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.

Socrates a decadent?

Christine asked:

In his essay The Birth of Tragedy Fredrick Nietzsche has some fairly negative comments to make about Socrates. Based on Socrates’ Ideas do you think that Nietzsche’s remarks are fair and balanced?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Birth of Tragedy.

Within nature, there are two forces: The Appolinian and the Dionysian. The former gives form (Principium Individuationis) to nature, creating objects in the world and the world itself – including distinct human beings. The Dionysian is, following the insights of Arthur Schopenhauer in his The World as Will and Representation, the endless striving creative and destructive Will of nature that lies behind the appearance/ illusion of the Appolinian. The Dionysian is important for Nietzsche as it plays an important role in Hellenic culture, it furnishes Tragic art, Tragedy.

It is here, in states of heightened human experience reached in singing or dancing, Apollinian form breaks down. Dionysian revelry particularly in the Satyr chorus – melts the Appollinian Principium Individuationis. Accordingly, separate, individual human beings become at one in the Primal Unity (Ur-eine). The death of heroes such as Oedipus, reminds the participants of the terrible nature of the Dionysian, of the transient quality of life and the illusion of the Principium Individuationis. In such states, humans are identical with each other and, identical with Dionysian nature. Concepts and symbols germane to the Appollinian realm dissolve before the felt intensity of the Dionysian achieved by chourus, by music. There is a shared unity reminding each and all that eventually, we will each and all return to the Primal Oneness.

This is important for Nietzsche as it is by means of Tragic art and music that the essence of nature is experienced. Its conclusions are that life is terrible and yet, according to Nietzsche, the pre-Socratic Greeks celebrated and affirmed this. This is an act of primal, instinctive strength in the face of the absurd and the terrible.


“The irreverent idea that the great sages are types of decline first occurred to me precisely in a case where it is most strongly opposed by both scholarly and unscholarly prejudice I realized that Socrates and Plato were symptoms of degeneration, tools of the Greek dissolution, pseudo-Greek, anti-Greek (Birth of Tragedy, 1872). The consensus of the sages — I recognized this ever more clearly — proves least of all that they were right in what they agreed on: it shows rather that they themselves, these wisest men, shared some physiological attribute, and because of this adopted the same negative attitude to life — had to adopt it.” (Nietzsche. The Problem of Socrates. Twilight of the Idols)

For Nietzsche, Socrates and Plato, heralded as the great founders of Western Philosophy were on the contrary, representatives of physiological degeneration. Physiological degeneration is that state when the drives of a human being, or a collection of human beings are disaggregated, are in a state of chaos. This lowers the coherency and effectivity of Will to Power (which is inherent to each drive) leaving beings exhausted, weary of life: reactive. In a healthy human being, says Nietzsche, the drives are ordered hierarchically with the strongest drives/will to power marshalling and incorporating the weaker ones in its service. This provides for optimum will to power, provides for a strong, healthy, affirmative being/s. Valuations are expressive of the reactive/affirmative states respectively. If the drives are in chaos -’anarchy of the drives/will to power’ ensues with corresponding values of decline, exhaustion.

Nietzsche’s contention is that Socrates and Plato displayed such physiological degeneration and, like the slaves of the so-called slave revolt, need a panacea to address their degeneration. (see Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality) For the slaves, the panacea is Ressentiment. For Socrates and Plato, it is Reason/Nous. Yet their cure has led life awry, its has allowed errors to be taken for truths, for the earth and life to be devalued and the otherworldly to be valued more highly. This obsession with ‘Reason’ has been detrimental and misleading. (see ‘Reason In Philosophy, et alibi Twilight of the Idols). Subsequent thinkers follow on and endorse this trajectory: as A.N. Whitehead is said to have remarked ‘Western Philosophy is but footnotes to Plato…’ and Nietzsche cites the source of this mistake as lying primarily with Socrates.

Western Philosophy inverts the Earth and human life in seeking the meaning of it all as lying beyond it: in the Forms, in God and Heaven, in Thinking substance distinct from physical body yet able to access the Truth by means of Natural Reason and so on. Naturalism is neglected in preference for Metaphysics. Metaphysical system after Metaphysical system is constructed with no apparent progress made, as Kant highlighted with his own solution to the problem of Metaphysics.

