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The Truth of the Matter

by Michael L. Gurney

Try to think of a world in which we have no concept of truth. This absence of truth would entail that there are no false beliefs as well. Any belief, no matter how obvious or absurd, could be both affirmed and denied. What, then, should be believed or not believed?  And why would it matter, since beliefs could be neither true nor false?  As this thought experiment demonstrates, truth seems necessary if our beliefs are to be meaningful and relevant. Many philosophers, however, question the concept of truth, as it is difficult to determine what truth is and how we can know whether a belief is true. 

Such a quandary is not new. In the New Testament, for example, we read of a climactic dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, in which Pilate asks, “What is truth?”  Whether his question was intended to be purely rhetorical or not, clearly many, including Pilate, questioned the truthfulness of the claims of Jesus and his followers. But if, in fact, Jesus is the divine Messiah who came to redeem humanity as he and his followers proclaimed, then the truth of his identity is profoundly and universally relevant, irrespective of what one believes. As this illustrates, truth is independent of belief. 

A Brief History of Truth

So what is truth? And how do we know whether our beliefs are true? As previously noted, some philosophers question the very notion of truth. This can lead to despair over even the possibility of knowing truth, creating what I call an epistemic crisis of authority (Whom should I believe? What should I believe? Why should I believe anything?). This condition is clearly on display in the ongoing debate over “fake news.” 

A brief survey of historical conceptions of truth will help clarify some of these complexities and controversies as we seek resolution.

Correspondence Theory of Truth

The traditional (and even, to this day, common) understanding of truth is known as the correspondence theory of truth, which can be traced back to Aristotle (and likely earlier). In this conception, truth is simply that which corresponds to reality. What makes a belief true, according to this understanding, is whether the belief accurately reflects reality. This seemingly common-sense conception of truth, while popular, is problematic for some philosophers. How, they ask, does my subjective belief connect with objective reality? 

Coherence Theory of Truth

This difficulty has led to the emergence of two alternative conceptions of truth. The first is the coherence theory of truth in which truth is a function of one’s beliefs being coherent. In other words, a belief is held to be true if it coheres, or is consistent with, one’s other true beliefs. The advantage of this understanding is that one can avoid questions and arguments about whether we can actually perceive or connect with reality. Instead, we can focus on accessible subjective beliefs and whether those beliefs cohere with each other.

The problem with this theory is that the notion of coherence itself seems neither necessary nor sufficient to establish a belief as being true. Witness the existence of coherent fictional narratives: Such narratives can both coherent and purely fictional (i.e., untrue). Perhaps more problematic, this understanding of truth would allow for a plurality of “true” coherent belief systems (even worldviews) that contradict each other, resulting in relativism on a large scale.   

Pragmatic Theory of Truth

Another alternative is the pragmatic theory of truth in which truth is based on what works or is useful. Like the coherence theory, this theory shifts the focus and basis of truth away from knowing objective reality to knowing some quality about the believer relative to their beliefs. In the case of the pragmatic theory, it’s whether a belief turns out to be of some practical benefit or outcome for the believer.

Defining truth by what works or is useful, however, seems ambiguous and susceptible to counterexamples. For example, propaganda, by definition, often mixes false information with facts to promote a particular false perspective (as historically exemplified by the Nazis in 1930s and ’40s Germany). Even so, such propaganda has proven to be quite successful in providing practical benefit to its proponents. But based on the pragmatic conception of truth, such error-laden messages would become “true” in virtue of their practical success and benefit, leaving us with the question, how does practical success define what truth is?

Linguistic Approach to Truth

Because of the problems inherent with competing conceptions of truth, many contemporary philosophers have argued for a linguistic approach to truth. With this approach, truth is less concerned with our beliefs or our reality than with the linguistic and rhetorical use of the word “truth,” often in efforts to persuade others to adopt a particular belief or practice. To apply this to our example of Jesus, we would use the word “truth” in relation to Jesus in order to persuade others to adopt the belief that Jesus is the divine messiah—regardless of whether that belief is historically accurate.

Stated simply, this model posits that truth is not about knowing reality; it’s about understanding how we use language to make sense of our lives. The linguistic approach presupposes that all of our beliefs are merely interpretations of a cognitively inaccessible reality that are profoundly distorted by our subjective experiences and socio-cultural location. In essence, we are trapped in our linguistically and socially constructed realities. Consequently, truth can no longer be considered objective, as that would require the believer to be able to rise above their subjective experiences, beliefs, and culture. In this view, the idea of objective truth is ultimately meaningless.

The Necessity of Objective Truth

Given all these competing and confusing conceptions about truth, how should we think about truth and reality? I think it is telling that even those who question the traditional conception of truth (i.e., the correspondence theory) often find it difficult to be consistent in their own linguistic use and conceptual notions of truth when it comes to trying to live in the reality beyond one’s own beliefs, practices, and uses of language. Our opening thought experiment reveals not only the necessity of truth’s existence but is suggestive about the nature of truth itself. Everyday experience reveals a strong intuition of objective truth being beyond our subjective experiences and beliefs. Even in efforts to deny objective truth, there seems to be an undeniable necessity of objective truth. Take the common claim by those who deny objective truth that “there are no objective truths.” This claim is immediately confronted with a problem of rational consistency. When one claims that “there are no objective truths,” that statement is itself an objective truth claim; the very denial of objective truth is, in effect, self-defeating.

In conclusion, the inability to avoid objective truth claims affirms the necessity of there being at least one objective truth, one that comports with the correspondence understanding of truth. The implications of this truth (pun intended) are both intellectually profound and practically significant, a topic for future examination.   


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