Category Archives: Epistemology

On Strangeness

The expression “truth is stranger than fiction”, or at least the overuse of it, is a prime example of lazy thinking. The truth is, truth is only stranger than fiction by virtue of its being true. Reality has an unfair advantage over fiction in this regard. If an outlandish piece of fiction, whose strangeness does not otherwise particularly strike any reader, were to occur in real life, people would still say that truth is stranger than fiction. But if it followed the fiction to the letter, how can it be stranger?

When an extremely strange series of events takes place in reality, a quite natural reaction is to comment that “you couldn’t make it up”. If it is truly strange, it is unlikely that someone would have made it up (simply statistically speaking), but it is certain that someone could have made it up. After all, most strange occurrences are the results of human thought and action, and fiction is no less (in fact even more) the product of these things.

Perhaps, then, we should ask: “what do we mean by strangeness?” It seems certain that this is different for reality than for fiction. Perhaps strangeness is simply the feeling that arises when we perceive that something has gone beyond its “natural bounds”. Reality is bounded by many laws—of physics, of psychology—and so if something appears to go beyond these bounds it will give the feeling of strangeness. But the bounds of fiction are much harder to gauge. Ostensibly they are at the whim of the author, and so can be absolutely anything. There are of course the rules that come from narrative convention, but most readers will be aware of a wide enough variety that nothing in this regard will be surprising, at least not surprising enough to engender the feeling of strangeness.

I would submit that the overriding boundary of fiction is that, for the most part, we just don’t believe it. If fiction can make us believe (however different the nature of this belief is to that of real things), then it creates the feeling of strangeness. Reality is the opposite: if it makes us doubt, if it makes us think that it’s a fiction, then it has become strange.

The Infinite Regress of Illusions

I wrote in a previous post (Does Truth Exist?) that we assume that truth exists in all our speech and thoughts, and that it would be impossible to truly speak or think otherwise: if I think, “truth does not exist,” I really mean, “truly, truth does not exist”—a logical contradiction. No functioning human—or sentient being for that matter—can reasonably live on the opposite assumption.

There is also this: it is impossible to believe that everything is an illusion.  “Everything” here means all that you think you know. In that case, the thought “everything is an illusion” is an illusion, and that thought is an illusion, and so on ad infinitum. An infinite regress of illusions is impossible. A similar problem arises with truth. If everything is true, then the thought “everything is an illusion” is also true. And, as Democritus says of Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all things”, if everything is true, then among truths is the thought that not everything is true. So neither “everything is true” nor “everything is an illusion” are correct.

But it may be objected that saying “everything is an illusion” is not quite the same as saying “nothing is true”. However, presumably the thought “nothing is true” is meant to be true, therefore negating itself. Maybe it depends on what exactly is meant by “nothing is true”. If it is taken to mean that “nothing that I know, apart from this thought, is true” then that seems to be perfectly acceptable; but it is logically impossible to make a generalisation out of it, because that would mean that “it is true that nothing can be known which is true”—again a logical contradiction.

The only weakness I can see in the above is that a distinction needs to be drawn between two kinds of thought: that is, thoughts about the nature and truth of things, and thoughts about the nature and truth of truth. The former might be said to be an epistemic judgement, and the latter a metaepistemic judgement. But is a metaepistemic judgement internal or external? That is, does it concern doubt, or does it concern truth as a thing utterly independent of any observers? If this is a useful distinction to make, it would certainly merit further exploration.

Does Truth Exist?

As far as I am able to see, there are only two positions one can adopt in answer to this. They are: “truth exists” and “truth does not exist”. One cannot say “truth sometimes exists”, because that means that it does. Nor can one say “truth is subjective”, because there are otherwise no true standards by which we can measure its validity. Saying “maybe truth exists” is neither here nor there.

The problem with the question “does truth exist?” is that it can only be answered within a framework that assumes the existence of truth. If one says “truth exists”, what they are really saying is “truly, truth exists”, and when someone says “truth does not exist”, what they are really saying is “truly, truth does not exist”, or “truth has a truth-value of zero”, a contradiction not just of terms but of logic. If this point is answered by saying, “how do I know that logic is true?”, we can see that the disbeliever of truth has it all ahead of them: if one does not believe in truth, one does not believe in logic, and, of necessity, nothing can be believed. We must concede that truth exists if we are to do or think anything. The exact nature of this truth is another matter, but truth undoubtedly exists.