Everyone knows that a belief is true if it corresponds with the facts. This is the first theory of truth, and it has only two problems: what to make of correspondence, and what to make of facts. Facts, said the twentieth century logician Willard Van Orman Quine, are fictions: sentence-sized objects invented for the sake of correspondence. Facts are not simply given, independent, partners of true beliefs. To form a belief is just to claim to find a fact. It may or may not be a fact that Elizabeth I remained a virgin; to find out requires inquiry, and inquiry is just a matter of settling what to believe about this pressing issue.
Inquiry is a matter of warping our beliefs as little as possible in order to accommodate new experience. But in order to exert a pressure, experience needs to be interpreted and conceptualised, or in other words, to have a voice, indicating what to believe. So once it includes the results of inquiry, there is no escape from our overall system of belief. So says the second theory: the coherence theory of truth. It suggests a picture in which we are cut off from the world, imprisoned in a clouded collage of our own construction. Yet many fine philosophers have ended up here, and it gives us the second of our theories.
It doesn’t require much to recoil from the picture this offers, and one direction is to emphasise the relation between truth and success in practice. Truth works. Falsehood does not, and surely this is why we care so much about truth. Or think that we do, for unfortunately the equation is only rough. Across large swathes of life self-deception and fantasy, half-truths and outright lies, seem to work quite well. Some people in politics seem to get by with almost nothing else. So this third theory, the so-called pragmatic theory of truth, needs a more careful formulation, and nobody has quite managed to give one. If it is part of our cherished national myth that Elizabeth I remained a virgin, what is the advantage of inquiring any too carefully into whether it was true? It won’t bake more bread or breed more offspring, so in a Darwinian world it is somewhat puzzling that some people do care whether it was true. Nietzsche worried that they had just made an unnecessary cross to bear.
If abstract attempts to say what truth is all stumble, perhaps the remedy is to descend to particular cases. When Pilate asked “what is truth?” we could best have replied if only he had told us what in particular was bothering him. If his interest was in whether the defendant in front of him was disloyal to Caesar, well then, the truth would be the defendant in front of him being disloyal to Caesar, or not, and it was his job to settle that. Wondering whether it is true that it is raining is just the same thing as wondering whether it is raining. The equation iterates. As well as wondering whether it is true that it is raining you might wonder whether it is really true, or a fact that it is true, or true that it is a fact that it is true. But however far you continue, you are doing no more than wondering whether it is raining. If you settle that it is raining, then at a stroke you settle that it is true that it is a fact that it is really so that…it is raining. All these additions are nothing but ornaments: “it is true that” or “it is a fact that” add nothing. This is the key to the fourth theory, the deflationist theory of truth.
This must not be misunderstood. Of course there is a difference between it being true that it is raining, and it not being true. The difference is that in the one case, but not the other, it is raining, and we know what that means. It is also true that pigs grunt, but there is no common topic uniting pigs grunting and the rain. Truth should not be regarded as an additional topic at all. So say deflationists, who see ‘it is true that’ purely as a device of endorsement. If you assert that asses grunt I might nod, or myself grunt assent, or repeat what you say, or say “that’s true”. It is just a question of style, but our thoughts stay entirely with asses.
There are areas, such as ethics, politics, religion, and aesthetics where we are familiar with intractable disagreements. Some people think the same about the age of the earth or man-made climate change. The cure is for people to respect inquiry above assertion. Full, sober, objective, unbiased, inquiry is the only way forward, and it settles some things, if not everything. An agreement on the common rules of debate, which are typically embodied in critical thinking skills. The pragmatists were right about one thing: if you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance. Or a more modern version, If ignorance was bliss, why aren’t there more happy people in the world ?
This was originally authored by:
Simon Blackburn | Author of Think and On Truth, and former Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.