[Note to our gentle reader: believe it or not, this is Rationally Speaking's 1000th post. Not bad, huh?]
It is not uncommon that a discussion about some controversy turns to the truth or falsity of some claim, and thereupon one of the parties to the discussion questions the very nature of truth itself.
Often, this is a conversational move designed to say “I am feeling embarrassed and I need to save face,” in which case you probably need to consider whether continuing the conversation is a productive move. But sometimes truth as a concept does seem to be a real point of contention, especially among those of radically post-modern disposition.
This post presents one theory of the nature of truth — a topic that is, despite appearances, rather interesting. After that theory is put on the table, we will see what it suggests about how we might get the conversation back on track.
There are many ways of carving up the philosophical positions on the nature of truth, depending on historical contingencies, and also on what first-order domain we are talking about the truth of (science, history, ethics…). I find it useful to adopt a fivefold division into these family groupings: correspondence, coherentism, instrumentalism, relativism and minimalism. Although this is a rough-and-ready division, it seems to get the empirical clusters in belief-space more or less right. I will now do a brief aerial survey of the first four, and of the obvious objections to them.
The correspondence thesis is probably the one most familiar to common sense. This is usually expressed as the idea that truth describes a relation of correspondence between beliefs (or some other propositional attitude) and reality. So we say that a belief that coal is black is ‘true,’ if (and only if) in the real world coal actually turns out to be black.
Although this seems highly intuitive, it runs into problems when we consider how to evaluate whether “in the real world coal actually is black.” The problem is the following: it seems to imply that in order to discover whether something is true (by checking correspondence between beliefs and reality), you need to somehow “step outside” of your own epistemic limitations — your own complex of beliefs and perceptions — and check whether coal is black from some universal, objective perspective that is completely separate from any one individual person’s views. Only then will you be able to verify the correspondence. This looks suspicious — you don’t need to be a relativist to realize that there is no view from nowhere.
Coherentism, meanwhile, avoids this trap by identifying true beliefs simply as being part of a coherent set of beliefs, avoiding any mention of correspondence with an external reality (historically, this was motivated by the fact that coherentists were often idealists — deniers of the external world). Coherence theory is thus supposed to clarify epistemology by making how we acquire true beliefs non-mysterious. We look at our other beliefs (and, presumably, sense data etc.) and check whether or not a candidate belief is consistent with them.
The obvious objection here is that in asserting the truth of some belief, we are not merely making a claim that that belief fits with others we have. Coherence looks like a necessary condition for a good epistemology, but hardly a sufficient one — there are coherent belief systems that are demonstrably false or epistemically useless. My favorite example is that of a person who has rejected induction in favor of its opposite. He expects that since the sun has come up every day for the last 4 billion odd years, surely it’s due for a change. When his past lack of success in using this counter-inductive reasoning is pointed out to him (among other things, he has gambled away all his money) he replies that that just proves his point — his mode of reasoning has failed so often in the past that it is bound to work any day now!
Another response to the perceived epistemic arrogance of the correspondence theory is instrumentalism (one example of which might be James’ pragmatism). Here, the idea is that in saying something is true, we are really more concerned with its usefulness in accomplishing some necessary task. An example might be an engineer using the concept of an electric field in predicting whether a capacitor will work for a given application. According to the instrumentalist perspective, the truth of whether the electric field is really there just boils down to whether the concept of an electric field is useful to the engineer in achieving their aims. This is a fairly metaphysically neutral account of truth.
However, as with coherence theory, instrumentalism seems to be answering a different query than what was asked. We can always levy a Moore-style Open Question argument against it: “I know it’s useful to believe p, but is p true?” As long as that sentence is not obviously a logical contradiction, it stands as a mark against instrumentalism.
Relativism undoubtedly represents the most radical of our four perspectives on truth. Although it is stated in many different and mutually contradictory ways, the key idea may be summarized roughly as follows: talking of truth outside of a given epistemological and conceptual framework is highly suspect and probably meaningless (this is the source of Derrida’s slogan “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” — there is nothing outside the text.) Since there is no stepping out of our contingent perspective, truth is essentially relative to the person doing the perceiving; there is no absolute truth. Moreover, our conceptual frameworks are strongly determined (not merely influenced) by our cultures, and specifically by power relations between and within cultures. Hence, insistence on the correctness of the truth of some proposition amounts to insistence on the correctness of one’s own conceptual frameworks, which in turn amounts to a sort of cultural imperialism.
Although relativism in its better moments is motivated by a correct suspicion of pipe dreams about the “view from nowhere,” and by a laudable intention to avoid cultural imperialism, it almost always leads to conceptual absurdities and borderline self-refutations. There are the familiar objections, such as: "Is it true that there is no absolute truth? If so, is that truth an absolute truth or a relative one?" I don’t think this is quite as strong an objection to relativism as is commonly thought (Socrates was so impressed with it, he called it “exquisite”), but it is pretty good.
Likewise, "Aren’t there lots of places where absolute truth seems completely appropriate, and in particular does not seem to depend on beliefs at all? For example, if I eat a whole bunch of hemlock, I will probably die, independently of whether I believe it’s hemlock, and independently of whether I believe it will kill me." (Working definition of 'reality': whatever remains more or less invariant under changes in my beliefs.)
"And at any rate, isn’t your relativist theory unlivable as epistemic practice, and even insincere? For example, this morning I said 'Petunias are perennial,' and you said 'That’s not true.' You didn’t qualify that statement at all, or relativize it. Only now, when we are talking about something controversial, you are suddenly being skeptical about truth."
These objections are familiar, but I want to take a different tack and try to show how we can do an end-run around relativism without committing ourselves to the apparent epistemic arrogance of correspondence theory, while also showing instrumentalism and coherence theory to be at best wrong-headed. This move is the last in our set of five broad perspectives on truth: minimalism, which was introduced to me by Simon Blackburn in his excellent book “Truth.”
