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Is There a Truth about Truth?

by Gabe Czobel Abstract: The short answer to this question is, no – well, maybe. And that's about as committal as I will get, preferring instead to examine the various perspectives that have been bandied about since the dawn of philosophical ruminations, and hoping to sort out a sensible, workable viewpoint. We know language commonly contains such words as “true” and “truth”, but just exactly what do they mean, if indeed they mean anything at all exactly? Philosophers have wrestled mightily with the concept of truth since ancient times and continue to do so right up to the present, without reaching anything that may be considered to be a consensus. Ideas have certainly proliferated and reached ever greater levels of subtlety, but clearly not to the satisfaction of all involved in the melee. Going back to the time of Plato and Aristotle, we have such pronouncements, intuitively sensible to us, as Plato noted, “ The true one states facts as they are ... And the false one states things that are other than the facts” [1] . Aristotle in turn asserted, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” [2]. In more recent times, a variety of complex, formal theories of truth have been proposed in an attempt to pin down, with some methodical precision, the nature of truth and how one would arrive at it and determine it precisely and unequivocally in all instances where it was in question. Now, being theories, of course this begs the question if any one of them can somehow be shown to be determinedly true, which is a little bit like a snake chasing its tail. This particular quandary gives a small hint of just why the issue of truth can be so elusive. It is appropriate at this point to briefly raise the question of why truth matters at all. Clearly, it does matter, as evidenced by the tremendous amount of intellectual effort expended over great spans of time in attempting its clarification. But I will hint in this regard, to be expanded on later, that why truth matters may actually hold a key to better understanding its nature as a human functional concept. In considering why truth matters, it needs little emphasis that truth is generally valued and falsehood scorned when it comes to personal beliefs, what our senses tell us, what other people communicate to us or of what they try to convince us, and so on. No one willingly wants to be fooled, bamboozled, or deluded. We also want others to know and abide by the truth in general matters important in social intercourse such as politics, law, health, engineering, science, and the like, so that society functions as smoothly, beneficially, and as safely as possible. This is simple self interest. Highly technical areas such as logic, mathematics, the sciences, philosophy, or generally any academic realm, would quickly unravel without due regard for the centrality of truth. All this is self-evident. Now let's see of what value the various theories of truth, developed in philosophy, have in satisfying our concerns about why truth matters. Theories of Truth There are a number of common notions that these theories try to address in general:

1. Of what things in the world can it be said that they are true, that is, possess the property or value of truth? These are called “truth-bearers.” Truth-bearers are most commonly statements, propositions, and beliefs. 2. What makes these things true? These are called “truth-makers.” 3. Are “true” and “not true (false)” the only options in all cases? The affirmative answer to this question is called “bivalence.” Without any attempt to be exhaustive or engage in evaluation, these are very brief summaries of the most common theories of truth, just to give a flavour of what the main players are in this arena: 1. The correspondence theory has it that truth-bearers bear some relation, or correspond to, particular facts or the way things are in the world. Thus, it is this relation to the world that makes the truth bearers true and the absence of such a relation to anything in the world makes them false. This theory brings with it a commitment to a reality of facts existing independently of any observer or perhaps even beyond any possibility of observation. Hence, objectivity is provided by this means. 2. The coherence theory has it that truth is determined by a coherence relation of some truthbearer in question to a set or system of other truth-bearers that are already considered coherent and consistent among themselves. That is, it fits the set. There is no commitment to a reality existing independently beyond the system itself. 3. The pragmatic theory holds a broad set of attitudes regarding truth in practice, as opposed simply to abstract truth, while accepting some reliance on an independently existing reality and verification. The attitudes are expressed variously as, “the ultimate outcome of inquiry in the long run,” “that which is good, useful, and expedient,” “warranted assertability,” “leading to consistency, stability, and flowing human intercourse,” and so on in the same vein of practicality. 4. Deflationary theory forms an umbrella for various specific theories that consider the notion of truth to be dispensable, redundant, utilitarian, an opaque primitive, insubstantial, and generally not to be anguished over in great metaphysical detail as is done in the correspondence and coherence theories. 5. The semantic theory was developed by Alfred Tarski in an attempt to grapple with certain paradoxes that may arise in natural languages, such as the Liar paradox [3]. His highly technical formal theory is intended to apply to formal languages and produced the iconic schema, “ 'Snow is white' is true in English if and only if snow is white.” All of these are marked by the fact that detractors have pointed out, at great length, various shortcomings that would negate labeling any of these as final, universally effective or even coherent, while supporters have, in turn, come up with what they consider valid, and equally complex counterarguments. It is impossible to detail these exchanges here on account of their breadth and complexity. See Grayling [4] for a very cogent overview. Suffice to say that truth remains, in the philosophical arena, a hotly contested concept. And this is exactly as it should be – this should surprise no one! One need only consider, as a starting point, that “truth” and its cognates “true” and “false”, along with the same concepts in other languages, are simply words in natural language. If we take it for granted that natural languages are not fixed, eternal features of the world, but would have arisen from scratch, probably bit by bit rather than as a complete whole, and evolved along with humans in the course of human history, it would make sense

that individual words would have also arisen at various times along the language's evolutionary timeline. We certainly know that such a thing is still going on, evidenced in the form of neologisms. We can also take it for granted that language primarily fulfills a need of communication and social interaction, which are clearly strongly facilitated by the use of language. Philosophy would have then followed upon, in time, this process of linguistic evolution, as philosophy primarily takes the form of a narrative activity outlining ruminations about salient concepts that we find – surprise – in language! The words “true” and “truth,” as commonly and mundanely used in the linguistic forum, without a great deal of thought being given to them, then come under microscopic scrutiny by philosophically inclined individuals, since they simply beg for such examination, being so central to harmonious social exchange and in giving warrant to our various world-views. I'll return to words and linguistic evolution shortly, but I first want to shed some light on what I feel are missteps in the broad philosophical approach so far. Truth as a Property Perhaps one of the greatest impediments that stymies philosophical inquiry into this area is the view that truth is an inherent property of something, namely the truth-bearers, such as sentences, propositions, and beliefs. The very expression “truth-bearer” implies something that carries, holds, supports, or possesses another, separate thing, namely truth. With regard to sentences and propositions, these typically stand apart from any individual who utters them since we may not know who actually stated a particular sentence, when, and in what context, and we do not need to know it for it to have objective properties. For instance, the number of words in a sentence, or even the particular language in which it was written or uttered, are observable, objective properties. Sentences similarly stand apart from the possible prospective interpreters of those sentences. Hence, sentences are viewed as independent things bearing independent properties. The human communicators are detached from this picture. The aspect of truth, as something held to be an inherent property, confers the intuitive notion that such a property is somehow fixed, objective and detectable by some independent, empirical means, such as how we can detect the mass of an apple, the malleability of gold, the velocity of a bullet, and so on. This is so, at least when applied to sentences and perhaps to propositions, although a little harder for the latter. Beliefs, being mental phenomena, are more problematic still in bearing properties which are publicly, objectively observable, unless the beliefs are translated and uttered as sentences; which then takes us back to objective properties of sentences. It is presumed that a belief, held to have the property of “truth,” would be expressible, in principle, by sentences that have the same truth value, the same property of truth. Even those holding a personal belief may still need to articulate it in sentences in order to clarify to themselves just exactly what it is that they believe. This whole approach implicitly grants an independent, objective, metaphysical status to truth. It makes it appear to be something that is detached from humans and human activity, as something that is independently “out there,” discoverable by some means or other. The point being made here is not the one about some presumption of an independently existing reality giving credibility to human utterances, but rather that truth itself is somehow part of that independent reality. We have the appearance of assertions such as, “The truth is out there.” Truth is reified and it attains some Platonic status.

