The Philosophy of Truth

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. —Thoreau

Truth tends to lead to successful action. In that much, truth has instrumental value. But truth also has intrinsic value. Given the choice between a life of limitless pleasure as a brain in a vat and a genuine human life along with all its pain and suffering, most people opt for the latter.

In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates says that aletheia(Greek, ‘truth’) is a compression of the phrase ‘a wandering that is divine’. Since Plato, many thinkers have spoken of truth and God in the same breath. According to John the Apostle, Jesus said to the Jews: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

When truth isn’t truth

Today, God may be dying, but what about truth? Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, claimed that “Truth isn’t truth”, while Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counsellor, presented the public with what she called “alternative facts”. Over in the U.K. in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove, then Lord Chancellor, opined that people “have had enough of experts”.

One way to understand truth is simply to look at its opposites, namely, lies and bullshit. The liar must track the truth in order to conceal it. In contrast, the bullshitter has no regard or sensitivity for the truth, or even for what his or her audience believes.

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

—Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Fake news

Following his defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Mark Antony heard the rumour that Cleopatra had committed suicide, and consequently stabbed himself in the abdomen—only to discover that Cleopatra herself had been responsible for spreading the rumour. He later died in her arms.

“Fake news” may be as old as humanity, but in our internet age it has spread like a disease, swinging elections, fomenting social unrest, undermining institutions, and diverting political energy from health, education, and good government. Initially, “fake news” referred to false news with large scale popular traction, although Donald Trump seems to have extended the usage to include any news that does not serve him.

Those who are alarmed, or who feel they are in a minority, can take comfort in the words of Søren Kierkegaard:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion… while truth again reverts to a new minority.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Diary

The correspondence theory of truth

Truth is a property not so much of thoughts and ideas but more properly of beliefs and assertions. But to believe or assert something is not enough to make it true, or else the claim that ‘to believe something makes it true’ would be just as true as the claim that ‘to believe something does not make it true’.

For centuries, philosophers have agreed that thought or language is true if it corresponds to an independent reality. For Aristotle, “to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true”. For Avicenna, truth is “what corresponds in the mind to what is outside it”. And for Aquinas, truth is “the adequation of things and the intellect” (adaequatio rei et intellectus).

Unfortunately, but perhaps also fortunately, the mind does not perceive reality as it is, but only as it can, filtering, distorting, and interpreting it. In modern times, it has been argued that truth is largely constructed by social and cultural processes, to say nothing of individual desires and dispositions. Michel Foucault famously spoke, not of truth or truths, but of “regimes of truth”. Categories and constructs regarding, for example, race and sexuality may not reflect biological let alone metaphysical realities.

The coherence theory of truth

A thing is more likely to be true if it fits comfortably into a large and coherent system of beliefs. It remains that the system could be a giant fiction, entirely divorced from reality, but this becomes increasingly unlikely as we investigate, curate, and add to its components—assuming, and it is quite an assumption, that we are operating in good faith, with truth as our aim. So conceived, truth is not a property, or merely a property, but an attitude, a way of being in the world.

‘Truth’ is not a feature of correct propositions which are asserted of an ‘object’ by a human ‘subject’ and then are ‘valid’ somewhere, in what sphere we know not. Rather, truth is disclosure of beings through which an openness essentially unfolds. All human comportment and bearing are exposed in its open region.

—Martin Heidegger, On the Essence of Truth

The pragmatic theory of truth

All the better if we can actually do something useful with our system and its components. If truth leads to successful action, then successful action is an indicator of truth. Clearly, we could not have sent a rocket to the moon if our maths had been wide off the mark. For William James, the truth is “only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving”.

If something works, it may well be true; if it doesn’t, it most probably isn’t. But what if something works for me but not for you? Is that thing then true for me but not for you? For Nietzsche, who makes himself the natural friend of two-penny tyrants, truth is power, and power truth: “The falseness of a judgement is not necessarily an objection to a judgement… The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding…”

Short-term or long-term?

Deflationary theories of truth

That a thing fits into a system, or leads to successful action, may suggest that it is true, but does not tell us much about what truth actually is. It has been argued that to say that X is true is merely to say that X, and therefore that truth is an empty predicate. Truth is not a real property of things, but a feature of language used to emphasize, agree, or hypothesize, or for stylistic reasons. For example, it can be used to explicate the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility: “Everything that the pope says is true.” But this is merely shorthand for saying that if the Pope says A, then A; and if he says B, then B…

For some thinkers, something can only be true or false if it is open to verification, at least in theory if not also in practice. The truth of something lies at the end of our inquiry into that thing. But as our inquiry can have no end, the truth of something can never be more than our best opinion of that thing. If best opinion is all that we can have or hope for, then best opinion is as good as truth, and truth is a redundant concept. But best opinion is only best because, at least on average, it is closest to the truth, which, as well as instrumental value, has deep intrinsic value.

Some practical advice

A reader once emailed to ask, “How can I know when I am lying to myself?”

And I replied,

By its very nature self-deception is hard to distinguish from the truth—whether our internal, emotional truth or the external truth. One has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I’m reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or does it make me feel small, angry, or anxious?

Self-deception doesn’t ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try to look at the bigger picture of your life and see how the thought or reaction might fit in. Did you react from a position of strength or vulnerability? What would the person you most respect think? What would Socrates think? Talk to other people and gather their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry, upset, or defensive? The coherence of your reaction can speak volumes about the nature of your motives.

Finally, truth is constructive and adaptive, while lies are destructive and self-defeating. So how useful is a self-deceptive thought or reaction going to be for you?  Are you just covering up an irrational fear, or helping to create a solid foundation for the future? Are you empowering yourself to fulfil your highest potential, or depriving yourself of opportunities for growth and creating further problems down the line? Is the cycle simply going to repeat itself, or will the truth, at last, make you free?

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