… I had always a most earnest desire to know how to distinguish the true from the false, in order that I might be able clearly to discriminate the right path in life, and proceed in it with confidence.

Rene Descartes (1569-1650)

True/False Talent

In ways similar to complete sentences, our talent to distinguish true from false qualifies as a credible root claim because it is based on self verifiable elemental experience. That is to say, through introspection and talking with others we easily gather enough corroborating evidence to justify accepting with resolute certainty the real existence of our true/false talent. This includes our individual ability to understand the distinction between true and false, to decide with relative accuracy in many instance which is which, to talk about what we do, and to act upon our decisions with confidence.

Ability to tell true from false, although limited in scope, is a universal skill in rationally aware humans. With the exceptions of the very young and people suffering from severe brain privation, we all, once we understand terms, can consider simple direct statements and say whether they are true, false, still in question, or meaningless to us. Our answers are not always correct but we are right often enough for our answers to be of positive value. Even persons whose score is low at least understand the procedure and benefit some. Moreover, we not only can make these distinctions, we also have the ability to recognize that we understand and make the distinctions.

The talent, limited but real, to make true-false distinctions and to recognize and to know we recognize the difference between "true" and "false" is an elemental experience most people enjoy. So, too, is the talent to reflect on our true/false talent. We can validate these experiences by studying our own behavior and by examining abundant evidence available suggesting that other people do the same. In the plus system this is called our "True-False Talent".

Talent

A talent is a capacity that begins as a natural potential but must be used and practiced to become active. Accordingly, in the beginning of life, our ability to distinguish true from false, exists as mere potential. To become a noticeable skill, it must be exercised. The more skillfully it is perfected the more proficiently develops.

In actual use, as with any talent, variations run the scale from mere potential to mature skill depending on age, education, effort, and natural endowment. From our own observations, we learn that development of this talent occurs in a more or less manner rather than as an all or none event. Some people are better at it than others.

Benefits

Human true/false talent is not perfect. However, neither is it useless. Although we do not have the capacity, even in one instance, to be absolutely certain that any one proposition is true, still we have the ability to become confident in varying degrees of conviction up to virtual certainly. If we do the work required, these degrees are adequate to conduct our lives well and to make improvements.

Although our true/false talent is only one among many valuable rational skills, intellectually it stands near the top in order of importance in terms of human well being. We can establish the worth of our true-false talent by picturing life without this ability. If we were unable to tell true from false, society as we know it would stop. Schools would close. Businesses would halt. Machinery could not be fixed. Shopping would be impossible. We could not even dress in the morning, because we couldn’t make the necessary decisions. People would have to live, as the rest of the warm blooded animals do, by instinct, conditioned reflex, imitation and other forms of physiological adaptation.

If we humans were unable to affirm or deny the truth value of given judgments, there would be no civilization as we use the term. The capacity to distinguish "true" from "false", even though annoyingly limited, is a talent of immeasurable importance. It is so fundamental to our way of living that all fields of knowledge could benefit by more understanding how we make distinctions between judgments we accept and judgments we reject.

Prominence

Because it is basic, the examination of our true/false talent should hold a prominent position as an object of study in science and research. One would expect that a trait of this magnitude would be the focal point of intense investigation in psychological studies. But this is not so. The amount of attention that has been given to human true/false talent as a subject to scrutinize is in no way proportional to it’s value. This is especially true in modern studies.

Currently many educators look askance at True/False tests and try to avoid them. Dubois, Alverson, and Staley, in their popular text, Educational Psychology say,

… the true-false item is not particularly well thought of as a type of evaluation item. …

Dubois, Alverson, and Staley

They continue on to say that the "true-false item" tends to measure trivia, is not diagnostic, promotes guessing, and is an item that does not assess well the relative aspects of "truth". They conclude it should be used only when there is a need to assess knowledge of discrete factual material and no other way is available.[ R206/372-8]

There are several reasons for this dismissive attitude. Some of the problems have to do with inadequate recognition. For one thing, the talent to tell "true" from "false" comes with ease and we fail to notice how thoroughly it penetrates our lives. Even when the talent is pointed out, we are tempted to consider it trivial. "But of course!! Everyone does that", we say.

Also, because our ability to distinguish "true" from "false" is limited and susceptible to abuse, when we do notice the talent, it is likely to happen under unfavorable circumstances and is felt as a handicap rather than an asset. Most of us are embarrassed, or at least uncomfortable, when a statement we believe to be true is demonstrated to be an error. We feel restive and do not wish to draw any more attention to our mistake than necessary. In making true/false choices, our personal limitations are annoying and tend to downgrade the value of the talent when we are confronted with dubious results.

