Good and ill are universally intermingled and confounded; happiness and misery, wisdom and folly, virtue and vice. Nothing is pure and entirely of a piece. All advantages are attended with disadvantages. An universal compensation prevails in all conditions of being and existence. And it is not possible for us, by our most chimerical wishes, to form the idea of a station or situation altogether desirable. The draughts of life, according to the poet’s fiction, are always mixed from the vessels on each hand of JUPITER: Or if any cup be presented altogether pure, it is drawn only, as the same poet tells us, from the left-handed vessel.

The more exquisite any good is, of which a small specimen is afforded us, the sharper is the evil, allied to it; and few exceptions are found to this uniform law of nature. The most sprightly wit borders on madness; the highest effusions of joy produce the deepest melancholy; the most ravishing pleasures are attended with the most cruel lassitude and disgust; the most flattering hopes make way for the severest disappointments. And, in general, no course of life has such safety (for happiness is not to be dreamed of) as the temperate and moderate, which maintains, as far as possible, a mediocrity, and a kind of insensibility, in every thing.

— David Hume, The Natural History of Religion

Knowing Nothing

The truth is, that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain mystery of humility and almost of darkness. The man who said, “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed,” put the eulogy quite inadequately and even falsely. The truth “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.” The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see, and greener grass, and a more startling sun. Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains; blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth. Until we realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightening, sudden, blinding, and divine. Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing,

— G K Chesterton, Heretics

Strength In Disunity

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. The first method prevails in all governments possessing an hereditary or self-appointed authority. This, at best, is but a precarious security; because a power independent of the society may as well espouse the unjust views of the major, as the rightful interests of the minor party, and may possibly be turned against both parties. The second method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

–James Madison, The Federalist No 51

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them….

If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.

–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

‘I’m sure we can all pull together, sir.’
Lord Vetinari raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh I do hope not, I really do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.’ He smiled. ‘It’s the only way to make progress…’

–Terry Pratchett, The Truth

Commonly Accepted Requirements For Truth


One of the base assumptions used for hunting lies amongst truth is that all true things must be compatible with all other true things (that a thing cannot have a property and also the negation of the same property is a special case of this). Consistency is the vision that drives all rational attempts to understand the world, and its tool is the paradox.


There are some operations that are believed to yield a new truth when fed truth. Some truths are considered true simply because they logically follow from other things considered true. In these cases, the logical laws themselves (modus ponens, etc.) either are axioms or rely on other axioms. Just because these laws are considered tautological to those who accept them doesn’t mean that they don’t raise difficult semantic questions on further thought.

Simple (Occams Razor)

The model which requires fewest assumptions is assumed to be better than the others. Maximal simplicity. This is a very elegant principle, but of course a massive assumption. When it comes to some issues, it’s not a very helpful principle, for example, I can assume that I create everything that is every time I breathe out and I have a model of the universe which contains very few assumptions. Deciding the correct granularity of assumptions is not something that can be done without recourse to other assumptions. Occams Razor is a good basis for faith, but there is no law that says the universe must be simple, so it can’t be considered a means of establishing truth. For example, you’re perfectly justified in believing that your TV remote works by firing balls of invisible waves that can travel through complete emptiness if you think that contains fewer assumptions than a telepathic pixie helping you out, but if you investigate and discover a telepathic pixie actually is behind it, you can’t just cry Occams Razor and fail to accept it.

Non subjectivity

Truth should be the same for all observers (or so I’ve been told). This is an idealised requirement, some people take the fact that no two measurements by two different people are exactly the same to a philosophical extreme. There has also been a trend in more modern science to promote the importance of the observer, to the extent that this requirement is not as key as it used to be. A variant would be that all truth should be investigatable by everyone. Otherwise it’s not fair.


Again, this is a weak requirement, more to do with investigation than truth. Really it dictates that there is no point in investigating something that cannot be established. Assigning a truth value to something that that cannot be established is a matter for faith, not rationality (except for the axioms of course). At this stage, the nature of proof (or what it means to establish something) becomes a problem. People have different standards of proof. For example, the Intuitionists deny themselves the ability to use some mathematical formulae because they insist on a smaller set of assumptions than most mathematicians. What an intuitionist considers proof is stricter than what a normal mathematician does. Many people believe that nothing in the real world can be considered established since our entire interaction with it consists only of inductive arguments, which other experience from the real world tells us are not infallible.

Predictive Power

Arguably a better way of evaluating different models than working out which are falsifiable is to look at the predictions that they make that conflict with previous or competing models and see which is more successful at predicting things. To count, these things should ideally not have been thought of before the model predicted it, and then they have to be confirmed by observation.

Relationship to the perceived world

Truth should be consistent with observation. No one denies that perceptions can be false but truth is almost always assumed to have some relationship to what is observed. Although some talk of truth in terms of an imagined world, exactly what value that ‘Truth’ would have except in such a dream world is hard to say. By an outside chance the dream world, at the mercy of human pyschology, could share some facets with our perceived world. It’s always possible to imagine a ‘disturbed’ pyschology where certain logical truths don’t hold. If you accept that, then you’d probably have to accept that the only difference between the ‘disturbed’ pyschology and the ‘normal’ psychology is not truth or falsity, but success and utility.

Have I missed anything? Am I wrong? Leave a comment

Anthropic Principle

There is something stunningly narrow about how the Anthropic Principal is phrased. Yes, only certain laws and constants of nature are consistent with our kind of life. But essentially the same laws and constants are required to make a rock. So why not talk about a Universe designed so rocks could one day come to be, and strong and weak Lithic Principals? If stones could philosophize, I imagine Lithic Principals would be at the intellectual frontiers.

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot