The Verity

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Flash Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story in which the reader decides that postmodernism is dead.

Submitted: September 29, 2010

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Submitted: September 29, 2010



Once upon a time, truth had two values: true and not true. The logicians gave this property the fancy name of ‘bivalence’, but they didn’t all believe in it. What if Jones was a boring old fart who never did anything remarkable his whole life, they asked, just lived and died in the most boring and ordinary of ways? Was Jones a brave man. then? The logicians answered ‘We can’t say! He was never tested for bravery. The proposition is undecidable!’

So it turns out not every proposition is bivalent. Suppose Jones did some small, good, things in his life, like, I don’t know, donating some money to charity, or taking some old clothes to Oxfam. But he’s also not declared quite all his taxes (he did a cash-in-hand job and didn’t tell the taxman). Are the propositions ‘Jones was a good man’ and ‘Jones was a bad man’ bivalent or undecidable? Are propositions about our moral worth any more decidable than propositions about our bravery?

Philosophers who wanted to be scientists, or at least sought to be seen to be scientifically respectable, suggested ruling out these kind of propositions as meaningless. If language isn’t answerable to reality – to how things are – then we can’t be making sense, they said. Others objected. We know what these sentences about bravery and goodness mean, so perhaps it was the philosophers’ theory (which we can’t make much sense of anyway) that was meaningless. A compromise was needed, a middle path.

So now we are all supposed to be good postmodernists. Be reasonable, absolute truth is not coming back either way. According to the middle path, truth isn’t out there in the world, it is in here in our words. And its up to us to fix it where we wish. Is Jones a good man or a bad man? Let the people – not the facts – decide.

There is a rather famous all-wooden boat called The Verity, built in the 1920s in a private boatyard, and she holds some kind of maritime record for being afloat continuously without ever being put in dry dock. But that’s not what is most remarkable about her. The Verity’s real claim to fame lies in the fact that there are two Verity’s, and no-one is quite sure how to decide which is the real one and which is the fake one. The other Verity is sitting in the same boatyard that she was originally built in, though it remains true to say that she has never been taken out of the water. The source of this puzzle lies in the fact that as The Verity went through her first years of service, the owner gradually replaced the original planks of the boat with new ones while she was at sea. As each original plank was removed, one by one over many years, the owner took them back to the boatyard, preserved them and stored them much as a museum might do. Eventually, after many years of service, there came a point when all the original planks and other material from the boat at sea had been replaced by new material. At the same time, the owner now had the complete original material of the boat in his boatyard and had the idea to reconstruct it, thus making two Veritys. Now the question is, which Verity is the one that was launched in 1920?

Arthur and June were on their honeymoon when The Verity was launched. They carved a small heart with their names into the wood by the bow. Ask them which is the real Verity, and they will point to the one in the boatyard. ‘That’s the boat we sailed on, no doubt about it. The one still at sea is a reconstruction of the original.’ On the other hand, ask any historian which is the real Verity, and she will point out that history records that the boat was launched in 1920, has visited such-and-such a port (including many after the time when there was no longer any of the original material on board), and remains at sea to this day. Those facts, however we specify them, only apply to the boat at sea and not the reconstruction in the boatyard made from the original material.

A similar problem affects one of Rembrandt’s paintings hanging in a Dutch museum. Several times a year, the painting loses a few flakes of paint and is retouched by the museum curators. Noticing this, a wily thief took it upon himself to remove a few flakes of the painting on each of his visits to the museum. He carefully recorded the position of the flakes that he took and reconstructed them on a canvas in his apartment. Meanwhile, the museum curators, suspecting nothing, continued to replace the missing flakes in their regular conservation treatments. After a lifetime of this subtle activity, the thief had acquired the whole painting, and the Rembrandt in the museum was composed entirely of paint applied only by the curators. Now there are two Rembrandts, but which is the original one?

The painting in the museum was not painted by Rembrandt, but by the curators, copying Rembrandt’s work piecemeal over an extended length of time. Surely, the Rembrandt in the thief’s apartment is the real Rembrandt? Isn’t the work hanging in the museum little more than a reproduction?

Now I know you're expecting a conclusion here, and that just shows what a very bad postmodernist the modern reader really is.

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