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Tallis in Wonderland

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Saving Truth

Raymond Tallis asserts the truth about the truth.

Truth has been having a rather hard time in recent decades. Insults have been hurled at it from left and right. Truth, we are endlessly told, is relative to perspective, to viewpoint, to ‘where you’re coming from’. The most popular versions of such relativism connect truth with power: what counts as true is the world according to those who have the greatest political or institutional clout. Even the truths of science are less about nature than about discourses that have become dominant for reasons other than their ability to uncover reality. Nietzsche’s famous riposte to the positivist claim that there are only facts – that “there are no such things as facts, only interpretations” – is a favourite among humanist intellectuals.

Such assaults on the notion of objective truth appear to have a lot going for them, at least if you’re in a seminar room rather than, say, dealing with a medical emergency or running for a bus. Some political and historical truths do indeed seem to be spin-dependent. And in many other circumstances, the selection and even the construction of facts will be influenced by the interests of those who are offering them as ‘the truth about such-and-such’. Relativism discredits itself, however, when it is generalised to all putative truths. Ultimately, the assertion that there is no such thing as truly objective truth is self-refuting, if it means anything: for there is no reason why this meta-truth about truth should be immune from its own radical attack on all truths. Is it true?

John Gray, whose misanthropic pessimism is always good for a laugh, gives a classic example of a different form of self-refutation when he invokes certain facts about the human condition to justify denying that we can have access to any kind of objective truth. In Straw Dogs he tells us that since Darwinian science has shown that “the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth,” humankind cannot know the truth, least of all through science. No prizes for any 12-year-old who can spot the problem with that assertion.

There are more interesting attacks on the concept of truth. By far the most important and influential come from within analytical philosophy. These are the so-called ‘deflationary’ or ‘minimalist’ accounts that empty truth of content or reduce it to a formal relation. The grandfather of contemporary truth-emptiers was the philosopher F.P. Ramsey, a genius who died at the tragically young age of 26.

Let ‘p’ stand for an idea or proposition, such as ‘porcupines are animals’. Ramsey argued that to assert that ‘p’ and to assert that ‘p is true’ is to assert the same thing. The concept of truth is therefore redundant. Since his time, there have been ever more sophisticated variations on this argument – many of them deriving ultimately from the Polish logician Tarski’s so-called ‘Semantic Theory of Truth’.

For Tarski, truth is a relation between a first-order language and a second-order language. This sounds complicated, but his classic example shows how simple – and stark – his notion of truth is:

‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white

The apparent predicate ‘is true’ about the phrase ‘snow is white’ is not really a predicate at all: it merely defines a relationship between a higher order assertion in quotes and a lower order assertion not in quotes.

There are many other minimalist or ‘deflationary’ theories of truth – the emptiest of all being the theory that one shouldn’t have a theory of truth at all, because there is no entity corresponding to the item in question. (This idea was sometimes espoused by Richard Rorty, when he was not advocating pragmatic theories.) In this theory, to say of a statement that it is true is merely to give it a ‘rhetorical pat on the back’. Donald Davidson also spoke of ‘The Folly of Trying to Define Truth’ because it had no content. Even many of those who are not so radically dismissive of truth think that philosophers would be best to avoid discussing it because ‘truth’ is an unredeemably muddled part of our linguistic heritage.

Before going on to defend a richer, more substantial idea of truth, it might be a good idea to set aside those aspects of the traditional notion of truth that are indefensible. Firstly, we should not imagine that ‘being true’ is a property of anything, or that ‘is true’ is a predicate like ‘is green’. It is obviously absurd to say of an object or state of affairs that it has the property of being true (or, indeed, false). A pebble is neither true nor false: it simply is. Truth and falsehood must relate to assertions about objects or states of affairs. Truth is not, however, a predicate or property even of the sentences used to make those assertions. A sentence-type such as ‘Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister’ will be true on some occasions and false on others. The truth or falsity does not inhere in the sentence – say its sounds, its structure, its mouth of origin – but will depend on the existence of the state of affairs to which it refers. The conditions for its being true lie in the world beyond the sentence.

