Getting straight about truth

Louiza asks:

How will you characterize the nature of truth based on the theories of truth?

Can you say that there is no objective truth, but there are relative truths? Why or why not?

If you could choose to resolve a problem case or respond to a criticism made against a theory of truth, which problem would it be and why?

Reply by Craig Skinner

Ah, truth. Witnesses swear to tell it, philosophers seek it, journalists expose it, politicians hide it, Jesus said he was it. But what is it?

First, an analysis of truth is not usually concerned with truth as in true love, true grit, true friend or arrows flying straight and true. It is about truth as a property of statements (or sentences, propositions, or utterances, I wont deal with the subtleties of which is best). So, a statement is true if it states a fact, if what it says is correct. For instance, “Paris is the capital of France” is true because Paris is the capital of France. What makes it true is that it corresponds to the facts, to the way things are. This correspondence theory is the best one in my view. There are others. The coherence theory which says a statement is true if it coheres with others accepted as true. The trouble with this is that a consistent body of untrue statements could count as a body of truth. Pragmatic theories say that truth is what is ultimately generally accepted. But this gets the cart before the horse. The reason something gets generally accepted is because it is true (I exclude brainwashing and lying propaganda). Redundancy theories say there is no interesting property of truth, we dont need the idea: after all, it is said,  what does “is true” add in the statement ” ‘Snow is white’ is true” over and above just “Snow is white”. But I stick with the correspondence theory, and answer your first question thus: truth is the property of a statement that entails the fact (purportedly) stated.

To turn now to whether truth is objective. The answer is yes. It depends on the facts, the way the world is,  not on my opinion or how I feel about things. As to whether truth is relative, the answer is also yes, but we must take care to be clear as to exactly what we mean by this. Philosophers, as truth-seekers, bristle at relativism. The prospect of something being true for me but not for you, no fixed truth just different interpretations, of nothing being true period, is alarming. But this is not what it means for truth to be relative. It is always relative to some context. This is easiest to show by examples.

“My favourite treat is a glass of cold white wine” is true in the context of individual preference (not true for my wife who prefers chocolate).

“It is acceptable to leave corpses of your departed loved ones out for the birds to eat” is true in the context of traditional Jain culture.

“Paris is the capital of France” is true in the context of the actual world. But it might have been otherwise (Avignon say) so it is a contingent truth.

“2+2=4” is true in the context of all possible worlds. It couldnt be otherwise, it is a necessary truth.

As to resolving a problem or responding to a criticism, I would like to avoid technical problems, such as what does falsity correspond to in the correspondence theory, or whether Tarski’s disquotational formula implies a correspondence or a redundancy theory. Instead I would choose to defend the notion of objective truth as something we should seek, proclaim, and defend against those who would hide, deny or twist it for their own ends.

Finally, I have assumed truth is bivalent (a meaningful statement is either true or false) as in classical logic. Logicians have formulated alternatives, such as trivalent (true, false, indeterminate) or polvalent (many degrees of truth, fuzzy logic) but these are irrelevant to everyday living and to most of philosophy. Similarly some statements appear to be both true and not true (“This statement is not true” for instance) and alternative logics can take this into account, but again this need not detain us here.

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