Truth


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William James  One of the more original methods adopted in the battle against skepticism was the one set forth by the 19th century philosopher/psychologist, William James.  Rather than argue over whether truth can be known, James simply redefines the meaning of truth in his theory of pragmatism.  According to James, the problem with the dispute between skeptics and dogmatists is that the latter professes to know the truth while the former asserts that truth cannot be known (or that one should at least suspend judgment).  James counters both positions by asserting that truth is not a correspondence between belief and an actual state of affairs, but truth is that which ‘works’, or produces proper consequences.  In this post, I hope to demonstrate the incoherence and contradiction inherent in the pragmatic theory of truth.

In his famous lecture, “The Will to Believe”, James makes the following statement:

But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself.  We still pin our faith in its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think.  Our great different from the scholastic [those who hold to a correspondence theory of truth] lies in the way we face.  The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem.  Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide…if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he [the empiricist] means by its being true.

In this passage, James is arguing that truth is founded on consequence rather than correspondence.  The truth of a belief is based upon where it leads as opposed to what it agrees with.  In essence, truth is what ‘works’ for the person who believes it.  However, one of the primary problems with this theory is the ambiguity of what is meant by ‘works’.  Indeed the term ‘works’ can be used in a variety of ways.  Take the following three possibilities for example:

  • 1) A belief works if it is eventually verified through empirical observation
  • 2) A belief works if it helps an individual make it through the rigors and hardships of daily life.
  • 3) A belief works if it provides the greatest good for the individual who believes it.

Now consider the following scenario:  Bob has been studying philosophy for 10 years, and he believes that he will successfully defend his dissertation for a PHD in the subject which he is preparing.  Throughout his academic career, Bob’s belief that he would someday earn a PHD has helped him to endure great personal sacrifice.  However Bob’s thesis is eventually deemed unacceptable by the examining committee and he does not receive the degree.  The question is: did this belief work?  It seems to have worked according to (2) but not according to (1).  And who knows if the belief worked according to (3)?  Perhaps Bob would never have received a job after getting his degree or maybe he would have been miserable as a philosophy professor.  The sheer ambiguity of the term is astounding.

Indeed, the very fact that the truth of belief is determined by its consequences leads to problems as well.  According to pragmatism, for a person to hold a true belief, she must know that this belief is ultimately useful in her life.  Yet does not this lead to skepticism as well?  How does one know that a belief is useful or not?  The pragmatist may answer that a belief is useful if leads to the good.  Well then, how does one know what the good is? 

Ultimately, pragmatism seems to confuse metaphysics with epistemology.  I believe that it was Bertrand Russell who observed that pragmatism confuses a test for truthfulness (epistemology) with the meaning of truthfulness (metaphysics).  A doctor can test for the flu by checking someone for a high temperature, however it does not follow that the word “flu” means “that which causes an above average temperature in the body”.  While the usefulness of a scientific model may be a good indicator of its truth, one should not confuse this with the truth of the model itself.

Finally, pragmatism appears to be self referentially absurd.  If the truthfulness of a belief is determined by whether or not the belief is useful, what if I find pragmatism, itself, to not be useful?  What if pragmatism does not work for me?  It seems that, in a case like this, the theory of pragmatism cannot even satisfy its own criteria.  If one interprets ‘useful’ as a belief that is eventually empirically verified, how then does one ever empirically verify the theory of pragmatism itself?  What observations can be made?  What tests can be administered?  And even if one could empirically verify the theory, at what point would the theory be officially ‘verified’?  Would not there not always be the chance that new empirical observations would undo the aforementioned verification?  Indeed, it appears that pragmatism, rather than being a way out of skepticism, is just a more fanciful of getting there.

(Click to see Part 1)

Once again, Aristotle was one of the first recorded ancient thinkers to discover the law of non-contradiction. It is important to note that Aristotle did not create this law, no more that Isaac Newton created the law of gravity; he merely discovered it as an unchanging principle of the universe.  In Metaphysics Aristotle states, “For the same thing to be present and not be present at the same time in the same subject, and according to the same, is impossible.” [i]  This then is the law of non-contradiction, one of the first principles of knowledge.[1]

      The law of non-contradiction can be expressed simply as such: A cannot be both B and non-B at the same time and in the same sense.  In this equation the letters A and B are variables.  We may insert a number of different words in this equation to illustrate the law of non-contradiction.  For example, an object (A) cannot be both square (B) and round (non-B) at the same time and in the same sense.  Now let’s examine that proposition with the aid of figure 3 below. 

