What Is Truth?

[From October 2011]

Perhaps it will be useful for me to summarize the main points I argued in today’s class.

  1. I disagree with van de Lagemaat when he speaks of three theories of truth. The first, which he calls the ‘correspondence theory’, seems to me to be simply the definition of truth: if what I say matches what is actually the case, then I have spoken the truth. Truth, that is, is a correspondence between what we say, and what is. The difficult part is knowing what actually is.
  2. The other two ‘theories’ that van de Lagemaat discusses seem to me to be tests: ways of checking to see whether what has been said matches what really is. So I will refer to them from here on as tests of truth.
  3. The pragmatic test asks, “If I assume that x is true, do things work as expected?” If the answer is yes, then we may feel more confident that x is in fact true. Another sense of the pragmatic test is to ask, “If x is true, is that somehow useful to me or to others?”
  4. The coherence test of truth is based on the idea that the totality of our beliefs form a web. In other words, all of our beliefs are connected to each other in multiple ways. That ‘web of belief’ constitutes our view of the world, our understanding of who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. If someone says, “X is true”, we automatically check that statement against all our other beliefs. If the statement conflicts dramatically with our web of belief—if there is no coherence with everything else we know and believe—then the statement fails the coherence test, and we reject it.
  5. I would add another test of truth: scientific and mathematical reasoning. To test a statement mathematically or scientifically requires time, work, and expertise—which is why very few of us actually do it. We may accept an expert’s conclusions, but we rarely work out the evidence ourselves.
  6. All three of these tests of truth—the pragmatic test, the coherence test, and scientific/mathematical reasoning—can lead us astray. We feel most assured, therefore, when a statement is supported by all three of the tests.
  7. All of the above assumes that we reach conclusions about the truth by thinking. This seems doubtful to me. Instead, I would argue that most of our conclusions about truth are reached via emotion.
  8. The pragmatic test and coherence test make sense as theories of truth only if we assume that there is, in effect, no truth. Proponents of this view would put the case differently, and say that truth is relative, and/or subjective, but once truth is relative, or subjective, can it be called truth any longer? Shouldn’t it be called, instead, a particular view of reality, or something like that? And if all such views are equally valid, are they not then equally invalid?
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