More chewing on the bone of “truth”

By | February 15, 2010

“The truth” does not refer to an entity that exists and can be found. But often people speak this way: “The truth is out there. All we have to do is to look for it.”

“The truth” by itself is vague and not very meaningful; it has to be completed by what that truth is about; e.g. the truth about human existence, or the truth about Church history, etc. (…and even then it remains problematic and vague.)

The search for truth, in a philosophical context, might mean the attempt to learn the significance and ultimate character of human existence. Other times, it may mean the attempt to identify those values that define human excellence and the good life. As such, the “search for truth” is value-laden, and the term “truth” is a value term (much like “good” or “sacred”).

A great paradox here is that in those important areas of human concern —viz, religion, morality, politics, history, social thought, etc.— the concept of `truth’ is a very problematic concept. It easily becomes confused (and “infused”) with factors of value judgment and (political and religious) ideological bias.
Typically in the modern age most professional philosophers do not claim to possess “truth” in the sense of wisdom, moral and religious truth, and certainly do not attempt to teach others the road to that truth. The role of the person of wisdom who points others toward truth and the higher good has been claimed by religionists and advocates of popular moral-ethical-political ideologies.
The typical intellectual and scholar would be painfully uncomfortable wearing the “robes of the wise man”; on the other hand, preachers, politicians and even “show biz” celebrities will frequently and comfortably don the robes of wisdom and moral authority.
Subsequently, many rationalists and critical philosophers look with great suspicion and skepticism on anyone claiming to teach wisdom and higher truth.

The “higher truth” is that there is no higher truth. There are only the “human-level” truths that human beings discover, learn and articulate in propositional form.

“Tell me the truth.” She cried, “Where were you last night?”
How could he answer her, since he didn’t have the foggiest …”

He could answer that he was practicing philosophy. That would throw her for a loss.

“Does he expect me to believe that story? might be her reaction. “Whoever heard of spending the night practicing philosophy?”

In this case, to tell the truth is simply to give an honest, factual account of your doings and whereabouts during the period in question. Nothing here should be perplexing; we all know what “truth” means.

“There’s no mystery as to where I was; I had to work overtime last night.”

There also is no mystery in this use of the phrase: “to tell the truth”; it simply means to speak truthfully to the best of one’s ability, to relate the facts.

“Search for truth” is more problematic; as is the phrase “to teach the truth.” Often use of the substantive (on noun) “truth” or “the truth” is problematic, or at least misleading. Use of the adjective “true” and the adverb “truly” or “truthfully” are less problematic.

The proposition that the truth is out there somewhere, and that if we look, we shall find it can be correctly used in the proper context. (For example, as when we don’t know what happened but we’re sure there are ways of learning what happened.) But talk of “the truth being out there” often leads to a misconception.

Often our use of the noun “truth” suggests to people that there’s something called ‘truth’ existing “out there somewhere.” The only thing that is “out there” for us to discover and observe is the world of things, persons, animals, and happenings. (But even with respect to these, some will engage in philosophical debate.)
[Adding to the confusion, people sometimes equate “the Truth” to “God.”]

If the label “truth” does not apply to an entity, what does it apply to? [This is a misleading question and reflects a type of philosophical confusion.]

Maybe we should simply replace every sentence using the term “truth” by one that omits that noun. “He told the truth” is simply another way of saying that “he spoke truthfully” or “he made true assertions.” “We’re trying to learn the truth about this matter” is another way of saying that “we trying to learn what happened or is happening.”

Another thought: In many contexts the label “truth” is often simply a way of commending someone’s assertion, affirmation, statement, claim, etc.. Applying the label does not imply that someone has apprehended part of a mysterious entity called ‘the truth.’ We’re merely acknowledging that he got it right, that he hit the target. It is much like a gold star pasted to a student’s test or essay.

“True” makes sense only in contrast to “false”; and both are modifiers of nouns: reports, stories, propositions, explanations, theories. A report is true when it accurately reports the event in question. It is false when it fails to report the event accurately.

When I witness an event and can report accurately what happened, then my statements regarding describing the event are likely true. When I lack knowledge of what happened and purport to report it anyway, most likely my statements will be false. To say I speak the truth or fail to express the truth is simply another way of stating that I reported things accurately or inaccurately.

In some cases, my claim to speak the truth invites the question as to how I gained the knowledge at issue. In many cases, a valid claim to truth and knowledge go together. Yet we must allow for the occasion when a person makes a truthful statement without possessing the relevant knowledge. (e.g., He made a lucky guess, but surely could not have known.)

The concept of knowledge, understood as propositional knowledge (knowledge that ..), presupposes the concepts of truth and falsehood. I know that DC is snowbound when my belief that DC is snowbound is true and I have good reasons for that belief. My belief that ‘DC is snowbound’ is true makes sense only by contrast to the possibility that it (that belief) could be false.

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