What is Truth?

Broadly speaking there are three theories of truth (with many variants) that philosophers, ethicists, and others consider when examining truth-claims of any variety.  The first, and most widely adopted and utilized, theory of truth is known as the Correspondence theory.  In its most basic form this theory asserts that a statement is true if, and only if, it corresponds to a realized and existent state of affairs.  For example, the statement: “Water is comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom” is true because in fact, water maintains this chemical composition.  Science has established the correspondence between this statement and water’s chemical composition.  Indeed, it within the realm of empiricism that the Correspondence theory appears self-evident.  Empiricists put forth statements in the form of hypotheses and then design experiments to establish correspondence.  If correspondence is established, the proposed hypothesis can be labeled true.  If not, it can be labeled as untrue (not necessarily false, however).  The Correspondence theory functions well when establishing matters of demonstrable and objective fact.  However, things become a bit more complicated when we assert truth-claims that are, by there very nature, subjective.  For example, I may say that I love my wife.  And, given that this statement does in fact correspond to my personal feelings and emotions, I can label it as true within the context of the Correspondence theory.  But how am I to evaluate a similar statement made by a friend or colleague when they speak of their spouse or children?  I have no way of verifying the correspondence in any objective sense and thus, am left to trust such statements and accept them as true.  But what if I see my friends or colleagues being unkind to their children or unfaithful to their spouse?  These actions seem incompatible with expressions of love.  In such circumstances it is the Coherence theory of truth that may help me reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The Coherence theory asserts that a statement is true if, and only if, it is coherent within the context of other accepted truths.  Thus, if I accept a truth-claim: “A person who loves their children treats them kindly and seeks to secure their welfare”, then I may choose to label the statements of my friends that they love their children as untrue if I observe behavior that is unkind and does not promote his/her children’s welfare.  In this context the statement that my friend loves his children is incoherent.  It simply does not make sense given a variety of other truth-claims I accept.  Much of theology relies on the Coherence theory in order to establish truth.  Theologians will often begin with stated premises such as “God exists” or “God is omnipotent” and then work out theological questions in such a way as to make other truth-claims about God coherent within the context of the stated premises.  Coherence theory, then, would seem to be very appropriate in cases where we begin with stated assumptions of truth and work through questions from that point.  Thomas Riskas in his book “Deconstructing Mormonism” utilizes a type of Coherence theory to argue that Mormon beliefs, when stated, are incoherent and therefore false.  I do appreciate Riskas’ careful application of Coherence theory (heavily influenced by the work of Kai Nielsen) even though I believe his overall approach  lacks adequate consideration for how religious belief functions and operates in people’s lives.  This brings me to a third theory of truth:  Pragmatic.

The Pragmatic theory of truth is based on the work of Dewey but it was William James who espoused Pragmatism (in general) such that it caught the attention of serious thinkers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  Pragmatic theory asserts that a statement or belief is true if it “works” within the context of an individuals’ overarching “truth narrative.”  In this sense, the belief that “God exists” is true if it brings about real-world consequences that harmonize the collection of a person’s life experience and worldview.  In this sense Pragmatic truth is constrained to individuals, or perhaps communities, and does not lay claim to establishing what is “real” but rather, what “works” for individuals and communities.  James is careful to distinguish Pragmatic truth from other truth-claims by labeling it as “instrumental” in the sense that Pragmatic truth brings about workable consequences.  Pragmatism should not be confused with Utilitarianism, however; as Pragmatism makes no claim on what type of consequences are to be valued over others.  This valuation is done at the individual level whereas Utilitarians generally speak of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

As we can see, the concept of truth does not exist in a vacuum.  Perceptions of truth and even the establishment of fact rely on context as well as the perspective of those making truth-claims.  Even when dealing in the empirical or scientific realm the perspective of the observer is key to establishing fact.  For example, living on earth we measure both speed and time relative to the motion of the earth and the force of gravity.  Measurements of the same event will differ from those on earth when taken within a different cosmological context.  Similarly, our varied earthly contexts and perceptions will both shape and dictate which theory of truth we employ when investigating truth-claims.  As a matter of course, each of us rely on all three major theories of truth and it is essential to understand both the context in which truths are claimed and the theory utilized to establish truths when considering questions of science, ethics, religion, etc…