The Foundation

In this post I want to write up an overview of the foundation I’ve been laying for my belief system.

What is truth? Truth is the correspondence of meaning to reality. A proposition is true if, and only if, it refers to a state of affairs that occurs in reality.

Is truth relative or absolute? Truth is absolute. Although everyone has their own perspective from which to view reality, reality itself is independent of any perspective. A proposition is either true or false and not both, and it has the same truth value for all observers.

What is belief? Belief is the mental state of accepting a proposition as true.

What is knowledge? Knowledge is validly justified true belief. Justification is valid when it appropriately links the belief to the truth. (See also here and here.)

How can we justify beliefs? Beliefs can be justified from other beliefs through reasoning, or they can be inherently justified if they are formed in an appropriate way.

Justification with reference to other beliefs:

Justification without reference to other beliefs:

How can we form a belief system? I think we all use the following approach, to some extent:

  • Extend initial trust to our beliefs formed from experience, intuition and testimony.
  • Create a worldview to explain as much of our experience as possible.
  • Sift our beliefs according to our worldview to create a coherent and consistent system.

This is a dynamic and iterative process, and we need to use critical thinking throughout. Our worldview may need to be adjusted if enough evidence conflicts with it.

Can we know? Yes, we can know things, and we can know that we know them. Justified belief is sufficient for a knowledge claim, and the claim will be correct if the belief is true and the justification is valid. Extreme skepticism, the claim that we can never know anything at all, is ultimately self-refuting.

How do I know all these things? How do I get my belief system off the ground? Intuition is critical in knowing these foundational truths, especially in evaluating the different options that are learned through testimony, experience, and intuition itself. And these intuitions are also supported by reason.

 

I’ve attempted to justify all of these claims in the posts where I made them, so you can go back and read those for more detail on how I know all these things. Have I justified them sufficiently? By all means, leave a comment or send me a message if you think that isn’t the case. I don’t believe I’ve missed anything important, but I certainly want to know if I have.

So that’s the foundation for my belief system, or at least, a sufficiently sturdy one for the time being. In the next post, I’m going to write about some different approaches to truth and knowledge, and the alleged tensions between them.

Then, I will finally be able to get going on the specifics of what I believe about the nature of reality, and the things that are in it.

Theories of Truth

I’ve been writing about the nature of truth in my last few posts. I defined truth as the correspondence of meaning to reality; this is the correspondence theory of truth. I also claimed that truth is absolute, independent of any perspective, and that truth follows the laws of classical logic. Now I want to give a couple reasons for accepting this theory of truth, and address objections to it.

The main reason to accept the correspondence theory is that it, well, corresponds to the way things are. This is supported both by intuition and experience. You can intuitively see that this definition of truth makes sense. And you can directly experience what it means for meaning to correspond to reality. You can think about some statement, such as “the keys are on the kitchen table,” and then go and see whether the keys are on the table to determine if the statement is true. And this kind of process of verification, where we check if a statement really describes the way things are, is what everyone uses to find out truth.

Along the same lines, every argument against the correspondence theory, or for alternate theories of truth, inevitably appeals to the way things are for support – invoking the theory it is arguing against. For example, defenders of the coherence theory of truth support their position by saying that people take their beliefs to be true because they cohere well with their other beliefs. Defenders of the consensus theory of truth say that beliefs that have consensus are the ones that people take to be true. And supporters of various epistemic theories of truth argue against the correspondence theory by claiming that we cannot escape our beliefs and our perspectives to get at reality itself. But the only way these claims can be good reasons to believe these different positions is if they are claims about reality – if they are true in the correspondence sense.

The final reason to accept the correspondence theory is that it is the theory that takes the essential connection between truth and reality the most seriously. Detaching truth from reality makes the whole concept of truth meaningless. What does it mean for something to be true if it doesn’t mean that is the way things are? Most of the other theories of truth either detach truth from reality, or make truth relative, which, as I said my last post, doesn’t work.

Objections to the Correspondence Theory of Truth

Of course, the correspondence theory is not unanimously accepted by modern philosophers. (Because philosophers are people, and people disagree about things.) Two objections to the correspondence theory have to do with the technical details of the theory: that the relation of correspondence that makes propositions true is inexplicable, and that the aspects of reality needed to make propositions true are not actually there. I addressed these in an earlier post.

