September 2018 – Netzach Yisrael Yeshivah, Yerushalayim
Monthly English Broadcast
Theories of Truth (2): Pragmatic, Consensus, and Constructivist
Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh
1. INTRODUCTION: LIVING WITH TIME – TRUTH AND ROSH HASHANAH
In this lecture we are going to continue with the topic of truth. Truth is found to relate to Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, in the verses we recite before blowing the shofar. One of the verses reads, “Truth is the beginning of Your word; Your just rules are eternal.” On a more general level, the entire month of Tishrei is related to truth. Nissan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar, is about faith, while Tishrei, whose first day is the first day of the year, is about truth. As we explained in our previous class on this topic, in Hebrew, “faith” (אמונה) and “truth” (אמת) actually come from the same root.
In our last class we began to survey different philosophical theories of truth. We introduced the idea that today there are five substantive truth theories. We discussed Correspondence and Coherence last time and now, in this class, we will discuss the next three.
2. PRAGMATIC THEORY OF TRUTH
Pramatism is one of the more modern theories of truth. It says that if something is true, it must work in practice, it must be effective in reality. According to the pragmatic theory of truth, truth is a value. We spoke about the meaning of a value in our classes on “What is good?” We said that there are two types of good: good for something (utilitarian good) and good in and of itself (intrinsically good). The pragmatic theory of truth thus argues that truth must also be utilitarian, it must be true for something.
Many scientists are pragmatists. Richard Feynman, who was one of the greatest Jewish scientists, claimed that things can only be proven to be wrong, but they can never be proven to be correct. How do we combine Feynman’s statement with a pragmatic theory of truth? We would have to say that for something to be true it must be continuously bettering and fixing itself.
We talked about coherence as it relates to self-fulfillment last time. There too we can apply the same principle. If truth means to be coherent, then self-fulfillment also continuously strives to ensure that one is living up to one’s abilities. Self-fulfillment motivates a person by the desire to fulfill himself—to be complete. Just as one might strive in the positive sense to always fulfill one’s self, so there might be a negative drive as Feynman would probably see it, not too err. This is the opposite mental stance. In it, a person is always conscious of the fact that he might err in his understanding of reality, and therefore, he is always trying to correct himself. This mental stance can be likened to doing teshuvah (repenting). The classic understanding of teshuvah is that a person must always be vigilant against his own transgressions. He must be aware that he is certainly prone to erring. And once a person realized that he has erred, he asks for forgiveness and decides to never repeat the same transgression again. But, teshuvah can also be a form of self-fulfillment in the sense that you can never know that you are perfectly correct in what you have done and in the manner in which you have done it. At the same time, you can also approach this constant self-refinement through the approach that you should always be concerned that you have not erred in some way. Many Torah-scholars have this mentality. They call it, “this requires more investigation” (צריך עיון), everything needs to be investigated more and more, like constantly tuning a musical instrument, always becoming more exact. This is the stance adopted by pragmatists and it will help us place this theory of truth in relation to to one of the sefirot of the heart.
There are altogether seven attributes in the heart. As we saw in the previous class, the correspondence theory (the most ancient theory of truth) relates to the first three emotive powers: the object, the subject, and the truth bearer correspond to loving-kindness, might, and beauty. The object corresponds to loving-kindness, the subject to might, and the truth bearer, the statement being said by the subject about the object corresponds to beauty.
The second theory we discussed, Coherence theory corresponds to foundation, as it relates to self-fulfillment. It is also related to the word “all,” making the entire corpus of statements into a living compound, which like an organism procreates and makes new statements that are coherently and consistently true.
Now, what about the pragmatic theory of truth. Since this theory is related to how well the truth works, how active it is in affecting reality, it is relatively easy to correlate it to the sefirot. Of the seven emotive sefirot, the two sefirot related to action, to affecting reality, are victory and acknowledgment. Of the two, victory represents active affect of reality while acknowledgment reflects a more passive effect on reality. Thus, we will correspond the pragmatic theory of truth with victory (נצח). Victory is also called eternity. This theory is constantly, eternally, interested in ensuring that it is not wrong, to make sure that there is no apschlag (mistake, in Yiddish).
Truth is thus a struggle according to this view. It is like the survival of the fittest, because it is always liable to be proven wrong. But, I do believe in certain things and I am constantly trying to update my theory so that it works and it has an application in the world. Technology is an example of how truth must be pragmatic. To test out if something works or not, it has to made into an application, an app.
