Mathematical truth, “God’s truth,” and tattoos

Before I wrote Chapter 6 (Further Investigations of the Mind-Body Problem) I hadn’t understood the significance of the fact that Russian had two words for truth, istina and pravda.  The former is the one used for mathematical truth; it’s also the one that appears, in Cyrillic characters, in the film Rites of Love and Math by Edward Frenkel and Reine Graves, that serves as the starting point for Chapter 6.  To quote a certain Maria Kuruskina’s advice on tattoos:

Istina‘ is a great deal more pathetic and I’d say lofty or elevated than ‘pravda‘. In sentences like “Neo, you’re the One because you know the Truth” … Russians would use ”istina‘.
Pravda‘ is neutral. It’s used in phrases like “you must tell me the truth”.
For a tattoo i’d recommend ‘istina‘ 🙂  (from MWA, p. 166)

So I was naturally surprised last month to hear both words used in a sermon spoken by the priest at the end of the film Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev.  The sermon encapsulates the message of the film in a way I didn’t fully grasp, but I can report that pravda was rendered by “truth” in the subtitles, while istina, the technical term for truth used by mathematicians,  computer scientists, and analytic philosophers, was translated “God’s truth.”  (To add to the confusion, the subtitles add the word “truth” in several places where there is no Russian counterpart.)  The priest proclaims:

Only he who knows God’s truth [istina] can find truth [pravda].

God, Neo, and mathematics:  an auspicious trinity!  Out of curiosity, I checked whether the same dichotomy exists in other Slavic languages.  It turns out not to be entirely straightforward.  In addition to the alternative pravdivost‘, which has cognates in Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukranian, and Bulgarian, there is also vernost‘ which means “faithfulness” in Russian but is one of the words for truth in several of the West and South Slavic languages.  Croatian has istina for truth but reserves pravda for justice.  (Was the priest in Leviathan opposing “God’s [and mathematicians’] truth” to mere justice?  That would make sense in the context of the film.)

On the other hand istina seems not to have a Polish cognate, and Tarski’s 1933 article on truth, which some philosophers claim to have settled the matter definitively as far as mathematics is concerned, was entitled Pojęcie prawdy w językach nauk dedukcyjnych.


2 thoughts on “Mathematical truth, “God’s truth,” and tattoos

  1. David Roberts


    The above comment is spam, with the link on ‘daz windows…’ harvesting a higher PageRank from this website for its destination page. My suggestion is to ignore the platitudes and delete it.



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