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Didaktikon
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  • Register:29/08/2007 7:54 AM

Date Posted:04/05/2008 10:10 PMCopy HTML

Good morning, all.

It's probably a given that most people are quite naive when it comes to philosophical enquiry/speculation and are naturally rather "sloppy" when it comes to rigorous and logical thinking in general. Consequently, loads of people have imbibed great helpings of popular nonsense on a range of subjects, not the least of which being the supposed dichotomy that's said to exist between the "assured results" of the hard sciences (such as mathematics) versus the "tentative opinions" of the soft sciences (such as theology). This rubbish thinking becomes particularly evident when the subject of "truth" is raised and discussed, as it has been of late. Given that most people have never been exposed to the disciplines of philosophy and logic, it's hardly surprising (from my experience) that a good many people are blissfully unaware that many of the beliefs they profess to holding on the issue of truth are often contradictory at best, mutually exclusive as worst! But tell them this and you'd better stand back, as watch them howl!

So what is truth? Is it based on objective reality? Or is truth based on little more than subjective opinion? Can there be, then, such a thing as "my truth", something which can be pitted against "your truth"? Or does "truth" describe something which is absolute? My answers to these perennial questions are: that which corresponds with what is; "yes"; "no"; "no"; and, "of course!"

Having now laid my cards on the table, it might be best to provide a few definitions and a little background info so as to stimulate some thinking, and (hopefully) a little debate.

The issue of "truth" forms the subject of that branch of philosophical and theological enquiry known as epistemology--the theory of knowledge. Questions that underpin this sort of enquiry are foundational: what can be known? How can a thing be known? and so forth. These sorts of questions immediately raise an apparent conflict between objectivism and subjectivism, theories that various kinds of judgment are (respectively) objective, i.e. they pertain to objects, or subjective, i.e. they pertain to subjects (people). For instance, (1) "fish have fins" is an objective claim: its truth or falsity is independent of whatever anyone thinks or feels about the matter. (2) "Raw fish is delicious" is a subjective claim: its truth or falsity isn't independent, and indeed it's arguably neither true nor false. The statement (3) "most Japanese find raw fish delicious, while most Australians don't", is an objective truth or falsehood about subjects.

Now I've just used the words "truth/true" several times without first defining them, and I've even pitted them against their opposites: "falsity/false", again without definition. However, I'd doubt there would be a single reader who violently objected to the way that I used these words in the above paragraph, before pointing the matter out as I'm doing, now! I'd hazard a guess that people simply accepted the use of the word pairs without thinking, as being completely obvious and (dare I say it?), proper! But I'm sure there would be some who'd violently disgree now that I have pointed the matter out!

Philsophically the term "truth" is used to denote a property, one which is also expressed by the truth-predicate "is true". Determining precisely what functions as the "bearers" of truth (and its counterpart, falsity) have historically been narrowed down to three candidates: sentences, statements and propositions. A sentence is a linguistic token or type, such as the string of written words "I like fish". A statement is the assertoric use of a sentence by a speaker on a particular occasion. A proposition is what is asserted when a statement is made, in other words, its "content". Thus two different speakers, or the same speaker on two different occasions, may assert the same proposition by making two different statements, perhaps even using sentences of two different languages. And the same sentence may be used in two different statements to assert two different propositions.

Now, what are commonly referred to as "beliefs" forms what philosophy knows as "propositional attitudes"; consequently, they too can be judged as being either true or false. So the obvious questions become two: is the notion of truth inherently ambiguous? Or is there a primary notion which attaches to just one of these classes of items? Opinions differ, but they seem to fall into one of two broad camps. The division is drawn between those theories of truth which regard truth as a property of representations of some sort (whether linguistic or mental)--including sentences, statements and beliefs; and those which regard truth as a property of propositions, conceived as items represented or expressed in either thought or speech.

The best known theory of truth is commonly known as the "Correspondence Theory". On this view, a candidate for truth is true if, and only if, it "corresponds to the facts". Of course the immediate problem with this is that the notion of the "fact" itself can only be explained in terms of "truth", hence the entire affair becomes rather circular. Almost equally as well known is the "Coherence Theory", which proposes that truth consists in a relation that truth-bearers have to one another, such as a relation of mutual support amongst the beliefs of an individual or a community. Clearly this theory is remarkably subjective, and leads to unacceptable relativism about truth itself. The third most widely known of the many theories is referred to as the "Pragmatic Theory", which urges a connection between what is true and what is useful. Unfortunately, this theory suffers from the failing that the ethics of belief require us to persue the truth with honesty and integrity, even if its consequences should prove detrimental to our well-being. Some modern theorists of the pragmatic tradition (Stephen Stich being a good example), now urge that the truth as such has no cognitive value--that we quite literally shouldn't care whether our beliefs are true or false, but rather whether they help us to achieve more substantive goals such as happiness and well-being!

To change tack a little. Truth can be understood both from what it is, and what it isn't. Of course, as I've indicated, there are many inadequate views on the nature of truth, most resulting from a confusion between the nature of truth and a test of truth, or from not properly distinguishing the result from the rule. The pragmatic theory offers that a statement is known to be true if it brings results. In other words, it's the expedient as confirmed by future experience. Clearly this position is inadequate in that it confuses "cause" from "effect". Simply because somethings works doesn't make it true. Consider our judicial system as an example. The results don't automatically settle the truth question! Similarly, truth isn't that which coheres. Internal consistency (or "coherence") doesn't always prove very much, as empty statements can hang together, even when totally devoid of any truth content. "All wives are married women" seems logical enough, but in fact it tells us nothing about reality. It doesn't tell us that there is such a thing as a wife, simply that if there is a wife, then she must be a married woman. What remains, then? Well, I offer that truth is that which actually corresponds with reality. In other words, truth is that which corresponds to its referent. Falsity, then, is that which doesn't correspond. The "coherence" and "pragmatic" theories only describe tests for truth, they don't (and can't) provide an explanation of the nature of truth itself.

All of this, of course, brings us back full circle--to the issue of objectivism in contrast with subjectivism. To be objective, truth must exist outside the pale of the subjects who would reason concerning its nature or its effects. In the Christian sense, then, truth is equated with God. Something is true, then, not because we deem it to be so, but because God deems it to be so.

Blessings,

Ian

email: didaktikon@gmail.com
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