(About a 10 minute read)
What is truth? That question is certain to excite the latent epistemologist in all of us. Consequently, I would be remiss were I not to inform you, my beloved readers, that the material we are to cover today may periodically induce you to reach for your smelling salts, such is the very nature of epistemology.
As myself not only an epistemologist, but a worldly epistemologist, I cannot properly tell you how appalled I am by the most common answers that I have heard made to the question, “What is truth?”
At the risk of causing you momentary heart palpitations, I would like to quote here an alarming exchange that I discovered on the internet! On the internet and, I might add, in plain view of impressionable, young children who could thus have their tender, budding notions of logic warped forever by such a savagely circular exchange:
First Person: “I only know the truth according to me…my truth.”
Second Person: “How are you defining ‘truth’?”
First: “The quality or state of being true.”
Second: “Ok. And what makes something true?”
First: “The quality of being true.”
Second: “What makes somethings have that quality and somethings not have that quality?”
First: “It either does or doesn’t.”
Of course, the good news here is that the First Person in that exchange still has something left to look forward to in life, something as tangibly exciting as a first kiss, a massive job promotion, or the birth of a grandchild. Namely, they have The Correspondence Theory of Truth to look forward to!
I myself believe it’s a safe wager that those scurrilous wags who say, “Epistemologists are stuffy and no fun”, have never yet partied with an epistemologist holding forth on the topic of The Correspondence Theory. Why, at the last party I was invited to, back in ’86, I so enthralled my audience with the Theory that they fell one by one into blissful sleep, just as if I’d sung them the sweetest lullaby. Even my wife later remarked how “creatively” I’d returned the best man’s toast on our wedding day!
Of all the theories of truth (and there are five major ones), the Correspondence Theory is both the oldest and most popular. It dates in some form or another all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago. The gist of it is that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to a reality, and that a statement is true if it corresponds (i.e. describes) a reality, and false if it does not.
For example: Were I to say to you, “The scholar is sipping wine”, that statement would be true if it were indeed the case that there was a scholar sipping wine. And the statement would be false if that were not the case.
Now, the key take-away here is that the word “truth” is not synonymous with the word “reality”, but rather describes a quality of the relationship between a statement and a reality. This is very much like the relationship of a map to its terrain.
A map is said to be accurate or true to the extent that it corresponds to a terrain. But we do not think of a map as being the same thing as its terrain. Just so, we should not think of truth as being the same thing as reality. To do so would, among other atrocities, make the word “truth” a mere redundancy. Perhaps more importantly, it would tend in practice to close off any attempt to answer the question, “How do we know something is true?”
As it turns out, that question — “How do we know something is true?” — is far from suitable for bedtime reading. One desires then only to be gently lulled to sleep by some fast-paced action/adventure or steamy romance novel, and a heart-pounding foray into the finer points of epistemology is the very last thing one needs! The wise reader will thus be forewarned to grip their desk or chair in preparation for my next revelation!
How do we know something is true depends on, among other things, what we mean by “reality”.
Suppose we were to take the ghastly tack of defining “reality” in such a way that it could not — even in theory — be fully known to us! Let us say, for instance, that at this very moment there exists an undetectable leprechaun singing inaudibly beneath my windowsill. What on earth could I possibly mean by saying, “I know it to be true”? You would be quite justified in asking, “How?”
For if the leprechaun is indeed undetectable, and if his singing is indeed inaudible, then there would seem to be no basis at all for my claim that he exists. Of course, there is always the possibility, however remote, that he exists — if only because there is always the possibility that we might someday come up with a method of detecting him. But we can no more claim that we are certain to come up with such a method as we can claim that we know today he exists.
Moreover, suppose I cannot even give a purely logical argument for why my leprechaun exists. For it is possible for something to be known — not through empirical observation — but through logic alone. For instance, 2 + 6 = 8 can be known through logic alone. It can also be known through observation, but that does nothing to change the fact it can be known through logic alone.
If I can give you neither empirical evidence nor pure logic to support my claim that my leprechaun exists, then what can I possibly mean if I were to say, “The truth or falsity of my claim rests on its relationship to reality”?
