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/