Further, Nietzsche contends that such ideas have been harmful as they have prevented human beings from becoming greater than they actually are. This for Nietzsche, would be an Aristocratic society with everyone contented in their social position; mirroring his physiological view of the body informed by respective, hierarchical levels of Will to Power, as mentioned above. Noblesse Oblige… Instead, decadent inspired ideas have been hegemonic for over two thousand years suppressing difference, suppressing the expression of life with the prescriptins of ressentiment fuelled levelling. Natural instincts have been condemned as ‘Evil’ and wrong. Timidity, inhibition, the negation of natural life and strength (not to be conflated with the physical) is valued as ‘Good’ by the influence of ressentiment fuelled morality. He clearly attributes the influence of Socrates as significantly contributing to this. Hence Nietzsche strong disapprobation in The Birth of Tragedy and elsewhere.

Of course, Nietzsche is valuing Socrates from the standpoint of his own Philosophy. Nietzsche’s Philosophy — particularily his theories of Evolution and Physiology — is questionable, as I’ve written elsewhere:

Yet, he is not alone on revaluating the value of Reason. The value and consequences of ‘Reason’ has been evaluated and critiqued by other Philosophers such as Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Martin Heidegger. The latter who ironically, referred to Nietzsche as the ‘last Metaphysician’…

How enlightened was the Enlightenment?

Alireza asked:

Could you explain the following sentences (especially the last one)?

I have problem understanding them:

The Enlightenment project, writes David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity, ‘took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question. From this it followed that the world could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and represent it rightly. But this persumed a single mode of representation which, if we could uncover it… would provide the means to Enlightenment ends.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Enlightenment project took it as given, that that Reason, when applied correctly, would arrive at the correct conclusion. If this is so, then it follows that the world becomes knowable. If knowable, it -including human beings- are subject to control and manipulation. This would be Enlightenment: a condition free of error, illusion and irrationality.

The Enlightenment or project of Modernity, endeavoured to make existence a knowable, holistic, homogeneous totality. Knowledge is ‘a mirror of nature’, accurately representing or reflecting ‘how things are’. According to Post-Modernist criticism, there are many modernist narratives which claim to achieved this and which, clearly disagree with each other. (hence ‘if we could uncover it…’ in line 5). How paradoxical. Moreoever, the project of a total, Grand Narrative furnishes the road to repression and tyranny; for that which is different to the Identity of the Truth (Identitarianism), be it otherness, alterity or indeed, difference, is to be devalued.

Secondly, real-ity tends to be a process of flux and not a settled causa finalis. This is evident in the works of Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault. So an end to history is, according to such thinkers, highly undesirable as it is unlikely.

Thirdly, Post-Modernism has never been about an inane relativism, as many critics allege. It is, as Richard Rorty and Jean Francois Lyotard might maintain, the (temporary) ascendency of one language game amongst many. The very conditions of lived social life can reveal why this is the case.

Finally, as the early Nietzsche might maintain, the superfetation of Reason might not be the panacea for the human condition. Human emotions with their appreciation and gratification in Music, Art and the very mystery of life itself, cannot be understood nor captured by Reason, as the Enlightenment has hoped.

Hope this is of use Alireza.

What is duty and what is instinct?

Brigette asked:

What is the difference between acting out of duty and acting out of instinct?

Answer by Paul Fagan

There may be no difference in the actual actions performed, but deontologists, as one example, may make a distinction based upon the motivations causing such actions. In order to demonstrate a distinction we may accept the deontological standpoint that persons should be treated as ‘ends’ and not ‘means’, and we should consciously act out this proposition in our daily lives.

For instance, if you saw someone starving in the street then you may have, what we may call, an instinctive reaction to help this person and you may buy her some food: this is a comprehensible response if we consider human beings to be entities who have evolved in groups and who instinctively wish to help other members of society. Although you may think that you have acted dutifully, here the problem for some deontologists may be that they do not consider it to be a dutiful act as you were not conscious of performing a duty.

Contrast this first situation with a second situation. You may see a person starving in the street and you may experience, what we may again call an instinctive reaction, but this time to avoid helping the person: as you feel that the person in question has not done enough to help herself and remedy the predicament she now experiences. Again this is a comprehensible response if we accept that people often learn the reactions they experience form their host society. However,  if you treat this person as an ‘end’ and buy some food for her, as you are consciously aware that you should do your duty, then the hardened deontologist would be more likely to consider your actions as being dutiful.

Although a duty may coincide with an instinct as in the first instance, the deontologist may claim that the second instance more truly demonstrates what comprises a duty.

