Truth

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And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.

—George Orwell, 1984

One slim silver lining in the dark, towering cloud of recent events is a new respect for truth. People – even liberals – have in the past tended to be rather cavalier about this notion. Now, in light of lies and errors writ large on the world stage, we realized that truth matters.

I ask my philosophy students to define truth by filling in the following open sentence.

A statement (or belief) is true if and only if ….

They give answers that boil down to the following.

(1) ….if and only if I believe it.

(2) … everyone (or most people) believe it.

(3) …it can be proved.

(4) …it matches reality. (Only one or two in each class come up with this.)

And then we go through these and discover (with only the smallest prodding from me) that (1) (2) and (3) are incorrect. Obviously there are tons of things that I once believed that I now know are false – e.g., Santa Claus exists. Same for you. So, (1) is incorrect. There was a time (long time) when everyone who thought about it believed that the earth was stationary. They were wrong. The earth didn’t chug into motion in the fifteenth century. So, (2) is incorrect. There are pairs of statements: e.g. “Julius Caesar had type A+ blood.” And “Julius Caesar did not have type A+ blood” neither of which can be proven, but one of which must be true. Also perhaps more interestingly “God exists” and “God does not exist.” So, (3) is incorrect.

How about (4)? Well, I kinda like (4) although I would express it slightly differently:

A statement is true if and only if things are the way the statement says they are (were, will be – for past and future tense statements). It’s hard to find a counterexample to that one.

My students sometimes complain: “But (4) is circular.”

No, it’s not. It would be circular if it used the word “true” to define truth but it doesn’t do that. It uses words which mean the same as truth but that’s not circular. If you define a square as a figure with four equal sides and a right angle, your definition is not circular.

“But (4) is useless.”

Well, not exactly. It gives some pretty simple advice. If you want to know whether your statement is true, go look at the world – look at the things you are talking about – go see if ships fall off the edge of the horizon, go explore the heavens to find out whether the earth moves, go look for miracles and religious experiences and good theistic arguments if you want to know whether God exists.

“But in many cases we can’t find out whether (4) applies.”

Absolutely. But that’s because we are small, imperfect creatures. Why should we expect to know all the truths? Why should we expect a definition of truth to give us an algorithm for telling in each case whether a statement is true? That would be a miracle in itself and worth a lot to someone playing the stock market.

There are complications of course. Some statements are ambiguous. In some cases there may well be no matching reality. (Some people think moral claims are like this.) But that doesn’t refute my (and Aristotle’s) favorite definition. It just means that we have to clarify what we mean and recognize that some statements are false and their denials are false too.

The main complaint my students have about (4) is that it is boring. They were hoping for something sexier. Well, so be it. It’s better to be boring than wrong.

But I find something appealing about it. Truth is what really happened. Exactly how many people were on that mall. Exactly what he was thinking when he claimed that his victory was the biggest. Exactly what will happen when we repeal the ACA. Even if truth sometimes eludes our investigative powers, it is worth pursuing.

Author’s bio: Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University. She has published short stories at Cirque,Everyday Fiction, Wordhaus, Oxford Magazine, and Short Fiction Break (first place contest winner). When not writing philosophy or fiction, she enjoys spending time with her husband and twin teenage sons, walking, reading, playing chess and watching Shakespeare. Find her work here: https://franceshowardsnyder.wordpress.com/fiction/

9 Responses to “Truth”

  1. Frances Howard-Snyder
  2. Carol McMillan

    When there is corroborating evidence without contradicting data. p<.001.

    Reply
    • Frances Howard-Snyder

      Just kidding about that last reply.
      The challenge was to complete the if and only if open sentence — i.e., to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for truth.
      So, it seems to me that there are truths that do no satisfy your definition. e.g., imagine a court case where there is lots of evidence pointing in both directions. e.g. there are eye witness statements supporting the claim that Carol committed the murder, but other evidence pointing in the other direction, e.g., Carol’s fingerprints are not on the knife, but Laura’s are; Carol is left-handed and the murder was almost certainly done by a right-handed person.
      Presumably there is a truth about who committed the murder, even though the evidence is mixed.
      You might also imagine a case where all the evidence points in one direction — because a clever and nasty mob mastermind has framed you, say — but the evidence is all false.
      In that case, you might have a case of corroborating evidence without contradicting data which is false.

      Reply
  3. Marian Exall

    Bravo! You ground us in the real world when it is so tempting to retreat into our bubble (response number 1).

    Reply
    • Frances Howard-Snyder

      Thanks, Marian. Yes, I am reminded of all the students who say that they are entitled to their opinion, and who am I (or anyone else) to tell them what to think, and that this or other thing is “true for me” so that’s good enough.
      “True for me” is one of my serious bugbears.

      Reply
  4. Sean Dwyer

    Great example of how to find truth. Thanks, Frances!

    Reply
  5. Nancy

    Well, you surprised this former philosophy student with this one. I was going for #3. But I don’t mind being proven wrong if it is in the name of truth. Good blog, Frances. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    Reply
    • Frances Howard-Snyder

      Hi Nancy,
      Thanks for your comment. I know that people are often dismayed by my dissing on (3) because proof is so important. I think it is very important and I think a concern for proof (or evidence generally) will improve one’s ratio of true to false beliefs, but I also think we shouldn’t define truth in terms of proof. (“Knowledge” is a different matter.)
      frances

      Reply

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