One can easily see a problem with such a perspective of truth as a metaphysical property of things by examining a sentence such as, “The British left waffles on Falkland Islands.” Some, taking a literal view, may see this sentence as a remark about certain food items left behind on specific islands by some inhabitants deriving from Britain. Others, more correctly in the context, will see this as a remark about British groups of a particular political leaning being equivocal in their opinions about a historical event. It is clear that there is a possibility that the sentence may be true in one case, where the mentioned food items were actually left behind, and false in another, where the groups mentioned did not, in fact, equivocate. But how can the same sentence have a single property with contradictory values? This is much like saying that the sentence consists of six words and also of ten words. This is not the way we like to have our metaphysics. The same problem applies to sentences whose truth depends on context and time, such as, “I have the flu.” Today this sentence may be true but next month not true. This makes it clear that it may lead to confusion to view truth as a simple, distinct property of a specific sentence viewed as an objective collection of words. And propositions as truth-bearers fare no better since the link between sentences, as collections of words in some natural language, and the equivalent abstract propositions is still a matter of inference. The truth of a sentence, as we usually conceive it, arises out of an interplay of the string of words, which form the sentence, and the mental machinery that extracts the semantics of the sentence. Truth as Reference There is a commonality among many of the theories that makes truth, in some sense, contextual, in reference to something apart from the truth-bearer itself. This is simply intuitive since it would be hard to conceive a sentence, for example, to have a correctness or epistemic value – that is, to be true -- in complete isolation from , or absence of, some presumed reality beyond the sentence itself. It would just be a detached string of words. There would be no truth-makers. One exception to this would be selfreferential paradoxes, such as the Liar mentioned earlier, but these are rarely found in common exchanges. There are two broad categories of truth-makers: 1. Some reality. 2. A system of other truth-bearers. On closer examination, these two categories are seen not really to be distinct and independent. Even in the case of the most extreme solipsism, there is the assumption that something exists and persists. At the bottom, this is the essence of what is held to be the notion of “reality.” More commonly though, the set of things that exist and persist is held to be vastly larger than the self, although the devil is in the details. So a reality of some sort is not in dispute on pain of contradiction. Hence, truth-bearers having some type of conformity with whatever type of reality is the case, is the most essential, intuitive notion of the concept of truth for purposes of pragmatic self-interest, as will be outlined further on. If we focus on category 2 above, coherence with a system of truth-bearers, it is inescapable that such a system is also part of some greater reality. The system would need to exist and persist to be of any use as reference, although existence does not need to be manifestly material. If we question how such a system of truth-bearers comes into existence, noting that the members of the system are typically mental – ideas, theories, beliefs, assertions, etc. -- communally held and possibly recorded, the most reasonable scenario, beyond a grand, wholly formed revelation, is that the system grew piecemeal. There had to be the first considered truth-bearer. The question then arises, with respect to what was that

truth-bearer held to be true, since there was not yet a system. The “what” had to be from category 1, a reference to some reality itself. Even most mathematical axioms and postulates are formed because their truth is intuitively self-evident without proof, given our view of reality being as it is. That is, they conform to what we take as reality and we could not conceive of them being otherwise, given that our conceptual faculties are a product of, and embedded in, that reality. If some axiom, that is not intuitively self-evident, leads to some conclusion contradicting manifest reality, it is discarded as an axiom. Hence, category 2 rests entirely on pillars grounded in category 1. Taking coherence with some system as an arbiter of truth is merely expressing a laziness to trace the support all the way down to the pillars. In this view, systems in category 2 are simply a part of the vast network we take to be reality. The gremlins pervading this structure arise from disagreements regarding the actual pillars and regarding the validity of the coherence within the systems. This leads to one of the most common attacks on the coherence theory of truth, that one can still forge systems in which the pillars are lacking or dubious and yet still have a self-consistent, coherent system. As Bertrand Russell noted, coherence theory cannot distinguish the truth from a consistent fairy-tale. Of what value to communicators would a “truth” be when established by coherence with such a system? On the other hand, the rejoinder to the notion of truth being a reference to some kind of a reality of category 1 is that we have no direct access to all possible aspects of the purported reality, so we do not know its full extent and nature. Even the parts of reality that we have access to have to be filtered through fallible senses and such data processed by fallible mental machinery. These concerns, taken to extreme, could leave one completely cynical as to what reality may actually be like. So how could we, in good faith, take truth to be some reference to it? At best, what we could do is to survey what we take as reality manifestly accessible to us – there are people, animals, the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, air, and so on – to form a manifestly credible system of propositions held to be true on account of this survey, which is provisional at any point in time on account of new discoveries, and take truth to be that which coheres with this system of truth-bearers. This would then take us back full circle to category 2 as the arbiter of truth, even if it is acknowledged to be subsumed by category 1 in principle. But this will not do either from a practical point of view. The individual possible range of facts which we could add to this system is vast beyond imagination even for the manifest reality accessible to us. For instance, we could add to the system the number of microbes in a particular teardrop at a particular time, assuming we have the means to clearly see and distinguish them. The truth of such a proposition could not be established by coherence alone with any practical system, and truth, as it is valued by us, is ultimately a practical matter, as we shall see further on. To establish the truth value of a proposition concerning the microbes in the teardrop, we have little choice but to contact that part of reality, while at the same time assuming that that particular contact with it will yield the information to a reasonable, credible level of accuracy upon which we may place some value. In summary then, we cannot but assume some existing, persistent reality, of whatever nature, as a starting point. On the assumption that we have, based on simple experience, the capacity to establish contact with at least parts of this reality, in a stable, consistent, largely successful manner, we may form

