/ HAS MAGAZINE
What is truth?
Jeremy Wyatt
Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Waikato
Jeremy Wyatt considers three responses to the question "What is truth?," investigating their ramifications in philosophy and public life.

Like so many other philosophical questions, the question “What is truth?” can be rather maddening. It appears simple—it’s just three words long, after all—but when we reflect on it for a few moments, our minds contort and we are typically led to do one of three things. Some of us will simply dismiss the question as unanswerable or at least not worth answering, allowing our minds to settle back into a more comfortable state. The more heroic among us will point to an array of related philosophical questions like “What is objectivity?” or “What is a fact?” or “How can we know what is true?” and then try to draw on the answers to those questions to reveal the nature of truth. By contrast, those of us with an orientation towards problem-solving will pursue a middle-ground approach.  Rather than being dismissive or heroic, we will put forward a simple, useful, and commonsensical description of the nature of truth. The heroic and dismissive responses are widespread, and they can certainly be tempting. However, I want to explain why the problem-solving response is likely to be the most empowering, especially for people living in a contemporary society.

The dismissive response

No passage embodies the dismissive response more aptly than Christ’s conversation with Pilate in John 18:37-38:

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Christ Before Pilate, Duccio (1308-1311)

During Christ’s trial, as reported in John, he and Pilate converse in what must have been a highly charged and unbearably tense atmosphere. Pilate asks Christ several rather straightforward questions, and Christ’s responses remind one of Socrates—they are erudite, thought-provoking, and aggravating to the Roman governor. Pilate eventually gets fed up and tosses forward the question “What is truth?” He assumes, it seems, that everyone present—including Christ—will dismiss the question, allowing the trial to come to a close. Things play out as Pilate predicts, and we all know how the story proceeds from there.

While most of us will never be in a situation as dire as Christ’s, the dismissive response presents its own pitfalls. If we dismiss the question “What is truth?” instead of trying to answer it, we leave ourselves vulnerable to all sorts of conceptual confusions that can be damaging in various ways. One of the most important of these is a confusion between truth and belief.

We’ve all come across popular expressions such as “speaking your truth” or “alternative facts.”  Those who use these expressions seriously seem to think that whatever someone believes is “their truth,” and that this is basically all that we need to say about the nature of truth. This view about truth is a version of simple-minded relativism, which says that there is no such thing as truth—only “your truth,” “my truth,” “my culture’s truth,” “my race’s truth,” “my gender’s truth,” or something of this ilk.

It seems clear that simple-minded relativism doesn’t apply to all truths—after all, is it really sensible to hold that the truth of the statement that 5+7=12 is relative? Just as importantly, if we all endorsed simple-minded relativism, we would struggle to uphold the foundational democratic idea that it is valuable to engage in reasoned debate about challenging social and political issues. If you and I—whatever cultures, genders, or races we might belong to—are debating, in a reasoned way, whether private citizens should be allowed to carry firearms, then our aim is presumably to get to the truth—to determine whether it is true that private citizens should be allowed to carry firearms. But if we are each locked into “our own truths,” it isn’t sensible for us to aim at the truth about this issue. In this case, it seems that reasoned debate has no role to play.

In short, if we don’t make an effort to distinguish what is true from what we believe, then we—perhaps with the best of intentions—can easily be led to endorse views about truth that run contrary to our democratic ideals. This is reason enough to not follow those at Christ’s trial in dismissing the question “What is truth?” out of hand. Rather, we should give this question serious thought.

The heroic response

Odysseus and Polyphemus, Arnold Böcklin (1896)

When we start to think seriously about what truth is, it’s very easy to get tangled in a morass of questions. Here is a way that this experience might go:

“Okay, what is truth? Truth is just the facts, right? But what are the facts? It’s a fact that water is wet. How do I know that this is a fact? Because I’ve touched water and felt that it’s wet! But what if I met someone who didn’t have the sense of touch? How would I prove to them that it’s a fact that water is wet? Maybe by telling them about my experiences or by offering scientific evidence? But would this person even understand what “wet” means? Anyway, don’t different cultures have different truths? Muslims tend to think about the afterlife much differently than Mahayana Buddhists. But how could both of these views about the afterlife be true? Are there multiple afterlives—the Muslim afterlife, the Mahayana Buddhist afterlife, the Scientologist afterlife…? That’s hard to believe. This is becoming exhausting.”

