38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.
The notion of truth is extant in a number of different contexts. In the painting, above, we can find a measure of truth, but this truth is aesthetic. Pilate used the term to mock his position, as judge of a trial which he clearly thought was closer to farce than reality. Postmodernist faggots will often assert that no such thing exists as truth. One of the more annoying aspects of working where I do is having to deal with such goons. They’ll often excuse their devotion to orthodoxy, and my lack of enthusiasm for the same, by asserting something like “that’s your truth, but I have my own.” Such statements are meaningless in themselves, and when I hear them, I make a mental note never to take the speaker seriously, in any context, ever again.
I’d like to discuss the notion of truth in a restricted domain, motivated by logicians like Russell and Tarski, who were also fans of the correspondence theory. Bertrand Russell wrote that the logical proposition is the bearer of truth. (1) He also noted that propositions are encoded in sentences. (2) Tarski’s theory of truth (3) is the one most cited today. Like Russell’s theory, it includes a two-language composite structure. The concept of a sentence as truth-bearer is pretty straightforward. By sentence we mean a set of sounds, uttered in sequence, or a set of squiggly lines, which make up a well-formed formula. In either case, the reader or listener is able to intuitively decode the semantic content of the language, which is then metalinguistically used to get at the logical proposition beneath the words. This last part is the tricky part, because all sorts of things can go wrong in the mind of the reader, as he attempts to unconceal the truth-bearing proposition behind the metalanguage. (4)
So what is truth? I’m a fan of the correspondence theory in most contexts; though there are competitors (5) with their own merits. Aristotle was the first correspondence theorist. He wrote:
But on the other hand there cannot be an intermediate between contradictories, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate. This is clear, in the first place, if we define what the true and the false are. 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; so that he who says of anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either what is true or what is false; but neither what is nor what is not is said to be or not to be.
The concept of truth is pre-epistemological. This is a fancy way of saying that what we know is based partly upon the truth of the thing we claim to know. You can’t “know” something that is false, because falsehoods evade justification, which is another prerequisite to knowledge. Plato called knowledge “justified true belief,” (7), but the Gettier cases (8) suggest that justification and truth are not enough yet to define knowledge. There is some additional prerequisite, which is very difficult to pin down.
So, what does all this complicated stuff mean for us? Basically it means that, s being a well formed sentence:
s is true iff s
In other words, if I make a statement, I am prepared to back it up with a pointer to some fact, some state-of-affairs, that is verifiable. If I say:
There is a blue car in space no. 4 of the parking lot.
Then any listener who can intuit the semantic import of this well-formed sentence can appropriately check space 4, and verify the existence of the car so mentioned.
The correspondence theory and Tarski’s truth conditions have some notable contextual problems, however. Suppose I write on this blog that:
5 + 3 = 8
Can any of my readers be expected to find the numbers 5, 3 and 8 in some spatiotemporal location? It seems unlikely. Try it out.
There are certain truths that can be uttered without metaphysical correspondence. I can claim this sentence is true (and I do). I can be sure it is true. Perhaps more sure of it than most other things, despite the fact that I can never tell you what the number 5 looks like, or where it’s located.
There are people who make pretty good arguments for the untruth of all mathematical statements. (9) Such epistemologists/metaphysicians generally don’t deny that mathematics is useful, but they find it inconceivable to believe that a sentence full of acausal, abstract objects can bear truth-claims.
- Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Logical Atomism. London: Routledge, 2010. 12-13.
- Russell, Bertrand. “On Denoting” Mind, 1905, 14 (56): 479–493.
- Tarski, Alfred. “The Semantic Conception of Truth.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1944, 4 (3): 341–376.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Model Theory” Accessed 2018 FEB 05 (link)
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Coherence Theory” Accessed 2018 FEB 05 (link)
- Aristotle. Metaphysics IV. (1011b25)
- Plato. Theaetetus. (201c-210b)
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Gettier Problems” Accessed 2018 FEB 05 (link)
- Field, Hartry. Realism, Mathematics and Modality. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.