The first insight of minimalism (due to Gottlob Frege) is the ‘collapsibility’ or ‘transparency’ of statements about truth. If I say “It is raining,” and then follow up a minute later with the claim “It is true that it is raining,” am I adding anything to my original claim? It seems not — what I am saying just boils back down to “It is raining.” This is the case no matter how many realist flourishes of calligraphy we add to the claim, e.g.; “It is true that it is true that it is raining,” or “It is factually correct that it is raining,” or “It is an absolute truth about objective reality that it is raining.” All of these reduce, in a rather boring and tautological way, to the original claim, “It is raining.”
But how is this possible, given the idea (shared by correspondence and coherence theorists, relativists and instrumentalists) that truth is a non-trivial ‘property’ of judgments — and a very metaphysically fraught one, according to three of the schools mentioned above?
The minimalist position can be stated briefly as follows (using the formulation of Alfred Tarski):
1. “p” is true if and only if p. (For example: “It is raining” is true if and only if it is raining.)
2. This is all there is to say, metaphysically, about the nature of truth.
As Blackburn says:
“... a good way of thinking about minimalism and its attractions is to see it as substituting the particular for the general. It mistrusts anything abstract or windy. Both the relativist and the absolutist are impressed by Pilate’s notorious question ‘What is Truth?’, and each tries to say something useful at the same high and vertiginous level of generality. The minimalist can be thought of as turning his back on this abstraction, and then in any particular case he prefaces his answer with the prior injunction: you tell me. This does not mean, ‘You tell me what truth is.’ It means, ‘You tell me what the issue is, and I will tell you (although you will already know, by then) what the truth about the issue consists in.’ If the issue is whether high tide is at midday, then truth consists in high tide being at midday ... We can tell you what truth amounts to, if you first tell us what the issue is.”
We should also note that the minimalist approach to truth does not necessarily imply that there is no relation between our beliefs and reality (a la correspondence theory), or that epistemology is not influenced by culture (a la relativism), or that true beliefs are not useful (a la instrumentalism), or mutually consistent (a la coherentism). It merely decouples the practice of saying that “so-and-so is true” from party positions about epistemology, politics and metaphysics. After accepting a minimalist theory of truth, we can go and have our arguments about the existence of the external world, and the way we come to find out about things, and the cultural valence of our conceptual frameworks, knowing that our use of the vocabulary of truth and falsity is not hostage to the outcome of those debates.
The proper skeptical question to ask about minimalism is something like the following: if “p is true” just means “p,” why do we even need words like “true,” “truth,” “false,” “falsity,” “fact” etc. at all?
The minimalist answer is that “true” is a “predicate of generalization,” i.e., essentially a linguistic convenience. Let’s illustrate with an example: suppose I want to tell you that the Governor General said something false in the throne speech.
With the “truth” vocabulary, this is easy: I say “The Governor General said something false in the throne speech.”
Without that vocabulary, this is much more difficult — we would have to use an awkward circumlocution like: “The Governor General said ‘a’ and ‘b’ and ‘c’ and .... and ‘z’ in the throne speech, and NOT (a and b and c and.... and z).”
Likewise, the snappy admonition to “Always tell the truth!” gets translated rather awkwardly as “For all p, say ‘p’ if and only if p.”
So the minimalist reply is that the only reason we talk of “truth” at all, is because we want to make certain claims with a minimum of linguistic fuss. This explains the existence of our truth vocabulary without reference to any dubious notions of unverifiable 'correspondence,' or facile equations of truth to utility.
Seen from this perspective, correspondence theorists of truth, especially in their more metaphysical moods, can look like they are engaged in rather silly reification and idol-worship of what is basically just a useful linguistic compression device. (How much impact would it have had if Plato had said of Socrates, not that he “loved the truth,” but that he “loved the indexical pronouns”?)*
Meanwhile, instrumentalism about truth ends up looking distracted by non-issues; we want to know whether it’s raining, but the instrumentalist starts gibbering about how it’s useful to believe it’s raining because then maybe we’ll take an umbrella, which is not what was asked at all. Likewise, coherentism insists on looking inward, at the relation of beliefs about rain to other beliefs, instead of outward, at the weather.
And relativism ends up looking the most dysfunctional of all. We want to know whether it’s raining, and instead of being engaged respectfully as fellow epistemic agents, we are treated as patients whose views and queries are “symptomatic” of some ill-defined social malaise. Maybe our umbrella-centric culture has determined that we ask the question “Is it raining?” that way, privileging dryness-normative conceptions of the weather, as opposed to perspectives in which wetness is the default condition and dryness the anomaly, bla cetera.
Of course, this is a caricature, but it does point to why relativism is so hated by many people who are interested in the first-order issues (whether it is raining, how many fundamental forces there are, whether sexual jealousy is a human universal, etc.). It is a defection from our epistemic and conversational norms, which seems in practice to occur selectively whenever defection is convenient for the speaker’s politics.
And to the extent that relativists have a point about some belief or other being merely a reflection of cultural prejudice, that belief will simply turn out to be false (not-p) or ill-stated. The 19th century pseudoscience of gender and race, for example, was just that — pseudoscience, heavily burdened with falsity. Indeed, we are far too generous about the legacy of bigoted falsehoods if we allow that they might have been in some sense true for those who believed in them.
What I think minimalism shows, however, is that the answer to relativist defection is not a retreat to the lofty heights of rhetoric about the Shining, Glorious Truth of Objective Scientific Fact, but rather the best attempt you can muster to get the conversation back on track — back to whatever first-order issue you’re concerned about.
* Mind you, we could probably cash out “love of truth” in some less ridiculous way.