Another objection is that the correspondence theory is a circular definition. If this objection has any force, I do not see how it has any less force against any other theory of truth. No matter how you define truth, by doing so you are making a truth claim, and thereby invoking your definition. Truth is such a fundamental concept that it is somewhat resistant to analysis.

But in any case, I am not convinced that the correspondence theory is circular in any way that harms it. As described earlier, truth is the alignment of meaning and reality. We can know a priori that meaning and reality exist if we can even think anything at all. Any claim to the contrary is self-refuting. So if we can describe how they correspond, it seems that the correspondence theory can stand on its own.

And I think I have adequately described how meaning corresponds to reality. By their intrinsic, irreducible meaning, propositions refer to certain states of affairs, and if those states of affairs obtain (occur in reality), the propositions are true. Given that we can mean things and understand what other people mean, there is nothing problematic about claiming that meaning is irreducible, so that means that determining what is true comes down to determining what states of affairs obtain.

So the final objection is that we can’t actually get to reality to determine what states of affairs occur in it. Reality is only indirectly accessible to us through our subjective perceptions, so there is a fundamental divide that keeps us from being able to access truth. But this objection is self-refuting – if it had any force, the very fact that we can’t access reality would itself be a state of affairs in reality that we could access.

To further respond to this objection: obviously there is a difference between what is and what we can know. So the fact that the correspondence theory maintains this distinction is actually one of its merits. Illogically confusing ontology (reality) and epistemology (knowledge) in this way is one of the main reasons that people believe the various epistemic theories of truth, which I will describe below.

Other Theories of Truth

Competitors to the correspondence theory fall into two broad classes: deflationary theories and epistemic theories. Deflationary theories of truth generally use the disquotation principle, P is true if and only if P, to say that the concept of truth is unimportant or unnecessary, a redundant device of language. Under these theories, “it is true that the apple is red” doesn’t mean anything more than “the apple is red,” or it is just like saying “I agree that the apple is red,” and there isn’t any reason to think further.

However, logical equivalence is not the same as semantic equivalence. When we say “the apple is red,” we are talking about the apple. But when we say “it is true that the apple is red,” we can be talking about the proposition that the apple is red itself, for example, if we are trying to sort out which of our beliefs are true. And truth, as the correspondence of meaning to reality, is a meaningful concept, not just a redundant device of language. So it seems that the correspondence theory captures the meaning of truth better than deflationary theories.

Epistemic theories of truth attempt to analyze truth using epistemic concepts such as belief, justification, and perspective. The class of epistemic theories includes coherence, consensus, constructivist, verificationist, and pragmatic theories of truth. All of these fail by confusing ontology with epistemology; reality with what we know about reality. In doing so, they all either lead to relative truth, or they disconnect truth from reality, both of which are fatal flaws.

And finally, many of the epistemic theories of truth are not even true by their own definition. The verificationist theory, for example, says that only statements which are logically or empirically verifiable are meaningful and capable of being true. But that statement itself cannot be logically or empirically verified. The consensus theory says that truth is arrived at by consensus, but there is no consensus that the consensus theory is true. Philosophers have recognized the problems with epistemic theories of truth, and most adhere to either the correspondence theory or a deflationary theory.

With that, I have covered the nature of truth and knowledge, completing the foundation for my system of beliefs. There is just one more area that I want to touch on briefly; then, I can start to move into the details of what I believe and why.

Absolute Truth

Sometimes, the claim is made that truth is relative to certain perspectives, whether those are the perspectives of individuals or societies. However, this claim is confused, and the idea of relative truth is ultimately incoherent. This is important to understand, so I will spend some (okay, more than some) time talking about it here.

Truth and reality are absolute, not relative. What I mean by this is that what is true does not change from one perspective to another. This does not mean that the same truths hold about everyone, but it does mean that the same truths hold for everyone. Everyone has their own perspective from which to view reality, but reality itself is independent of any perspective.

One source of confusion here is that, sometimes, people can have a different understanding of what a word or a statement means. This is just another aspect of the ambiguity of language. For example, if one person thinks that “the sun rises above the horizon” has the first meaning that I described in the last post, and believes that it is true, and another thinks that it has the second meaning and believes that it is false, this doesn’t mean that either of the propositions represented by the statement is true for one person and false for the other person.

