One of the greatest ironies of history consisted in a question that Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, asked of Jesus of Nazareth. Exasperated by Jesus’ enigmatic responses, Pilate finally expressed the question “What is truth?”
The irony consists in the fact that Pilate was looking into the eyes of Truth personified at that very moment. Christ, Himself, had told His disciples the previous night, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6).
But was Pilate’s question so unreasonable? In it do we not find a legitimate search for a meaningful answer? After all, in a culture where there were as many gods as there were men to worship them, would it not be difficult for the average Roman to define in concrete terms what truth actually was and who it was that possessed it? I believe that the spirit of Pilate’s question lingers, especially in our day when the very nature of truth itself has been brought into question.
If the Foundations Are Destroyed…
Psalm 11:3 asks this question, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The modern Christian apologist faces a unique problem. In past times, the object of apologetic argumentation was to bring to light the truth and to dismiss the false, but in modern times the very notion of truth itself has been discredited, so that now the apologist must not only present the truth, but define what truth is. If the foundational understanding of truth is undermined, what can the righteous do?
We have all heard statements like this before.
“That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.”
“There is no such thing as absolute truth.”
“All truth is relative.”
“You cannot know the truth.”
“Truth depends on how you were raised.”
These statements may seem ridiculous or nonsensical, but they represent an increasingly prevalent trend of philosophy in the modern world (See figures 1 and 2). A trend, which if left unchecked, will render meaningful conversations about God and salvation nearly impossible.
So is truth an absolute and immutable fact, or is it relative to your perspective and culture? That is the question that the Christian apologist must be able to answer in order to lay a stable foundation for further proofs of his faith.
Truth is that which corresponds with reality. Or to put it in the words of C. S. Lewis, “Truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is.”[i] This is known as the Correspondence Theory of truth, and is the only logically correct answer to the question of what truth is. All attempts to define truth in any other way are ultimately logically self-defeating.
Aristotle’s Definition of Truth
The Correspondence Theory of truth was first postulated by Plato’s famous student, Aristotle. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle states:
Now, in the first place, this is evident to those who define what truth and falsehood are. For indeed, the assertion that entity does not exist, and that nonentity does, is a falsehood, but that entity exists, and that nonentity does not exist, is truth. [ii]
To put Aristotle’s definition simply: truth is telling it like it is.
This may seem obvious or commonsensical, but Aristotle, by amplifying the teaching of Plato, was one of the first individuals to point out that truth is objective and not subjective. That is, truth exists outside of ourselves and does not conform itself to our opinions of it. For example, no matter how much I opine that the law of gravity does not exist, if I jump off of a tall building I will still fall. Once again, Aristotle states…
Statements and beliefs…themselves remain completely unchangeable in every way; it is because the actual thing changes that the contrary comes to belong to them.[iii]
Aristotle was basically saying that reality causes a statement to be true or false. Truth does not change reality, it agrees with it.
G. E. Moore’s Definition of Truth
G. E. Moore (1873-1958) was a philosopher and close personal friend of the famous agnostic, Bertrand Russell. He and Russell, despite their errors, are renowned for shedding light upon the Correspondence theory. Moore gives a definition of truth that closely resembles Aristotle’s, and helps to clarify the Correspondence Theory.
In Some Main Problems of Philosophy, Moore states, “To say that this belief is true is to say that there is in the Universe a fact to which it corresponds; and that to say that it is false is to say that there is not in the Universe any fact to which it corresponds.”[iv] In essence, Moore was saying that true beliefs correspond to facts (i.e. true ideas correspond to reality). He goes on to say, “When the belief is true, it certainly does correspond to a fact; and when it corresponds to a fact it certainly is true…and when it does not correspond to any fact, then certainly it is false.”[v]
In Moore’s postulation of the Correspondence Theory we understand a belief does not create fact to make itself true, but rather, a belief is true because it agrees with a fact that exists within reality.
The Liar Paradox
The Correspondence Theory has been the reigning theory of truth in Western thought for over two thousand years. It has not been without enemies however; for it was not long after that Aristotle had asserted his theory that it was met with criticism. Eubulides (a philosopher of the fourth century B.C.) postulated what is known as the “liar’s paradox” in an attempt to confound the correspondence theory. Eubulides asked his audience to consider the statement, “I am lying”.
The paradox is self-evident. If you say that the statement is true; it is really false, but if you say that the statement is false; it is actually true. So it seems that we find here at least and apparent problem with the correspondence theory of truth.
The answer to this objection is that it is logically self-defeating. Saul Kripke points out that such a statement is not grounded in a external matter of fact. While Bertrand Russel observes that this statment creates what is known as a metalanguage in which talk about the primary language is impossible. To quote Russell, “The man who says, ‘I am telling a lie of order n‘, is telling a lie, but a lie of order n + 1.”[vi]
[i] Lewis, C.S., God in the Dock, (Eerdmans, [2002 reprint of 1970 copyright]), taken from “Myth Became Fact”, p. 66
[ii] Aristotle, Metaphysics 4.7 1011b25-30, (Prometheus Books, 1991), translation by John H. McMahon
[iii] Aristotle, Categories 5.4a, From The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton University, 1984)
[iv] Moore, G. E., Some Main Problems of Philosophy, (Macmillan, 1953), p. 277
[v] Ibid. p. 279
[vi] Gardner, M., The Sixth Book of Mathematical Games from Scientific American, (University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 222