Another bothersome limitation occurs when we discover how difficult it is to make any statement with absolute certainty. It upsets our desire to be right and feel confident. When faced with this problem, some individuals over-react and invent ways to deny this limitation. The temptation is to lean towards absolutism or the opposite extreme, subjectivism (See Chapters 12 & 14). Those favoring absolutism shut their minds and think no more about it. Those tending toward subjectivism become cynical and view all research and study with a jaundice eye. People who go too far in either direction become dogmatic or indifferent or snide or cynical.

The most damaging limitation that puts our true/false talent in an unfavorable light, is the deliberate misuse that occurs when people tell untruths on purpose. One lie that hurts is far more noticeable than a thousand truths that help. Direct abuse of true/false talent in some instances causes so much damage that those affected can build a revulsion to the talent itself. Instead of seeing the talent as a valuable gift, it is emotionally felt as a impediment. (See Chapter 8, The Urge to Honesty)

Reaction to lying, dislike of mistakes, feelings of triviality all contribute to a general reluctance to reflectively examine our true/false talent. It’s not a deliberate decision. It’s more a set of mental blocks that keeps us from wanting to know more about the subject. Negative experiences arouse powerful emotions whereas the positive contributions go unnoticed.

From a plus point of view, suppressing knowledge of our true/false talent is a mistake. All areas of knowledge can be improved by a deeper appreciation of human true/false ability because all knowledge concerns judgment and all judgment is some form of affirmation and denial. Lack of appreciation of our true/false talent inserts blind spots at critical junctures in learning development. When this happens, serious root errors go unnoticed. Being unseen these errors penetrate theory and establish hidden contradictions. Some of the conundrums that modern philosophers find disquieting originate in failure to honestly examine our true/false talent.

Our true/false talent is, of course, studied some. In the field of psychology, for example, Jean Piaget (1896-19??) experimented with understanding of time, space, and mathematical logic in young children. Some of this work touches on subjects related to our ability to distinguish true from false. However, Piaget does not, in his tests, concentrate specifically on the true/false talent itself. Perhaps he and his staff have done secondary experimentation in this area but, if so, it is not indexed in their major writings. Other psychological schools have made strides in expanding Piaget’s work, especially in the field of perception, reaction, and word association. They touch on the true/false talent here and there but they glide over our actual true/false talent as if it were a minor nick in the human psychological profile. There may be modern psychological studies in which true/false talent is the topic under scrutiny in a research project that I have not yet found.

Anthropologists have done some work in this field but, here again, many gloss over true/false talent rather than focusing on it. It would be interesting to compare how true/false distinctions are handled in various cultures. There are many ways to say yes/no, true/false, okay/not-okay.

In the field of linguistics, I searched for studies that compared different languages from the true/false point of view. I looked for, but couldn’t find, studies on the effect languages have on true/false awareness and the development of true/false skill. It would be informative to compare educational methods of various cultures in presenting true/false distinctions. It would be particularly interesting to trace the effect of educational style on students as they mature. Studies in this field could broaden our understanding of human nature and throw light on how we learn.

It was in the late 1980’s that I spent several weeks researching the University library looking for something along this line. Because I didn’t find anything, does not mean that studies of this nature have not been done, but it does mean that studies of this type are not a major topic that has percolated up into the realm of popular debate.

In my search, I did find that our true/false talent is mentioned in most logical studies and text books—at least in passing. Proportionally, however, it is not given it’s fair share of space. It’s usually passed by as a psychological or linguistic problem to be handled in other disciplines. Also, and I thought this was unfortunate, those who do mention the true/-false talent often carelessly adopt elemental mistakes which come out later as distorted conclusions. This is the last thing a logic text should do. Some authors will say our true/false talent is important and then proceed as if their observation had never been made.

In older times, general studies often focused a portion of attention on our capacity to distinguish true from false. Ancient philosophers, esp. Aristotle and Cicero, did excellent elementary work. Medieval philosophers, Scholastics, and later thinkers added to the subject. Arnauld, Watts, and other commonsense philosophers of the 17th and 18th century devoted major sections to true/false talent and the importance of judgment. However, in our times, up-to-date material on the subject is shallow and scattered. At present, most work on our true/false talent is treated as a side issue that is subordinate to other linguistic, mathematical and analytical formulations.

