How to think about truth | Psyche

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How to think about truth

In a world of disagreement, what should you believe? These ideas will help you take a philosophically informed perspective

Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Need to know

Suppose that you’re talking with a couple of friends about whether one survives biological death. Your view is that humans are purely physical creatures, which means that there is no non-physical soul or any other part of us that is capable of surviving the death of our physical bodies. As you see it, when someone’s physical body dies, they die, and that’s it.

Your friend Anvi has a different view, which is rooted in Hinduism. Her view is that, ultimately, each human is atman, a genuine self or soul. Atman, she holds, is reborn into different sorts of physical bodies depending on a person’s karma during their lifetime. Eventually, atman can be liberated from this cycle of rebirth. If it is, atman is realised in brahman and attains moksha, the ultimate state of enlightenment and liberation.

Your other friend, Ethan, is a Catholic. His view is that each human has a non-physical soul that survives the death of their physical body and is then reunited with that body on Judgement Day. Unlike Anvi, Ethan doesn’t think that souls can be reincarnated and, unlike you, he doesn’t believe biological death is the end of our existence. Rather, he believes that there is only one body that each soul can inhabit and that, after death, a person’s soul will ultimately inhabit the same body that it inhabited on Earth.

Overhearing the disagreement, your friend Josh interjects, asking you, Anvi and Ethan why you think that your views about surviving death are true. You say that, based on current scientific evidence, you think your view represents the way the world is: humans are purely physical, and that means that death is final. Anvi explains that she thinks her view is true because it fits well with the other views that she holds: if she gave up her view about death, then her overall worldview would be less coherent. Ethan says that he thinks his view is true because holding this view has helped generations of Catholics (as well as Protestants, Jews and Muslims) to live spiritually satisfying lives: a view that works this well must have something going for it.

The disagreement between you, Anvi and Ethan is likely to turn on a number of factors, including your cultural backgrounds and what gives each of you a sense of meaning as you progress through life. Even so, Josh’s interjection brings out an important fact: your answers to questions about immortality are affected by your background views on what it takes for statements of religious conviction to be true or false. When this becomes apparent to you, Anvi and Ethan, it raises a further question: what does it take for a statement of religious conviction to be true, rather than false? This is a challenging question, of course, and addressing it will require some careful thought about truth.

In this Guide, we’ll cover five ideas about truth that you should consider if you want to think about this topic in a philosophically informed way. Philosophers have wrestled with questions about of truth for a long time. Debates about truth have occurred, and continue to occur, in philosophical traditions from all over the world. They impact many other philosophical debates, and they also intersect in fascinating ways with contemporary scientific research. Understanding philosophical ideas about truth won’t necessarily provide you with a straightforward recipe for how to arrive at true beliefs. It will, however, help you to think more clearly about humans’ relationship to the world that we inhabit, the commonalities and differences in our ways of representing the world, and why it matters whether our beliefs are true or false.

Think it through

Before accepting or dismissing the idea of objective truth, ask yourself what ‘objective truth’ is supposed to be

It might seem brave and forward-looking – or perhaps hopelessly sophomoric – to declare that you simply don’t believe in objective truth. Before weighing in on this issue, it pays to think carefully about what ‘objective truth’ is supposed to be in the first place. Here are a couple of things that people often mean when they say that truth is objective:

  • True beliefs pick out facts that exist independently of our beliefs about them.

This idea is admittedly questionable when applied to certain true beliefs, such as the belief that gold is more expensive than grapefruits. Sure enough, this belief picks out a fact: the fact that gold is more expensive than grapefruits. But if no one had ever believed that this is a fact, then it wouldn’t be a fact. The prices of objects are determined solely by humans’ social conventions, which are usually dictated by the levels of supply and demand. So, while the belief that gold is more expensive than grapefruits is true, it isn’t an objective truth.

By contrast, the idea that truth is objective in this sense is very plausible when applied to other beliefs. Take the belief that Jupiter is larger than Venus. This belief also picks out a fact: the fact that Jupiter is larger than Venus. Even if no one ever believed that this is a fact, it still would be. So, the belief that Jupiter is larger than Venus is an objective truth.

  • In a disagreement about what is true, at most one person can be correct.

