As a lover of philosophy, I often think about truth. But I was at a party on Friday night and a colleague asked me exactly what I mean by “truth”. Suddenly, I couldn’t explain what I meant!
What is truth? By age five you had heard the word and probably even used it. Now as an adult, it’s difficult to (non-circularly) explain what “truth” refers to. In this blog, I’ll teach you three ways to think about Truth/Falsity of statements, then talk about two distinct types of truths. Finally, we’ll consider a truth that adds meaning to daily life and enriches your closest relationships.
Truth and Falsity
So your friend calls and says excitedly she’ll come pick you up in her new car. She shows up in a used 2008 Camry. You’re slightly miffed because you were expecting something 2018 or more recent (you got out of bed on a Sunday for this?!)
“I thought you said you got a new car,” you say casually, not wanting to hurt her feelings.
“Well, that’s the truth – it’s new to me!” she replies. “And it’s a 2008, but only has 5,000 kilometers on it! That IS new!”
Question: When your friend says that her car is new, is she making a false statement, or a true statement? There are many real life cases in which truth and falsity are unclear.
Three Theories of Truth
1. Correspondence Theory of Truth
Most of us can’t put into words what “truth” means. When pressed, we might resort to saying that:
Something is true when it describes something in the world accurately. There’s no disagreement with what we see in reality and what the sentence describes.
This is a commonplace definition of truth. In correspondence theory of truth, we talk of a possible relationship between a sentence and reality (what is). This relationship is one of corresponding, or “matching up”. When a sentence “matches up” with reality, it’s true. When any part of the sentence doesn’t match up, then the sentence is false.
Sounds good, right? It’s intuitive and favored by philosophers and simple folk alike. But the problem is…
What about mathematical truths? Consider the sentences:
Every triangle has three sides.
1+1 is always 2.
The square root of 4 is 2.
I’m not sure if anyone’s told you this, but you’ve only ever seen specific triangles and you’ve never seen “1”. Show me the truth of every triangle has three sides and you’ve only drawn me a several instances of triangles. Put a glass in either of my hands to show me that I now have two glasses, and you’ve only shown me that one glass plus one glass means two glasses. I guarantee that you can’t draw me a picture of what a square root means.
These are examples of abstract sentences. They refer to abstract concepts, not objects in reality. It’s this kind of abstract concept that makes it hard to describe truth as “matching up” with reality. For this reason, philosophers came up with…
2. Coherence Theory of Truth
Imagine a complex spider web. The spider sits in the center, and no matter where a fly lands, he feels the vibration and rushes to enjoy his meal. The coherence theory of truth is like a giant web of all the things you believe:
Coherence is like a series of interconnected sentences related to each other through multiple paths. When a sentence is considered, it causes a “vibration” through all the other sentences. The new sentence is true when it fits and false when it doesn’t fit. If it doesn’t fit, you might consider adding it anyways, and getting rid of some other sentences instead.
Coherence theory is very good at handling abstract conceptual truths such as the mathematical truths, especially those that correspondence theory can’t handle. 1+1=2 is true because it fits well with a lot of other things we know – like one glass and one glass yields two glasses. A triangle always has three sides fits well with the knowledge that every triangle you’ve seen actually has only three sides. The sentences are true because they “cohere” (coordinate, collaborate, accumulate) well.
You might want to become a coherentist – your friend with the “new” car is. Her sentence that her car is new coheres well with a set of other sentences such as “New means in an unaltered state,” and “New is always relative to a subject”.
The problem with coherentism is that it doesn’t always “match up” with reality. “Truth” arises only out of relations of sentences. I asked a colorblind friend to draw me a rainbow. He picked pencil crayons (without looking at the names) and drew me,
For most of us, a rainbow is RED-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-INDIGO-Violet. But how can we argue with him – in his world, red, brown, and purple are indistinguishable. Red is not a true colour for him, but there certainly is a red color in reality. But from a coherentist theory of truth, we have different sets of beliefs that are equally coherent, and therefore, equally true. Hearing this, you might wonder about a…
3. Pragmatist Theory of Truth
Whatever works is best. Pragmatism uses human goals as the reference for whether a sentence is true or false. If you’re into woo-woo, high-vibe, law of attraction stuff, you’ve probably used morning mantras. A mantra is a sentence about yourself that you want to be true and you repeat it over and over, so that somehow it “manifests” and becomes true over time. It might not be true to begin with, but putting yourself in a head-space where it is already true seems like a good start for making it true in reality. Pragmatism favors holding these kind of truths, so that
truth is what improves human lives and helps us achieve a desired outcome.
