philosophy

What is Truth?


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Nurul Muhammad Haque*

Sydney, June 1, 2014 (Alochonaa): “What is Truth”? To many, this sounds like an unmanageably deep philosophical question, calling for ponderous but inconclusive reflection. Facing the weighty question-many theorist feel over-whelmed, at a loss for any significant response. Our question is akin to the general question of how language becomes meaningful in such a way that it can refers to things in the world, and to the question of how we can represent in our mind assertions about the world and the world itself. When asking about truth, we are specifically interested in finding what conditions a sentence, statement, belief, or proposition must satisfy to be true.

One of the reasons truth seems so difficult to describe is that we have conflicting beliefs about it: we sometimes think it is discovered, sometimes created, sometimes knowable, and sometimes mysterious. When we use the idea in ordinary life –as we do when we agree or disagree with what someone has said – it seems a simple matter. Yet the more we stop to think about it, the more complicated it becomes. (Lynch, M., 2004)

There is an aura of peculiar depth and obscurity surrounding our concept of truth, and philosophy abounds with theories designed to illuminate it, to say what it is for beliefs and statements to possess that special quality. Of the many things we could believe about truth, there is at least one that we should believe that, truth matters .Theories of truth investigate truth as a property of one’s thoughts and speech. We attribute truth and inaccuracy to a wide variety of so called truth-bearers: linguistic items (sentences, utterances, statements and assertions), abstract items (propositions), and mental items (judgments and beliefs). What is the property we are attributing when we call a truth-bearer true? The question is crucial because of truth’s involvement in central philosophical claims. For example, it is often said that truth is the aim of science that the meaning of a sentence is given by the conditions under which it is true, that logical validity is the preservation of the truth, or that ethical statements are neither true nor false. A proper understanding of truth promises to illuminate fundamental issues in metaphysics, the philosophy of language, logic and ethics.

(Borchert, D.M., 2006, Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The two traditional theories of truth are the:

 Correspondence theory – whereby, “x is true” means “x corresponds to a fact” or, alternatively, whereby the truth of statements is explained in terms of the referents of their constituents and references is then defined in terms of some casual correspondence relation. According to a longstanding tradition about what it is for statement to be true, there must be some appropriate correspondence between true statements and actual features of the world. For instance, the true statement that you are reading this essay corresponds, in some sense, to the actual features of the world in your immediate environment. True statement corresponds, in some sense, with reality, and false statement fail to correspond to how things actually are in the world.

(Moser, P., Mulder, D. & Trout, J.D., 1998)

And, Coherence theory – It says that the truth of a belief consists in its coherence with other beliefs. The coherence definition of truth claims that a statement is true if and only if it stands in an appropriate relation to some system of other statements. The Coherence Theory of truth is probably second in popularity to the Correspondence Theory even though it often seems to be an accurate description of how our conception of truth actually works. More simply, a belief is true when we are able to incorporate it in an orderly and logical manner into a larger and complex system of beliefs or, even more simply still, a belief is true when it fits in with the set of all our other beliefs without creating a contradiction.

(Adopted from Horwich, P., Truth, cited in Jackson, F. & Smith, M., 2005)

Further theories of truth have emerged since the last part of the nineteenth century, most notably, The pragmatic theory – The pragmatic definition of truth asserts that a statement is true if and only if it is useful in a certain way. Whereby “x is true” means “x is useful to believe”. It determines whether or not a belief is true or not based on whether it has a useful (pragmatic) application in the world. If it does not, then it is not true

(Adopted from Horwich, P., Truth, cited in Jackson, F. & Smith, M., 2005)

The redundancy theory – whereby, the proposition that “p is true” means the same as “p”. if we accept the equivalence of ‘p’ and ‘p is true’, however, we might be tempted to argue for the conclusion that we do not need the concept of truth. We can say everything we want to say without it. Instead of saying that p is true, it suffices to say that p. All that we add with the word ‘true’ is the reaffirmation of the original proposition.

(Scruton, R., 1997)

The identity theoryA truth does not correspond to a fact, but is identical with fact. The theory may appear counterintuitive: if true mental items – true judgments or true beliefs – are facts, then it seems that the mind contains facts, that mind and world are literally the same.

(Lynch, M., 2004)

The minimalist theory/semantic theoryThis theory of truth originates with the polish mathematician and logician Alfred Tarski, which he suggested captured the idea of correspondence, while characterizing the unique role of truth as the foundation of logical disclosure. To what conditions, Tarski asked, should a ‘definition’ of truth conform? What would lead us to accept it as a definition of truth? First, it should assign truth-conditions to each sentence of our language. Secondly, it should derive those truth-conditions from the semantic values of the parts of sentence. Thirdly, it should meet what he called a ‘condition of adequacy’, namely, that every instance of the following ‘convention’.

