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Truth and sponsoring

Went to the local conference on truth and logic and presented a sketch of a Latour's theory of truth. Text below.

Assigning Truth or, Is truth what holds?

Une phrase ne tient pas parce qu'elle est vraie; c'est parce qu'elle tient qu'on la dit vraie.
(Latour, Irréductions, 2.4.8)

I'm going to do no more than to unpack this epigraph. My unpacking, however, will carry a metaphysical baggage which I will motivate but will be likely to do less than fully defend. The baggage is strongly shaped by a framework provided by process philosophy, inspired by Whitehead, Souriau and Latour himself. This will take me to a substantive account of truth. If the account is plausible, it will place truth (and some parts of logic) outside the places reserved to it by the maneuvers of the linguistic turn in its heyday.

Latour's dictum together with the metaphysical baggage will take me towards a very rough attempt to look at truth in terms somehow akin to those we use to think about natural phenomena. It is very sketchy and it only points towards a vague direction that I believe is plausible. It is some sort of physicalist take on truth that seeks to somehow place (at least parts of) logic within the scope of physics. Its physicalism, however, is one that is closer to Plato’s ‘physics of the all [tou pantos phuseos]’ (Tim. 47a9, 27a5) than to any commitment to physics as a a current scientific discipline either as it stands or as it could eventually become.

Hartry Field's work on truth could be taken as exemplary of the journey through darkness that a physicalist undergoes when trying to approach the nature of truth. Field (1972) started out proceeding in a courageous and yet straightforward manner. If truth is to be physical, there ought to be a physical property that at least correlate with it in the same manner that an extensionally equivalent physical property was given for valence in order to make it acceptable from a physicalist point of view. If such a property was not found, and only a description of the equivalence at each instance (potassium is +1, sulphur is -2 etc,) was possible, physicalism would have to be abandoned in favour of something like chemicalism. Analogously, he claims, if there is no physical extensional equivalent for primitive denotation – based on which truth is defined – we would have to allow for a sui generis semantical domain. Field provides a diagnosis and then a programme. The diagnosis: Tarski's definition of tuth was a step in the right (physicalist) direction but it was not enough. The programme: once we define truth in terms of primitive denotation we can then hope to find a physical extensional equivalent for it. Truth then would be reduced to something physical that ties together linguistic expressions and their primitive denotata. It is a property and a physicalist approach to properties is to show that they are reducible to physical properties. The rest of the journey is to some extent dismal. Field (1986), following a general tide against substantive conceptions of truth, gave up this strategy and retained physicalism while adopting a deflationary notion of truth that would hold that truth is something short of a property.

Since then, deflationism was served in many flavours – disquotational, prosentential, minimalist à la Horwich. The basic idea is to keep to a general schematic notion of truth such as Tarski's. (Or to Ramsey's scheme requiring quantification over propositions.) Very roughly, truth is taken to be no more than an instrument to assert something, to provide a tool for anaphoric expression and to enable semantic ascent in a hierarchy of languages. In other words, it names no property. Typically, truth bearers are then supposed to be sentences or statements. Horwich (1990) holds that truth is a predicate of propositions and understands it solely in terms akin to Tarski's. Deflationist accounts help doing justice to the intuition that to say that something (a sentence, a statement or the content of a belief) is true is a recommendation on its behalf. Truth is often taken to entails good assertibility conditions - the reverse not being in general accepted as something could be safe to assert and false. There is room, therefore, for some transcendence of truth with respect to assertibility – truth is not only what one something you can get around saying. It is something else beyond assertibility. Deflationary approaches can make space both for the idea that truth is a value and that it transcends assertibility.

The transcendence of truth is a point that deserves some pause here: the epigraph points at some lack of transcendence in truth. Traditionally, adequatio accounts (correspondence and identity) but not epistemic and pragmatic ones do justice to transcendence of truth (with respect to assertibility, agreement, widespread opinion or belief). Epistemic and pragmatic accounts, taking truth to be the result of inquiry (or agreement) and not self-standing independently of human practices, maintain that truth is not transcendent, being no more than the result of the way we seek it. Putnam in his brief internal realism phase has put forward a notion of truth based on the ideal of inquiry. There truth transcends our current epistemic state because it is some kind of human ideal. Notice that truth can be a human concern and yet be transcendent to the human ways: Davidson famously opens his Truth and Predication (2005) saying that “[n]othing in the world, no object or event, would be true or false if there were no thinking creatures”. A central issue concerning truth – and concerning in particular the nature of logical truth in its elusive connection to provability – is how human truth is.

Now Latour's take on what there is draws from basic tenets of process philosophy. Nothing exists without something else making it exist. Souriau talks of ontological instauration. In my paper in Speculations 2 I used the English phrase “bringing about” to translate it stressing that nothing is brought about once and for all for Souriau. In recent writings I have been using the word sponsor to translate it (Harman's gestiftet from Heidegger etc.). Then the idea is: to be is to be sponsored (and to sponsor). Nothing is sponsor-free and therefore the existence of something is always dependent on the existence of something else (its sponsors). Not only us human sponsor the existence of what there is for us but everything else is for-something. Plus, we cannot sponsor something on our own – something holds if there is enough sponsoring behind it. Ontology would be then a study of sponsoring relations. Process philosophy is a way to be a realist about the constitutive relations that the anti-realists talk about: we sponsor things-for-us as river banks sponsor rivers, the water of Earth sponsors the clouds, bees sponsor flowers etc. Existence is somehow a matter of agreement between sponsors. We cannot sponsor anything on mere human agreement – except, of course, for characters of fiction, rumors, widespread falsehoods etc – because we need other parts of the world. (Latour talks about agents in a deliberately vague way because they are not individuated before agreements are put into test.) What there is transcends our human interests and yet it doesn't transcend the sponsor's interest. Existence is immanent to sponsoring.

