A Short Exchange on the concept of ‘Truth’

By | January 9, 2011

Recently the question of what we mean by “truth” came up in a discussion with one of my internet correspondents, Spanos. The issue related to a previous claim that a full understanding of what we mean by truth requires reference to an ideal observer, i.e. one who sees and knows everything.

I had stated that someone subscribing to a correspondence theory of truth, might claim that a proposition is true when it corresponds with the relevant state of affairs. For example, the proposition that “Obama is US president in 2010-2011″ is a true proposition if the factual state of affairs in 2010-2011 is that Obama is the US president. This can be stated clearly and understood clearly without any reference to perfection or to an ideal observer.

Spanos replied: “Obama is US president in 2010-2011″ is true in the normal, everyday sense of the word “true.” Is it therefore infallible? Any doubt that it is really true would be hyperbolic, but nevertheless possible. But this claim about Obama belongs to a very special class of claims. Many claims are easily doubted. These include claims made by lawyers, politicians, economists, marketers, historians, scientists, and philosophers. We often do not and cannot know what “the real truth” is in such cases. Certainly, either O.J. did or did not kill Nicole. But this appears to be one of those cases where we are simply helpless to know the real truth. In such a case, what do we mean by “the real truth?” We mean the actual state of affairs as it would be known to someone who possessed complete and infallibly accurate knowledge of all the relevant evidence. In other words, we mean the truth as it would be known to an ideal observer. This is, perhaps, truth in a sense that is never possible for us. Our ordinary applications of the word in everyday life do not measure up to this ideal of truth. Nevertheless, for some people it is the search for truth in this sense that gives meaning to life. Even if they can’t reach it, it is meaningful to just come closer to it.

Of course, this search may not really have the value that some people attribute to it. Either it does or it doesn’t, but can anyone claim to know the real truth about that? How about you? Do you find meaning in the search for “real truth?” Or are you happy to settle on conventional truth?

My reply: “Truth” is a word. Truth is a concept. The word is part of the English language. The concept is part of our conceptual scheme. I know how to use the word correctly and how to apply the concept correctly. Stating that Obama is currently the US president in January 8, 2011 is to make a true statement. Questioning the truth of this statement by asking whether it is infallible (as you did) is either engaging a idle type of hyper skepticism (somewhat of a philosophical joke) or connecting knowledge with infallibility (a conceptual error). If someone makes a statement which is doubtful, i.e, one for which there are good reasons for doubting, then I would not see it as knowledge of any kind. Your example: “We often do not and cannot know what “the real truth” is in such cases. Certainly, either O.J. did or did not kill Nicole.” Given this reasonable doubt, I would not claim knowledge of O.J. killing Nicole.

“True” in the normal sense of true, which is good enough for the sciences, is good enough for most people, including those practiced in philosophy, but who have not been sucked in by the pseudo distinction between normal truth and your notion of “real truth.” This notion of ‘real truth’ is often just an indication of some philosophical or religious ideology.

I don’t know what you mean by stating that “our ordinary applications of the word [truth] in everyday life do not measure up to this ideal of truth. “Truth as it would be known by an ideal observer” might have some use for some philosophies; but don’t over-rate this philosopher’s device (that all it is!) and set it up as the criterion for ‘real truth.’

Many people (philosophers, scientists, writers, thinkers, ordinary people) would like to know more than they currently know; and understand more than they currently understand. We could all improve in this respect. If you want to call this the “search for the real truth,” I cannot stop you. But understand that from my perspective that phrase betrays more confusion and false assumption than it expresses something noble and meaningful.

One thought on “A Short Exchange on the concept of ‘Truth’

  1. Firooz R. Oskooi

    Scientific truth is a universal ideal that is open to anyone under the same cirumstances to search for and share it in a logical and unbiased methodology with others. For daily life truths like in courts and other business or family situatins, truth is a consensual belief that can change and has no place in philosophy. It is the concern of police or detectives etc.


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