      In this diagram A represents “object”, and B represents “square”.  Non-B represents anything that is not “square” (i.e. a circle).  Non-B is what is called the “complimentary class” because it completes the proposition.  To deny the law of non-contradiction would be the same thing as to make a square-circle, which is logically impossible (we cannot even conceive of such a shape).  

      The law of non-contradiction can also be used to verify the Correspondence Theory of truth as so: A statement (A) cannot be both true (B) and false (non-B) at the same time and in the same sense.  There is as much probability as a statement being both true and false in the same way, as there is an object being round and square.  It is a logical impossibility. 

God and Logic
      It may come as a shock to many people to know that God, himself, cannot break the law of non-contradiction.  That is, God cannot create a square-circle, or make a statement that is both true and false, or create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it. 

      Many people respond to this fact by saying, “How dare you say that God cannot do something!  God can do anything He chooses. He is all-powerful!”  But the Bible, itself, plainly states that there are some things that God absolutely cannot do.  Hebrews chapter six lists two things that God cannot do.  Verse 13 states that God cannot swear by any name higher than His own, and verse 18 states that God cannot tell a lie. 

      Both of these verses give a clue to the nature of the things that God cannot do.  God cannot and will not do anything that contradicts His nature.  For example, truth is an essential property of God’s nature so it is impossible for God to lie.  In the same sense, logic is an essential property of God’s nature; He cannot do anything that is logically impossible.  God is not subordinate to logic, but rather, logic is a part of Who He is[2], and so He cannot do anything that would contradict that part of Him.  “He cannot deny Himself.” (II Timothy 2:13).

 Dialectical Logic
      Another so-called form of logic is known as Dialectical Logic.  Whereas non-contradictory logic states that reality must be either/or, dialectical logic states that reality is both/and.  In other words, non-contradiction (or excluded middle) says that a statement is either true or false, but dialectical says that a statement can be both true and false.

      Some critics of the either/or form of logic point out that it is a Western (American, English, etc.) form of logic, and that when you are dealing with Eastern (Oriental) concepts you have to use the both/and form of logic.  This argument is flawed in two main areas

      In the first place, you cannot assign the laws of the universe by different cultures.  Mortimer J. Adler says that, “The fundamentals of logic should be as transcultural as the mathematics with which the principles of logic are associated.  The principles of logic are neither Western nor Eastern, but universal.”[ii]  In essence, Adler is pointing out that the laws of mathematics do not change in varying cultures.  “Two plus two equals four” is the same in America, Russia, Korea, Australia, and everywhere else for that matter.  The same thing applies to the law of non-contradiction.

      Secondly, you cannot argue against the law of non-contradiction without using it, and this, in turn, is self-defeating.  Perhaps a story would illustrate this point.  Ravi Zacharias tells of an instance when was debating a professor who embraced the Dialectical logic of the Hindu religion.

     As the professor waxed eloquent and expounded on the law of non-contradiction, he eventually drew his conclusion:  “This [either/or logic] is a Western way of looking at reality.  The real problem is that you are seeing contradictions as a Westerner when you should be approaching it as an Easterner.  The both/and is the Eastern way of viewing reality.”

     After he belabored these two ideas on either/or and both/and for some time, I finally asked if I could interrupt his unpunctuated train of thought and raise one question.

     I said, “Sir, are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and system of logic or nothing else?”

     There was pin-drop silence for what seemed an eternity.  I repeated my question:  “Are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and logic or nothing else?  Have I got that right?”

     He threw his head back and said, “The either/or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

     “Indeed, it does emerge,” I said.  “And as a matter of fact, even in India we look both ways before we cross the street – it is either the bus or me, not both of us.”[iii]

       From this humorous story we see the undeniability of the law of non-contradiction.  Any attempt to deny it is self-defeating.  The more you try to disprove it, the more you prove its necessity in rational argument.