Objective and Subjective

To clear up another common source of confusion about absolute truth, I want to highlight two different contrasts: the distinction between absolute and relative on one hand, and the distinction between objective and subjective on the other. Absolute and relative refer to whether or not the truth of a statement depends on perspective. Objective and subjective refer to whether the statement in question is about reality directly or about someone’s perspective of reality.

  • Absolute: the truth value of the statement is the same in all perspectives.
  • Relative: the truth value of the statement is different in different perspectives.
  • Objective: the statement is directly about reality.
  • Subjective: the statement expresses someone’s perspective of reality.

For example, “Ottawa is the capital of Canada” is an objective statement, while “Ottawa is most interesting city in Canada to visit” is a subjective statement. The confusion comes from the fact that subjective statements often only implicitly refer to their subject, the person whose perspective is expressed by the statement. So, when I say “chicken bacon ranch is the best kind of pizza,” you would probably recognize an implicit in my opinion tagged on to it. But when we fail to recognize this kind of implicit reference to a subject, we can mistake subjective statements for assertions that something is true only relative to one’s perspective.

Note that while there is a conflict between absolute truth and relative truth, there is no conflict between objective claims and subjective claims. Indeed, every subjective statement about some topic can be rephrased as an objective statement about the subject’s perspective on that topic. Instead of saying “chicken bacon ranch is the best kind of pizza,” I can say “I prefer chicken bacon ranch pizza over all other pizzas.” And that is true, and everyone can agree upon it, regardless of anyone else’s pizza preferences.

In fact, when you rephrase subjective statements into objective ones like this, you can see that they actually require an absolute understanding of truth to make sense, as do other objective statements. What would “it is true for me that my favourite pizza is chicken bacon ranch, but it is true for you that my favourite pizza is pepperoni” even mean? (Are you just in denial about the fact that I don’t have the same pizza preference as you do?)

Similarly, if both parties had the same understanding of what it meant for Ottawa to be the capital of Canada, what would “Ottawa is the capital of Canada for me, but that isn’t true for you” mean? If these are just expressing the beliefs of the respective subjects, then they aren’t actually truth claims, and so they do not in any way express that truth or reality is perspective-dependent.

When someone says something like “this is true for me, but maybe it isn’t true for you,” often, if you ask for clarification, what they really mean is: it is my opinion or belief that this is true, based on my experience, but maybe it is not your opinion or belief. This is just a subjective statement about two different perspectives (without claiming that the actual truth of any statement depends on the perspective it is seen from). Very few people, as far as I have seen, mean it as a claim that truth – actual truth, not just what we believe, or as far as we know – is relative: this is true in my reality, but it might not be true in your reality.

Absolute and Relative

And for good reason. The idea that truth is relative, that reality is perspective-dependent, is incoherent. Even if you try to describe it that way, it seems to me that you can’t. If you try to tell me that certain things are true in your reality, or in your perspective of reality, you are actually asserting that something is true independent of anyone’s perspective of reality, namely, that your perspective of reality exists, and that certain things are true in it.

If it isn’t necessarily true for me that those things that are true for you, are true for you – then why should I think that what you claim to be true for you is true for you, for me? (That sentence just goes to show how confusing we sound when we try to talk as if truth were relative.) And if it is necessarily true for me that what is true for you is true for you – then you haven’t really made reality perspective-dependent. Instead, you’ve just fractured reality into seven billion sub-realities, one for each perspective. But the truths about what perspectives exist, and what is seen to be true in them, must still be absolute.

Now, we can have the discussion about whether there is an objective external reality that goes beyond just being a container for seven billion subjective internal realities. But that discussion seems to me to be far better understood as a discussion about what is objective and what is subjective, rather than a discussion about whether truth is relative or absolute.

(On a related note: Einstein’s theory of relativity in physics, which is sometimes brought up in relation to the concept of relative truth, doesn’t really have any bearing on this discussion. The fact that certain physical measurements are made relative to different reference frames does not mean that truth is perspective-dependent, any more than the fact that the top of a building is at different elevations relative to the ground and to sea level means that the physical height of the building changes between these perspectives. In physics, all observers agree on how the values measured in one frame relate to the values measured in another frame, so there is no concern of truth changing from one frame to another.)