3. CONSENSUS THEORY OF TRUTH
If the pragmatic theory of truth is victory then what is acknowledgment, its companion sefirah? It should also be related to pragmatism. This next theory is indeed related and is called consensus theory. It says quite clearly that what the majority of the public agrees upon, that is what is true. This can be like going to the polls and the person who receives the majority of the vote becomes the elected official. We hope that this will indeed have the most pragmatic value.
Agreement as the truth bearer
The deep point in the consensus theory of truth that needs to be made is regarding the proposition. The proposition, we recall, is also called the truth-bearer. As we discussed last time, correspondence theory says that the truth is not in my mind, but in the statement, the proposition that I make. But, whereas in the correspondence theory of truth, the truth bearer is a statement, a proposition, in consensus theory, the truth bearer is the agreement, the consensus reached between people. This is a profound thought: that the truth lies in the consensus opinion.
Defining the truth in this manner seems arbitrary. But it also sounds like there might be something almost mystical about this idea. The majority opinion creates a plane, a substrate, upon which truth resides, just like the statement made by the subject is what the truth lies in in correspondence theory. According to consensus theory, no one individual can create truth by himself or herself. The truth is that which people agree upon. This is a wonder in and of itself that many people can agree on the same thing, especially Jews.
Truth as it is defined in consensus theory fits very strongly with the notion that truth is like a Divine Presence that descends and resides over agreement. In Hebrew the word for agreement is הסכמה. The value of the first two letters (הס) is the same as the value of God’s Name, Adni (א-דני), 65, which is also the product of 5 and 13. The final three letters (כמה) also equal 65, so the entire word equals 10 times 13, or 5 times 26, the value of Havayah, God’s essential Name. Since the word has 5 letters, this means that the average value of each letter is itself 26, Havayah. This indicates that there is something very holy about the concept of “agreement.”
In our book on decision making, Consciousness and Choice, we discuss the ten stages that go into every complete decision process. One of these levels is called, “the agreement of consciousness” (הסכמת הדעת). This is when the different opinions in yourself come together in agreement. That stage of decision corresponds to the acknowledgment of the entire process, it is the eighth of the ten stages. This serves as another example for explaining why we have chosen to place consensus theory in acknowledgment (hod). As we said, it’s a wonder that people agree. They do not agree because everyone initially agrees, but because there is a power in the soul that makes us want to hear and accept what others think. Most of us do not want to have to fight all the time. Most of the time, we would rather just conform and accept what the majority thinks. In this sense, victory (נצח), and the pragmatic theory of truth that is related to it, are about struggle, a constant struggle to survive. But, acknowledgment is the desire to create consensus and to find as much agreement as possible.
Consensus and community
Another important thing about consensus theory is that in a community, consensus creates what is known as a world-view. If you do not agree with the consensus of the public, then you are in a different world. People feel that you are not in their world. So, consensus creates a world, not just metaphorically, but in reality. The fact that so many souls agree on something means that that agreement is creating a world. In Hebrew especially as it's used in Yiddish, you say, der oilem zogt, which literally means “the world says,” referring to what everyone says, what the consensus is.
Two different people can live in the same house and still be in two different worlds. For example, one might be a religious, observant person, and the other might not. A religious person believes that metaphysical reality affects the physical world. Metaphysical reality is a part of a religious person's world. Instead of using “metaphysical reality,” we could just say “God.” If there is such a thing as metaphysical reality, the question is does it affect our reality here? You could simply say, “God is here,” “everything that happens is dependent on God.” But a person who is not religious does not live in this kind of a world. He has no metaphysical reality affecting his world. The mission of our generation is to unite these two worlds. Philosophers do not really speak about uniting these two worlds, because they have adopted a pluralistic stance. They just want to define things without trying to judge which world view is better.
The fact that there are different worlds also pertains to acknowledgment, which literally means to “agree.” As soon as you acknowledge something, the individual becomes part of the whole. However, just as much as acknowledgment creates a world, if for some reason you fall out of this “world view,” and no longer see things according to this world-view, it can be very dangerous for you. Falling out of a world is described in the Bible as a state in which, “my splendor has turned against me” (note that “splendor” in the sense of “vitality,” is another translation for the same Hebrew word, hod). Before you fall into another world-view, in the interim, you are in a dangerous transition.
In the Talmud, we don't have an expression like “der oilem zogt,” but there is something similar, “Go out and see, what do the people hold by” (פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר). This is an example of consensus theory. “People” and “world” are not only related to one another in this particular context. In Hebrew, these two words are very similar. “People” is עם and “world” is עולם.
So far we have explained that the first three emotive sefirot are the correspondence theory of truth. The next two sefirot, victory and acknowledgment correspond to the pragmatic theory and the consensus theory of truth. The foundation corresponds to the coherence theory of truth. We are left with kingdom.
4. CONSTRUCTIVIST THEORY OF TRUTH
The sefirah of kingdom, the final emotive sefirah, corresponds to the social constructivist theory of truth. At first glance, one might think that social construction and consensus are the same thing, but they are actually quite different. Construction and social are both related to kingdom, especially “construction,” that truth is a construct. You could say that truth is a “building.” Who builds truth? Society. Not only society, but history together with society builds what we think is truth. This building has many different floors and many different rooms, and you can build additionally floors, and introduce elevators to go between the floors.
This theory of truth is used both in scientific theories (sociology, education, psychology), in each field there is a branch called constructivism. In Kabbalah, the notion of building (בנין) is especially related to kingdom. Kingdom needs to be constructed, it needs to be built up. For example, the ten days from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance. The Arizal explains that during these ten days, the sefirah of kingdom, God’s sovereignty over reality for the coming year, is constructed. The Hebrew phrase for this is “the building of kingdom” (בנין המלכות). This phrase’s numerical value is 613, just like the number of commandments in the Torah. It is our task to construct kingdom, because initially kingdom is a single point under the foundation (which in our model we explained corresponds to the coherence theory of truth). Before we construct it, kingdom has no dimensions. The construction is not just about adding more points. It is about opening up new dimensions. And so, kingdom goes from being just a dimensionless point to being a one-dimensional line, to finally becoming a two-dimensional area. We do this primarily on the first ten days of the year from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, when the consciousness of God becomes recognized universally. We coronate God on Rosh Hashanah. That crowning is the beginning of the essence of building kingdom, which is why we begin with the verse, “The beginning of your word is truth.” “Your word” is truth, and truth itself, according to the constructivist theory, is the building up of God’s kingdom in reality.
The Holy Temple: the greatest social construction of truth
Let's look at the words Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה), which literally means the head of the year. Its value is 861, which is the triangle of 41 (the sum of all integers from 1 to 41). There is another very important phrase that equals 861, “the Holy Temple” (בית המקדש), pronounced Beit Hamikdash, in Hebrew. All the holidays are related to the holy Temple. On every one of them special sacrifices were offered in the Temple. What special relationship ties Rosh Hashanah with the Temple more than other holidays, a relationship that would be hinted at by the equality of their names?
What is the greatest all-inclusive social construction of the Jewish people? The Temple. There are two opinions as to how the third Temple, the eternal house of God will be constructed. It will either descend from heaven, fait accompli, or be constructed by us, from below, just like the truth will sprout from the earth. There is a way to connect these two opinions, which we will not go into here. Suffice it to say that according to Maimonides, it is clear that the Mashiach together with all the Jewish people will construct the Temple. This means that the Temple represents the greatest social construction and manifestation of truth the world has ever seen.
In our current state, as we are still in exile, we only have faith. In practice, we are connected to the Torah as much as we can, but because we cannot fulfill everything written in the Torah (first and foremost because we do not have a Temple), we are not true to ourselves. For us, truth depends upon this physical construction—the Temple. Spiritually, the time, the day of the year, when we build the Temple, when we construct kingdom is Rosh Hashanah. With this understanding in hand, we can understand that Rosh Hashanah and the Temple are intrinsically related and this, at least partially, explains why their gematria (numerical value) is the same, 861.
Now, let us try to see in more depth why they are both equal to 861, the triangle of 41. The gematria of “truth” (אמת) is 212, also an important figurate number. 21 is the value of God’s Name, Ekyeh (אהיה), which implies always becoming. Mathematically, 21 is the midpoint of 41. In the word “truth” (אמת), the two letter root is made up of the first two letters, אמ (Hebrew has both a 2-letter and 3-letter root system), whose value is 41. The value of the final letter, ת, is equal to 400 or 202. Adding 41 to 400 makes it the square of 212. There is a mathematical principle lurking here. The rule is that the square of a number n is defined as the sum of odd numbers from 1 to 2(n-1) 1, which we can write as,
n2 = k=0Σn-1 (2k 1) ; for all n > 0
In addition, n will always be the midpoint of the last number in this sum, 2(n-1) 1.
For instance, the square of 20 is 400, which means that 400 is the sum of all the odd numbers from 1 to 39, because 20 is the midpoint of 39. Now let’s see how this works with 861.