      The consequences of denying the law of non-contradiction are dreadful (see fig. 4[iv]).  There would be no basis for reality if it did not exist, and our universe would be uninhabitable.        

(Fig. 4)

Eight Results of Denying the Law f Non-Contradiction

 By James Sullivan (see endnote) 

•1. To deny the necessity and validity of the Principle of Contradiction would be to deprive words of their fixed meaning and render speech useless.

•2. Reality of essences must be abandoned; there would be becoming without anything that becomes; flying without a bird; accidents without subjects in which to inhere.

•3. There would be no distinction between things.  All would be one.  Ship, wall, man would all be the same thing.

•4. It would mean the destruction of truth, for truth and falsity would be the same thing.

•5. It would destroy all thought, even opinion, for its affirmation would be its negation.

•6. Desire and preference would be useless, for there would be no difference between good and evil; there would be no reason to go home, for to go home would not be different from staying where one is.

•7.  Everything would be equally true and false at the same time, so that no opinion would be more wrong than any other even in degree.

•8. It would make impossible all becoming; change, or motion.  For all this implies a transition from one state of being to another; but if the Principle of Contradiction is false, all states of being are the same.

 Characteristics of Truth
      We will conclude this post with a few of the main characteristics of truth.  These characteristics are essential properties of what truth is and how it works.

 Truth is Exclusive
      All truth claims are absolutely exclusive.  When a statement is true, then by definition, it excludes everything else that opposes it.  For example, if the statement, “Socrates is a man” is true, then that statement excludes all other conceptions of what Socrates is.  Even the statement, “No truth is exclusive” is an exclusive statement, because it excludes any conception of truth except the one stated.

 Truth is Immutable
      Truth does not change; it remains the same no matter what.  There are a few objections to this, but the one most commonly stated is that truth changes with time.  For example, the statement, “Abraham Lincoln is president” was true in 1863 but is not true in 2003; this is seen as a valid contradiction of two equally true claims.  This objection is easily refuted because it is based on confusion of the law of non-contradiction

      The law of non-contradiction teaches that two opposing statements cannot both be true in the same time and the same sense.  Time is an essential context to a truth claim.  To quote Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks, “The spatial and temporal context of statements is an inherent part of the context which determines the meaning of that assertion.”[v]  The truth claim is understood in context of the time it was made.  So the statement “Lincoln is president” (as said in 1863) is an absolute, unchangeable truth.

Truth is Objective
      Truth is objective not subjective. That is, truth exists outside of us.  Our opinions concerning a statement or idea do not make them true or false.  The opposite of this belief is known as relativism.  Any conception of truth outside of its being objective will ultimately lead to a logical contradiction, and is therefore impossible.

 Conclusion
      In this post we have looked at the definition of truth, the logic on which it is based, and some of its essential properties.  It is imperative that we understand the meaning and nature of truth if we hope to defend the absolute claims of Christ and the Christian faith.  Who knows, but that some of those who are reading this will not be faced with a Pilate of their own someday, who will ask them with earnest and hopeful desire, “What is truth?” 


[1] The first principles of knowledge are the self-evident starting points on which all knowledge is based (i.e. the law of non-contradiction).  These principles do not contain any content of knowledge, but are necessary for knowledge to exist.  To those who would try to explain away these first principles, C. S. Lewis objects, “It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.  If you see through everything, then everything is transparent.  But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.  To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” (The Abolition of Man, (Harper Collins, 2001), p. 81)

[2] It is interesting that the Greek term used to describe Jesus in John 1 is the word logos, from which we derive our word Logic.

 


[i] Aristotle, Metaphysics 4.3 1005b, (Prometheus Books, 1991), translation by John H. McMahon

[ii] Adler, Mortimer, J., Truth in Religion, (Macmillan, 1990), p. 36

[iii] Zacharias, Ravi, Can Man Live Without Go?, (Word Publishing, 1994), p. 129

[iv] Sullivan, James, B., “An Examination of First Principles in Thought and Being in the Light of Aristotle and Aquinas”, Ph. D. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (Catholic University of America Press, 1939), pp. 121-122

[v] Geisler, Norman, R.; Brooks, Ronald, M., When Skeptics Ask, (Victor, 1990), p.256

(Click to read Part 2)

Figures 1 & 2One 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 Defined
            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