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What is truth? I’d like to continue a dialogue on this subject between Elisa Freschi and myself that began in the comments to my post on performance theory. I’ll start by summarizing the debate so far (skip down a couple paragraphs if you’ve already been following these comments, or would rather click on the links to see the original debate).

We have been debating the extent to which truth can properly be understood as correspondence to reality. I think it generally can, but insisted that that reality should not just be understood as “outer” reality. Our understandings of our inner, subjective states can also be true or false in the sense of succeeding or failing to correspond to reality (as when we are incorrect about being happy).

Elisa continued this debate with a post on her own blog (as I’m now doing in return). She argued that the experience of pain is “subject-dependent,” and cannot be understood as corresponding to a reality beyond the subject’s own understanding: “No scientist could convince me that the pain I am experiencing is unbearable if I can bear it (and vice versa, different people react very differently to what seems to be the same neuronal stimulus).” I responded in the comments that we can indeed misjudge pain, like happiness; I mentioned a physiotherapist friend who gets frustrated when he asks people to rate the pain from a minor injury on a scale of 1 to 10 and they immediately say 10. Elisa replied as follows:

It is not fair to ask someone who has only experience of a feeble pain to collocate it on a scale from 1 to 10. She would, rightly, collocate her present pain on the 10th level, because the ’10’ as a level of pain sensation can only make sense in regard to the pain we have actually experienced. A child will say that 10 is the pain one experiences after a minor fall, a woman who has just given birth will describe the 10-level-pain as something different, but they are right in maintaining that the pain they are presently experiencing is the highest they have ever experienced. The physiotherapist asks them to conform to an objective scale, valid for everyone, hence his disappointment.

My response: the assigning of a level-10 pain can be erroneous. Suppose I get a minor muscle spasm that I think is the most painful thing I have yet experienced. I therefore rate it a 10 on the pain scale. The following week, I am stung by an Australian box jellyfish, which produces pain so intense that victims sometimes die simply from the shock of the pain. I realize then that what I would have rated a 10 wasn’t really a 10, more like a 4. I just didn’t know it then. I might have been justified in believing that the earlier pain was a 10, but my belief was not true. (Even the idea that it’s justified seems suspect, if I have some awareness of the kinds of pains other human beings have been in and some empathy towards them – I should know that there are others who have had pains like this, and additional pains more severe than this.)

A further example: suppose that I had been stung by a box jellyfish several decades before the muscle spasm – but so long enough ago that I had forgotten about it. In the ensuing decades I have had very little pain, so much so that the muscle spasm appears to be the most intense pain I have ever experienced. I rate it a 10. An old friend hears about this, and says: “That was a 10? Compared to the jellyfish sting?” So I reply: “Wow, I’d forgotten about that! Yeah, actually this is really more like a 4, not a 10.” It seems clear to me that I was wrong when I rated it a 10.

In both cases, my own opinion of the same subjective experience has suddenly changed. As a result of different information, I have now decided that my previous view was wrong. That means that if I am right now, I was wrong then, and vice versa. It is not possible for me to be right now that this subjective pain is a 10 and to have been right then that this subjective pain was a 4. I have to have been wrong about my own subjective experience; my own understanding of that subjective experience did not correspond to reality, and was therefore a false understanding.

In a slightly different direction, Elisa’s post also suggested a theology of mystical experience: rational disproofs of God’s existence do not change the fact that Teresa of Ávila had an experience of God: “What she cannot be mistaken about, I argue, is that she is perceiving God sending an arrow towards her hearth, etc. The theological side of this God is, in fact, not part of her sensation.”

But I think this is not true. Teresa is perceiving something that seems like God, looks like God, feels like God. But that doesn’t mean she is actually perceiving God. If I think I see a snake in the road, but on later reflection I see it turns out to have merely been a rope, then I did not in fact perceive a snake. I perceived a rope which I thought was a snake; I only thought that I perceived a snake. But I was wrong.