Quid est veritas? The truth will set you free

21st February 2013 at 15:41

Tom Bennett

Every week Tom Bennett will be shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he'll be writing about classrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. This week Tom takes on the big philosophical question - what is truth?

Pontius Pilate is my favourite character from the Passion narrative. The avatar of earthly command, his revealed helplessness shows him to be as much slave as slaver. His first hearing with the carpenter leads to the universal response of the bureaucrat: not my problem, mate. Forced to adjudicate for a second time, he cross-examines the accused with the question at the top of this paragraph: what is truth? That bon mot earned him the unofficial title of Patron Saint of Philosophers, which isn't bad considering what Judas got for his service to the narrative.

It's not a question you automatically associate with education. Recently I've been discussing this with other teachers: What does it mean to know something, and when is it true?

Traditionally, epistemologists define knowledge as `justified true belief'. Something is known only if it:

  1. Has a good reason to support its proposition. Claiming something because you read it in the Sunday Sport might be deemed weak evidence, for example.
  2. It must be true. If it isn't then you merely...
  3. .believe it, like the croakers on the Santa Maria, thinking the world was flat and finite.
    1. Together these form the traditional trinity of necessary and sufficient conditions.

      Point 2 is the pivot. What is truth? Happily we can substitute this with `Is the case' or `Is the case in the world external to the human mind.'

      Of course, this supposes a world, external to our perception, perhaps independent of it and ontologically intrinsic to itself. In other words, if a tree falls in a forest, it makes a sound whether there's anyone there to notice. This is known as Realism. It's also what almost everyone in the world, ever, believes. If I asked the man who punches my ticket on the train to entertain scepticism as to my existence, I'd be hugging platform at the next stop.

      There are many perfectly good lines of argument against this paradigm, and I entertain them often: Idealism; Phenomenalism; Postmodernism forms of defining truth. But these are parlour games of sophistry.

      Inductive inference is the only game in town when it comes to the way we interact with and interpret the world. Claims that we construct our own truths have a great deal of validity when it comes to meaning and value - what might be a valueless trinket to you might be a priceless treasure to me.

      But that's a far cry from the claim that such interpretative strategies modify the external world. A bullet train rushing towards you full pelt might be an portent of modernity, a symbol of futurism, or a hated agent of mercantile greed, but it will still turn you into philosophy jam whatever your perspective. No one can genuinely sustain true empirical scepticism in their lives.

      Except of course, in the sophistry of navel gazing. This is more important than it sounds. Claims about the efficacy of educational theories hinge on such definitions. It's at the heart of the `teach them facts in contextteach them to hug each other' debate (I may have oversimplified). It's foundational to the claims of those who try to sell you Thinking Hats, Brain Gym, Learning Styles, Neuro-teaching, taxonomies of understanding and a million other flavours of magic beans.

      What constitutes real evidence in educational research - and what doesn't - is of vital importance to the way we construct our classrooms. If you throw your oar in with bad research and novelty, you may as well decide what to teach using a horoscope, and how to teach it using a dartboard.

      If you think that truth is relative, and socially constructed, then by extension you can decide what temperature water turns to steam. I used to know someone who dropped acid, and then himself, off a garage roof, convinced he could fly. Regrettably he couldn't redefine the law of gravity and a kind nurse had to construct the meaning of plaster cast instead, he spent six weeks in the social construction of a wheelchair.

      This isn't the Matrix. We exist in a world that defies our attempts to do anything more than categorise it. We cannot will it in or out of existence. We cannot wish it to alter by our imaginations. To say that history is socially constructed is not to deny that events actually happened in a fixed and determinate manner. Napoleon may have been the Messiah of the Republic, the scourge of Portugal, or the Gardener of Elba, but he was a man of a time and a place.

      There are levels of ambiguity of truth in certain secondary fields of human experience, and fixed constants in other primary realms. It's important that we remember which field is which, otherwise nothing makes sense anymore. Which I suppose explains Brain Gym, at least.

      Read Tom's previous blogs;


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