Language is a system of symbols that we call words. Words (and all symbols) are abstractions. The word “dog” is not a dog. But hearing (or reading) it activates the symbol interpreting system in your brain and brings to mind your personal understanding of what a dog is. Because this happens, if I tell you “I have a dog.” you understand that I have a four legged canine animal companion.

But the symbol “dog” can never capture the reality of an actual dog- it’s loyalty, friendship, playfulness, warmth, etc. Likewise any word is not the thing itself. This becomes obvious if we think about a dictionary. A dictionary defines each word, but it does so in terms of other words. Each definition is ultimately circular in nature. Wikipedia has a list of extreme examples of this.

This is because of another aspect of the symbolic nature of words: they are arbitrary. There is nothing in particular about the word “dog” that suggests an actual dog. Hence different languages each having different words that all mean dog. (There are some words that do appear to be less arbitrary than most. For example, the words for Mother and Father are eerily similar in most languages.) Words gain their meaning through association with personal experience. When you hold, pet, smell, and play with a dog and someone tells you this is a dog you associate the experience you are having with the word “dog”. As you encounter more dogs you learn to associate the word “dog” to a general class of animal. It is through association with personal, subjective, experience that arbitrary sounds gain their meaning.

Because symbols are abstractions they can be manipulated in ways that are independent of reality. Thus if I write “flying dog”, despite no such animal existing you can still understand my meaning and imagine a dog that can fly.

Now philosophers have always debated the nature of truth and probably always will. I suspect that turning words back onto themselves – using words to establish criteria to evaluate other words – will never be completely satisfactory due to the nature of symbols themselves. Because symbols are abstractions they cannot encompass even the tiniest piece of reality wholly. As George E. P. Box said “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” As you can see, relating this phrase to the concept of truthfulness itself results in a recursive unresolvable pattern.

Putting that aside, I am going to put forth a definition of truth that is probably not novel, but that at least I have not heard of elsewhere. Truth might most usefully be defined as the degree to which a given symbolic representation matches one’s personal, subjective experience of reality. If I tell you “That black bear is eating those berries.” and you see that I am pointing to a bear that is black and is eating berries then my sentence – my symbolic representation – matches your subjective experience fully and thus is wholly true.

Let’s digress for a moment. An aspect of symbols that can introduce confusion into communication is that the same symbol can represent more than one thing, or conversely that various symbols can represent one and the same thing. Perhaps the bear that is eating the berries is a Sloth Bear, which is in fact black. But you could absolutely interpret my same sentence to mean that the bear in question is an American Black Bear – incredibly common in North America. Without some outside consideration, it is not possible to know from my words alone whether I mean a bear of the color black or a member of the species Ursus americanus. Likewise a sugary, carbonated, non-alcoholic beverage may be referred to as soda, pop, a soft drink, sodapop, or even coke (meaning any brand, not just Coke), all different and yet equally valid. To resolve either of these confusions one must either seek additional information (ask a clarifying question), utilize another medium of communication such as body language or tone of voice, or make an assumption as to their meaning.

Returning to the concept of truth, there are some interesting consequences of the definition I have put forth. Most notably that all truth expressed in symbols is necessarily subjective. This is currently a very radical statement, which I will give its own full treatment in a later post. Another is that a person can only understand a system of symbols – a theory or model – if it maps to experiences they have had. One can read about being in space, but it is an empty understanding until one actually experiences weightlessness for themselves.

I write this post to establish a foundation to the ideas I will later espouse. One most certainly can go much further that this, and explore how symbol relates to the senses, emotion, and even our physiology, but I think that unnecessary for the scope of this blog. I will go no further than the symbol and think it sufficient to explain the foundation for higher levels of understanding.