It will come as no surprise that many philosophers have pushed beyond this initial exhaustion and developed grand theories of truth’s nature. The more heroic among us might behave similarly, rolling up our sleeves and dedicating a considerable chunk of our lives to discovering which of these theories is the correct one. The trouble, though, is that all of these theories suffer from thorny problems. Just to give you a taste:

Correspondence theories of truth say that a statement is true when it corresponds to reality. Problem: Does this theory apply to every kind of true statement? What about true moral statements or true aesthetic statements? The statement that sexism is morally wrong seems to be true, but is there some piece of reality to which this statement corresponds? That’s hard to make sense of.

Coherence theories of truth say that a statement is true when it coheres with the statements in some designated group. Problem: For two statements to cohere, it seems that they must be consistent with one another. But what is consistency? Aren’t two statements consistent just when they can both be true? This looks like a rather small definitional circle. Coherence theories  define truth in terms of coherence, yet they must quickly turn around and define coherence in terms of truth, so saying that truth is coherence doesn’t seem very helpful.

Pragmatist theories of truth say that a statement is true when it is useful to believe. Problem: It may be very useful—a real self-esteem booster, and beneficial to my career and many of my social relationships—for me to believe that I am the cleverest person in history. But that doesn’t make it true, does it? Also, couldn’t a statement—like the statement that Caesar had 41,729 hairs on his head when he died—be true even though it is rather useless for anyone to believe it?

That every grand theory of truth’s nature seems to come up short points to a political pitfall of the heroic response. If you opt for the heroic response, and you—unlike professional philosophers—aren’t paid a salary to work through the intricacies of philosophical theories, then you can easily be driven toward the dismissive response.  After many long hours, you can easily find yourself thinking, “None of these theories seems to work! Philosophers have been thinking about truth for 2500 years, and if this is the best that they’ve managed to produce, then Pilate must have been right—it’s just not worthwhile to think about truth.” As we’ve seen, the dismissive response invites perilous conceptual confusions like that between truth and belief, so since the heroic response sets up a natural path to the dismissive response, we—especially those of us who aren’t professional philosophers—have reason to be wary of heroism when thinking about truth.

The problem-solving response

We seem to be in a tough position. If we dismiss the question “What is truth?,” we’ll be vulnerable to conceptual confusions that can undermine our democratic ideals. On the other hand, if we set out to heroically uncover truth’s nature, then our quest may amount to a lengthy journey across a tortuous theoretical landscape, concluding with a sense of futility that leads to dismissal anyway. What other responses could there be?

A Beautiful World, Grandma Moses (1948)

The response that I want to recommend is the problem-solving response.  If you opt for the problem-solving response, you won’t follow Pilate in dismissing the question “What is truth?” out of hand—you’ll take it very seriously. However, you also won’t try to uncover the nature of truth as though you’re a geologist trying to identify the chemical composition of a newly discovered mineral. Rather, you’ll start by asking yourself: What are some commonsensical truths about truth?

Here are a few:

  • If I claim that Earth is 4.5 billion years old, then what it takes for my claim to be true is that Earth is 4.5 billion years old.
  • If I claim that private citizens should be allowed to carry firearms, then what it takes for my claim to be true is that private citizens should be allowed to carry firearms.
  • If I claim that the US has the best healthcare system in the world, then what it takes for my claim to be true is that the US has the best healthcare system in the world.
  • If I claim that the Chinese Communist Party is planning to invade Taiwan, then what it takes for my claim to be true is that the Chinese Communist Party is planning to invade Taiwan.

Of course, my point in mentioning these commonsensical truths about truth is that they exhibit a pattern. Here’s a way to describe the pattern: Suppose that I make the claim that p—for example, any of the claims above. What does it take for my claim to be true?  Well, just that p.  

When we recognize this pattern in our commonsensical thinking about truth—and when we see, upon reflection, that it seems to capture something fundamental about the nature of truth—we are able to demystify our running question. We’re able to appreciate, that is, that while we shouldn’t dismiss the question, the answer to it is rather simple and doesn’t require a heroic degree of intellectual effort. For a claim to be true is for the world, the world that we inhabit, to be as the claim says that it is. This is all that we really need to say about the nature of truth.

What’s more, when we appreciate the simplicity of truth, this should be empowering.  One thing that it teaches us is that sometimes we can arrive at intellectually satisfying responses to seemingly impenetrable questions by relying on common sense. We won’t always be able to do so, of course, but before we allow ourselves to get lost in a maze of additional questions and considerations, we should first ask whether common sense might be the right tool for the job.  

