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‘What Is Truth?’ Some Competing Theories

When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), he seems to have meant it rhetorically, and Jesus gave him no reply. When you talk to others about the truth of God’s existence or the truth of the Catholic faith, though, you will find that people have some different ideas about what truth means.

It is important to consider these, because how we think about truth affects how we think about reality.

Some see truth as coherence—when things “go together.” On this view, things are true when they simply do not contradict one another. Now, true things certainly must be coherent (truth cannot contradict itself), but a novel or a well-spun web of lies can be coherent while obviously false.

Others believe truth to be whatever works best.  Something is considered true if it is useful to believe. The problem with this pragmatic view of truth is that things work differently in different situations; what works best for you in this circumstance might be a failure for someone else in another circumstance. Further, some things that are not actually the case can be very useful to believe, and some things that are the case may not be useful to one’s success at all.

Then there are many who see truth as subject to each person and relative to every situation and so fluid and ever-changing. This view of truth holds that accepting something as true equates to something being true—because each person is free to construct his own truth. Of course, even these “post-modernists” look both ways before crossing the street, and will not accept a bank teller’s personal “truth” if less money is reported in their accounts than there should be. So regardless of how deep such views sound in the classroom, few people adhere to them when they walk out the door.

Rather than defining truth as relative, subjective, merely coherent, or pragmatic, how about the one nearly everyone defaults to and which (as we will see) all others ultimately depend? The correspondence view describes truth as the correspondence of a statement to reality. Aristotle famously described this view in just a few monosyllabic words: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Although philosophically sophisticated treatments of this view exist, even young children intuitively understand it. If I tell my four-year-old son that we are having pancakes for dinner but I serve him broccoli, he knows I did not speak the truth! Statements that describe reality as it is are true; those that do not are false. And, because reality is singular and shared by all, this truth is absolute and objective (though these are traits, not definitions).

The idea sounds simple and straightforward, but it frequently comes under attack. There are basically three ways to attack this definition:

1.  Attack “correspondence” by arguing that truth is defined differently.

2.  Attack “statement” with those whose truth value does not seem to be universal.

3.  Attack “reality” by arguing that we do not know reality.

Defending Correspondence

Regardless of their other merits or demerits, non-correspondence definitions of truth always run into the same problem: stating that any given view is the true definition of truth implies that the true definition of truth must correspond with what truth is in reality. But that’s the correspondence view!

All assertions could begin with the phrase, “In reality . . . ” or “The reality is . . . ” because all assertions (even those that are false) claim to describe reality. So to say, “The correspondence view is not the definition of truth” is to say, “The correspondence view does not correspond to the reality of what truth is.” Regardless of what alternate definition is offered, its accuracy depends on whether or not it actually (in reality) is the definition of truth. Correspondence, then, seems inescapable (even if other facets of truth exist as corollaries).

Defending Statement

If truth is a statement that corresponds with reality, it is rather absolute and objective. There seem to be statements, though, that are either relative or subjective or both. If so, then perhaps truth is likewise relative or subjective or both. But this represents a confusion between truth and kinds of true statements.

Statements whose truth value depends on corresponding to reality according to the one making the assertion are subjective statements—but that does not make truth itself subjective—as if everyone could alter what is true simply by thinking it.

For example, if I say, “That car is red,” the real color of car—the object to which my statement corresponds—tells us if my statement is true. It is an objective statement.

However, if I say, “That car is pretentious,” I am really telling you something about my personal taste. In that case, I—the subject—am the one who can verify if that statement corresponds to reality. It is a subjective statement.

Both kinds of statements are objectively true, once the truth-making object is included in the analysis.

Similarly, the truth value of statements with relative terms depends on their correspondence to the reality of the comparison (which is often only implied)—but that does not make truth relative. “The car is fast” and “the car is slow” can both be true or false depending on what we’re comparing it with. The car may be fast compared to some other cars but also slow compared to a jet. Both statements are absolutely true once the comparison is made explicit.

So, even though there are subjective and relative statements, their truth value remains dependent on the objective and absolute reality to which they correspond.

Defending Reality

Finally, the correspondence view can be attacked by claiming that even if the definition is correct, we might not (or do not) actually know what reality is.

Besides the fun “what ifs” explored in Philosophy 101 and movies like The Matrix or Inception, there are really only a few noteworthy examples of reality seemingly eluding us. These include realistic dreams, illusions, hallucinations, and the like.

The problem with these examples, though, is that they all presuppose knowledge of reality. Without knowing what is real, we would not notice or be able to identify the unreal. It is only in the comparison of dreams, illusions, and hallucinations to reality that they can be known to be non-reality. Thus, in the very act of collecting examples where reality is unknown, reality is proved to be knowable. One must know reality to disprove knowledge of reality. It is therefore self-defeating to argue that reality cannot be known.

This is only a brief introduction to a large topic, but many a sophisticated-sounding discussion doesn’t actually get much beyond it! At the end of the day, everyone treats reality as if it is knowable, and statements as true or false depending on how they relate to reality. Only those interested in promoting falsehood as truth require its redefinition.

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