April 26, 2017

About truth

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, April 27, 2017

About truth

“Is Truth Dead?” asks Time magazine’s recent cover. Apparently, in view of our so-called “post-truth” culture, this is a rhetorical question.

But before we pronounce on the death of truth, perhaps we should identify the alleged victim. Our first question should be “What is truth?”

Two thousand years ago, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate famously asked this question of Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate, however, didn’t seem interested in waiting for an answer.

Without entering into the deep theological/ philosophical waters of what Jesus meant by claiming to be The Truth (let’s call this capital T truth) it might be helpful today to get clear on the ordinary notion of truth: truth with a lower case t.

When contemporary philosopher Francis Beckwith was asked “What is truth?” he promptly replied: “Do you want the true answer or the false one?”

Beckwith’s answer is both humorous and insightful. The humor in Beckwith’s answer disarms us while revealing, almost glaringly, that we already know what truth is. Truth is telling it like it is. (Yes, journalists and politicians, please take note.)

The concept of truth Beckwith helps us intuit isn’t anything new. Aristotle understood truth similarly when he wrote, “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, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Read Aristotle’s words again, slowly. Don’t let the fact that none of Aristotle’s words has more than five letters escape your notice, and don’t let this fact take away from the profundity of the words. The commonsensical, garden-variety understanding of truth that Beckwith and Aristotle set out is what philosophers call the Correspondence View of Truth.

In other words (longer words I’m afraid), on the correspondence view of truth, truth is a condition or state of affairs that exists when a statement of what is the case is the case. That a claim or proposition is true means it corresponds with or accurately represents what is the case in reality.

Falsity, on the other hand, is a condition or state of affairs that exists when a statement of what is the case is not the case. Lies are deliberate falsehoods, that is, lies are falsehoods intentionally presented as truths.

A corollary of the correspondence view of truth is that, as contemporary philosopher J. P. Moreland points out, “Reality makes thoughts true or false.”

I would add that reality can also make feelings true or false. For example, when an all-too-thin woman with anorexia nervosa feels she is fat and requests liposuction, we rightly think she is mistaken in fact. (Also, I dare say, when a man feels he is a woman and requests sex-change surgery, we can rightly think he is mistaken in fact, too.)

Sure, we don’t know everything (we are not God) and our knowledge of the things we know isn’t exhaustive or infallible (again, we are not God).

And sure, we are sometimes or even often deceived.

Nevertheless, to know we are sometimes or often deceived requires knowledge of sometimes or often not being deceived.

Happily, by careful examination of evidence and careful reasoning therefrom we can know when a claim is false or someone is lying.

Truth is not dead, folks. Rather, we have to liven up our investigative efforts to pursue it.

Perhaps the love of truth is dead.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)

Further reading on truth: 

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