Musings on Truth from Shivagange Hill
The Shivagange Hill (ಶಿವಗಂಗೆ ಬೆಟ್ಟ) is a rocky outcrop (around 800 m above ground level and 1300 m above sea level) in Bengaluru rural district in Karnataka, South India. These boulders have ancient volcanic origin (are at least 2.5 billion years old) and are some of the oldest geological formations in India.
We come across situations where different versions of any event or anything are narrated to us by different people. Is truth just a perceived construction of the world by human mind? Is there only one ‘version’ of truth? Here, I wish to use the Shivagange Hill as an example to dissect the problem of truth, wonder whether truth is singular or can we have multiple versions of truth. This is also my attempts to superficially understand prominent theories of truth in philosophical studies.
When viewed from a distance of a few km, the peak of Shivagange appears to us in the form of a bull from one of its faces. When viewed from another side, the hill gives us the impression of an eeshwara linga (a Hindu God). It apparently also gives the impression of an elephant and a snake from other angles and I have not personally seen the hill from all possible angles. Of course, it may appear as other things to people of other faiths or non-faith. There is the correspondence theory of truth, which says that a belief or a notion is true if and only if it corresponds to an existing appropriate entity, i.e., a fact. If there is no such entity, the belief is false. If truth has a corresponding fact, then our perception of a bull or a linga in Shivagange hill must be corroborated with the fact of a large rocky statue of a bull or an elephant. But, any such impression of things that are familiar to us, vanish when we get closer to the hill and if we climb the hill, we will notice that the rocks are just rocks. Does that mean our perception of a bull (nandi) or of a linga from a distance are false or untruths? What about the views from directions other than these four, from where the hill in all likeliness looks merely like a pile of boulders?
The only fact that is probably verifiable about the Shivagange hill will be that a pile of boulders exists at such and such geographical coordinates and if we go there, we may find it. So, the hill does exist and it is true that the hill exists. But whether our notions of a nandi, or a shivalinga from a distance are true or not true are not as easy to address. Some semanticists and redundancy theorists will find fault with the term ‘true’ itself since the usage of the word ‘true’ does not add anything to our perception of the hill’s existence. But, the word ‘true’ has some weight and it gains importance when we use it in more complex collection of statements about this hill.
The process of getting to the ‘truth’ is more or less formulaic if you are in the field of science. It is like watching a hill from a distance, then making one’s way towards it and finally climbing it. Someone holds a belief that has some tangible evidence based on some observations. In other words, he sees the hill of Shivagange from a distance and sees objects that he is familiar with. He will go there to verify his belief. To do that, he will have to conduct some measurements and experiments. In some cases, more experiments, and even more experiments are needed under different conditions. Any opinion or hypothesis gets closer to truth and can become absolute truth (a natural law in this case) when experiments are repeatable and the observations provide no exceptions (assuming theorising and experimenting feed off each other).
It is often assumed that truth is singular, and a scientific method helps us get there. At any given time, the most formidable and evidence based consensus on anything or non-thing is said to be the closest to the absolute truth we aspire to know. It is indeed repeatable that you or any number of people who view the Shivagange from different angles, can come to the same conclusion (i.e. the hill resembles a bull, a snake, a shivalinga among other things). If someone makes some accurate measurements of the boulders in situ, and do some spatial modeling, they may find that a random spatial distribution of rocks have given rise to impression of objects familiar to human imagination (common sense, ah!). Are such perceptions part of an incomplete truth? Are they all part of a coherent whole? Hmm.
Most of us will probably accept that our knowledge of things around us changes everyday and a small fraction of our beliefs and hypotheses, which we thought were truths, no longer remain true. Truth as an evolving and verifiable consensus at a given instance of time, constitutes the pragmatist’s theory of truth. I find that idea attractive.