There is a number of consequences to this ideas. Concerning what is necessary, we can say that nothing holds, say, because it is necessarily full stop; all necessity is itself sponsored by something. We can bring to fore a use of the word 'contingent': something is contingent on something else. When we say “arms sales contingent on the approval of congress”, for example. Likewise with necessity: it is necessary on something, because of something, given something. Maybe all modality would have to be thought as conditional modality. Further, we can say that the temporal order of events is relative to a sponsoring scheme that somehow limits time travel – if we find sponsoring (in tachyons, in cosmic space or somewhere else) for a time shuttle enabled to reach the past, the sponsoring scheme will change in a way that the past will be altered by the present or future. Laws of nature themselves are contingent on some configuration of things – they are the result of a stable agreement between sponsors and not something that forces the sponsors to agree. If it seems that the sponsors are forced to agree on something, it is because we need to take into account some other sponsors who are strong enough to impose it. In other words, laws hold because they are held and not because they are necessary in themselves. Process philosophy doesn't assume a metaphysically fixed framework where everything takes place, no established order of things – there is no underlying structure that transcends all the sponsors and their activity. It could resemble some sort of anti-realism: it's all up to us – except us is not us humans but the class of all sponsors. (It is interesting to ask the difficult questions concerning membership in this class: do abstract objects belong? Numbers? Proofs? It is also interesting to try and answer affirmatively to these questions. Surely, however, abstract objects cannot sponsor anything on their own, they need to be part of a sponsoring pool. I will not proceed in these lines here but I do believe there are several promising avenues to be explored in this neighborhood.)

(Phrase: Frege vs Hilbert; withstand the false.) Uma grave doença é a contradição porque indica a presença do falso, e não a trivialização. Mas o falso tem um papel, como um o totalmente outro.

I'll now go back to truth – and the epigraph. We can say that a sentence is true because it reports somehow the scheme of alliances promoted by a sponsoring pool. Then, we say that the “snow is white” is true because it reports a state of affairs involving the snow sponsored by the cold weather, its whiteness sponsored by luminosity and reflection on pigments etc. Truth is no more than a report on the agreement between sponsors – the agreement is the truth-maker. The agreement, however, is in this case something close to a state of affairs and we can then take this idea of truth as very close to that of a correspondence between sentences and states of affairs. Correspondence accounts typically don't yield that truth is what makes things hold, something is correspondence true simply because it corresponds to what holds. It is immanent on how things are while it transcends our beliefs and expectations about it. Truth is not a force that affect things. This is an important feature of the image of truth we're trying to grasp: truth itself is not an agent (say, it is not a sponsor), This makes it close to a deflationary image of truth as truth is thought as no more than the name of a sponsoring agreement – the sponsoring agreement that holds whatever is true. But in the image of truth we want to explore – call it Latour's notion of truth for a lack of a better phrase – truth is not simply a word or a predicate but rather it names a property of the state of affairs. This is where the main difference between correspondence and Latour's notions of truth lie. In the former, there is an element of representation and we say that truth is a relation (that of correspondence) between the truth-bearer and the truth-maker. The expression of the correspondence in a sentence (or in a proposition) can in turn be a truth-bearer leading to concerns about infinity that prompted some philosophers to embrace an identity theory of truth (the windmill argument etc). Now, in Latour's notion of truth, there is no representation relation that could be entertain the property of being true. While truth is not an agent – a sponsor – the sentence that conveys it is. It is an agent within the pool that sponsors the state of affairs. Truth is not the property of the sentence but rather a global property of the state of affairs that includes the sentence.

In order to understand this somehow odd idea, we can think of falsehoods. When one utters a false sentence (or hold a false belief), one is fought by a number of sponsors of what is true – other people, human suspicions, but also other parts of the world that sponsor something that is in direct conflict with what the false sentence is trying to sponsor. Often, other humans are also sponsoring the false sentence but this sponsoring is not enough to make it happen because other parts of the world go against it. Truth is a global property of a state of affairs and in that sense truth-bearers are nothing but the truth-makers. Here is where Latour's notion of truth runs in consonance with identity theories. Not because our thought stops nowhere short of the world itself – as in the image Wittgenstein presents in his PU I 95 – but because truth is not a property of our thinking but rather of whatever makes something hold. When we say a true sentence, we are also acting on the global alliance of sponsors that makes it true – to affirm something is not simply to report but also to act in the world and be part of a sponsoring pool.

If Latour's image is accepted, we can envisage truth as part of tou pantos phuseos. It is in a some non-standard sense a deflationary image: truth is a global property of the states of affairs and yet it is not substantial as it fully depend on what is held. As I said, it has also some elements of correspondence truth and of identity truth. Truth clearly transcends us while not transcending the class of all sponsors. Truth, in an important sense, is in the making.

I would like to close with some very raw remarks on logical truth. Latour's notion of truth could be taken as pointing at a way to consider at least part of logic within the physics of all. I have been toying with the idea that different logics are different configurations of what is logically possible, what is logically necessary and iwhat is logically impossible. A logic is therefore associated to a collection of possible worlds, of necessary parts within those worlds, and of impossible worlds. Call that a galaxy. If we place galaxies within the general outlook provided by process philosophy, galaxies are not self-standing. Galaxies are contingent on sponsors – on physical devices that hold them. Just as a configuration of things makes something true, it is a configuration of things that makes a galaxy hold. One possible direction from here is to take the study of galaxies to be a (Quinean) extension of physics into broader, more abstract considerations to do with the current framework where physical possibility, impossibility and necessity take place. In any case, what I said this far hints at the direction that no galaxy is true once and for all: galaxies, wide and spread as they are, also need sponsors.


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