Again, this idea is definitely questionable when applied to certain disagreements. You and I might disagree about whether Kendrick Lamar’s music is aesthetically superior to MF Doom’s. In this case, it seems like both of us could be correct. Certain features of Lamar’s music might resonate strongly with me but not you, and vice versa for Doom’s music. If our musical tastes differ in this way, then it seems perfectly all right for us to hold the views that we do.

However, the idea that truth is objective in this sense is very plausible when it is applied to other disagreements. Anthropogenic climate change is either occurring or not occurring. So, if you think that it is occurring and I think that it isn’t, then only one of us can be correct. Whichever of us has a true belief has an objectively true belief in this sense.

If you are still suspicious of the idea that truth is objective, here is something else that you might have in mind:

  • Our beliefs are biased, which means that we can never form fully objective beliefs about what is true.

There is something right in this. Our beliefs can be affected by cognitive biases like the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, or the Dunning-Kruger effect. However, this tells us only that our beliefs aren’t fully objective, in that they can be skewed by bias. It doesn’t follow from this that truth isn’t objective.

If many or perhaps most of our beliefs are biased, this means that our beliefs are imperfect guides to what is true. It doesn’t mean that our biases somehow determine what is or isn’t true. Consider an analogy: a defective barometer is an imperfect guide to the current air pressure, but the defects in the barometer don’t determine what the air pressure is. So, when we learn that our beliefs are biased, a sensible response is to try and improve them by mitigating the effects of cognitive biases, much as we might try to repair a defective barometer. If we can do that, then it’s reasonable to hope that we will get better, probably in fits and starts, at discovering what is and isn’t true.

The ideas of ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ may be self-undermining, and they’re hard to spell out

In her 2018 Golden Globes awards speech, Oprah Winfrey made the following remarks:

[W]e all know that the press is under siege these days.
But we also know that it is the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To tyrants and victims and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before, as we try to navigate these complicated times. Which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.

Winfrey’s remarks seem to be in tension with one another. On the one hand, she praises the press for trying to uncover the ‘absolute truth’. On the other hand, she underscores the importance of ‘speaking your truth’. The first remark suggests that truth is absolute, while the second suggests that truth is somehow relative to our individual perspectives. But truth can’t be both absolute and relative. To see this tension, we should think about what it would mean for truth to be relative or absolute.

Truth relativism is a view about what makes beliefs true or false. According to the relativist, my beliefs are made true by my perspective, and yours are made true by your perspective. Relativists deny that beliefs are made true by a reality that is independent of our perspectives. This means that they deny that truth is objective, in the first sense that we considered above.

They also deny that truth is absolute. If truth is absolute, then our beliefs can simply be true – full stop – or false – full stop. Relativists think that this way of talking makes no sense. Rather, they hold that a belief can be only true or false, relative to a particular perspective. For the relativist, truth is like being to the left. One thing can be to the left of, or to the left relative to, another thing, but nothing can simply be to the left, full stop. This is why Winfrey’s remarks are in tension with one another: truth might be relative to perspectives, or it might be absolute, but it can’t be both.

A serious problem with truth relativism is that it seems to be self-undermining. A truth relativist endorses truth relativism. So, they presumably believe that truth relativism is true. But relativists think that nothing is true, full stop. In endorsing truth relativism, then, relativists seem to go against the grain of relativism itself.

The relativist can respond by suggesting that they’re not claiming that truth relativism is absolutely true, but only that it’s true relative to their perspective. This move seems to avoid the problem, but at the cost of making relativism philosophically uninteresting. To say that relativism is true relative to the relativist’s perspective is just to say that the relativist is a relativist. But we already knew that. So, if this is all that the relativist is saying, then the proper response is: ‘Yes, of course, but I’m interested in the nature of truth, not just in learning about your views on truth.’