Whether you believe mantras actually work, there are a few problems with pragmatist theories of truth. One is the emptiness of stating that a sentence is true, when you know it doesn’t match reality and doesn’t fit very well with your other non-voluntary beliefs. If you know that you’re socially awkward, telling yourself that you’re socially very confident just doesn’t feel truthful. Human beings are drawn to truth, so it feels strange to try to believe something you know isn’t true (even if it will start to make it true). And what about beliefs that have no use, but nonetheless we regard as true? “The pigeon outside my house is grey,” is a sentence that is true but meaningless to me at the moment.
Truth and Knowledge
So far, I discussed three major theories of truth: correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic. With that foundation, we’ll try to get closer to truth by talking about types of knowledge: Acquaintance and Description.
Knowledge by Description
The three theories of truth I just discussed are all about sentences, propositions, phrases, thoughts, and words. In one sense, knowledge is a true sentence and can be relayed to us by others. We try to relay facts about reality or relationships and by putting them into sentences that reflect that reality or those relationships. A true sentence is a description of some kind of experience.
Knowledge by Acquaintance
Underlying every description is an experience made up of sense perceptions, emotions, and my attitude. “The peach was sweet” is a description of an experience that I know to be true because I directly tasted a specific peach’s flavour. My acquaintance with my own perception was pure and true. My description to you is, however, far removed from my perception. Description results from cognitive processing such as discerning, judging, sorting, categorizing and imagining, and then choosing the correct words.
Exactly how sweet was the peach? You’ll never know. My perception revealed a true experience to me, but now that experience is impossible to accurately describe in a sentence.
The point is, we can’t describe the immediate knowledge of acquaintance. Whenever we try to describe it, we introduce some error. That is, we let in falsity.
It seems that knowledge by acquaintance is the only unadulterated truth, and yet we can’t describe it – we can only feel it.
Why bother with Truth? Because Truth Feels Good.
Some people use the word truth when they describe an experience.
- An artist paints his truth
- A piece of music elicits an insightful feeling about reality
- Meditation reveals the true nature of reality
If you’ve ever experienced any of the above, you’ll agree that it feels good to experience this sense of truth. The moment of gaining acquisitional knowledge – gaining access to truth – can be powerful. We do not need others to tell us that truth is meaningful and valuable.
What is it about these experiences that makes them true experiences? Well, let’s refer back to where error enters, at the level of description. Anytime you attempt to judge, describe, concretize, sort, categorize, or use words, you create a degree of error. Thinking (cognitive processes) creates descriptive error.
A Suggestion for How to Experience more Truth
To have true experiences, we need to be fully present and engaged with our experience. We must be free of judgment of the present moment in order to gain that very powerful and awe-inducing feeling of truth. Art, music, meditation and mindfulness practice are ways to gain true experiences. But a far simpler and easier way is to love.
In being in a loving relationship, we are involved in mutual acceptance and non-judgment. We can relax and confidently be who we are, open and at ease. Facilitated by the other person’s presence, we can be present, in other words fully absorbed in what we are doing, when we are doing it. Tantric teachers advocate sex as a method of reaching a clear view of truth, a.k.a. enlightenment. But the moment doesn’t need to be sex; we can be fully present with our loved one in a conversation, in sitting together, or eating a meal together. The key is mutual non-judgmental and totally acceptance, which includes allowing another person to feel this way about you. By engaging fully in relationships, you can enjoy more totally present moments by which you access experiential truths.
Critical Thinking Questions:
- Regarding the truth and falsity of sentences, which theory of truth seems better to you? Correspondence, coherence, or pragmatic?
- Do you think that we can say true things about math? How do you know that 1+1=2 if you’ve never seen it?
- Have you ever had a disagreement with someone in which you just didn’t “see eye to eye”? You thought you were 100% correct and they did, too. Did you come to a conclusion – one person’s Truth overcame the other person’s – or did you have to agree to disagree?
- Have you ever had a moment that seemed surreal? What was different about that reality?
- Have you ever had a feeling that felt true in a very powerful way? What were you doing at the time and how were you doing it?
- How can two people help each other grow and experience Truth?