The truth about truth!

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.

Our old friend – the Mountain of 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.

But is it?

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.

The pragmatic theory of truth

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.

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  1. Dear Dickie. I have comments, but wonder if they are welcome? (As I never get your feedback on them.)
    Anyway, I have two.
    The first is to offer the question whether the word “Truth” is not an abbreviation for “Statement of Truth”. Here I am trying to distinguish clearly between “facts” (phenomena?) and “statement of facts”. There are clearly differences between the two, not the least being: whether the statement is complete or exhaustive. What we are looking at is the judicial search for”the whole truth, nothing but the truth.” The point of looking at this is to be aware that truth is basically verbal, a statement of truth, not an actuality. The best it can do is to approximate, partially to the Actualite’s (as various lying politicians expressed it).
    The other area of exploration is, back to my old friend Time. The world we live in is not static. It is full of time and motion, change energy, action, displacement, even metamorphosis. That being so, there is presumably no such thing as eternal truth. If a (verbal, remember!) true account of a phenomenon were to be issued (by what authoritative voice soever), it would not necessarily remain True for only as long as it took to pronounce this Truth. If you accept this as a real problem (which it seems to me), well, what shall we think about it??
    I do hope you are interested enough in this to let me know your reaction. Yours ever, Christopher.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had no sooner sent the above feedback to your blog than a new message arrived offering it again (with a Larkin poem I have failed to locate and read) and giving details of next virtual Democracy Cafe’, which I should love to join if I can. But I seem to have lost Zoom facility several months ago. Can I find anyone to re-enable it by June 12th??
    Yours ever, Christopher.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with your point about truth being only an approximation of of the actuality and we are talking here about probability, as I say in the blog, rather than eternal truth or the Truth. Nevertheless, this is not nothing as we know from the untruths uttered by people like Trump and Putin. The question of time can be translated into empirical enquiry, which is ongoing and will probably never be complete, so yes, again, eternal truth is a non-starter. However, I don’t think it follows that a truth statement will remain true only for as long as it took to say the word Truth. In other words, I think there is a middle ground between eternal truth and no truth at all, or at least truth that is so fleeting that it is practically useless. If the latter were true then we would never be able to act with freewill or indeed on the empirical knowledge that we have acquired over the centuries. And, as I write in the blog, to say something like ‘truth is too fleeting to be useful’ would itself be a truth statement that would, presumably, last longer than it took time to say it and would, therefore, be self-defeating.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Are we conditoned into a belief that truth is a tangible quality, a quality which many of us find virtuous and attractive? From a young age the inquisitorial teacher will, after a playground scrap, speak the immortal words … ‘now tell me the truth, did you hit etc’! So we are given an understanding that truth is somehow a moral tool that is shaped in childhood in the forge of choice and honour. Choose the truth, tell me the truth and all will be if not forgiven, accepted and allow the world to move on. Yet as the blog explores, the layering of facts, correspondance, belief and interpretation are influences which perhaps our later education and lifes experiences beyond the early ‘tell me the truth’ do not prepare us for. Truth is complex, nuanced and perhaps like the concept of defining identity, can be easier to express in terms of what is not true?


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