systems of beliefs, or propositions grounded, as firmly as possible within our means, in such contacts. We may then provisionally establish some later propositions to be true in reference to such systems, given that the effort to trace back the truth of such propositions to the system's original contacts with reality may be prohibitive. Any practical system of coherent propositions would be too lean to establish the truth of all possible propositions, and many, perhaps most, propositions, sentences, and beliefs would need to be established by some attempts at direct contacts with reality, with the recognition of various assumptions. The foregoing is not to imply that establishing truth, that is, imbuing utterances and beliefs with a certain type of value, becomes a simple matter, once we admit both correspondence and coherence in their proper place. There will always be questions about assumptions regarding the nature of reality and our access to it, and there will be questions about the validity of any purported systems of coherent truth-bearers. There will be many statements whose actual semantic content is too vague or obscure. There will be sentences that present paradoxes due to self reference. These latter may be best approached by more technical means such as Tarski's semantic theory, or axiomatic theory, or revision theory, to name a few. But both coherence and correspondence are fundamentally functional in providing value to human utterances and beliefs. And this brings us back to language and the words which comprise it. Truth is just a Word We often find that words in natural language are notoriously slippery and imprecise when subjected to detailed examination, even though we have little problem using them in the normal arena of verbal intercourse. I think this should not come as a great shock, however. Words, being the “Lego” blocks of communication, are individuated to each serve some unique purpose in that practice of communication which functions to transmit information between or among communicators. And this exchange needs to occur with rates of information transmission that fall within a certain range to fit a large variety of contexts where communication may take place. That is, human communicators can formulate and receive information meaningfully only within a certain range of transmission rates on account of the limitations imposed by our cognitive machinery as well as by the medium of speech which originally carried most information. If the rate is too high, no human can speak fast enough nor understand what is spoken, and if the rate is too low, communication lags too much behind other sequences of events in the world to make it practical in a broad range of contexts. Consequently, individual words have to carry enough information to come near some optimal range of information transmission in a great variety of contexts, from leisurely, casual conversation, to more exacting exchanges carried out in highly organised social enterprises found in civilisations, to terse situations of great stress and perhaps danger such as brute hunter-gatherer survival and conflict. It is most likely under the latter conditions that the most basic words of language took shape in man's early history where brute survival took precedence. The words of a language have to be optimised such that most of them will work to successfully transmit the intended information correctly, most of the time, in all these possible range of contexts. In any form of information transmission there is always some likelihood of information loss due to some combination of faults of the transmitter, the medium, or the receiver. Human communication is no different. Information loss generally needs to be kept just small enough to make most communication, in all contexts encountered in the early development of language, count as successful to the outcome desired under that context. If a member of a group of hunter-gatherers tries to warn the

group of the threat of approaching dangerous predators, and the words used don't transmit the information at a quick enough rate, yet with enough clarity to the situation, so that most of the listeners have a good probability of quickly understanding the intended message, the probable bloody outcome would attest to the large information loss and lack of success of the communication. Repeat such situations often enough and we can see that such sub-optimal words will likely not flourish, in fact die out, in the evolution of language, to be displaced by more optimal words that enjoy greater probabilities of success in more contexts. There are trade-offs to be made in considering words as being broadly optimal in their information content. If too little information, specificity, and precision is packed into a word, communication is too slow. This would be like having to say “plant-flower-spring-bulb-colours-one-per-stem ...” instead of “tulip.” If too much information is packed into a word, communication would be difficult to follow, on account of too high a rate of information transmission. Too many words would be needed in the lexicon because each word would be too specific and precise for most situations, thus taxing human memory. This would be like having a different word for each different coloured tulip of different lengths and different species. The precision of such words would be great but not practical. So the words that would survive such a refining process to form a language would be those that pack just enough information and precision to convey the concept that they represent with a reasonable enough level of probability of successful transmission in most of the varied contexts under which human communications take place. Optimal information content of words would be attained over time by the survival of successful words. Note well that there is no requirement here for perfect information transmission, always successful in all contexts at all times, where the understood meaning received is precisely that intended by the transmitter. Such perfection is just not needed in normal, mundane human intercourse. Our cognitive machinery is well equipped to deal with errors in transmission and deductions from context, and such perfection is simply unattainable in a practical manner. Hence, there is no reason to expect that words, which serve well in natural language, will have a great deal of inherent precision in structure or boundary. In fact, just the opposite works quite well as we see polysemous words such as “bank” and even ones that may play multiple successful syntactic roles, such as “play.” The rough outline painted here of words of a language being objects of a largely undirected process which is clearly evolutionary in nature is, of course, mere speculation based upon feasibility and backward extrapolation from the written record of languages over historical times. Nevertheless, the outline given above is quite feasible and well within reason, and hence, carries some weight in being held as a credible provisional position for the purposes of examining the word “truth.” But even more to the point, it provides a credible explanation as to why we can take the word “truth” as not necessarily in need of a precisely structured and bounded meaning in order to still function quite well in most areas of verbal interaction with a good probability of success. Thus, we have a hint as to why many words in natural language, such as “truth,” are often found to be slippery and imprecise without any severe impact on communication in a great variety of contexts. Now, enter the philosophers who, buoyed by some small successes in making some simpler parts of the world perspicuous, believe that they should be able to pick apart and eventually precisely pin down the nature of the concept that, as I contend, largely undirected evolution of language embedded in the word “truth.” And, if such attempts to date are any indication, to do so with theories each based on a single, simple overarching mechanism to account for all cases. If, in fact, the word “truth” does not stand in for a clearly bounded, perspicuous concept and mechanism, applicable across the board, then it is no

