IF, as we saw a couple of blogs ago, reason has taken something of a battering, then the same is true of the very notion of ‘truth’. Therein lies part of the problem, of course. For it is self-contradictory to proclaim that there is no such thing as ‘truth’ because, of course, the proposition ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is in itself either true or not true. Another problem is that if that is all that counts as truth, then we are in danger of disappearing in a puff of our own logic, as Douglas Adams might have said.
We have seen on this blog how Frances Bacon compared truth to climbing a hilltop and Tim Harford in How to Make the World Add Up provided us with 10 rules for navigating the dense thickets of statistics that shape, and, it has to be said, misshape our world. But Harford assumes that there is such a thing as truth. Enter Simon Blackburn and his book called simply Truth.
Of course, Blackburn makes the point that the ‘god of truth’ is best served by the attendant deities such as reason, justification and objectivity. But what exactly is truth? Well, in his book he takes us through the classical approaches to understanding truth and then applies them to difficult problems like ethics and aesthetics.
In the first instance he adumbrates the correspondence theory, which states that in the same way that a map, in order to be useful, should correspond with what is on the ground, so a justified true belief should, at the very least, correspond with the facts. The problem here is that this may simply be an elaborate way of saying ‘true’ so that that saying ‘true’ and ‘corresponds with the facts’ is a distinction without a difference.
One may draw an analogy within, say, ‘baby swan’ and ‘cygnet’. Nevertheless, recent events have shown us that simply aligning ‘truth’ and ‘corresponding with the facts’ is important when the likes of Trump and Putin do their level best to decouple them. The theory, of course, also assumes that the sense-perception process passively receives facts from the world rather than interacting with the world and, in some sense, constructing a model of the world that isn’t straight-forwardly out there. At its most extreme Kant and Schopenhauer hold that the ‘thing-in-itself’ or the ‘Will’, the world unmediated by our sense-perception, is something other than the phenomenal world in which we live.
However, this may not be fatal for the correspondence theory because it may be that to say that the world is divided between the noumenal and the phenomenal is simply a fact about our perception of the world. Of course, the realist and the idealist positions cannot both be true but that does not in itself collapse the correspondence theory – we simply don’t know which one is true.
The second theory is referred to as the coherence theory in which truth is linked to rational enquiry that is a ‘coherent, interlocking structure, a reflective equilibrium in which all our beliefs about a subject matter fit together’. This an attractive theory which requires that we are coherent and consistent in our approach to the world. This idea does, to a certain extent, dovetail with the correspondence theory because a coherent theory must at least consist of statements that correspond with the facts. Nevertheless, it is not a complete theory because we may still be concerned that a ’roundly coherent body of belief’ might just be a ‘giant fiction’.
So, we need a further move and this is provided by the pragmatic theory, which focuses exclusively on successful outcome. The link between truth and success is associated with American pragmatists like C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey (who featured in a previous blog called The return of the public). It is founded on the idea that the truth of a theory is dependant on its success.
A classic example is quantum physics, which, while not fully understood, is nevertheless one of the most successful scientific theories ever. Who cares if we don’t understand it if it is so useful?
And finally we have what is called ‘deflationism’ which states that the notion of truth may work in the background but in the end it makes ‘no difference whether we simply assert something or assert it prefacing the assertion with it is true that’. So, by this Blackburn means that we don’t actually need the category ‘truth’ just assertion ‘that X’ and so-on. “Truth is only present as deflationists say as a device for pointing in the general direction in which the real explanation is to be found,” writes Blackburn. The problem with this position is rather similar to the one relating to correspondence theory in that by demoting truth to a signpost to the real explanation one is creating a distinction without a difference in that the proposition ‘real explanation that’ is the same as saying ‘it is true that’.
It is small wonder that postmodernists and populists have had such fun with the notion of truth if none of us can state exactly what truth is. It is a feature of all the theories that they don’t actually say anything about truth itself, rather they furnish us with methods of finding truth – even if they do so imperfectly. The problem with finding the truth about truth is that it is constantly in danger of plummeting down a vicious spiral of circularity. But maybe this is a feature of truth. Just as we can see but not see ourselves seeing or hear but not hear ourselves hearing, may be we can find the truth without knowing what truth itself is. Just as we can find out about the world by deploying the empirical method without being able to prove the method by deploying it, not at least without fatal circularity.
All that we can say is that, in the first instance, we can say with a high degree of probability that if a proposition fails to correspond with reality, is incoherent, is unsuccessful and fails to provide a ‘real explanation’ then it is untrue. Equally, the more of these theories that a proposition does meet then we can have increasing confidence that it is true – or at least as true as we are likely to get.