Incoherence of Relative Truth

I have to keep pressing this point that truth is absolute, because I really don’t see how any truth claim can make sense, or mean anything at all, if that isn’t the case. Just bear with me a little longer; the end of this post is almost in sight.

If you claim that all truth is relative, you are claiming that it is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth. This is self-refuting. If you mean that truth is only relative for you, but it can be absolute for me, that is also self-refuting. If truth is absolute for me, then it is absolutely true that truth is absolute, so truth is absolute for you as well. As far as I can tell, this is an irrefutable argument – in order to argue against absolute truth, you have to claim that the reasons in support of your argument are absolutely true! Otherwise the proponent of absolute truth can just dismiss them.

Neither is it the case that only some truth is relative – that some aspects of reality are relative, while others remain absolute. If you claim that a certain aspect of reality is relative, that is an absolute truth claim about the supposedly relative aspect of reality, and that is again self-refuting.

The confusion between subjective and relative rears its head here – in modern thought, the subjectivity of value judgements often leads to the belief that values are all relative. But this is mistaken. Some value judgements may be merely subjective – like the judgement about whether chicken bacon ranch is the best kind of pizza – but none of them are relative.

For example, there is a philosophical debate over whether there are objective aesthetic values, that is, truth about whether something is beautiful or not, independent of what anyone thinks about it. If there are, then aesthetic evaluations can be objectively right or wrong, and beauty exists without regard to a perceiver. If there are not, then such evaluations are merely subjective, a matter of personal preference. In this case there is no beauty, only beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder. But the claim that aesthetic values are a relative aspect of reality amounts to saying that there is an objective standard of beauty, but it is different in different perspectives of reality. And this, as I argued above, ends up fracturing reality rather than making it perspective-dependent.

Imagine that two people, Jack and Jill, are looking at a painting. Jack exclaims, “What a beautiful painting!” While Jill says, “No, that painting is ugly!” If there are objective aesthetic values, then one of them is wrong, and one of them is right. If there are not, then all they are really expressing is “I like this painting” or “I don’t like this painting.” But if aesthetic values were relative, it would actually be true for Jack that he was right and Jill was wrong, and at the same time it would actually be true for Jill that she was right and Jack was wrong. And that just seems confused. It would make it meaningless for Jack and Jill to talk about beauty at all – they are referring to entirely different things.

Truth does not become relative just because it about something that pertains to our value judgements. As I said earlier, subjective value judgements need absolute truth to make sense. And this is even more so for objective statements.

For example, “God exists” is an objective statement, a statement about reality, and it is either true or false. And so it is as incoherent to claim “It’s true for me that God exists, but it isn’t true for you” as it is to claim “Ottawa is the capital of Canada for me, but it isn’t for you,” or “The Earth is a sphere for me, but flat for you.” You can have reasons for thinking that God exists, or for thinking that he does not exist. But it is not rational to believe that your reasons for thinking he exists (or not) makes it true for you that he exists (or not), while others’ reasons might make it otherwise for them.

(On another related note: some people have tried to claim that religious or moral statements are merely subjective expressions, or even that they do not express a proposition capable of being true or false at all. They would say that “God exists” just means something like “I have faith that everything will work out for good in the end.” But such statements are simply not what “God exists” means.)

So, there is no separation of truth and reality into absolute and relative spheres. All of reality is inescapably absolute. And that means there is only one reality. If there were more than one, they would either really be sub-realities, with the total reality including all of them, or they would be perspective-dependent, which I have argued does not make sense.

One last point, and then I promise I am done. What I am claiming here is that truth is absolute, and we can know that it is absolute, but I am not claiming anything else about what is within the reach of our knowledge. Just how much of reality we are able to discover is a question for later. That fact that truth is absolute is a different matter from how much of that truth we can know. So we can’t use the claim that truth is absolute to override or ignore the reasons that other people have for believing differently than we do. We have to engage with those differences on their own merits.