The sum of all the integers from 1 to 41 is 861 (Rosh Hashanah and Beit Hamikdash). But, if instead of adding all the integers, we would sum only the odd integers from 1 to 41, we would get 212 squared (which equals “truth”). Why? Because, once again, 21 is the midpoint of 41 and the sum of all the odd numbers from 1 to 41 equals 441. But, we can also say this as: the square of 20 (sum of the odd numbers from 1 to 39) is 400 (the value of the ת, 400), and when you add the 41, you get 212, or “truth” (אמת). Following this analysis, we can say that truth is intrinsically related to the number 41, and that the triangle of 41 is equal to the Temple and Rosh Hashanah.
Revealing the absolute truth of God in the Holy Temple
Without the Temple we can have faith—faith that the metaphysical world, i.e., God, exists and is constantly influencing our corporeal reality. However, to go beyond faith and to see the truth of this statement, to construct a reality in which this truth is self-evident, we need to construct the Temple. We will see why, in a moment. But, if you’re a pluralist, you probably have no problem with there being many different world-views, some of them which do include God and some of them which do not. But, we believe that there is only one truth, not many. Perhaps we are narrow-minded, but in our narrow-mindedness, we believe there is only one absolute truth.
How can the Temple determine whether being a pluralist is valid? If there is a secular world and in that world metaphysical reality does not play a role, what can change that world-view? What can convert that secular consensus to unite with the religious consensus? Only one thing: If metaphysical reality is indeed here it must be totally and completely revealed, to the extent that no sane individual would disbelieve the existence of what now is called supernatural phenomena. That is exactly what happens in the Temple. The Temple is the place where God’s Presence is fully revealed, in a way that leaves no room for doubt. On Rosh Hashanah, when we pray and coronate God as king, we are also praying for Him to reveal Himself as Master over the entire world, so that the entire world can reach this truth, we need to construct the Temple, the strongest social construction that reveals God.
Constructivism, Kabbalah, and models
There are another two very important points that we would like to make about constructivism. First, constructivism holds that we can never know reality as it is, we can only see it through the lens of a model that society creates and through which we view reality. This is a very profound statement. It says that truth is simply a model. What we construct is a model of reality. We can never perceive reality directly, but through a model that we construct and in a certain way it reflects our experiences of reality. This is all taken from modern philosophy.
As soon as we say that truth is a model of reality, it sounds the same as the whole system that we try to teach and think by, Kabbalah, which is what we are doing right now. We have been given by the sages of Kabbalah a lens, the same idea exactly, and by using this lens, we are able to observe and interpret what we see correctly. It all makes sense thanks to this lens, and it correlates all our experiences and is the best model we can find. So, in essence, we believe in the model.
The constructivist truth-bearer
Beginning with the correspondence theory of truth, we have inquired into who or what is the truth bearer in each theory. In the consensus theory, the truth bearer is the agreement, but in the constructivist theory, the truth bearer is the model, the paradigm. How does this same idea appear in a saying from the sages? The sages refer to the difference between how Moses envisioned reality and how the other prophets envisioned it. Moses’ prophecy is called the “transparent pane,” the pane through which he is looking at reality with his prophecy is totally transparent. In effect, this means that Moses is not using a model. Moses’ prophecy perceives reality directly. But all other prophets see reality through a translucent pane, which in effect means they are looking at reality through a model. Only Moses can see reality directly. Indeed, the sefirah of kingdom is described as the translucent pane through which the other prophets saw reality. So, kingdom itself is the model we construct in order to build a picture of reality. It is our truth-bearer in the constructivist theory of truth.
Constructivism favors productive theories of truth
Modern philosophers who hold by constructivism say that the greatest example of a social construction of truth is the Copernican model of the Solar System. You might think that the change in the model was because the geocentric, or Ptolemaic model of the Solar System did not work. You might think there was some flaw in the mathematics or the observations and how they correlated. But, this was not the case.
As complex as the geocentric, Ptolemaic model was, it did not fall apart. Rather, the Copernican model, which places the sun in the center of the Solar system, is a social construct. Copernicus had a hard time. He was pursued by the Church. Why did scientists begin to agree with him? Again, it was not because the previous theory did not work. Rather this was the beginning of a new model of reality which can begin to grow and add new floors and stories to its building, which will make it very successful. The intuition of scientists told them that this new theory was going to be a great deal more productive than the Ptolemaic (geocentric) theory.
Does this sound like something familiar in Torah? This was how the Rizhiner explained the switch from the geocentric to the heliocentric theory. When he was told about the shift that had occurred (he lived in the early 1800s, when natural philosophers, as scientists were called back then, had pretty much settled on the heliocentric Copernican model), he said, “It is all as the tzaddikim desire.” For philosophers, the “tzaddikim” are the greatest scientists of the generation. Whatever they think is right, because science is always in flux in how it sees and describes nature and its theories are constantly developing and changing through history. Thus, a philosopher who holds by the constructivist theory of truth would look to the scientist to tell him where the theories are headed—which theories are the best truth-bearers.
