Truth as Accuracy of Description

‘Accuracy of description’ is an important and everyday meaning of ‘truth’. We can also use related words such as ‘precision’, ‘exactness’, ‘fidelity’, ‘veracity’ to consider the sense to which I am primarily referring.

When the accuracy of a particular description can be said to have a binary quality of ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ then the word ‘correctness’ might act as a useful synonym.  However, in any more graded way of thinking, we can also consider a degree of correctness, precision or exactness in relation to many descriptions.

Accurate quantitative descriptions of the world arrived at by the use of numbers, formulae and arbitrary measurement standards (meters, kilograms, seconds, etc) are perhaps the only class of description that we can label as accurate and precise.  When we use a non-numerical approach to description we come up against the desirable ambiguity and vagueness of language that does not place unhelpful limitations on words.  A ‘heap’ of sand  could often be desirably more vague than ‘27.5132 kilograms’, for example [Despite extended claims to the contrary, my view is that there are no meaningful philosophical paradoxes about heaps of sand‘] 

What Lies Behind Description

How is it that a description made in a natural language, such as English, can be said be accurate and thus a bearer of information that approximates to some idealized or pragmatic conception of truth.

In order to approach this subject in a very comprehensive fashion, we might wish to decide on whether or not natural language and mathematics can be ‘truly’ representational. In so doing we would need to develop philosophies of language and logic, a theory of mind, and explanations of perception. I will instead assume, as we all do most of the time, that linguistic and symbolic description can be representational of the ‘world’ that we perceive, although be very incomplete. In a later section of this work, I will argue that perceptions ‘are what they are’ and are shaped by biological evolution, and are not in a strict sense ‘real’.

I also take it for granted that we must communally agree on definitions of terms, a syntax and forms of logic in whatever means of communication we choose to use.

Descriptive ‘Facts’ vs Interpretations

For all practical purposes, there are a limitless number of descriptions and combinations of descriptions we can formulate about the world.  Many descriptive statements are probably better thought of as having a value lying somewhere between accurate and inaccurate, exact or inexact, or as having or some degree of utility.

Nevertheless, when we are very sure of a description and there often seems very little possibility of alternative interpretation to the ones we propose or accept, we tend to label such descriptions of the world around us as ‘facts’. When we declare that our descriptions are factual we are deliberately trying to simplify or short cut further examination. Indeed this is the way that we have to live if we are not to be overburdened by unproductive ruminations on meaning. Nevertheless, we are merely playing word games if we think we have solved any difficulty in our consideration of truth by applying the word ‘fact’ to particular assertions. By invoking the concept of fact we have not understood the world any better, we have merely made an assertion about descriptions we are prepared to accept.

When we feel a very direct linkage between our observations and the sense we make of them, we will tend to regard them as facts. ‘The dog urinated on the lamp post’ might be taken as a fact if we observed this event while walking along the road. However, we might also describe the same event by making the claim that the dog was ‘scent marking its territory’. In this way, we are interpreting the same event within the world in a more indirect, more abstract and more complex sense. Although making the same observation we have construed it in relation to additional observations of animal behaviour that we may or may not believe to have some elements of descriptive accuracy, for example, dogs have territories. It is possible for a dog to mark territories. Both the urinating dog or another dog would identify this as a territory marking. Dogs only urinate in this way for the purpose of marking territories, and so on.

Epistemic Properties of Description

There appears to be no theoretical way, of demonstrating what types of truth-bearing description are possible for us to formulate. Indeed it has been argued that the reasons why statements are truthful are as diverse as the number of statements themselves. Every descriptively accurate statement we can make might have a unique reason or set of reasons for being described as true or approximately so.  For example, the statement ‘I used to be a professional photographer’ will depend on who is making the statement and when they make it. It will be true for a few people at some times and false for most people most of the time. Taking this kind of example to extreme, we might argue that there are an infinite number of truthful or false statements we could make and an infinite number of reasons why those statements are truth-bearing or false.  This is especially the case when numerical descriptions are involved. Some philosophers use this thought and go further by claiming that truthfulness is not a ‘real’ property of a descriptive statement.

We cannot have a general theory of propositional accuracy

If there is not a theory of why individual descriptive statements about the world have the possibility of being truth-bearers we could undertake the mundane task of intuitively generating statements and then laboriously examining their properties.  We might then be able to come up with a set of important reasons as to why particular descriptive statements are either true or false, however, we will not arrive at general theories of truthfulness. For example when I assert that ‘Elephants have grey skin’  I am claiming to use definitions correctly and make an accurate direct observation that others would agree with.  I am not doing any more than that. If you say that  ‘Adult tigers are bigger than domestic cats’, you are asserting some kind of accurate comparative assessment. If I tell you that ‘at 11.15 British summertime on the 3rd of September 1939 Neville Chamberlain announced in a radio broadcast that Britain was at war with Germany’ I am claiming to have a precise historical record
If you read in a physics textbook that ‘absolute zero temperature is approximately -273.15° on the Celsius scale’  I am invoking a theoretical idea that has a quantitative operational definition. These categories of observational, comparative, historical and theoretical statements could be accompanied by assertions about how we feel and by procedural statements. However, there seems no intuitive reason for thinking that the types of accurate statement we can make are finite. 

Similarly,  there seems to be no theoretical approach we can develop to determine whether or which individual statements might be inaccurate. It would seem that the most fundamental class of descriptive errors that we can make are ontological, in which we assert that something exists when it does not; for example, man-eating roses killed my friend. In addition, and in no particular order,  we can make descriptive errors of properties in terms of time attributions,  of spatial extent and location, by mechanism, or by ascribed cause or purpose. The list is seemingly endless and without a theoretical structure that can be applied to it.

What are we aiming for with description?

If we wish to analyse descriptions of the world for accuracy our prime considerations are the degree of vagueness, relevance, accuracy, precision, completeness, context and utility. We are often more concerned with these properties and not so concerned with absoluteness of the statement in the sense of descriptive truth (or perfect exactness).

The idealised concept of ‘truth’ ( or its inverse ‘falsity’), in the context of description, can to some extent be regarded as a convenience that helps us navigate our way in the world.

Steve Campbell
Glasgow, Scotland

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