The internet provides much food for thought concerning ‘duty’, but for further reading a good place to start would be a very readable article by the BBC entitled ‘Duty-based ethics’ ( And should this have whetted your appetite, then the reader may like to move on to the more comprehensive ‘Kant’s Moral Philosophy’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

Utilitarianism and moral choices

Chrisie asked:

Utilitarianism weighs the moral worth of actions based entirely upon the amount of pleasure (or pain reduction) that results. Outcomes, or the consequences of actions are the determining factor of morality and not the intention of the person before (or even while) the act is being performed. Discuss whether a moral position that is entirely based on evaluating the consequences of actions provides an adequate foundation for making moral choices. Is more needed or not?

Answer by Peter Jones

Utilitarianism is not so one-sided as it might appear. If we act to increase the well-being of others then this will require assessing the outcomes of our actions and attempting to maximise their benefit to others. We are basing our action on predicted future outcomes but those actions are motivated by good intentions right now. If our actions have counter-productive consequences, as is so often the case for well-intended actions,  then it remains the case that they were well-motivated and will be defensible on the ‘day of judgement’ if there is to be such a thing.

The problem is that we cannot know which actions will be beneficial or harmful unless we have a thorough grasp of how the world works. Very rarely does anyone have a grasp of this so we have to make do with guesswork. Our idea of what will benefit someone else may therefore be utterly wrong.  For instance, if we give money to a beggar they may use it to kill themselves with heroin or to to buy a meal and improve their health. If we don’t know which it is going to be then out outcome-based decision procedure runs into trouble.

So I would say no, utilitarianism is not an adequate method for decision-making but is just one aspect of the procedure. We would help others more by pursuing a thorough understanding of ‘life, the universe and everything’ for without this we will be a bull-in-a-china-shop causing havoc by trying to be helpful. in the same way, we do not perform heart-surgery on others to save lives before we have had a medical training. Our intentions might be good but our reasoning would be ridiculous.

Utilitarianism is what ethics is all about since it is for the sake of its outcomes that we perform ethical actions. But what would we say of someone who with the best of intentions helps an old lady across the road without first checking that she wants to cross it? Our ethical responsibility must include coming to an understanding of the situation.

So utilitarianism will always be a factor in our decision-making but it describes only a part of the process. If we are ill-informed then we are not able to assess the utility of our actions.  Hence in mysticism and much of religion it would be for their utility that we perform ethical acts but our global ethical responsibility would be the acquisition of knowledge, selflessness and compassion in order that our ethical acts may be effective. If we ignore these areas of practice and knowledge then we can be as well-meaning as we like when we act, we are still shirking our ethical responsibilities. If we do not think carefully about what we are doing then again, our lack of attention to the situation might count against us when later, in hindsight, we judge our own actions. For this reason in Buddhism there is more to this than motivation. A lack of mindfulness and care may be a more important ethical issue than the outcome of our actions, which are largely unknowable in advance anyway.

John Stuart Mill on unreasoned belief

 Yasemin asked:

I have trouble understanding this paragraph, can you help me?

“There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility — assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument — this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

Answer by Graham Hackett

The author is suggesting that there are still too many people who are willing to base claims of knowledge on faith alone, unsupported by evidence, and suggests that when faith is lacking, or insufficient in itself to sustain belief, too many fall back on authority for support. Not just a case of “believe this”, but “believe this, or else…”.  The author makes the assumption that the truth is something “out there” to be discovered, independent of our minds.

I do not recognise the passage, but the criticism may be aimed at two problem areas.

The first target may be  Fideism, which is the view that claims to knowledge can be  underwritten by faith alone, quite independently of any kind of evidence. There are almost no philosophers, and I would hope (in agreement with the author) fewer and fewer of all kinds of people who would support Fideism. The reason is because it is just too permissive a standpoint; you could hold pretty well any kind of opinion as true provided you could show that people had an active faith-based belief in it. As the author suggests; “this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being.” 

It is quite true that many hold that religious beliefs are only supported by faith. For example, Tertullian, the early christian divine, is alleged to have remarked “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Athens would be seen as the home of reason and Jerusalem the home of faith, and Tertullian is clearly making his argument in favour of Jerusalem rather than Athens. Calvin is often cited as settling the argument in favour of faith alone, even suggesting that we have a ‘sensus divinitatus”, a reliable human organ for detecting what beliefs we should have faith in. However, the matter is not quite so straightforward. St Augustine uses the maxim “faith seeking understanding”, and St Aquinas has the famous “Five Ways”, which has five arguments for belief in God, quoting reasons and evidence. These two examples suggest that Christians, at least, were not always happy with relying on faith alone. However, I do not wish to over-egg the pudding, as I do not have any knowledge as to how, in comparison with Christianity, Islam and Judaism deal with this matter.

