What Is Truth and Why Does it Matter?

Jun 10, 2004 |J.P. Moreland

J.P. unpacks the biblical understanding of truth.

Is there a biblical view of truth?For more on this, see J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), chapter six. The answer is no and yes. No, there is no peculiarly Christian theory of truth used only in the Bible and not elsewhere. Yes, properly interpreted, the Bible implicitly and explicitly teaches a particular theory of truth.

The Old and New Testament terms for truth are, respectively, emet and alethia. The meaning of these terms and, more generally, a biblical conception of truth are broad and multifaceted: fidelity, moral rectitude, being real, being genuine, faithfulness, having veracity, being complete. Two aspects of the biblical conception of truth appear to be primary: faithfulness and conformity to fact. The latter appears to involve a correspondence theory of truth (see below). Arguably, the former may presuppose a correspondence theory. Thus, faithfulness may be understood as a person's actions corresponding to the person's assertions or promises, and a similar point could be made about genuineness, moral rectitude and so forth.

There are hundreds of passages that explicitly ascribe truth to propositions in a correspondence sense. Thus, God says "I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right" (Isaiah 45:19). Also, there are numerous passages that explicitly contrast true propositions with falsehoods. Repeatedly, the Old Testament warns against false prophets whose words do not correspond to reality (for example Deuteronomy 18:22: "If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken"), and the ninth commandment warns against bearing false testimony, that is, testimony that fails to correspond to what actually happened (Exodus 20:16).

What is the correspondence theory of truth?

In its simplest form, the correspondence theory of truth says that a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to reality, when what it asserts to be the case is the case. More generally, truth obtains when a truth bearer stands in an appropriate correspondence relation to a truth maker:

truth bearer => correspondence relation => truth maker

First, what is a truth bearer? What kind of thing can bear truth? The thing that is either true or false is not a sentence, but a proposition. A proposition is the content of a sentence. For example, "It is raining" and "Es regnet" are two different sentences that express the same proposition. A sentence is a sense perceptible string of markings (such as the consonants and vowels on this page) or sounds (such as those made speaking, in normal conversation) formed according to a set of syntactical rules; it is a grammatically well-formed string of spoken or written sounds or marks. A sentence can rightfully be called true only if its content is true, only if it expresses a true proposition.

What about truth makers? What is it that makes a proposition true? The best answer is: facts. A fact is some real state of affairs in the world, a way the world actually is. For example, grass's being green, an electron's having a negative charge and God's being all-loving are all facts. Consider the proposition Mark has black hair. This proposition is true just in case a specific fact (namely, Mark's having black hair) actually obtains in the real world. A state of affairs "makes" the propositional content of a statement true only if that state of affairs actually is the way the proposition represents it to be. If a proposition represents Mark's having black hair, then Mark's actually having black hair makes that proposition true. If, however, a proposition represents Marks's having blonde or blue hair, then Mark's actually having black hair makes that proposition false. Suppose Sally says, "Mark has black hair." It's important to note that Mark's having black hair makes the content of Sally's statement true even if Sally is blind and cannot tell whether or not it is true. In fact, Mark's having black hair makes it true even if Sally does not believe it, even if she thinks she was lying when she said that Mark's hair was black. Reality makes propositions true or false. A proposition is not made true by someone's thinking or expressing it, and it is not made true by our ability to determine that it is true. Put differently, evidence allows us tell if a proposition is true or false, but reality (the way the world is) is what makes a proposition true or false.

Our study of truth bearers has already taken us into the topic of the correspondence relation. Correspondence is a two-placed relation between a proposition and a relevant fact (see the diagram above). A two-placed relation is one that requires two things before it can hold. For example, "larger than" is a two-placed relation. If we have a desk and a book, and if the desk is bigger than, larger than, the book, the "larger than" relation holds between the desk and the book. "Next to" is also a two-placed relation; if we have a car and a house, and the car is to the side of, next to, the house, the "next to" relation holds between the car and the house. Similarly, the correspondence relation holds between two things — a proposition and a relevant fact — just in case the proposition matches, conforms to, corresponds with the fact. If we have the proposition Mark has black hair, then, if Mark's hair is actually black, the correspondence relation holds between the proposition and Mark's having black hair.

Why believe the correspondence theory?

What reasons can be given for accepting the correspondence theory of truth? Two main arguments have been advanced for the correspondence theory, one descriptive and one dialectical.

The descriptive argument focuses on a careful description and presentation of specific cases to see what can be learned from them about truth. As an example, consider the case of Joe and Frank. While in his office, Joe receives a call from the university bookstore saying that a specific book he had ordered — Richard Swinburne's The Evolution of the Soul — has arrived and is waiting for him. At this point, a new mental state occurs in Joe's mind — namely, the though that Swinburne's The Evolution of the Soul is in the bookstore.

Now Joe, being aware of the content of the thought, becomes aware of two things closely related to it: the nature of the thought's object (Swinburne's book being in the bookstore) and certain steps that would help him determine the truth of the thought. For example, Joe knows that swimming in the Pacific Ocean would not help him determine the truth of the thought. Rather, he knows that he must take a series of steps that will bring him to a specific building and look in certain places for Swinburne's book in the university bookstore.

So Joe starts out for the bookstore, all the while being guided by the proposition Swinburne's book on the soul is in the bookstore. Along the way, his friend Frank joins him, though Joe does not tell Frank where he is going or why. They arrive at the store and both see Swinburne's book there. At that moment, Joe and Frank simultaneously have the same experience — the experience of seeing Swinburne's book The Evolution of the Soul. But Joe has a second experience not possessed by Frank. Joe experiences that the thought he had in his office matched, corresponded with, an actual state of affairs. He is able to compare his thought with its object and "see," be directly aware, that the thought was true. In this case, Joe actually experiences the correspondence relation itself and truth itself becomes an object of his awareness.

As in this scenario, the descriptive argument for the correspondence theory of truth makes its case ostensively, by pointing to instances of the correspondence relationship in our everyday lives.

The dialectical argument asserts that those who advance alternative theories of truth or who simply reject the correspondence theory actually presuppose it in their own assertions, especially when they present arguments for their views or defend them against critics. Sometimes this argument is stated in the form of a dilemma: Those who reject the correspondence theory either take their own utterances to be true in the correspondence sense or they do not. If they take their utterances to be true in the correspondence sense, then those utterances are self-defeating — they run into the same problems as the English sentence "I can't say anything in English." If, on the other hand, they don't take their utterances to be true, then there is no reason to accept them, because to accept them is, after all, to accept them as true.

The dialectical argument shows that those who reject the correspondence theory of truth (either directly or indirectly) rely on the correspondence relationship to do so.

Why does this matter?

We have looked at what the correspondence theory of truth. Truth is when things really are the way one thinks them to be. We have also examined two reasons for accepting the correspondence theory of truth. But does any of this discussion really matter? You bet it does. According to the correspondence theory, truth is what puts us in contact with reality — not just physical, material aspects of reality, but spiritual and moral as well. And reality can be a pretty brutal thing. One philosopher said that reality is what you bump up against when your beliefs are false!

Why, then, does truth matter? Because ideas have consequences, and false ideas generally have bad consequences. Truth should be the rails on which we all live our lives. Because truth puts us in touch with reality, it removes us from a self-serving, destructive fantasy world of our own creation, and it leads to a life of well-being and flourishing.

Truth, in other words, is prerequisite both to accountability and success. Sometimes the truth hurts, but in the end, it is the only way to navigate reality.

Copyright 2004 J.P. Moreland. All rights reserved.  

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