What is truth?
The word ‘truth’ gets used a lot without much thought given to its denotation. It also forms part of our definition of knowledge – ‘justified, true belief’. It’s worth considering does it actually means. This might seem like a strange proposal, but think about it for a second. How many different ways do we use the word truth? Look at the following statements, and see how the word varies:
1. He is a true friend
2. He has remained true to his beliefs
3. A portrait that is truthful to its sitter
4. I love you truly, madly, deeply
5. She is wearing true emeralds
6. A true replica of a Barcelona football shirt
7. The door is not hanging truly
8. She did not stay true to her boyfriend
It quickly becomes clear that there are many different uses of the word true. It is synonymous with plenty of other words – genuine, faithful, loyal, original, honest, and so on. This should not be surprising, though, since words that are as important as true often represent a lot of different ideas. What does ‘true’ mean to us as students and teachers of theory of knowledge?
Again, we need some sort of beginning to help us in building up an understanding of what truth is. Truth is what we apply to propositions – either they are, or they are not, true. Either they are, or they are not, things that can be justified and believed in. It is probably better not to think of what is usually defined as being the opposite of truth – something that is false, or a lie – because truth is, unfortunately, something that often has degrees.
If we do not tell the complete story, for example, we are not necessarily ‘lying’, or telling any ‘falsehoods’, we are simply not presenting the entire truth. This is why in English law, courts seek to find out not just the truth, but ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. So, think in terms of what is true, and what is not true, rather than what is true, and what is false.
There are four well-known theories of truth (sometimes called ‘truth tests’). One is based closely on rationalism, one on empiricism, another on the community in which we live, and the fourth presents us with a completely different understanding of the nature of truth.
The correspondence theory of truth
The correspondence theory of truth asks whether the proposition matches up to what we know through our senses (ie what we see, hear, taste, etc.) to be true. An example may be if we go to a football match, and afterwards claim that a certain striker was playing in the game. The claim would have been made by seeing him on the pitch being involved in the game: in other words, using our senses to confirm if something is true.
This theory of truth is similar to empiricism, and demands that we rely on our own personal experience to be able to figure out if something is true or not.
The coherence theory of truth
The coherence theory of truth relies on the proposition fitting in with what we know to make sense. If we had made the knowledge claim that the striker was playing in the match without having been at the match and seeing him on the pitch for ourselves, then the claim would have been made based on other pieces of information that made that fact likely. Perhaps we knew that he was fit, playing extremely well, and reported by the manager beforehand as being the team’s main goal-scoring hope.
This theory of truth is similar to rationalism, and demands us to use information not acquired through personal experience to logically reach an answer.
The consensus theory of truth
Consensus means the agreement of a group of people, so our third theory of truth is based around the idea that truth is what the majority of people believe. In our example, the fact of the striker playing in the match would be confirmed as true if the majority of people watching the game confirmed that he was present.
This theory of truth is not one favoured by any philosopher of note, although it is worth mentioning as it is often drawn on by many people to confirm what they are saying is true, and is used extensively by marketing companies to prove the quality of products they are trying to sell. The consensus theory of truth is usually a fallacy, which we will look at later on. Having said that, it is instinctively drawn on by all of us at times, as we ‘follow the crowd’ in making decisions and deciding on a particular course of action. How many times a day do you do something just because everyone else seems to be doing so? And have any of your teachers ever said to you, ‘What would happen if everyone behaved like that?’
The pragmatic theory of truth
The pragmatic theory of truth is a little more complicated, and requires us to understand a little bit about the background of the philosophical school of pragmatism, and its most famous member, William James. Pragmatism holds that truth is whatever is useful and profitable to us, and whatever brings us benefit.
For William James, (but not all pragmatists – don’t be fooled by some TOK textbooks which try to tell you that William James is a typical example of a pragmatist) this meant that truth was ‘mutable’ or changeable, rather than something concrete and absolute. James believed that it often takes a long time to figure out whether something is true or not, based on whether it works successfully.
To put this in context, we can look at James’ position on religion. James said that there was no real proof for the existence of God, and there was very little philosophical justification for believing in him. However, if you finds that believing in God helps your life and makes your existence more fulfilling, then for you, the truth is that there is a God.