lie, or why I lie.  I lie if I do not believe that what I am saying is the truth.  This is an entirely separate issue from whether my lying might save my skin, or 'serve a greater good'.  I do not see 'Truth' as a moral issue so much as a philosophical one.  It is what happens to the truth that is the moral issue for me.  The crucial fact for me is that I know whether I am lying or not.  If I believe the words that I say then I am not lying and I am telling the truth as I know it.

This is an easier matter if the question is, 'Were you there?'  Unless I was unconscious or otherwise unaware or have forgotten over time, I would expect to know where I have been.  I should be able to give a truthful answer.  It is whether I would choose to or not that is the moral issue.

If the question is, 'What did you see?' the truth becomes more difficult.  In this case perception muddies the waters.  I might see someone who reminds me of my father, so I would probably cast him in a kindly light in my description. I might even remember the individual as having some of the physical characteristics of my father, and not even noticed those characteristics in which he differed from him, such as having a moustache or wearing glasses.

This is one reason why witness statements can prove to be unreliable under questioning.  Having been at the scene of an accident and wanting to give a truthful account I was not able to give much eye-witness information to the police.  When asked, 'What drew your attention to the accident?' I was able to say, 'The sound of the brakes.'  I had not seen whether the lady stepped off the curb in front of the bus, nor was I able to offer any information about the speed of the bus, I had only heard the driver trying to stop the bus. Had the lady reminded me of my granny, or the driver reminded me of someone I did not like, I might have perceived things differently and thus my account might have been been less judicial.

Just as it is hard to be sure of the truth of our perceptions, it would be hard to be certain of our intentions. Elizabeth Anscombe told us that we cannot know intention.  It would thus be hard to be truthful about our intentions.  But I do not think that it is hard to know what we believe.  I think it is hard to deceive ourselves about the truth for that reason.  It might be hard to know the whole truth but it is not hard to know the essential truth of what we think, of what we say, of what we do, of what we feel and of what we believe.

Socrates said that knowledge is virtue.  Aristotle said virtue is happiness.  I say that if we are not true to our own beliefs, if we deceive ourselves we cannot be happy.  Virtue we can argue about.  Meaning we can argue about.  We can have fun with words and phrases and enjoy teasing each other.  We can explore the limits of knowledge and the nature of morality.  But if we are incongruent  and say what we do not believe to be true we deny ourselves.