As much as I hope that you find everything I am saying here to be completely obvious, the reason I have gone on about it like this is that it is impossible to have any meaningful communication unless we agree on absolute reality. If reality is relative, then what I am saying to the “you” in my reality may not be what the “me” in your reality is saying to you. And so there is no reason for any of us to listen to what the others are saying. So, for the sake of sanity and rationality, I hope you agree with me that truth and reality are absolute, and not relative.

Truth and Falsity

In the previous post I defined truth as the correspondence of meaning to reality. A proposition is true if and only if it refers to a state of affairs that obtains; that is, if and only if it is an accurate description of reality. I will give my reasons for thinking this theory of truth is true in a later post. First, I need to write a bit more about the nature of truth.

If we have some proposition, P, a succinct way that we can express the relationship between truth and reality is to say this: P is true if and only if P. This is sometimes called the disquotation principle, since in plain English we might write it this way, for example: “the apple is red” is true if and only if the apple is red. (The statement “the apple is red” has its quotation marks removed; it is “dis-quoted.”)

In addition to the disquotation principle, there are three more things that must be true about the proposition P. These are three of the laws at the heart of classical logic:

  • P is true if P is true
  • P is either true or not true
  • P is not both true and not true

The first is sometimes known as the Law of Identity. It says that if P is true, then it is true. If this sounds completely obvious, it should. Essentially, this law just states for the logical connective of implication (“if”) what the next two laws state for conjunction (“and”) and disjunction (“or”).

The second is the Law of Excluded Middle. It says that P must take one of these two truth values: true or not true. Since false just means not true, P is either true or false. Every proposition has to have one of these truth values.

The third is the Law of Non-Contradiction. It says that the two options for P, true or false, are mutually exclusive. A proposition cannot be both true and false. Together with the second law, and the disquotation principle, this means that a proposition is either an accurate description of reality, or it is not, and it cannot be both.

Recall that, strictly speaking, truth refers to propositions and not to statements or thoughts. Human language and thought are often imprecise, and may be ambiguous. For example, the assertion “Each day the sun rises above the horizon” may have one of these intended meanings:

  • Each day the sun rises above the horizon, as a visual phenomenon due to the rotation of the earth.
  • Each day the sun literally increases in elevation from below the horizon to above the horizon of the earth, which is stationary.

One of these meanings is true, and one of them is false. But the fact that an assertion can have more than one intended meaning – that is, it can represent more than one proposition – does not mean that any one of those propositions is true and false at the same time, or that it is anything other than true or false. When the meaning of a statement is specified, the laws of classical logic hold.

Our language also allows us to express paradoxical statements that cannot be meaningfully assigned a value of either true or false, such as the assertion “this statement is false.” Do these paradoxes violate the laws of logic that I described above?

It could be said that this statement’s truth value is undefined, but this is really just another way of saying that it does not have a truth value at all. “Undefined” is not some third truth value in addition to true and false. Because truth applies to meaning, I think the fact that such paradoxical statements cannot be true or false can just be taken as an indication that they have no coherent meaning – they do not represent any proposition.

So, neither paradoxes nor imprecise statements are counterexamples to the laws of classical logic. Here is one more objection one might raise against them. Other systems of logic have been invented that do not follow the rules of classical logic. For example, some alternate systems reject the Law of Excluded Middle, and have more than two truth values. Given these alternate systems, how do we know that classical logic is the right one?

The easiest way to answer this is to quip that even if the Law of Excluded Middle isn’t true, that doesn’t mean it’s false. And similarly, even if the Law of Non-Contradiction is false, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The laws of classical logic are the laws that we use in deductive reasoning. Any argument against these laws ends up invoking them, demonstrating their universality. Ask if any given system of logic is the correct one, and the answer is either that it is or it isn’t – true or false.

Ultimately, alternative systems of logic represent something other than the actual truth or falsity of propositions. For example, probabilistic logics may be used to model the degree of confidence that one has in a proposition; fuzzy logics may be used to model vaguely defined predicates; constructive logics represent the constructive provability of a proposition rather than its truth. But classical logic is the logic of truth and reality itself.

My next post continues with a further important contention about the nature of truth.

Truth

“For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” – Jesus of Nazareth

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

Here we have a question that has been pondered for millennia.

