Foreword: The following is an essay I wrote for Theory of Knowledge, an I.B. class. I was 17 and still in high school – but I stumbled upon it and felt it was never more timely.
To what extent is truth different in mathematics, the arts, and ethics?
First of all we must give a definition to truth. Truth could be many things to only one person or to many people. Truth, as defined within society, is something that deals with the majority of people. If a majority of a society believes in something, whether it is metaphysical or scientifically proven, then we believe it to be true. Truth is defined differently within each way of knowing.
To be able to discuss truth within mathematics you must first distinguish between the types of math. Firstly there is pure mathematics which involves abstract fields like algebra, geometry and calculus, and then there is applied mathematics which focuses on the development and use of mathematical tools in other areas of knowledge. Truth in mathematics is defined as a theory accepted by the mathematical community where each statement is consistent with every other statement within its own system. Truth in mathematics seems to be the most ground in reason of all the truths out there. But in reality, mathematics is all about challenging current ideas. Mathematicians work their entire lives to come up with proofs and postulates about a mathematical theorem, which is sometimes correct, but mostly incorrect. However, both correct and incorrect answers increase our knowledge of math. Once the mathematician has postulated a theorem, they test it with of a community of mathematicians. These mathematicians look over the theory and then validate or negate it. If it’s negated, or shown to be illogical, the original creator goes back and tries to fix it.
Truth in mathematics is grounded in logic and reason. Axioms of mathematical thought have been wound up from society since before time itself, and each one factors into the knowledge of math that we have today. Inconsistencies are found within math as well. Mathematics is something that, ultimately, human beings have made up. The patterns are seen in nature, but we, as humans, have developed its many theories and truths. Truth in mathematics is proven through trial and error, and the truth must be proven and be replicable. Each man-made rule must follow the rules of the equations that came before it. The Vietnam War Memorial, for example, is 246.75 feet long and the angle at the vertex is 125 degrees. The height of the wall at the vertex is 10.1 feet. These are mathematical measurements made up by humans. This is applied mathematics. Back when standard measurements were made, some Roman, or quite possibly an Egyptian, made up the lengths of feet and inches and concurred with their mathematical community that the measurements would become truth. Now, we use these made up measurements every day.
Truth within the arts is much more inconsistent than that of math. There are so many different types of art forms that it is difficult to classify them. The real truth in art is often ambiguous and implied. There is no single written law or theorem stating what is correct and what is incorrect. Nor is there a criterion for judgment. We often use emotion and sense perception as a way of conceiving the truth in art forms. How we feel about an art form is our own personal truth, unlike other ways of knowing where we, as members of the general public, listen to the views of professionals on the topic and derive our truths from there. Art forms are always beautiful in one way or another, with beauty as an aesthetic appeal as determined in the eye of the beholder. The art is a strategy either to appeal directly to an outside audience or an interpersonal piece for the author’s own purpose. The Vietnam War Memorial is an art structure all in itself. The 246 foot wall is made out of a reflective granite material from India. The artistic meaning behind this is so that you can see your own reflection through the names of the soldiers. It is also built into the ground. The artistic meaning behind this is that the memorial symbolizes a wound in the earth that has closed and is healing to represent the wounds of the deceased soldiers and of the country. It lists each of the 58,159 soldiers’ names who died in the war not alphabetically, but in chronological order or the date they died. The effect of this is to show the individual human sacrifices and give each person a special place in history. Ethical implications are imbedded within the arts. Value judgments of what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” are laced within many, if not all, pieces of art.
Ethics focuses on how humans should act. It tries to guide us to making sound moral decisions in our lives. Morality reflects our values as humans, but who is to decide what is moral? Society attempts to do so, but what is true for many is not always true for the individual. Truth in ethics is often extremely debatable. Argument is the sole way of finding truth in ethics, with careful, but often heated, thought and judgment. The unconventional design of the Vietnam War Memorial had veterans upset, and quite a few were public about their displeasure. But once the design was completed and realized, the vets and the public eventually came to admire the simple beauty of it. But, that wasn’t the only issue. The architect of the memorial is Maya Ying Lin, a young Vietnamese-American. The veterans of the Vietnam War, as well as many citizens who had lived through it, had issues with her nationality in accordance with the memorial. They didn’t believe it was ethical for a person of Asian descent to be designing a memorial for a war fought on Asian territory, she was even accused of being a communist. Maya Ying Lin became the architect through a competition in which all applicants submitted their designs and the winner was chosen blindly – so the judges never saw her name. Maya believed that if the competition hadn’t been blind, her design never would’ve been chosen. She defended herself by saying that because the war had only ended six years ago and that the anger was still fresh, that any design was going to be controversial. The ethical complications of all of these issues are significant. Is it ethical for people to judge Maya’s design because of her ethnicity, even though she too was American? In the end, the public decided that no, it was not moral and Maya was forced to defend her designs in a Congressional hearing. Maya was eventually able to complete the memorial, her hope, to evoke emotion in those who look upon the memorial and to help the veterans begin to heal.