(Scruton, R., 1997)

Deflationary theories of truth Deflationist say that ‘substantive’ theories of truth – such as the correspondence and coherence theories are, radically misguided: there is no substantive property of truth to theorize about. Truth is less easily eliminated from generalizations like ‘Everything Socrates says is true’, but someone argues that it can be done. The word true disappears, and any reason to investigate the nature of truth disappears with it. It also ascribes to true a role different from that of ordinary predicates.

(Borchert, D.M., 2006, Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Now, I am going to briefly discuss the correspondence, Coherence and Pragmatic theory

The Correspondence Theory of Truth:

According to the correspondence theory, truth consists in correspondence to the facts. It argues that “truth” is whatever corresponds to reality. An idea which corresponds with reality is true while an idea which does not correspond with reality is false. A truth-bearer (the proposition that snow is white) is true if and only if it corresponds to a fact (that snow is white). Broadly speaking, truth is a relational property between truth-bearers on the one side and the world on the other. A decent correspondence theory would require accounts of ‘correspondence’ and of ‘fact’- accounts that no one has been able to supply. Indeed it can be argued that the conceptual order that it would propose is precisely the wrong way around, and ‘facts’ should be really defined as ‘truths’. Under the Correspondence Theory of Truth, the reason why we label certain beliefs as “true” is because they correspond to those facts about the world. Thus, the belief that the sky is blue is a “true” belief because of the fact that the sky is blue. Along with beliefs, we can count statements, propositions, sentences, etc. as capable of being true or false.

(Borchert, D.M., 2006, Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

By Aristotle, “The fact of the being of a man carries with it the truth of the proposition that he is…..the truth or falsity of the proposition depends on the fact of the man’s being or not being”. The correspondence idea may also be present in Aristotle’s famous definition of truth, “To say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”.

(Metaphysics 1, Adopted from McKeon, R., 1941)

A classical statement of the correspondence theory is given by G.E. Moore: To say of a given belief that it is true “is to say that there is in the universe a fact to which it corresponds”. Moore takes it that we are all perfectly familiar with the relation of correspondence, “that there is such a relation, seems to me clear; all that is new about my definitions of truth and falsehood”. Moore’s remarks bring out both a strength and weakness of the correspondence theory. The correspondence theory is the most natural account of truth-it seems that no one deny that a true belief corresponds of how things are. But this raises the suspicion that the correspondence theory is platitudinous- to say that a truth-bearer corresponds to the facts is just an elaborate way of saying that it is true. There is no distinctive theory of truth unless more can be said about the correspondence relation. And Moore admits that he can offer no analysis of it; the best he can do is to define it in the sense of pointing out what relation it is, by simply pointing out that it is the relation which does hold between this belief, if true, and this fact, and does not hold between this belief and any other fact.          (Moore, G.E., 1953, p304)

Bertrand Russell (1906-07, 1912) attempts to shed light on the correspondence relation by arguing for a structural isomorphism or congruence between beliefs and facts. Beliefs and facts are structured complexes, and when a belief-complex is suitably congruent with a fact complex, the belief is true.

Considering, X’s belief that Y loves Z. According to Bertrand Russell, believing is a four place relation; in the present case it is the reinforce that unites X, Y, the loving relation, and Z into one complex whole. The last three items are what Russell calls the objects in the belief, and these objects are ordered in a certain way by the believing relation (X believes that Y loves Z, not that Z loves Y). Now considering another complex unity that, Y’s love for Z, composed of the objects in X’s belief. Here the loving relation is the strength that binds together Y and Z in the same order that they have in X’s belief. If this complex unity exists then it “is called the fact corresponding to the belief. Thus a belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact”.                                                                                                   (Russell, B., 1956)

Objections to the correspondence theory of Truth:

Russell ( 1956) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922) going on to develop their philosophy of logical atomism, according to which there are no logically complex facts, only atomic facts. True propositions that are logically simple or atomic correspond to atomic facts, but logically complex true propositions no longer correspond to logically complex facts. Rather, complex propositions are recursively broken down into simple proposition that compose them, and the truth of complex propositions is ultimately explained via the atomic facts to which true atomic proposition correspond. Difficulties remain, however: certain complain propositions, for example, ‘because’ statements and ‘subjunctives’, are resistant to a recursive break-down into simple components and we can still ask whether universal facts are required for true universal generalizations, and negative facts for true negations. (Russell, B., 1959)