The second indefensible notion is that there is something called ‘The Truth’, understood either as a kind a substance in which all true assertions participate or a point at which all truths converge, summate or merge.

The third indefensible assumption is that the whole of truth can be captured in a single aspect of it – such as, say, a correspondence between an assertion and a state of affairs.

At the very heart of truth (and falsehood, for the possibility of truth and falsehood are born at the same time) is explicitness. This is precisely what was overlooked by Ramsey when he thought he had demonstrated the emptiness or redundancy of the notion of truth. I want to draw your attention to a seemingly unimportant word: ‘that’. Yes, of course, to assert “‘That p’ is true” doesn’t add much to the assertion ‘That p’ because my belief that it is true – or my wish to make you believe that it is true – is implicit in the unadorned assertion ‘That p’. The assertion of truth is present in both ‘p’ and ‘p is true’: they both make explicit, of what is the case, that it is the case. Aristotle’s famous definition of truth in Metaphysics 1011b makes this very clear: ‘To say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true’ (italics mine). While a state of affairs is in itself neither true nor false, the statement that it obtains may be either.

This gives us the first two most fundamental aspects of truth: identity and correspondence. Truth inheres in the identity of the sense (ie its meaning and reference) of a sentence used on a particular occasion, with the particular sense of the state of affairs that it picks out. These two entities which have the same sense – the assertion and the state of affairs asserted in it – consequently correspond to one another. And their identity is most clearly exemplified in facts. That is why it is wrong to say, as so many philosophers do, that truth is ‘correspondence to the facts’. The facts are the identity that underpins the correspondence.

While identity of sense and a consequent correspondence between the bearers of the sense (typically an assertion and a state of affairs, as above) lie at the heart of truth, this is not the whole story. At a higher level – the level of very general statements, of possible events, of theories and laws – truth is not always to be located in a direct correspondence between a particular assertion and the state of affairs it asserts. While I might check the assertion that my friend is at the front door by going to see if that state of affairs obtains, or ask someone else to check, or look at my CCTV, I do not check most of the truths that enable me to navigate through the planet in this way. I will very often rely on the assertion being consistent with what I know already, or with what others tell me is already known. There are more accessible consequences of empirical truths or general laws which enable me rationally to accept or to reject assertions which lie beyond my ability to check for direct correspondence.

This coherence of truths with other truths is evident in everyday life – if I am in Prague at a certain time, I cannot possibly have been seen by someone in London at that time. It regulates our expectations. The need for coherence is, however, most fully developed and most obviously to the fore in the truths of science. Even for science, however, the audit trail ultimately still has to end with correspondence with my experiences, direct or mediated. An assertion can count as true only if it coheres with other true assertions; but ultimately the truth of all assertions is underwritten by correspondence.

The final aspect of truth is pragmatic: that which is true is that which ‘works’ for us, in the broadest possible sense of the word. In the case of certain beliefs which are not accessible to empirical testing – for example, religious beliefs or secular ideologies – ‘truth’ is almost entirely assimilated to what the William James called pragmatic ‘cash value’, and which evolutionary theorists would call ‘survival value’. We cannot, however, reduce the difference between all truths and all falsehoods simply to the difference between what works and what doesn’t. If we did, we would still have to explain why some things do and some things don’t work. While beliefs may feel true because they ‘work’, ultimately, most of our beliefs that work do so because they are true. And ultimately that means corresponding to a state of affairs, or a range or pattern of states of affairs.

In short, truth is far from empty, as Davidson claimed; and the theory of truth is not “a set of truisms,” as J.L. Austin said scornfully. Truth is rich, and the theory of truth complex. This is precisely what we might expect, as the nature of truth touches on what is most distinctive about us. Of all the creatures in the universe who experience what is the case, we are the only ones who make explicit what is the case, and assert that it is the case. We are explicit, or truth-bearing and falsehood-bearing animals, and to see truth truly is to see ourselves truly.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2008

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His new book is called The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head.


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