Another way that we’re empowered when we realize that truth is simple is that we gain a safeguard against disingenuous political figures who speak carelessly about “alternative facts” or “fake news.” If truth is determined by the way that the world is, then the very idea of an “alternative fact” makes no sense at all. If the world is a particular way, the claims that report the way that it is are true, and the claims that say that it’s another way are false. Of course, we as individuals have our own beliefs about the way the world is, but as our earlier, commonsensical reflections on simple-minded relativism showed, our beliefs don’t settle what the facts are.

What about “fake news?” Well, in one of the common senses of the term, fake news is just a news report that is presented as being true but isn’t. How do we know when news is fake? We look at what the report says and we consult reliable sources to determine whether, as far as we know, it tells us the way that the world is (or was). If, as far as we know, it does, then as far as we know, it’s true. If, as far as we know, it doesn’t, then as far as we know, it’s false. That someone says that it’s false, or fake, doesn’t make it false. That someone says that it’s true, or that it isn’t fake, doesn’t make it true. That you feel wise or superior, above the ranks of the ‘sheeple’, when you say that it’s fake, or that it isn’t, has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it’s actually fake. Common sense tells us that when it comes to truth, the world is the judge and the jury. Our responsibility is to use the best evidence that we have, in a patient and cool-headed way, to figure out the verdict.

A final way that recognizing the simplicity of truth empowers us is that we come to see that truth doesn’t depend on our genders, races, classes, or nationalities. Your gender, race, class, and nationality do have all sorts of consequences for your life, and there are important truths about what those consequences are. But common sense tells us that truth is determined by the world. So if you say that you’re “speaking your truth” as a trans person or a person of colour or a blue-collar worker or a Filipino, then you may have fallen prey to a conceptual confusion. You do have a unique set of experiences and a unique interpretation of those experiences. Moreover, it may be valuable for other people in your society to understand those experiences and your interpretation of them.  If that’s all that you mean when you say that you’re “speaking your truth,” then that’s obviously fine.  But if you mean something more—if you’re suggesting that your interpretation of your experiences is true “relative to you” and is thus above rational scrutiny—then you seem to be committed to simple-minded relativism. In that case, a bit of commonsensical reflection about truth is an antidote worth seeking out.

My main point is this: Truth is important, not something to be casually dismissed, and it is also simple, not something whose nature should be heroically fretted over. When we recognize this, we gain a powerful technique for approaching formidable philosophical questions. We also put ourselves in a better position to engage in civil, rational discourse and to promote democratic values.

Going further

If you’re interested in thinking more about the issues that I’ve raised, here are a few excellent starting points:

Simon Blackburn, On Truth, Oxford University Press, 2018. A short, accessible introduction to theories of truth which shows how thinking clearly about truth can illuminate various aspects of our everyday lives.

Michael P. Lynch, True to Life: Why Truth Matters, MIT Press, 2004. A thoughtful exploration of the value and the nature of truth.

Paul Horwich, Truth-Meaning-Reality, Oxford University Press, 2010, chapters 1-4. A collection of essays by the leading proponent of the problem-solving response, which is standardly called deflationism about truth.

Richard Rorty and Pascal Engel, What’s the Use of Truth?, Columbia University Press, 2007. A stimulating discussion of the nature and value of truth that arose from a public debate at the Sorbonne.

Michael P. Lynch, Jeremy Wyatt, Junyeol Kim, and Nathan Kellen, eds. The Nature of Truth: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives, 2nd ed., MIT Press, 2021. An extensive collection of classic and contemporary essays on the nature of truth.

Jeremy Wyatt is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Waikato.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in 2014. He was a Pluralisms Global Research Network Postdoctoral Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University from 2014-2020.  His main research areas are the philosophy of language, metaphysics, and truth. He is a co-editor of Pluralisms in Truth and Logic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and The Nature of Truth: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives, 2nd ed. (MIT Press, 2021).  His articles have appeared in Philosophical StudiesThe Philosophical QuarterlyAmerican Philosophical Quarterly, and Inquiry.

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Truth and Belief
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Jeremy Wyatt is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Waikato.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in 2014. He was a Pluralisms Global Research Network Postdoctoral Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University from 2014-2020.  His main research areas are the philosophy of language, metaphysics, and truth. He is a co-editor of Pluralisms in Truth and Logic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and The Nature of Truth: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives, 2nd ed. (MIT Press, 2021).  His articles have appeared in Philosophical StudiesThe Philosophical QuarterlyAmerican Philosophical Quarterly, and Inquiry.

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