According to another line of objection, it is an illusion that we can have access to an unvarnished realm of facts with which to compare our judgment. Our knowledge of the world is mediated by our descriptions, interpretations and judgments. We can not step outside our own system of beliefs and compare those beliefs with ‘bare reality’. Since the correspondence theory says that truth consists in correspondence to the facts, and those facts are inaccessible to us, we can never know that a judgment is true, and we are led to skepticism. Those who endorse this line of criticism typically associate the correspondence theory wit h metaphysical realism and advocate instead some form of antirealism and an “epistemic” account of truth, say, in terms of verification or assertibility. If our quest for truth is indeed a quest for objectivity, then something like a correspondence notion of truth captures the desired objectivity better than coherentism and pragmatism about truth.                                                                   (Dummett, M., 1978)

The Coherence Theory of truth:

In Coherence theory, the truth of any (true) proposition consists in its coherence with some specified set of propositions. Sometimes this seems like an unusual way to actually describe truth. After all, a belief can be an inaccurate description of reality and fit in with a larger, complex system of further inaccurate descriptions of reality. According to the Coherence Theory, that inaccurate belief would still be called “truth” even though it didn’t actually describe the way the world really was. The reason is because statements can’t really be verified in isolation. Whenever you test an idea, you are also actually testing a whole set of ideas at the same time. For example, when you pick up a ball in your hand and drop it, it isn’t simply our belief about gravity which is tested but also our beliefs about a host of other things, not least of which would be the accuracy of our visual perception.

So, if statements are only tested as part of larger groups, then one might conclude that a statement can be classified as “true” not so much because it can be verified against reality but rather because it could be integrated into a group of complex ideas, the whole set of which could then be tested against reality. In this case Coherence Theory isn’t that far from the Correspondence Theory and the reason is that while individual statements may be judged as true or false based upon their ability to cohere with a larger system, it is assumed that that system is one which accurately corresponds to reality. Because of this, the Coherence Theory does manage to capture something important about the way we actually conceive of truth in our daily lives.

A more plausible version of the coherence theory states that the coherence relation is some form of entailment. Entailment can be understood here as strict logical entailment, or entailment in some looser sense. According to this version, a proposition coheres with a set of propositions if and only if it is entailed by members of the set. Another more plausible version of the theory is that, coherence is mutual explanatory support between propositions. According to a moderate position, the specified set consists of those propositions which will be believed when people like us (with finite cognitive capacities) have reached some limit of inquiry. If the specified set is a set actually believed, or even a set which would be believed by people like us at some limit of inquiry, coherentism involves the rejection of realism about truth. Realism about truth involves acceptance of the principle of Bivalence (according to which every proposition is either true or false) and the principle of Transcendence (which says that a proposition may be true even though it cannot be known to be true).

(Scruton, R., 1997, Modern Philosophy)

In epistemological routes to coherentism, Blanshard (1939) argues that a coherence theory of justification leads to a coherence theory of truth. His argument runs as follows – Someone might hold that coherence with a set of beliefs is the test of truth but that truth consists in correspondence to objective facts. If, however, truth consists in correspondence to objective facts, coherence with a set of beliefs will not be a test of truth. This is the case since there is no guarantee that a perfectly coherent set of beliefs matches objective reality. Since coherence with a set of beliefs is a test of truth, truth cannot consist in correspondence.

Rescher (1973) Criticized Blanshard’s argument depends on the claim that coherence with a set of beliefs is the test of truth. Understood in one sense, this claim is plausible enough. Blanshard, however, has to understand this claim in a very strong sense: coherence with a set of beliefs is an infallible test of truth. If coherence with a set of beliefs is simply a good but fallible test of truth, as Rescher suggests, the argument fails. The “falling apart” of truth and justification to which Blanshard refers is to be expected if truth is only a fallible test of truth.

Another epistemological argument for coherentism is based on the view that we cannot “get outside” our set of beliefs and compare propositions to objective facts. A version of this argument was advanced by some logical positivists including Hempel (1935) and Neurath (1983). This argument depends on a coherence theory of justification. It infers from such a theory that we can only know that a proposition coheres with a set of beliefs. We can never know that a proposition corresponds to reality.