It should be quite obvious to us now that The Correspondence Theory of Truth depends on “reality” being something discernible, if only in theory.
It can be discernible through pure logic, or it can be discernible through empirical observation, or through a combination of empirical observation and logical reasoning, but for The Correspondence Theory to make any sense at all, the “reality” it refers to must be discernible.
Now, despite being an artist, a creative genius, a mystic, a visionary, and a madman, William Blake had his limits: He was also a poet. Perhaps for that reason alone, Blake tragically failed to leave us with a decently well-formulated epistemology. Hence, precisely what he meant by, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”, has ever since his death been scandalously open to promiscuous interpretation.
Did Blake mean to imply by it that truth is different for different people? That the tree the fool sees is just as legitimate as the tree the wise man sees?
I think not!
We can logically believe that only if we believe that the tree can be two separate, but epistemologically equal, things. To illustrate, suppose the fool sees the tree as “yellow”, the wise person sees the tree as “blue”, and neither sees the tree as the other. Can the tree be both discernibly yellow and discernibly blue at the same time? Apart from some interpretations of quantum mechanics, they cannot.
Not, that is, if the fool and the wise person are using the same exact method of discernment or inquiry. For it is possible that they could both arrive at legitimate differences of opinion if they were using different means of inquiry.
Many of my beloved readers might now be reaching wildly for the smelling salts, for I am admittedly come close to positing that the truth can be legitimately different for different people! But I daresay “Epistemology is not for the faint of heart! To boldly go where no
sane groom epistemologist has gone before is but the bread and butter of my days! I am a man of passions, huge, towering passions! It means practically nothing to me to toss out the possibility that truth might be legitimately different for different people. To toss it out and then — properly qualify it!”
To my thinking, the most perfected description of a reality would be an operational definition of the method of inquiry used to establish the reality. By an “operational definition” I mean a step by step description of the process one uses to discover or arrive at the reality. For instance, the operational definition of the cake I made last Wednesday would be the step by step recipe I used in creating it. Or, the operational definition of “oxygen” may be described as the specific tests and measures one uses to recognize its presence.
So, for example, were I to say, “There is a cake on my table”, then the most perfect way for me to define the reality would be for me to offer every possible operational definition of what I mean by there is a cake on my table: “I see a cylindrical object on my table. The frosting tastes sweet when I lick it. The body appears light and airy when I cut into it.” And so forth.
Put differently, the most perfected — if seldom the best — way to describe a reality is to describe it in terms of the operations used as a method of inquiry into its existence. For when we do so, we make precisely clear what we truly mean by the reality.
For instance, were I to say, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16”, you would know very little for certain about the profound experience I had. That is, the extraordinary reality I am referring to. But were I to truthfully add, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16 by reading a biology textbook”, you would at once know how remarkably worldly I was even at such a young age. Thus we can see how specifying the method of inquiry can properly qualify, and much further define, the reality being discussed.
I would submit then that, apart from quantum mechanics, reality is most likely the same for everyone, provided that “everyone” is using exactly the same method of inquiry under the same or similar conditions [(and is qualified to assess the results of their inquiry) an offer not good where the truth is prohibited by law, such as within the city limits of Washington D.C.].
We have now reached a point where we may safely hazard a summary of all that has gone before. First, we found that “truth”, according to the oldest and most popular theory, is a matter of the relationship between a statement and the reality it refers to. Next, we had an exciting romp through the notion that there are two kinds of knowledge — knowledge that requires no experience to know it is true, and knowledge that requires experience to know it is true. Next, in a truly climatic moment, we discovered that some method of discernment or inquiry is logically implied in any meaningful claim that something is true. Finally, in the afterglow of our blissful romp, we experienced the epiphany that a poet — of all people! — was undoubtedly right about something. Exactly what though, we’re not sure, given his appalling failure to leave us with an extant epistemology. That’s the trouble with poets, you know; why they don’t properly footnote their truth claims must remain one of life’s greatest mysteries.
For a much more thorough discussion of these topics, see my lively little book, How Do We Know It’s True that “the Eggs and Ham are Green”?: Conversational Breakfast Table Gambits in Truth Theory for the Layman. Tokyo: Taikutsuna Publishing House, 2004. Print.