For these and other reasons we are apt to inadequately esteem our ability to distinguish true from false. Our true/false talent is either not noticed, considered trivial, or found disquieting. When mentioned, it is usually dismissed as too introspective for scientific analysis. As a result, the scope of our true/false talent is not appreciated.

This book is only an introduction to some basic elemental ideas and is not a research project. However, since I could not find good true/false studies to refer to as a reference, I will include a short review of how we use our true/false talent. Although the following is only a digest, looking at it from a plus perspective can shed light on true/false thinking. Each example is trivial, but our ability to make true/false distinctions is not trivial. As you run through the following samples, expand on them in your own mind and notice how varied true/false talent actually is and how often we all use it.

Simple Statements

We find the most obvious demonstration of true/false talent in school examinations. The more simple the test, the more obvious the example. In the easiest true/false exam the student marks "T" or "F" for each simple statement. Some teachers prefer "yes/no" but yes/no & true/false test are substantially the same.

George Washington was the first Constitutional president of the U.S.:(True; Yes)

2 + 2 = 5: (False; No)

To avoid scurvy, human beings need vitamin C in their diet: (True; yes)

Many men of learning in the age of Dante knew the world was a globe: (True; Yes)

Valine, leucine, isoleucine are not essential amino acids: (False, No)

The number of possible straight-forward statements that can be justly used on true/false tests is huge. Straight-forward statements are those without twists of intention that the average individual familiar with the subject can understand. They are statements in which the words have standard meanings generally accepted by the people involved.

Many problems involving true/false questions are complex and wily. Trick questions help us learn more about the subtleties of our language and the difficulties of being accurate. Taking true/false tests teaches us much about semantics. We learn from doing. Modern educational practices that seek to eliminate true/false tests on the grounds that of triviality deprive students of an opportunity to develop skills in distinguishing true from false and to appreciate our limitations.

At the present, however, in these examples, we pass over trick problems and concentrate on simple thoughts. It’s important to notice the vast quantity of statements that can, in the ordinary way, be answered true or false with relatively firm conviction. We do not claim to know the answers absolutely, but even so we find many propositions most of us can reliably and resolutely pronounce true or false with firm surety. c1 to c5 are some examples. There are more to follow. While granting the limits of our knowledge, we justifiably accept many statements with reliable conviction and proceed in acquiring more knowledge.

Multiple Choice

Many other ways of testing students are essentially "true/false" because the answers aim to produce "true" as opposed to "false" statements. They also help teach the student to distinguish between true and false propositions. Multiple choice is an example.

In 1636, (Harvard) (William & Mary) (Princeton) College was established in New England.

When water freezes it (contracts) (expands) (remains the same).

It requires (more) (less) (the same) effort to catch a fast baseball than (as) a slow one.

(Mercury) (Venus) (Earth) (Mars) is the planet closest to the sun.

(Van Buren) (Harrison) (Tyler) (Polk) was the 8th president of the United States.

If the student makes the right choice then the statement is true and is marked correct by the person who corrects the paper. If the student makes the wrong choice, then the statement is false and is marked incorrect.

Just as with simple true/false questions, a vast number of statements can be turned into straight-forward multiple choice. Fill in blanks, unscramble words, match up columns are variations. These ways establish more evidence that distinguishing true from false is a real talent.

Assuming people know English and use commonly accepted meanings, Examples B1 to B5 have correct or incorrect answers. We cannot move Venus into another solar system by passing a law. We cannot cause ice to sink by forming a congressional committee. The truth-value of the statements involves more than convention.

Experience

Even without tests in school, hard knocks help people learn the difference between true and false propositions. We call this learning through experience.

This mushroom (is/is not) safe to eat.

The ice across this river at this time (will/will not) bear my weight.

This gun (is/is not) loaded.

This snake (is/is not) poisonous.

The dog that bit me (is/is not) vaccinated against rabies.

Limes (do/do not) contain sufficient vitamin C to be useful for preventing scurvy.

The incidence of cancer (is/is not) related to the quantity and quality of food additives.

This law (is/is not) just.

This water (is/is not) polluted.

All men (are/are not) mortal.

That which is a cloud when we observe it from a distance becomes a fog or mist when we are enveloped in it. B286/47

Learning through experience, of course, precedes formal education and continues whether we go to school or not. If we have sufficient previous knowledge, we can tell by examination whether the mushroom in question is or is not poisonous by assuming some consistency in nature and generalizing from past experience. Most of us have enough good sense to leave unidentified mushrooms alone.