Objection to the Coherence Theories of Truth:

According to the objection of coherence theory of truth, coherence theorists have no way to identify the specified set of propositions without contradicting their position. This objection originates in Russell (1907). Opponents of the coherence theory can argue as follows. The proposition (1) ‘Z was hanged for murder’ coheres with some set of propositions. (2) ‘Z died in her bed’ coheres with another set of propositions. The objection charges that coherence theorists have no grounds for saying that (1) is false and (2) is true. Some responses to the specification problem are unsuccessful. One could say that we have grounds for saying that (1) is false and (2) is true because the latter coheres with propositions which correspond to the facts.

Although some responses to the Russell’s version of the specification objection are unsuccessful, it is unable to refute the coherence theory. Coherence theorists do not believe that the truth of a proposition consists in coherence with any arbitrarily chosen set of propositions. Rather, they hold that truth consists in coherence with a set of beliefs, or with a set of propositions held to be true. No one actually believes the set of propositions with which coheres. Coherence theorists conclude that they can hold that is false without contradicting themselves.

The transcendence objection of coherence theory indicts that a coherence theory of truth is unable to account for the fact that some propositions are true which cohere with no set of beliefs. According to this objection, truth transcends any set of beliefs. Some argument could be that the proposition ‘Z wrote ten sentences on January 1’ is either true or false. If it is false, some other proposition about how many sentences Z wrote that day is true. No proposition, however, about precisely how many sentences Z wrote coheres with any set of beliefs and we may safely assume that none will ever cohere with a set of beliefs. Opponents of the coherence theory will conclude that there is at least one true proposition which does not cohere with any set of beliefs. (Borchert, D.M., 2006, Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Pragmatic theory of Truth:

From previous theories, truth – in this sense is nothing to do with the way the world ‘really is’ but is just a function of whether an idea can be used as a model to make useful predictions about what is going to happen in the world. So, Pragmatic truths can only be learnt through interaction with the world: we don’t discover truth by sitting alone in a room and thinking about it.

There are some obvious objections that can be raised against the Pragmatic Theory of Truth. Like, the notion of “what works” is very ambiguous. What happens when a belief works in one sense, but fails in another? For example, a belief that one will succeed may give a person the psychological strength needed to accomplish a great deal but in the end, they may fail in their ultimate goal. Was their belief “true”? Furthermore, when a belief “works” in this sense, why call it “true”? Why not call it something like “useful”? A useful belief is not necessarily the same as a true belief and, what’s worse, is that people don’t typically use the word “true” in normal conversation to mean useful. For example, for the average person, the statement “It is useful to believe that my dog is faithful” does not at all mean the same as “It is true that my dog is faithful.” Granted, it may be the case that true beliefs are also usually the ones that are useful, but not always. Now, pragmatism may be a handy means for distinguishing truth from false. After all, that which is true should produce predictable consequences for us in our lives. In order to determine what is real and what is unreal, it would not be unreasonable to focus primarily upon that which works. (Borchert, D.M., 2006, Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Conclusion:

 It is important to keep the notions of truth and justification distinct to allow for the possibility of justified false belief (and unjustified true belief). We are sometimes justified in believing statements that are nonetheless false. This intuition could be wrong, but it is one of the firmest common-sense intuitions we find in epistemology; so we should ask whether there is a sound basis for preserving it. As a result, we have expressed doubts about relativism concerning truth. Beliefs, of course, may be relative to individuals and cultures, but it does not follow, that truth itself is similarly relative. Truth is merciless and straightforward in that it cannot be other than it is. There is no way in which black can become white so as to appease the grief of a human soul.

‘Truth is objective and certain, Truth is good, Truth is worthy goal of inquiry, and Truth is worth caring about for its own sake.’ This is what I mean by saying that truth matters. Beliefs that portray the world as it is, are good and worth caring about, not only for their consequences but for their own sake. It reminds us of something essential about truth and the role it plays in our life. It also reminds us that truth, like courage or keeping a promise, is something calls a thick sort of value. Similarly, when we say that a belief is true, we are at once evaluating it – saying it is correct, good, worthy of pursuit and so on, and describing it as portraying the world as it is.

At last, strive always to excel in virtue and truth.

 *Nurul Muhammad Haque works as an analyst and adviser for non-profit organization and Govt. Research body. His area of works include  International Affairs & security, Government & Politics and Economic Developments. He also has interests in history, philosophy and religion. Download the bibliography  from here ———- truth-reference

**Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: philosophy

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4 replies »

  1. This also beggars the question: is something not a “truth” if it is widely believed, but factually incorrect? The most obvious example would be people thinking the earth was flat, but that is not as accurate as people think. Or Columbus telling the truth when he said he found the East Indies. Telling someone you got the plague from rats was the “truth” the time. The idea of “truth” is a constantly changing and evolving concept.

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