Truth relativism also invites some challenging questions that make it difficult to say what, exactly, the view is. Here are a few of them:

  • Could it be that, while some beliefs are relatively true, others are absolutely true? How to tell which are which? For instance, what about moral beliefs, biological beliefs, political beliefs, or beliefs about the best ways to grow tomatoes?
  • What is a perspective? We often describe perspectives using metaphors like ‘outlook’ or ‘point of view’. But what is a perspective, literally speaking?
  • Are some perspectives better than others? When evaluating wines, it seems reasonable to privilege a wine critic’s perspective over that of an amateur who has tried only a few wines. So, even if all the amateur’s beliefs about wine are true, relative to their perspective, it is still possible for them to improve their perspective by learning more about wine. The same point seems to apply to perspectives on food, comedy, music, film, painting, morality, politics, and so on. Does this mean that there are absolute truths about which perspectives are better or worse than other perspectives?

Truth may be one of the most basic concepts that we have

Humans have lots of concepts. Some of our concepts – like the concepts of a person, a group, and music – are more basic than others – like the concept of a symphony orchestra. We acquire the less-basic concepts using the more-basic concepts on which they depend.

Some of our concepts seem to be primitive, in the sense that they don’t depend on any other concepts. These primitive concepts are ones that someone must have to think about anything at all. Think, for instance, about the concept of existence. It’s hard to see how we could make sense of the world if we didn’t think of certain things as existing and others as not existing. Thinking in terms of existence and non-existence seems to be a basic feature of thinking itself. The same goes for the concepts of an object, sameness and difference, place, time, and perhaps also for the concept of truth.

The idea that the concept of truth is primitive has surfaced throughout the history of analytic philosophy. It has been defended by such eminent philosophers as G E Moore, Bertrand Russell, Gottlob Frege, and Donald Davidson. It may have also been held, at least implicitly, by the early Chinese philosopher Wang Chong (c25-100 CE). One reason that this idea is so attractive is that, whenever philosophers have tried to define truth, they’ve run into thorny problems that arguably have yet to be resolved. This pattern of failure wouldn’t be surprising if truth was a primitive concept. A definition of truth attempts to define truth in terms of more basic concepts and, if truth is as basic as it gets, there simply are no such concepts. It’s no wonder, then, that definitions of truth have come up short.

The idea that truth is a primitive concept is also exciting because it is supported by 40 years of findings in developmental psychology. These findings are related to our ability to attribute false beliefs to other persons. You use this ability when, for instance, you think that your friend’s belief about when the next bus will arrive is false. Over the past four decades, psychologists have discovered that we have this ability quite early in development – maybe as early as 13 months.

A reasonable explanation for this striking fact involves the idea that truth is a primitive concept. It goes like this: the concept of truth is one of the first concepts that we acquire and, shortly thereafter, we acquire the concept of falsity by combining the concept of truth with the concept of negation (since to be false is, at least roughly, to be not true). We then use the concept of falsity to attribute false beliefs to other persons.

We’ll have to do more research to know whether this explanation is accurate. A general point to bear in mind, though, is that if we want to understand how the concept of truth works, we need to seek out every piece of information that is relevant to this question, including information from the natural and social sciences.

Someone from another culture may think differently about truth than you do

Even if truth is a fundamental concept, that doesn’t guarantee that we all have the same beliefs about what truth is and why it matters. When we think about truth, we need to bear in mind that our beliefs about truth – even those that seem obvious and unquestionable – may not be shared by people in other cultures. If we overlook this fact, it will be more difficult for us to communicate with and understand people from other cultures, which can be disastrous in a world as interconnected as ours.

A thought-provoking case of this sort has been investigated by the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu. Consider the following definition of truth: true propositions are those that correspond to facts. Wiredu hypothesises that English speakers will at least take this to be a potentially accurate definition of truth. It may be an accurate definition of truth, and it may not – this is something that we’ll hope to discover after thinking seriously about the nature of truth. At the very least, though, this definition may turn out to be our best definition of truth.

The best translation of this definition into the Ghanaian language Akan is: asem no te saa kyerese ene nea ete saa di nsianim. The Akan expression ‘nea ete saa’, used in this definition to translate both the word ‘true’ and ‘facts’, expresses the notion of ‘being so’. The trouble is that being so is mentioned on both the left-hand and the right-hand side of the definition, which means that the definition is circular. It says something like: that a proposition is so amounts to its coinciding with what is so. That isn’t very informative. As a result, Wiredu observes that an Akan speaker won’t even take this attempted definition of truth seriously. In Akan, the idea that truth involves correspondence to facts doesn’t need to be considered when we are thinking about the nature of truth.

