Saturday, December 6, 2008

What is Truth?

What is Truth?
Pilate asked: What is truth? Philosophers from Socrates to the last century answered: Is it absolute? Is it knowable? And does it correspond to a referent or, in the case of metaphysical truth, does it correspond to reality?

The Importance of the Nature of Truth

The nature of truth is crucial to the Christian faith. Not only does Christianity claim there is absolute truth (truth for everyone, everywhere, at all times), but it insists that truth about the world (reality) is that which corresponds to the way things really are. For example, the statement “God exists” means that there really is a God outside the universe, an extracosmic Being. Likewise, the claim that “God raised Christ from the dead” means that the dead corpse of Jesus of Nazareth supernaturally vacated its tomb alive a few days after its burial. Christian truth claims really correspond to the state of affairs about which they claim to inform us.

The Nature of Truth
What Truth is Not… Truth can be understood both from what it is and from what it is not. There are many inadequate views of the nature of truth. Most of these result from a confusion between the nature (definition) of truth and a test (defense) of truth, or from not distinguishing the result from the rule.

Truth is not “what works.” One popular theory is the pragmatic view of William James and his followers that truth is what works. According to James, “Truth is the expedient in the way of knowing. A statement is known to be true if it brings the right results. It is the expedient as confirmed by future experience.” That this is inadequate is evident from its confusion of cause and effect. If something is true it will work, at least in the long run. But simply because something works does not make it true. This is not how truth is understood in court. Judges tend to regard the expedient as perjury. Finally, the results do not settle the truth question. Even when results are in, one can still ask whether the initial statement corresponded to the facts. If it did not, it was not true, regardless of the results.

Truth is not “that which coheres.” Some thinkers have suggested that truth is what is internally consistent; it is coherent and self-consistent. But this too is an inadequate definition. Empty statements hang together, even though they are devoid of truth content. “All wives are married women” is internally consistent, but it is empty. It tells us nothing about reality. The statement would be so, even if there were no wives. It really means, “If there is a wife, then she must be married.” But it does not inform us that there is a wife anywhere in the universe. A set of false statements also can be internally consistent. If several witnesses conspire to misrepresent the facts, their story may cohere better than if they were honestly trying to reconstruct the truth. But it still is a lie. At best, coherence is a negative test of truth. Statements are wrong if they are inconsistent, but not necessarily true if they are.

Truth is not “that which was intended.” Some find truth in intentions, rather than affirmations. A statement is true if the author intends it to be true and false if he does not intend it to be true. But many statements agree with the intention of the author, even when the author is mistaken. “Slips of the tongue” occur, communicating a falsehood or misleading idea the communicator did not intend. If something is true because someone intended it to be true, then all sincere statements ever uttered are true—even those that are patently absurd. Sincere people are often sincerely wrong.

Truth is not “what is comprehensive.” Another idea is that the view that explains the most data is true. And those that are not as comprehensive are not true—or not as true. Comprehensiveness is one test for truth, but not the definition of truth. Certainly a good theory will explain all relevant data. And a true worldview will be comprehensive. However, this is only a negative test of whether it is true. The affirmations of that view must still correspond with the real state of affairs. If a view was true simply because it was more encyclopedic, then a comprehensive statement of error would be true and a digested presentation of truth automatically would be in error. Not all long-winded presentations are true and concise ones are not all false. One can have a comprehensive view of what is false or a superficial or incomplete view of what is true.

Truth is not “what is existentially relevant.” Following Soren Kierkegaard and other existential philosophers, some have insisted that truth is what is relevant to our existence or life and false if it is not. Truth is subjectivity. Kierkegaard said: truth is livable. As Martin Buber stated, truth is found in persons, not in propositions. However, even if truth is existential in some sense, not all truth fits into the existential category. There are many kinds of truth, physical, mathematical, historical, and theoretical. But if truth by its very nature is found only subjectively in existential relevance, then none of these could be truth. What is true will be relevant, but not everything relevant is true. A pen is relevant to an atheist writer. And a gun is relevant to a murderer. But this does not make the former true nor the latter good. A truth about life will be relevant to life. But not everything relevant to one’s life will be true.

