Preamble: In this series of essays that I will write over the next several weeks/months, I will undertake a multipronged journey investigating what is true in (all) the philosophical sense of the word. As such, I will be touching on the philosophy of the mind, science, and the like. The journey begins with a brief review of the classical theories of truth.
“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false; while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true.” I didn’t say that Aristotle did, and what do I think? I think that is true. Perhaps that should be the end of this essay; I should stop writing and get back to the piece of software I was writing or, better still, play soccer; however, one could only wish that life is more straightforward.
First, let’s battle an assumption head-on, does truth exist? And what do I think? I think our intuition can guard us here: there is a truth about anything that we can conceive – there has to be a judgment on that thing. And a correct assessment leads us to the truth. And what is correct? Correct is that which is right. And friends, I hope we won’t start a quarrel at this point.
However, if we intend to quarrel, how do we even begin to show that truth does not exist. To show that truth doesn’t exist, one will have to effectively show – or at least – argue for the existence of a truth, namely that ‘truth doesn’t exist.’
Anywhere you are standing on the field, the battle is lost – the existence of truth is axiomatic.
And what can we say about the truth? Perhaps we should start with a coherence theory of truth. For coherence, the trueness of a proposition is nested in other propositions. That is, when an idea coheres, it does so in a system of belief, as opposed to correspondence theory that claims to check ideas against reality (more on this later). And, of course, coherence theory is vulnerable at first sight: what is the validity of the other propositions in which it is nested? Wittgenstein gives a smacking objection: “If what seems right is right, that just means we can’t talk about right.”
Next is the correspondence theory. It dictates that what is true is that which corresponds to what is. For the first ‘what is,’ we mean thoughts/words; for the second – reality. But then, what does it mean to match, especially when we have multifarious realities: law, science, ethics, mathematics, art. Are we to take a detour and speak to a theory of matching? And what tells us that we are making contact with reality? Isn’t this an assumption? Whether you think too much of these philosophical objections or not, it is a prevalent theory of truth.
One more, and then perhaps I wrap this up – pragmatism. It says what is true is that which works – is that which is useful. However, that which is false could be useful, and that which is true might be far from useful. As a manner of examples: it might be useful for you to think of yourself as the smartest folk in the room, but that doesn’t make you one, if in fact (now appealing to correspondence theory) you are not. Likewise, of what use is the time – to the last millisecond – that I slept yesterday night.
Next, can we know the truth? Perhaps we can, and perhaps we can’t. Even worse, perhaps we can’t know if we can know the truth. But then we have to decide what to believe, as we have got no options if we are to live a sane life.
And to prevent some complications that could emanate from defining truth, one could also take a semantic deflationary stance on truth. If I say “the dolphin is dark,” and then I quickly added an alternate statement: “It is true that the dolphin is dark.” With just a couple of seconds of meditation on the two statements mentioned above, you might begin to feel very uneasy. What is the ‘true’ in the second statement doing? You might want to know. Just hanging around?
Alas, a deflationist will argue, the concept of truth isn’t very useful, we can only speak about truth when we talk about the particular. If you are in this group, there is plenty to talk about in this series.