The upshot is this: your culture and the languages you speak may significantly affect the way that you think about truth. This means that, when we’re reflecting on what truth is, we must be sensitive to the different representations of truth across the world’s various cultures.

Truth’s nature may be simpler than you think

Thinking about the question ‘What is truth?’ – as you’ve been doing for the last few minutes – can tie our brains into knots, leaving us with the impression that the question is simply too big to answer. But here’s something to consider: what if the nature of truth is actually very simple? This is an idea that has been put forward by deflationists about truth. As the name suggests, deflationists want to release some of the hot air from philosophical debates about truth.

Here is a commonsensical idea: true claims tell us what the world is like. This idea may be represented differently in different languages such as English and Akan but, however it is articulated, it seems to be a bedrock truth about truth. When we consider this idea, our philosophical impulses may lead us to ask metaphysical questions like ‘What is a claim?’ ‘What is the world?’ and ‘What is it for a claim to tell us what the world is like?’ However, deflationists insist that we don’t really need to ask these questions to have a perfectly serviceable understanding of truth. We can express commonsensical ideas about truth in plain, simple language, so they are ready to use right out of the box.

Consider an example. You hear someone claim that ivermectin can successfully treat COVID-19, and you’re wondering if their claim is true. How should you figure this out? Answer: learn whether ivermectin can successfully treat COVID-19. If it can, their claim is true, and if it can’t, their claim is false.

How to know whether ivermectin can successfully treat COVID-19? Answer: use the best sources of evidence available to you, since these will be the best guides to what the world is like. In this case, the best sources of evidence are peer-reviewed medical studies on the use of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment, which are easily accessible online. Bad sources of evidence include hearsay or speculation on social media and your own feelings or hunches, since these are unreliable guides to what the world is like. This means that, if you’re interested in truth, you should just ignore this junk evidence (even if it grabs your attention more easily) and stick with the best guides available.

We can break down this procedure into a few straightforward steps. Take the claim that p, where ‘p’ is any declarative sentence. Is the claim that p true or false? Well, what does your best evidence tell you about the world? If it tells you that (probably) p, then you know that the claim that p is (probably) true. If it tells you that (probably) not p, then you know that the claim that p is (probably) false. According to deflationists, this simple procedure tells you all that you really need to know about truth.

Key points – How to think about truth

  1. Before accepting or dismissing the idea of objective truth, ask yourself what ‘objective truth’ is supposed to be. There are different ways to understand the idea that truth is objective, and each of them is plausible when applied to at least some of our beliefs.
  2. The ideas of ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ may be self-undermining, and they’re hard to spell out. It may seem that each of us has ‘different truths’, but endorsing this idea seems to undermine it, and it’s not so clear what the idea even amounts to.
  3. Truth may be one of the most basic concepts that we have. The idea that truth is a primitive concept helps to explain why philosophical definitions of truth fail to deliver. Four decades of research in developmental psychology also shows us that we should take this idea seriously.
  4. Someone from another culture may think differently about truth than you do. Our cultures and languages can affect the beliefs we have about truth. This means that we need to carefully consider how truth is represented across different cultures.
  5. Truth’s nature may be simpler than you think. The nature of truth can seem impossibly complex. However, the commonsensical idea that true claims tell us what the world is like gives us a straightforward and useful procedure for thinking about truth.

Why it matters

Thinking about truth matters because it helps us to grapple with intricate and important issues that confront us as humans. Return to the conversation about surviving death. You, Anvi and Ethan offer different views on death, and you come to see that they are grounded in different views about truth. To move the conversation forward, you could start by trying to settle on a common, basic understanding of what truth is. The idea that true claims tell us what the world is like might be a reasonable starting point. You could then move on to whether truths about death are objective and, if so, in what senses. You could also discuss whether we should take truths about death to be relative, and what this even means.

As your conversation proceeds, it is certain to become multifaceted, and you might need to break it up into several conversations. No one ever said that philosophy was easy. The conversation is likely to produce more light than heat, though, if everyone involved can identify the questions that need to be asked and then think through these questions in a patient and clear-eyed way.

