The Truth about Truth, Part 1 (What Truth Isn’t)
The nature of truth can be discussed on the basis of negative and positive affirmation. In order to specify the nature of truth, it is perhaps most expedient to remove incoherent and inadequate ideas about what truth is first, then proceed to defining it (this is the easy part!). Thus, this article is subtitled, 'What Truth Isn't.'
Some may limit truth to the pragmatic, suggesting that truth is that which ‘works.’ This concept would be tested by the proof of future experience, as something would be confirmed to be true if it correlated with the right results. This view is incoherent because in trying to appeal to the pragmatic, it is actually appealing to truth as it corresponds to reality. To even hold the concept of ‘right results,’ one must have a presuppositional concept of truth as correlating to reality. Thus, a ‘higher’ concept of truth is necessary to support this subservient one. The pragmatic view is also inadequate because it confines truth to those things that are practical, and it excludes theoretical truths (such as mathematical proofs, sets, etc.) and factual truths (such as ‘today is Monday’). Neither of these categories is truthful on the basis of pragmatism; they are true because they correspond to reality. Even a truth that ‘works’ could be in fact incorrect. For instance, apologist Ravi Zacharias often relays a story in which a young boy challenges his father’s faith in the idols in his home, saying ‘Dad, why do you worship these wooden figures? They aren’t real- they were made by people!’ His father replies angrily and almost fearfully, ‘Don’t you ever say that! They are real and they are powerful.’ To prove his point, the child takes a stick and smashes a smaller idol to bits while his father is away. Then he places the stick in the hands of a larger idol standing nearby. When his father returns, he exclaims, ‘What happened? Who did this?’ The child replies, ‘I don’t know, Dad. It wasn’t me, but it looks like the larger god there did it!’ The father quickly answers him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you must have done it!’ The child again denies it and his father finally explodes, ‘Stop lying! You must have done this; these statues aren’t alive!’ The point here is that based upon the father’s idea of truth, the child’s ‘alibi’ should have worked, yet the correspondence with reality (even one of which the father lived in denial) was not there.
Another incoherent and inadequate concept of truth is the one which suggests that truth is ‘that which coheres.’ A coherent truth is one which is internally consistent. However, like the pragmatic truth, even the affirmation of what truth is relies upon a correspondence view of truth. The statement in and of itself cannot be verified on the basis of internal consistency. The only means of verifying a statement such as this is by correspondence to reality. Additionally, many statements can be internally consistent but do little to actually be informative in regards to reality. For example, the statement ‘There are no married bachelors’ is internally consistent, and is true regardless of whether any bachelors actually exist, much in the way that the statement ‘1+1=2’ is true regardless if it is referring to the addition of actual objects. While coherence is a legitimate test for falsehood, it is not necessarily an adequate test for truth.
Another concept of truth that is not sustainable is the concept that truth is based upon intentions. Like many of these concepts, this one too is indebted to the correspondence view, as it makes a statement about reality that is, itself, supposedly true. In addition, this view tends to limit truth to what is relayed by statements, however, we must accept that certain things can be true regardless of whether they are ever recognized or spoken of. Another problem with this view is clearly shown by history. Many scientists have sincerely believed in certain things and have written about them being true only to later discover that they were wrong! If truth is expressed in intentions, then truth is certainly an unstable concept.
Lastly, and perhaps the most important idea about truth to be debunked, is the Kierkegaardian concept of truth as that which is ‘existentially relevant.’ Kierkegaard suggested that truth is subjective to experience and is not propositional. The first problem to point out is the inconsistency of the statement itself: If truth is not propositional, then one cannot make propositions about truth. Therefore the propositional statement, ‘Truth is that which is existentially relevant,’ must be rejected. However, to answer the proposition itself, truth cannot be limited to the subjective for a variety of reasons. The first reason is that if truth is that which is existentially relevant, then other physical, mathematical, historical and theoretical truths are meaningless. Yet, it is precisely through these types of truths that we make sense of our experiences! Secondly, those things that are relevant to one particular experience are not always true, and true ideas are not always relevant to every experience. For example, the proposition ‘WordPress is a useful blogging tool’ may be extremely relevant to me (or perhaps another WordPress user) but not to the many who might not even know what ‘blog’ means. However the truthfulness of the proposition has little to do with its comprehensive relevance. Though my statement may be meaningless to someone who does not maintain a blog, it is true nonetheless.
I examine these distinctions in order to show that a view of truth must be comprehensive or 'large' enough to adequately deal with all kinds of truths, yet specific in its exclusivity. In other words, each of the 'truth is that which…' statements above do not adequately deal with truth as we experience it. This means that these theories have not yet reached a full realization of what truth is.
In the next part of this article, I hope to address what truth is, which I concede is a more difficult task than what I have undertaken here.