The common-sense meaning of truth is that it is the way things really are. This seems to be the way that we understand and use the concept of truth in everyday life. When we say that something is true, we mean that it describes the way things are – that it is a correct description of reality. Without this reference to reality, the whole concept of truth would be meaningless.

To be completely thorough, of course, I should now try to define reality as well. This is the best definition that I can come up with: reality is the state of things as they actually are. In other words, reality is what is real. At this point, any attempt to define terms further becomes circular. These are just primitive notions that cannot be expressed in simpler terms; we have to rely on our intuitive understanding of them.

Here is a simple example of what I mean by saying that truth is an accurate description of reality. We would say the statement “this apple is red” is true if, and only if, that apple is in fact red. And we would say that statement was false if the apple was not red, for example, if it was green instead. Here is how one ancient Greek philosopher put it:

“To say of what is, that it is, or of what is not, that it is not, is true; and to say of what is, that it is not, or of what is not, that it is, is false.” – Aristotle

Makes perfect sense, right?

This idea, that truth is defined as a correct description of reality, is known as the correspondence theory of truth. It is the classical theory of truth, in that it is the view that has been most common throughout history. I’ll briefly go into the more technical details of the correspondence theory – hopefully to make things more clear and not less.

Recall from this post that a proposition is an abstraction we use to represent the intended meaning of a thought or a statement. When we evaluate the truth of a statement, what we are really evaluating is whether what the statement means is true. So when we talk about the truth of the statement “this apple is red,” what we are really talking about is the truth of the abstract proposition that this apple is red. (I will get back to why this is important in the next post.)

So if truth is the way things really are, whether a proposition is true is determined only by whether it is an accurate or correct description of reality. To say this in another way, I will introduce yet another term that philosophers have appropriated for their own (possibly nefarious) ends.

In philosophical usage, states of affairs are sets of circumstances or situations, or ways that things can be. They are often represented with gerund clauses, such as this apple’s being red. So we can say things like the proposition that this apple is red refers to the state of affairs this apple’s being red.

If a state of affairs occurs in or is part of the actual world, we say that it obtains (just so that we don’t have to keep saying things like “actually occurs in reality” over and over again). The Earth’s orbiting the Sun is a state of affairs that obtains. The unicorn’s existing is one that fails to obtain.

So the correspondence theory of truth can be stated this way: a proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to a state of affairs that obtains. Propositions are the fundamental truth-bearers, the things that can be true or false. States of affairs are the truth-makers, the things in virtue of which a corresponding truth-bearer is true or false. And finally, the correspondence between a proposition and a state of affairs is determined by the meaning that the proposition represents. By its meaning, the proposition refers to the corresponding state of affairs.

Though I will be addressing some objections to the correspondence theory later, there are two objections to it that pertain to these technical details, so I will handle them here. The first objection is that the correspondence relation between the truth-bearers and truth-makers is inexplicable, and may even lead to a vicious infinite regress. What makes it true that the correspondence relation holds between a particular truth-bearer and truth-maker?

I met this objection above by saying that the correspondence relation is determined by meaning. Propositions just are meanings, and meaning is irreducible, abstract though it is. You can’t build up meaning from non-meaning; you can’t reduce it to anything less than itself. I don’t see this as being problematic in any way: we all understand meaning. If you have read this far in my blog, you have made your way through thousands of pieces of meaning. (Hopefully I have made most of it understandable!) And we all understand how meaning can correspond to reality: if you think about the proposition that it is sunny outside, and you look outside and it is sunny, there you have correspondence.

The second objection is that some truth-bearers don’t appear to have the truth-makers available to make them true. For example, what in reality could ground the truth of a counterfactual proposition, such as the fact that if so-and-so were rich (even though he is not), he would buy himself a tropical island? My response to this is that there are more states of affairs than those that are aspects of concrete reality. There are past states of affairs, future states of affairs, possible states of affairs, counterfactual states of affairs, states of affairs about states of affairs, and so on. States of affairs, like propositions, are abstractions. But like propositions, they are things we can comprehend.

In summary, propositions are abstractions of meaning, states of affairs are abstractions of reality, and truth is when propositions and states of affairs, meaning and reality, correspond.

So what is truth? Truth is when meaning corresponds to reality.

Now that I’ve said that, I need to add a few important assertions about the nature of truth and reality itself, in the next couple of posts.