Predictions

Predictions about future events are true/false propositions. Until the event occurs, we can only guess at the truth value. Some guesses are more reliable than others, depending on the reasons we can advance for justifying the prediction.

We shall reach the year 2100 without a nuclear war.

The 22nd century will be a century of peace.

This check will not bounce.

There will be a serious earthquake in California in 2050.

The water in this pan will boil when the temperature reaches 212‘ F.

In 2004, Aug. 3rd will occur on a Tuesday.

If you add baking soda to vinegar, the mixture will bubble and effervesce.

Intelligent beings from outer-space will contact the people of earth before the year 2050.

Three of these predictions (5, 6, & 7) are more than guesses. They have a high degree of scientific probability of being true. We can know with resolute conviction they are true and know just as firmly that the opposite it false.

Promises

A promise is a form of prediction that depends on an individuals free choice. If the promise is kept, then the proposition is true. If the promise is broken, then the proposition is false. Whether we believe a promise someone makes has much to do with the faith we have in that persons veracity.

I will mail this letter for you today.

I will love and cherish you ‘till death do us part.

I will have dinner ready at six.

I will pay this $100 back to you as soon as I get my pay check next Friday.

If I am elected, I will increase jobs, increase salaries, decrease prices, and decrease taxes. I’ll eliminate poverty, war, fear, warts, and tooth decay.

A broken promise is a real, noticeable event. If the $100 is not returned on Friday as promised it can cause serious inconvenience and provides an example between true and false that has measurable effects. Sometimes a broken promise is trivial, other times serious. When serious, there are often strong feelings attached to promises. Here is more good, raw data for the scientist interested in the difference between true and false. Often people are upset to find a promise they believed to be true, was instead false.

Threats

A threat is a promise of punishment with a condition attached. It’s truth value is like a prediction. The threat must actually be carried out before we can know whether the threat was true or not.

If you do not make your bed each morning, movies will be banned for a month.

If you do not have your report in by tomorrow, your grade will be an F.

If you are convicted of grand larceny, you will be imprisoned for ten years.

If you do not advance to the front line with the rest of the men, you will be shot immediately.

If you do not repent, you will be burned at the stake.

Dostoevsky was tried and condemned to death (1848 or 1849). Just as he was to be executed, his sentence was commuted to prison in Siberia. "You will be shot at dawn", was not true even if the people involved thought so. This experience haunted Dostoevsky the rest of his life. Through his writings, this event lives on to haunt the world.

Generalities

A generality is a statement that is more inclusive than a specific instance. Examining the difference between true and false in generalities involves complex challenges. Logicians have accomplished much in the area, but with each problem solved, a new one (or more) appears. In a better world, all students in school would become skilled in distinguishing between generalities and facts and appreciate the logical significance of the distinction. However, this is not happening and the word ‘fact’ is becoming squandered. It now has a different meaning for every day of the year.

At this introductory discussion, it would defeat my purpose to try to introduce the subtleties involved in establishing the truth-value of generalities. However, generalities are extremely important in our intellectual life. Some of the examples above are generalities. A few more will help establish that: the truth-value of a generality is a different kind of processes than establishing the truth-value of a fact.

All judgments are derived from antecedent judgments. B104/328, CREIGHTON-1898

—the manifest tendency has been continually to extend the liberties of the subject, and restrict the functions of the State. B???/22, SPENCER 1855-1865

Kant’s philosophy - contains the true form of thought - the triad of subject, object, and their synthesis. B123/MARCUSE/1941/49

The Russians, in circulating more than 10,000,000 copies of his books, derived much of their image of Americans from Jack London (1876-1916).[2]

Illusory being is essence itself in the determinateness of being. (B77/Hegelp398)

Except for 18i4, the "18i" examples are generalities by prominent philosophers that I consider false. Others might have a different opinion and want to dispute the matter with me. 18i4 is a combination fact and generality. That the Russians, by the year 1960, had circulated over ten million books by Jack London is an asserted fact that can be checked out in various ways. That the Russians of the time in question derived much of their image of Americans from Jack London’s ideas is a generalization much more difficult to verify, but could very well be true.

The philosophical enterprise develops out of disagreements about generalities. In a well-conducted give & take discourse, we clarify definitions, expand understanding, and unearth new knowledge. Getting to the truth of a generality is a complex process requiring experience, facts, ability to glean warranted generalities from specific instances, and willingness to test the generalities to see if they hold in other relevant cases. Often this process is called reasoning by an interplay of "induction" and "deduction". Some generalizations are germane and sufficiently justified but others are not. Over-generalization is a common fallacy that has led to a vast amount of needless human confusion and suffering. One of the major reason students need logic classes is to learn how to avoid over-generalization, a common fallacy.