wonder that the detractors of the various theories of truth have such an easy time of it to point out confounds, failings, and weaknesses in each case. As Bertrand Russell had noted, “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.” The travail we see in the philosophical examination of the concept of truth is somehow reminiscent of the situation described in the poem called The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe [5]. Each of the blind sages in the poem takes the elephant to be no more than the particular anatomical feature he first happened to encounter, the tail, the trunk, the ear, and so on, and fixes his attention strictly on that feature as representing the essence of the whole elephant. The lesson to be taken away from Saxe's parable in conjunction with my musings on linguistic evolution is that we may need to view truth not as an elemental, tightly bounded metaphysical structure in the vein often taken by philosophy, but as a complex, a Swiss Army knife of heuristic semantic tools that we use in facilitating communication and in forming a world-view. The various theories of truth, viewed in this light, all have something to contribute, depending on context, and best not applied with too stringent enthusiasm, splitting hairs ten different ways. There is no need to discard meter sticks just because they are of little value in measuring the thickness of a hair in one context, or measuring angles for that matter, in another. It may be that a more comprehensive theory regarding the word “truth”, as opposed to a theory regarding some metaphysical concept of truth, would turn out to be a complex algorithm incorporating correspondence and coherence, among other things such as context, probability, information loss, mental attitudes, just to name a few. Aristotle has some words of wisdom to offer in this regard with this observation. “The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of all things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.” [6] Truth as an Attitude The bottom line is that no single theory devised to date will work across the board to reach what we value in the notion of truth. Some broadly encompassing algorithmic process, as alluded to above, would be much more likely to be fruitful, along with the acceptance that any truths so discovered or adjudicated would be provisional – the best we can do -- at any point in time, and not absolute. The best we can aim for, considering our human limitations and the vast complexity of all we see about us, is a level of confidence and credibility in some proposition, the data of our senses, our beliefs, and so on. Perhaps, in the final analysis, instead of viewing truth as a fixed, inherent property of something, it would be more fruitful to view the notion of “truth” as expressing an attitude that we have toward all types of information coming in through our senses and even our internal introspections impinging on our consciousness – dreams, visions, beliefs, sensations, conversations, reading, etc. All these could be, in some sense or other, credible and valued, or untenable and scorned. Such an attitude is motivated by a pragmatic notion of value. We place value on that to which we attach the characteristic of “true” as simply more likely, based on experience, to lead to successful outcomes in the course of life. Conversely, we scorn that which we characterise as “false” as more likely to lead

to unsuccessful outcomes. More succinctly, truth matters! This can be made amply clear in an extreme case, for instance, where we may find a bottle of clear liquid bearing a label “Nitroglycerine” that has been crossed out and “Water” written over it. Which message do we take as credible where, though dying of thirst, even picking up the bottle to remove the cap could be deadly? Which theory of truth or which approach is best applied in this context to lead to the most probable successful outcome, which is mostly what we're really interested in as a species manifestly motivated in any situation by our own self-interest and survival, or the interest and survival of varying proximal layers of kin and social groups?

Notes: [1] Plato, Sophist, Section 263b. tr. Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. [2] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book IV, Part 7, tr. W. D. Ross, 1924. [3] “This statement is false.” [4] Grayling, A. C., An Introduction to Philosophical Logic, Blackwell Publishing, 1997. [5] Saxe, John Godfrey, The Blind Men and the Elephant, The Poems of John Godfrey Saxe, 1880. [6] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book II, Part 1, tr. W. D. Ross, 1924.

© 2013 by Gabe Czobel