“Ultimately, these statements about the early universe are still just theories. The fact remains [ that] evidence is piling up to confirm that such an event took place according to the predictions of the quantum theory and the theory of relativity.” — Michio Kaku (1987)
The philosopher Michael J. Loux (whom I take to be a semantic realist) provides us with the following statements which he uses to clarify various realist and anti-realist positions on the truth-values of statements generally:
1) “There was a big bang.”
2) “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour.”
In parenthesis directly above, I mentioned that Michael Loux is a semantic realist.
The position of semantic realism is that every grammatically-acceptable statement (or proposition) is bivalent (i.e., it’s “determinately” true or false); as well as being evidence-transcendent (i.e., it’s true or false independently of our means of establishing its truth value).
Thus if we take any given statement S, the following can now be stated:
Statement S is determinately true (or false) regardless of any proof, evidence, experimental data, etc. we may (or may not) have for it.
This immediately elicits two questions:
1) Can a statement be true or false regardless of whether we know it to be true or false?
2) Can a statement be true or false regardless of how we can show it to be true or false?
There was a Big Bang
Firstly, Michael Loux offers this statement:
“There was a big bang.”
Loux argues that we could be “wrong in accepting” that statement even though we “might have evidence meeting the highest standards” for stating it. As it is, many scientists admit that we may be wrong about our cherished scientific theories — at least in some small (or even large) details. However, they’d still argue that only new evidence could decide if the theory is true or false simpliciter. Thus the theory of the Big Bang was established by evidence — yet it may still be overturned by… evidence. That is, by contradictory evidence. Of course the precise status and standing of the theory of the Big Bang doesn’t really matter in this context of semantic realism. Nonetheless, I included the Michio Kaku quote (at the beginning of this piece) for some food for thought.
So what function is (as it were) Realist truth playing here?
Loux is arguing that S is true (or false) regardless of evidence. But it can just as easily be said that we can have evidence for S without also needing to say that “S is true” — as with the statement about the Big Bang. Thus we can jettison truth altogether in this context. Indeed many scientists do place scare quotes around the word “truth” when they use it within the context of scientific theories.
In more basic terms, why does the Realist say that “S is true” (or false) even if “we would lack the warrant requisite for asserting or denying S”? Why does the Realist argue that the statement “There was a big bang” could be “wrong” even if we have “evidence meeting the highest standards” for it? What does it mean to say that “S is true” (or “S is false”) in the context of any given any given statement S being without any evidence whatsoever?
Surely the only way we could say it S is true (or false) is via (epistemic) warrant, justification, evidence or whatever. How can S be true (or false) without these things?
So is “could” (as in “S could be true”) the important word here?
Could Be True or Is True?
Loux then offers us this statement:
“Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour.”
Loux says that “[t]he Realist takes it as obvious” that this statement
“could be true even though it is in principle impossible for us to find evidence on way or the other”.
Is it that “S could be true”? Yes; S could be true… if we had the evidence, warrant, etc. to show that it is true. Yet surely it isn’t true (or false) until then.
Of course using the words “could be true” isn’t the same as using the words “is true”. In the former case, Loux seems to acknowledges that we can’t say that the statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” is true (or false) because there is no evidence to say that it is true (or false). Still, it could be true. Yet in the proceeding paragraph Loux also stated the following:
“The Realist will insist that S [my bold] is , nonetheless, true (or false).”
So what would make S (above) true “even though it is in principle impossible for us to find evidence on way or the other”? What status (or nature) does S’s (to use an adjective from Bob Hale) “evidence-transcendent” truth (or falsehood) have? Basically, what makes S either true or false regardless of evidence, etc? (I use the abbreviation “etc” because I could just as easily also refer to justification, warrant, experimental data, empirical observation, etc.)
Charlemagne’s Favourite Colour
Now let’s return to the original statement again:
“Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour.”
Charlemagne might have had a favourite colour. So it can now be said that once upon a time there might have been a state of affairs of Charlemagne saying “Magenta is my favour colour” or simply having the propositional attitude that magenta is my [his] favour colour. We can accept that — except, of course, that we can question whether or not there are such things as states of affairs when it comes to the past.
So here we must distinguish possible states of affairs from bivalent statements such as “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” or “There was a big bang”.
Of course Charlemagne might never have thought about the colour magenta. But let’s just say that he did. (Again, how could we know?) What does this possible state of affairs in the past have to do with the actual statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour”? More accurately, what has this past state of affairs got to do with S’s being true (or false) regardless of evidence? Again, it can be accepted that there might have been a state of affairs of Charlemagne having a position on magenta, but what of the statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” itself? How would we establish (or know) that S is true (or false)? Surely only via evidence. But Loux’s argument is that any given S is true (or false) regardless of evidence. So what is it for any given S to be true (or false) regardless of evidence? What does any given S’s evidence-transcendent truth (or falsity) amount to?
Say that we accept that the statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” could be true (i.e., not “is true”) — where does that get us? What is the “cash value” — or even philosophical value — of this acceptance of semantically-realist truth?
Does this really establish truth as a realist (as it were) property of statements? “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” could become true — but only if we discovered evidence for it. Of course many strongly deny that truth has this temporal nature. For most/all semantic realists the statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” is either true for all time or it is false for all time. (Actually, it can’t have been true before Charlemagne was born.) So, on this reading, the statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” can’t become true simply because we gain the evidence which gives us warrant for asserting it. A semantic anti-realist, on the other hand, can settle for saying that a statement is not truth-apt at this moment in time. However, a statement can (or could) have its precise truth-value determined in the future and then it will be true (or false). The realist will counter that by arguing that statement S is both truth-apt and true at this moment in time.
Yet if we don’t have evidence for the statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour”, then what is its actual (or precise) philosophical — or otherwise — status?
Of course the statement “Magenta was Charlemagne’s favourite colour” is a perfectly grammatical — and therefore acceptable — sentence. However, what is its philosophical (or semantic) status bearing in mind that “it is in principle impossible for us to find evidence one way or the other”? The realist says that it is true (or false) regardless of our evidence. This must mean that the realist’s phrase “could be true” (or “could be false”) actually morphs into “is true” (or “is false”). That is, if any given statement could be true (or false), then it must either be true (or false) now and be so regardless of evidence.