To complicate the matter, there are many different kinds of generalities. We benefit today from work done by previous generations in understanding how to establish reliable generalizations. There is still much work to be done.

For the most part, the plus system speaks of generalities as sound or unsound rather than true or false. In logic we treat a sound principle as a true proposition but in normal discourse we are more apt to say sound proposition. The latter preferable for most writing because it nicely suggests the real distinction between a fact and a principle. We garner our principles from experience with facts. The truth of a principle is of a different kind from the truth of a fact. Learning to understand and appreciate this difference in levels of truth should be one of the major objectives of education.

Superstitions

I need to add here some examples on superstitions. See "Joy Luck Club" - many unjustified generalities.

Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back.

If you walk under a ladder you will have bad luck.

Reports

A report is a statement describing an event or a state of affairs. We depend on accurate reports for much of the business we do.

The Interstate Hwy is closed today between 10th South and 30th South.

The high yesterday at the airport was 57‘F and the low last night was 33‘F.

The check you were expecting came in the mail this morning.

You have a cavity in your lower, left wisdom tooth.

The water pump on this car is broken.

Sir, we have no record of the reservation you said you made.

This property you are thinking of buying extends back to the old elm tree and includes water rights from the stream.

The dam broke.

Astronauts have landed on the moon.

Errors

An error occurs when we think a proposition is true that is not true or, in general, are mistaken about the truth value of a statement.

The earth on which we live is the center of the universe around which all heavenly bodies orbit.

The stars we see in the sky at night are held in place by an invisible crystalline sphere.

When a substance is burnt, phlogiston escapes in the form of fire and flame.

A metal is a compound of clax and phlogiston. B143/70

Through spontaneous generation, non-living matter can cause itself to become alive. For example, Maggots generate spontaneously from rotting material. B281/65

Human nerves originate in the heart and spread throughout the body. (Aristotle; see B46/PORT-ROYAL/1662/27)

The above "18l" examples are generalities once believed to be scientific that are now believed to be false by the major portion of educated people. It would be hard in 1997 to call a person educated who still believed any of these examples. And yet at one time, these beliefs were marks of an educated mind.

Lies

A lie is a deliberate error. It is designed to deceive usually for a devious purpose. Lies are sometimes minor in effect but at times they grow into major problems with serious unexpected effects.

A wolf is attacking my sheep.

This woman put a spell on my cow and dried up its milk.

This property you are buying extends back to that old elm tree and includes water rights from the stream.

You must have a new transmission on this car. Your old one won’t last another month.

The O Rings on this space craft have been thoroughly tested and found safe.

I’m late getting home because we stayed to see the movie over twice.

Lies are excellent material for studying the distinctions between true and false. Many lies are obviously untrue and the effects indisputably real. A study of the ages and circumstances under which children can first know the difference between the truth and a lie would be very helpful in learning more about the development of human knowledge.

Some lies are easy to discover, some near impossible to detect and the rest are in varying degrees in between. This variation in the degrees is typical for our human ability to distinguish between true and false. The more we know about lies and their moral consequences the more we will know about the distinctions between true and false.

The statements from 18c to 18m are examples of some of the kinds of true/false distinctions that normal human beings make in the course of events. The list is short, but it is inclusive enough to demonstrate that such statements exist, are numerous, and are commonplace. Added together, this presents enough evidence to affirm that, within prescribed limits, human beings are able to distinguish true from false. Although limited, it is a real, normal talent in regular use by ordinary people.

As said, this is not a research project. Even so, there is enough information here for us to generalize that our human true/false talent is real, is important, and is well worth our time to learn more about it. Actually, the talent to distinguish true from false, which I call true/false talent, is so important that any theory of human psychology that ignores its role is harmfully incomplete.

Extrapolating from our own reflection on our own ability we are justified in accepting with resolute conviction (not absolute certainty) that our ability to distinguish true from false—although limited—is real. Our ability to know we do this is real. Furthermore, there is ample evidence for us to justify proceeding under the assumption that other people can do this, too. These credible root claims are derived using commonplace logic. Although not absolute, in the full sense of the term ‘absolute’, these claims qualify as suitably verified epistemological truths we can safely and honestly use in developing our understanding of sound rational thinking. They are credible.