At first glance, the debate over the nature of truth may seem obscure and mostly irrelevant, a domain for philosophers to argue, with no consequence to our daily lives and way of thinking. I agree with this way of thinking. I don’t see how defining truth could possibly change anything.
However, I think theories of truth can provide rationalizations for bad thinking. Not that our theory of truth really helps us to distinguish truth from falsity (we can already do that just fine without it, and there’s no evidence that philosophers are better at distinguishing truth from falsity), but that people supporting bad thinking may use their theory of truth as a support for that bad thinking.
So take correspondence theory, the theory of truth that most secular thinkers use. It states that a proposition is true if it corresponds to reality/fact/some state of affairs. For example:
The proposition “snow is white” is true because it corresponds to the fact that snow is white.
I’m sorry, but this is just nonsense, and it’s hard for me to understand how anyone would fall for it. We cannot measure whether a proposition corresponds to a fact, because propositions are nothing at all like facts. That we think there is a correspondence is an artefact of writing both down. The proposition “snow is white” looks the same as the fact that snow is white if you write them down, but they are two completely, non-comparable, sorts of things.
Suppose you write the sentence “I am angry.” Does that mean your anger is literally now located on the page as well? No, obviously not. Whatever you write, you can’t convert a fact into a sentence. Likewise, the sentence “show is white” does not contain any snow or whiteness, let alone a relation between the two (what would that even look like?).
What we’re doing when we compare the proposition “snow is white” and “the fact that snow is white” is only comparing two propositions, not comparing a proposition with a fact. We can’t convert a fact into a sentence and then look if the two sentences are equal. So correspondence theory is just an impossible operation.
Lakoff and Johnson, in their books Metaphors We Live By and The Embodied Mind, absolutely destroy objectivist epistemology. In the latter, they point out that even simple sentences like “the sky is blue” are absolute gibberish if we interpret them using correspondence theory: not only is color not a property of surfaces, but there’s no surface called “the sky” that can be said to be blue. So “the sky is blue” must be false.
They also point out that scientific theories themselves are heavily metaphorical, and are therefore incompatible with correspondence theory. Just to take two examples, biological evolution (“common descent,” “tree of life”) and General Relativity (“curved spacetime,” “time dimension”) make heavy use of metaphors to make testable predictions about reality. How can something both be absolutely false (i.e. not correspond to reality) and make testable, reliable predictions about reality?
Ultimately no sentence whatsoever can be true under correspondence theory because it assumes there are properties that exist “in reality,” outside of our cognition, that we can compare with said cognition. Since no such property exists, this assumption is completely false. The idea of trying to use correspondence theory to show that even the simplest and most obvious of propositions are true (say, “I exist” or “1+1=2”) is really a nightmare scenario. You might as well just kill yourself at that point.
So what is a more credible theory of truth? You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been writing quite a bit about George Lakoff’s epistemic theory recently. Not surprisingly, he has a theory of truth to go along with the rest of his epistemology: that truth is a match between our understanding of a proposition and our understanding of a situation.
* Our understanding of a proposition is important because propositions are not strings of concepts that all have clear, definite, absolute meaning. Even a proposition as clear as “snow is white” means a number of things that are purely contextual: by “snow” we mean unsullied snow near or on the ground, and by “white” we mean that our sensory apparatus perceives a color that is more or less close to the combination of all colors on the visible spectrum (although this case is slightly complicated by the fact that some dictionaries define “white” as “the color of snow,” which would make the statement a mere analytical truth). Also consider that most sentences we routinely utter make sense only within the specific context of a discussion or past discussions, background knowledge held by all interlocutors, etc.
* Our understanding of a situation inevitably depends on the same frameworks we use to understand propositions. Suppose we are watching a debate and I ask you “did he defend his argument so far?” This question depends on you understanding the metaphor of ARGUMENT IS WAR and interpreting the term “defense” in terms of an attempt to providing evidence for something or arguing against some objection.
Unlike the case of correspondence theory, where we’re trying to compare two things that are of a completely different kind (a written sentence versus a fact of reality), we are here comparing two things of the same kind (understanding).
In daily life, we do this by first understanding the proposition, understanding a fact using the framework of the proposition, and checking if the two match. I know “snow is white” is true because I understand what “snow is white” means in context, I examine the facts based on that context, and I understand them to correspond to the proposition (snow is indeed white).
In most cases a lot of knowledge may be acquired first before one can understand the fact in question. So if someone tells me that “the theory of evolution explains the diversity of life on Earth,” I might have to do a lot of digging before I can understand the facts enough to come back and claim that this is true.
I hope that I haven’t portrayed the difference between correspondence theory and experiential theory as an arcane distinction or a minor logical quibble. Actually it is a huge difference, in that correspondence theory completely omits human understanding from the equation. It’s rooted in a vision of the world, which Lakoff calls the objectivist myth, founded on the idea that meaning is objective and exists apart from any human observer, and which states that truth exists out there in the world and is absolute in nature.
I think you can begin to see the use of this as a rationalization now. Because the objectivist myth ignores all context, including social context, it is necessarily disconnected from the truth when it treats of anything but the natural world (i.e. when it is not pure science), and it is inherently elitist in that it implicitly takes social hierarchies as a given and assumes that one can achieve an absolute truth (how can one then include disagreement within one’s view of the world?). To quote Lakoff and Johnson:
We believe that the idea that there is absolute objective truth is not only mistaken but socially and politically dangerous. As we have seen, truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor. Most of our metaphors have evolved in our culture over a long period, but many are imposed upon us by people in power– political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, advertisers, the media, etc. In a culture where the myth of objectivism is very much alive and truth is always absolute truth, the people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be true- absolutely and objectively true.
I’ve discussed before that when we use political terms we more often than not use them in a very narrow sense which does not include indoctrination, and the setting of the margins of discourse, as a form of power, even though it quite obviously is. Because we live in societies which do not recognize indoctrination as power, the power elite gets to set the agenda and the priorities, spread the narratives, frame behavior, impose the metaphors and define deviancy, because they have access to the mass media and the justice system, and we don’t. Therefore they have the ability to manufacture truth.
Given that fact, correspondence theory provides a theoretical cloak for the beliefs which are vital for acceptance of indoctrination. In that regard it is similar to the role other obscure theories serve for the dominant ideologies, like Subjective Theory of Value for capitalism justifying market prices and profits, cultural relativism for imperialism justifying support for evil practices abroad, voluntaryism justifying support for evil practices at home. Usually this is accompanied by some variant of the “that’s just how it is” argument.
Christianity is another area where rationalizations are the rule, and it should not be surprising that they have their own concept of truth. While Christian sources sometimes acknowledge correspondence theory as the best secular explanation of truth, they put forward either a replacement idea or a complementary idea, that truth is what exists in the mind of God or what emanates from the will of God. They point out that Jesus himself said he was the truth, and Jesus was God.
This is all part of the mind trap of holding God as a fixed idea. By definition you can’t think outside of a fixed idea: it encompasses everything, every avenue of thought you might go down curves back to it. If the truth is what emanates from God, then nothing which does not assume God exists can be true. But at the same time, we cannot know God’s mind, so the truth is fundamentally inaccessible to us. This is the combination of absolute confidence and profound uncertainty which we know is typical of Christian belief.
This definition of truth is very similar, I think, to the presuppositionalist approach, which assumes that God is necessary for the existence of truth, science, causality, logic, and so on, and asks atheists to justify their use of these things.
Finally, I also wanted to mention the subjectivist myth, which is just as damaging as the objectivist myth but not nearly as widespread in our culture. I’ve previously discussed subjectivism in specific domains.