In a sense, the Rizhiner was also a constructivist regarding truth (it might be that other tzaddikim are into the other theories of truth). What he is saying is that the tzaddikim have foresight, they are wise men who see the future being born. They feel that the new model is going to be far more productive than the old one.
We have gone through the five main theories of truth and we corresponded them with the emotive sefirot. To summarize, let us present the complete model of the theories of truth:
Correspondence theory – subject (gavra) loving-kindness
Correspondence theory – object (cheftza)
Correspondence theory – belief – proposition – sentence
Consensus theory victory
5. REBBE NACHMAN OF BRESLOV ON TRUTH AND GOODNESS
To conclude our present discussion let us take a step forward and begin to interrelate truth and good by looking at a very special teaching from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
One of the most important teachings of Rebbe Nachman is Torah 51, where he explains that there are four things that are absolute: meaning there is one and only one of them. We have already stated that we believe that truth is only one. There is an absolute truth. If everyone does not yet agree on this, then someone has to solve this, it presents a problem. Either God should solve it, or we need to solve it.
The four things that according to Rebbe Nachman are absolute are: the sacred, the truth, the good, and the one. Those things that are absolute, and have no duality about them, all represent reality before the initial contraction of God’s infinite light. They all reflect this place that is, before the initial contraction. He does not mention the gematria explicitly, but it is very beautiful, because “before the initial contraction” (לפני הצמצום) equals “truth” (אמת), one of the four, perhaps the most important of them. To reach the truth we ourselves have to return to the state of being that is before the contraction (צמצום).
There are many ways to understand what “contraction” means. Earlier we said that the monist is narrow-minded and the pluralist is open-minded. But, here we are saying the opposite. If you are before the contraction, you have an affinity to one and to monism. Everything is absolutely holy, true, good, and one.
One of the ways to understand the contraction is to liken it to binary logic: either true or false. That itself is already a state after the contraction. To think this way means that you are after the contraction in terms of your thought. But, to see only truth, that is being before the contraction.
We can connect this with the teshuvah that we are required to pursue this time of year. To do teshuvah at a personal level is like returning to a state before our own personal contraction. When we reach this place, we reach the place of one absolute, sacred, true, good, and one reality. This is of course to return to God, who is all of these things. Since Rebbe Nachman lists these four different flavors of God before the contraction, there must be some relationship between these concepts. The sages say that before the world was created, “He and His great Name were one.” It makes good sense to say that these four concepts correspond to the four letters of God's great Name, Havayah. The most obvious one is “goodness,” which is related to tiferet, the sefirah of beauty, and the attribute of compassion in the heart, and so it corresponds to the vav of Havayah, the third letter.
The sacred, the holy (קֹדֶש), means “separate” in Hebrew. It is always a connotation for the sefirah of wisdom, “holiness is unto itself” (קדש מלה לגרמיה). Thus, holiness corresponds to the first letter, the yud of Havayah.
“Truth,” as we saw begins with the two letters that spell the word “mother” (אם). The verse in Proverbs says, “Do not forsake the Torah of your mother.” Moses merited truth (משה זכה לבינה). The truth he merits to receive from Hashem is understanding. Therefore, the absolute truth of God before the contraction corresponds to the first hei of Havayah.
Finally, oneness, should correspond to the final hei of Havayah. You could decide this by a process of elimination. However, what does “one” mean? It means an integration of everything before us into one unity. The sages say that when we say this word, “one” (אחד) in the Shema, we should meditate on God being one (1, the value of א) in all levels of reality, from the seven heavens to the earth (8, the value of ח), and in all the expanse (4 directions, the value of ד). On Rosh Hashanah we will say 10 verses related to kingdom. The final and most inclusive one is the Shema, “Hear O’ Israel, Havayah is our God, Havayah is one.” The first nine verses mention “king” or “kingdom” explicitly. But the tenth verse is the Shema. The Shema does not seem to be connected to kingdom. The word “kingdom” is missing. The sages explain that the connotation for kingdom in this verse is the word, “one.” The ultimate coronation of God on all of reality is found in this word, “one.” So, we have gained a deeper explanation of why oneness is related to the final hei of Havayah, that corresponds with kingdom.
letter of Havayah absolute
yud holiness, sacred
We should all be blessed with a good and sweet year, for us, for the entire Jewish people and for the whole world, by the whole world coming to a consensus. Kingdom which is the social construction of truth, is said to enter acknowledgment, which is the consensus theory. This means that the construct enters and itself becomes the consensus, the metaphysical reality that unites all the souls together.