Saying what is true about truth

Ystein asked:

What is truth?

Almost every sentence one makes is an assertion. For example, the previous one. I can’t seem to avoid making such sentences. When asking some people, they find the question easy… ‘something is true when it corresponds to reality’. But, what does it mean that something is ‘real’? Am I not saying, when I for instance propose a law of physics, that it is true it is real? And what is reality really? The sum of all truths?

While I somehow find comfort in the fact that the shower has warm water, it simultaneously holds no ‘meaning’ to me. Yes it is true that it is warm, but what does it matter, this truth? Why am I so eager to know what is ‘true’ and not in this world? Why do I feel proud when people say it is true I am a great person?

I understand the value in the things that are assigned the truth values themselves. I can appreciate ‘warm’ and ‘happy’. But I am lately feeling strange about statements like ‘exercising is good for you.’

Anyway, I do believe a bit of careful reading is needed to understand this question, and it is nearly nonunderstandable. To say what is true about truth is a tough job.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You’ve got the main point of this: ‘every sentence one makes [i.e. states] is an assertion’. To say that we are puzzled by truth is to say that we are puzzled by each and every act of assertion, including humdrum examples like, ‘The shower is warm,’ ‘My coffee is cold’, ‘Cows have four legs’, ‘Ask a Philosopher was launched in 1999’, ‘David Cameron had a boiled egg for breakfast this morning.’

The odd-one out for me is the sentence referring to David Cameron. I don’t know whether it is true or not. It might be. But then again, Do I know, absolutely for certain, that cows have four legs? Couldn’t I be wrong? Or couldn’t I be wrong about the date Ask a Philosopher was launched? (don’t I need to check? but how carefully? what would be sufficient to confirm that the date is the one I gave?).

As you can see, discussions of truth easily get bogged down in sceptical considerations. But this does confuse things, from a philosophical standpoint. The lazy assumption people tend to make here is that scepticism undermines our grasp on the concept of truth. But actually, the reverse is the case. To say that I don’t know, e.g., what David Cameron had for breakfast assumes that there is an answer to that question. It is either true or false that David Cameron had a boiled egg for breakfast this morning.

But suppose I’d asked instead what was David Cameron’s first thought when he woke up? Does he even know for sure? He’s a busy man, with lots of things to think about. He might have forgotten. Now, if I ask that question, does that question HAVE an answer too, even if no-one can ever know for certain what that answer is?

This is the problem of realism, which connects with the ‘correspondence theory of truth’ which you refer to. The correspondence theory looks like something that one would appeal to in defence of realism — in defence of the idea that questions which we are unable to answer nevertheless ‘have’ an answer in reality — but when you look more closely, it becomes apparent that the correspondence theorist is merely uttering a tautology.

For example, David Cameron’s first thought was about the strength of the Pound, if and only the statement, ‘David Cameron’s first thought was about the strength of the Pound’ corresponds to the facts. Which fact, exactly? Well, the fact that David Cameron’s first thought was about the strength of the Pound! What kind of answer were you expecting?!

A British philosopher who has contributed more than anyone else to the debate about realism is Michael Dummett, who died last week. According to the Guardian, Dummett was ‘one of the greatest British philosophers of the 20th century’. You can read his obituary here:

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