Thinking about truth also matters because it helps us to work through issues that we confront as members of contemporary societies. To use just one example, when you want to know about a socially significant topic like the climate emergency, election integrity, or government surveillance, which news organisations should you consult? Many, and probably most, of us want to consult only the news organisations that are most likely to provide us with objectively true information. We want news that is as free as possible from spin and bias, and one reason for this is that spin and bias prevent us from knowing what is objectively true.

The point to appreciate here is that, to find this sort of news organisation, you’ll need to get clear on which notions of ‘objective truth’ are most important in this context. The best way to do this is to learn about the notions of objective truth that philosophers have discussed, and to then consider how relevant they are to this task. Of course, this isn’t the only thing that you’ll need to do: you’ll also need to look into the track records and funding sources of the organisations that you’re considering, as well as the potential biases of the people who produce the content. But this sort of research will be useful to you only if you’re already clear on what your goal – acquiring objectively true information – really amounts to. In this and the other ways that we’ve discussed, thinking through philosophical ideas about truth can benefit you both as a human and as someone attempting to navigate our current social reality.

Links & books

For some excellent videos on theories of truth, check out this YouTube playlist by the English philosopher Mark Jago; this overview of classical theories of truth by the Australian philosopher Huw Price, and this discussion about truth between the Oxford philosophers P F Strawson and Gareth Evans, recorded in 1973.

The edited collection The Nature of Truth: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives (2nd ed, 2021) is a great resource for classic and contemporary philosophical articles on truth. The entries on truth from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the site Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also have all sorts of informative surveys on theories of truth.

The short story ‘In a Grove’ (1922) by the Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is a stimulating tale that touches on the objectivity of truth. Meanwhile, in Chapter 2 of his book Truth (2014), the US philosopher Chase Wrenn offers a clear and engaging introduction to issues surrounding the objectivity of truth. And in The Oxford Handbook of Truth (2018), the chapter ‘Truth, Objectivity, and Realism’ by Sanford Shieh discusses two frameworks for understanding the objectivity of truth that were first developed in the 1960s by the English philosophers Michael Dummett and Crispin Wright. If you’re interested in empirical studies on how people ordinarily think about the objectivity of truth, have a look at Robert Barnard and Joe Ulatowski’s paper ‘The Objectivity of Truth, a Core Truism?’ (2017).

The always-insightful radio show Philosophy Talk from Stanford University has an episode called ‘Truth and Relativism’ (2005) featuring a discussion with the US philosopher Helen Longino. Meanwhile, Chapter 3 of the book Relativism (2020) by Maria Baghramian and Annalisa Coliva is a compact discussion of both traditional and contemporary forms of truth relativism. And The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism (2020) edited by Martin Kusch contains a smorgasbord of chapters on relativism, including several that focus on truth.

The best short defence of the view that truth is a primitive concept is Jamin Asay’s chapter ‘Primitivism about Truth’ (2021) in the aforementioned book The Nature of Truth. Jeremy Wyatt’s paper ‘Primitivist Theories of Truth’ (2022) covers the historical roots of this view, its relevance to contemporary philosophy, and the ways in which it intersects with developmental psychology.

The chapter ‘Truth and an African Language’ (2004) is Kwasi Wiredu’s most recent study of English and Akan representations of truth. In Chapter 6 of his book Meaning and Truth in African Philosophy (2018), Grivas Muchineripi Kayange investigates the Chewa concept of truth. James Maffie’s paper ‘Why Care about Nezahualcoyotl?’ (2002) addresses the conception of truth in 16th-century Nahua philosophy. Alexus McLeod’s book Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy (2015) offers a wide-ranging account of the views of truth that surfaced in early Chinese philosophy. If you’re interested in the Buddhist theory of two truths, have a look at Sonam Thakchoe’s entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe’s edited volume A Companion to World Philosophies (2017) also has several great chapters on theories of truth in some of the world’s major philosophical traditions.

If you’re drawn in by (or highly sceptical of) the idea that commonsensical truths about truth are all that we really need, have a look at the classic defences of deflationism in Paul Horwich’s classic Truth (2nd ed, 1998) and his book Truth-Meaning-Reality (2010). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on deflationism is also great for getting the lay of the land.