The other target of the quoted text could be said to relate to the activity, behaviour and character of the believer. There is a great deal to be said for a “due diligence” approach to knowledge aquisition. Have we used all the tools and methods available to us for checking the truth, have we examined the authenticity of all testimony respecting the belief and the credentials of those providing the testimony? In other words, it is not just the catalogue of evidence quoted in favour of a belief which we should consider; it is also “the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being” . To use the language of reliabilism, are we a “reliable instrument for tracking the truth?

I think I would even go one step further in this direction then taken by the writer. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Aristotle’s book, and be prepared to consider the process of gaining knowledge as a set of virtues. There is a recent venture in philosophy known as virtue epistemology, which seeks to explain some knowledge issues as depending to some extent on the character of the agent. Characteristics such as open-mindedness, courage in defending beliefs, thoroughness etc, could be said to be epistemic virtues. If you wish to get the flavour of this kind of thinking, you might read the article “Virtue Epistemology” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written by J. Turri, M. Alfano, and J. Greco. The writers are all leaders in this field. For them, establishing knowledge becomes an ongoing process conducted by agents displaying different levels of epistemic virtue, rather than a once-for-all discovery of something which is “out there”.

Well, do you think you are a reliable instrument for establishing truth, showing due diligence, and all the right epistemic virtues?

I need to learn how to stop thinking

Daniel asked:

Hello. For two weeks I have found myself unable to generate a concrete thought as well as unable to avoid generating a thought, my body reacting to philosophical contradictions that always lead to nihilism. I can do almost anything except vomit and puke, and I feel as if my body is vanishing from space. This all seems ridiculous to me, as I have read existentialists such as Camus or Nietzsche (perhaps almost to the point of obsession) and I agree with their vitalist approach. However, my relentless mind and previously conditioned mindset to seek the truth and nothing else has stripped me of every other instinct. I need to know how to simply stop thinking about life and start living. Surely, an actual philosopher may have had a similar experience and learned how to control such things. I would greatly appreciate any form of advice.

Answer by Peter Jones

Hi Daniel.

It seems you have thought yourself into a corner. This may be something to do with studying existentialism.

If you were a meditative practitioner your state of mind would be considered a wonderful place from which to begin and make progress. You have spotted the contradictions that plague the world-view of most people, you are committed to truth, you have recognised your conditioning, you’ve begun to wonder if you’re disappearing in a puff of smoke and you want to stop thinking and start living. These are perfect conditions for a truth-seeker.  It takes some effort to reach this point.

You now have choices. You could try to control these thoughts and feelings. I would not advise this. It would be counter-productive and a waste of all your work so far. Or you could make use of of your situation. To build on this beginning you would need to forget all about existentialism and all other ‘isms’ and set out to discover what is true.

Meditation is the usual way forward. This entails doing just what you wish to do, namely stopping your wayward ordinary mind from controlling your life.  The topic is too extensive to discuss properly here but there is a vast literature. It will take you beyond the mind entirely.

I’d suggest a study of Zen. Perhaps you could try a book Cultivating the Empty Field by Dan Leighton, a compilation of the poetry of Zen master Hongzhi. His poetry says much about his state of mind and reveals a peace and tranquility that should appeal to you while the preface and introduction deal with the philosophical issues.

As for philosophical contradictions, which as you say can ‘do our head in’ and lead us into nihilism, for Zen and the Perennial philosophy there would be no such thing. This would be what is discovered in meditation. All contradictions would be misunderstandings. For more on this issue Nagarjuna would be your man. I’d recommend ‘The Sun of Wisdom: Teaching on Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamptso.

I know of no other method for dealing with the problems you describe than meditation and a study of the non-dual philosophy of the mystics. This will require leaving behind the muddled and purposeless philosophy of our Western universities and it seems you’re keen and ready to do this. Frankly, while I admire Nietzsche I see a study of his thoughts as a fairly direct road to depression and insanity. The problems you describe do not arise for meditative practitioners because they don’t deal in theories or guesswork and become able over time to see the tricks of the mind for what they are. The purpose of the practice is to realise the truth about Reality so this is the go-to method for truth-seekers. The Oracle at Delphi was no fool.

YouTube is your friend. Try watching a few talks by, say, Rupert Spira, Mooji or Sadhguru. You’ll see that they show no signs of suffering from your problems.  They will explain that your body cannot ‘disappear into space’ since neither your body nor space would be truly real. Perhaps you’re intuitively sensing this. If you explore further you’ll find no need for nihilism or pessimism and your mind will become much easier to live with.

Good luck!