Friday 27 October 2023

On the provisionality - and knowability - of truth...

This morning as I approached the summit of Heughscar Hill in the mist and pre-dawn semi-darkness, I noticed a shape where no shape normally was.

'Ah, a tent,' I thought. People do occasionally camp near the summit, where there is a fine view down Ullswater towards Helvellyn. Strictly speaking, I don't think they are meant to, but who could blame them? And they normally leave no trace behind.

Then the shape moved: a head appeared upwards from it, and I realised it was one of the fell ponies. It's not that usual to find them on the summit in the early morning, but not unknown.  A second head emerged, and I revised that: not one of the fell ponies, but at least two.

Then, as I cycled closer, and the image became clearer, I realised it was, after all, a tent, and two people had emerged from it.  I bade them a cheery good morning as I cycled by, and down off the hill.

As I cycled home, I reflected. There are several tracks off the summit. Had I taken the first, I would have thought I'd probably seen a tent in the distance.  Had I taken the second, I would have been pretty sure I had seen something that had initially looked like a tent, but had, in fact, been a few of the ponies.

Indeed, had I done that, and then met someone who said "I see some people were camping on the hill this morning" I should probably have replied; "No, actually, I thought it was a tent at first, but as I got closer, I saw it was actually the ponies."  And I would have been confident that my information was better than theirs, unless they had said: "You're mistaken: I went right past, and I spoke to them!"

All of which made me think on how provisional our knowledge can be. We think that we know something, but we may often be mistaken, and be convinced that we are right. But also, that the truth is knowable: finally, it is true to say that there were people camping on Heughscar this morning and the ponies were not on the summit of the hill.

And it's that balance, recognising that truth is knowable, and also that we need to be cautious in our assumption that what we believe to be true is in fact true, that I find so fascinating.

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It was (possibly) Aeschylus who said, some 500 years before the time of Christ: In war, truth is the first casualty.  Plus ├ža change...

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