A Suggestion for the New York Times. And for the Author of the Gospel According to John

The New York Times has launched a new advertisement campaign, one installment of which culminates in the propositions that:

The truth is hard.

The truth is hard to find.

The truth is hard to know.

The truth is more important now than ever.

I’m afraid that the campaign has gotten off on the wrong foot, for any proposition that begins with “The truth is” is, strictly speaking, false. But I will not allow myself to be but a critic and so, after pointing out how the propositions at hand are false, I will, with tongue not quite in cheek, point the Gray Lady in the direction of the logical tools she so evidently is in need of. I will then, albeit rather belatedly, do the same for the writer of the Gospel According to John.

Let’s, then, take the third of the four propositions, “The truth is hard to know,” as illustrative. Taken as it is given, it is equivalent to the conjunction (and here I’m making use of Bertrand Russell’s “theory of definite descriptions”)

There is at least one truth
and
any truth whatever is identical with that truth
and
that truth is hard to know.

Now, I’ll happily grant the truth of the first conjunct, “There is at least one truth”; for example, it is true that

At 10:00 am eastern standard time on March 8, 2018, Donald Trump was President of the United States of America.

And I’ll even, and still happily, grant the truth of the conjunction of the first and the last of the conjuncts, thus:

There is at least one truth
and
that truth is hard to know.

For example, it is either true that there exists extra-terrestrial intelligence or true that there does not exist extra-terrestrial intelligence. In either case, the truth is hard to know.

But I can’t grant that the conjunction of the first and second of the conjuncts

There is at least one truth
and
any truth whatever is identical with that truth.

is true. Take, once again, the above proposition, about Donald Trump, instantiating the first conjunct, “There is at least one truth.” It is just not the case that any truth whatever is identical with that truth. The following truth is a truth that is not identical with that one:

At 10:00 am eastern standard time on March 8, 2018, Michael Pence was Vice President of the United States of America.

There are, then, at least two truths. In fact, I’ll hasten to add, there are others, some, but only some, at least somewhat similar to the two about Messieurs Trump and Pence, e.g., those we all could generate about Messieurs Ryan and McConnell. Etc.

So, here’s my suggestion for the New York Times. Learn to distinguish between universal and particular propositions, as the introductory logic textbooks characterize them, and between affirmative and negative propositions. Applied to the case at hand, those distinctions enable us to distinguish between the universal affirmative proposition:

All truths are hard to know.

the universal negative proposition:

No truths are hard to know.

the particular affirmative proposition:

At least some truths are hard to know.

and the particular negative proposition:

At least some truths are not hard to know.

A moment’s reflection reveals that the Times’ proposition, “The truth is hard to know” implies the universal affirmative proposition, “All truths are hard to know.” As the latter is false, so too the former is false. I have already, in pointing to the truth of the answer to the question of the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence as a truth that is hard to know, indicated that the universal negative proposition is false. The two particular propositions, on the other hand, are true.

I urge, then, that the writers and editors of the New York Times, in the case at hand and indeed in almost all others, content themselves with particular propositions, instead of, say, a sentence the beginning of which is “The position of the White House is….” But, as I said early on in this post, I am offering the same advice, albeit rather belatedly, to the writer of the Gospel According to John, for therein (14:6) we read Jesus saying

I am the way and the truth and the life.

There may be room for some question as to whether or not the statement “I am the way” is true and perhaps even as to whether or not the statement “I am the life” is. But the statement, “I am the truth,” is just false, for there are many truths, the vast majority of which have little to do with Jesus.

I leave the spelling out of the advice to be offered to the author of the gospel, were it possible to offer him advice, to the reader.

Until next time.

Richard

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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