On the concepts of true, not true and false

This post exists because I went off at a tangent when writing On fiction and imagination and realised the tangent would probably do best becoming a post in its own right.

I wondering about how fiction works in terms of our brains and then got on to thinking about true and false; at the heart of fiction is the understanding that some things are not true. That got me thinking about what a fundamental concept “true” is because without it we cannot have “not true” or “false” and we could not conceive of things being other than they are. I am treating “not true” and “false” as slightly different entities – “false” is for maths and logic and has overtones of “wrong”, whereas “not true” is related to fiction and things that are plausible but did not actually happen.

The importance of “true” and “not true” are explored by the film The invention of lying in which no one has ever said anything that wasn’t true, with the result that fiction doesn’t exist. In the film there is no concept of (or word for) “true”, something that would cause a great deal of difficulty to mathematicians and logicians. Human development would have taken a completely different path if we did not have the yin and yang concepts of true and false. Surely without “true” and “false” you cannot have “=”, because = is a statement of truth? Without =, maths is sunk. Without maths, science and engineering are impossible. http://www.bigfoto.com/

So true and false are really important concepts for humans and have obviously been important for thousands of years as maths, science, engineering and the philosophy of truth were all pretty big in the ancient world. 🙂

On the other hand, various animals seem to manage to create complex structures without =. I have never seen a bee with a pen and paper plotting the course of the next honeycomb cell, nor a spider with a protractor to assist in his web building but their angles are “true” and their structures exact. Perhaps if you are an animal it is possible to have true without false? Or maybe they have both true and false but cannot understand “not true”? If I call my cats and a child for dinner with no intention of filling their bowls it is a lie. The child will recognise the lie as a “not true” but I imagine the feline thoughts are just “No food” or, phrased another way, “Food=false”.

It would be interesting to know how sophisticated a brain needs to be to understand the concept of a lie or fiction. Can chimps do it? It seems like perhaps they can (I just came across this fascinating page on chimp intelligence). If chimps are able to manage the complicated concepts of true, not true and false then perhaps it’s less surprising than I thought that humans can create such great intricacies of fiction and lies.

Images in this post are from www.bigfoto.com


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