Truth is not “what feels good.” The popular subjective view is that truth gives a satisfying feeling, and error feels bad. Truth is found in our subjective feelings. Many mystics and new age enthusiasts hold versions of this faulty view, though it also has a strong influence among some experientially oriented Christian groups. It is evident that bad news can be true. But if what feels good is always true, then we would not have to believe anything unpleasant. Bad report cards do not make a student feel good, but the student refuses to believe them at his or her academic peril. They are true. Feelings are also relevant to individual personalities. What feels good to one may feel bad to another. If so, then truth would be highly relative. But, as will be seen in some detail in the next article, truth cannot be relative.Even if truth makes us feel good—at least in the long run—this does not mean that what feels good is true. The nature of truth does not depend on the result of truth.

What Truth Is: Correspondence with RealityNow that the inadequate views of the nature of truth have been examined, it remains to state an adequate view. Truth is what corresponds to its referent. Truth about reality is what corresponds to the way things really are. Truth is “telling it like it is.” This correspondence applies to abstract realities as well as actual ones. There are mathematical truths. There are also truths about ideas. In each case there is a reality, and truth accurately expresses it. Falsehood, then is what does not correspond. It tells it like it is not, misrepresenting the way things are. The intent behind the statement is irrelevant. If it lacks proper correspondence, it is false.

Arguments for CorrespondenceAll noncorrespondence views of truth imply correspondence, even as they attempt to deny it. The claim: “Truth does not correspond with what is” implies that this view corresponds to reality. Then the noncorrespondence view cannot express itself without using a correspondence frame of reference. If one’s factual statements need not correspond to the facts in order to be true, then any factually incorrect statement is acceptable. It becomes impossible to lie. Any statement is compatible with any given state of affairs. In order to know something is true or false, there must be a real difference between things and statements about the things. But correspondence is the comparison of words to their referents. Hence, a correspondence view is necessary to make sense of factual statements. Communication depends on informative statements. But correspondence to facts is what makes statements informative. All communication ultimately depends on something being literally or factually true.

We cannot even use a metaphor unless we understand that there is a literal meaning over against which the figurative sense is not literal. So, it would follow that all communication depends in the final analysis on a correspondence to truth. The intentionalist theory claims that something is true only if what is accomplished corresponds with what is intended by the statement. Without correspondence of intentions and accomplished facts there is no truth.
Objections to CorrespondenceObjections to the correspondence view of truth come from Christian and non-Christian sources.

When Jesus said “I am the truth” (John 14:6), it is argued that he demonstrated that truth is personal, not propositional. This falsifies the correspondence view of truth, in which truth is a characteristic of propositions (or expressions) which correspond to its referent.But a person, as well as a proposition, can correspond to reality. As the “exact image” of the invisible God (Heb. 1:3), Jesus perfectly corresponds to the Father (John 1:18). He said to Philip, “when you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). So, a person can correspond to another in his character and actions. In this sense, persons can be said to be true, or express the truth. God is truth, yet there is nothing outside of himself to which he corresponds. Yet according to the correspondence view, truth is that which correctly represents reality.

Since God lacks correspondence, this argument goes, the correspondence theory denies that God is true, as the Bible says he is (Rom. 3:4). However, truth as correspondence does relate strongly to God. God’s words correspond to his thoughts. So God is true in the sense that his word can be trusted. God’s thoughts are identical to themselves, a kind of perfect “correspondence.” In this sense, God is true to himself. If truth is understood as what corresponds to another, then in this sense God is not “true.” Rather, he is the ultimate reality and so the standard for truth. Other things may correspond to him in a limited way in order to be called true, not he to them.

The basic fallacy in this objection that God is truth yet not correspondent is that it equivocates in its definitions. If correspondence relates only to something outside oneself, then God cannot be truth, but the ultimate reality to which truth corresponds. If correspondence can also be inside oneself, God corresponds to himself in the most perfect way. He is perfect truth by perfect self-identity. Consider the following fallacious thinking: 1. All who submit to the authority of the Pope are Roman Catholic. 2. But the Pope cannot submit to himself. 3. Therefore, the Pope is not Roman Catholic. The mistake is in the second premise. Contrary to the claim, the Pope can submit to himself. He simply has to follow the rules he lays down for Roman Catholics. Likewise, God can and does live in accord with his own authority. In this sense he is true to himself.

The following information is from Norman Geisler- Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2007. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group-

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