November 13, 2008

What is truth?

 Antonio Ciseri's Ecce Homo.
APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, November 13, 2008

What is truth?

Pilate famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?”, but wasn’t interested in waiting for an answer. At risk of seeming arrogant and presumptuous, I would like to suggest an answer.

Bracketing temporarily Jesus’ extraordinary claim to be the truth (let’s call this capital T truth), I’ll begin my answer by addressing the everyday notion of truth (truth with a lower case t).

When asked “What is truth?” the contemporary philosopher Francis Beckwith promptly replied, “Do you want the true answer or the false one?” Beckwith’s answer is humorous and insightful. The fact is that we already know what truth is: truth is telling it like it is.

The concept of truth that Beckwith helps us intuit isn’t anything new. Aristotle understood truth similarly: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” (Notice that Aristotle’s definition has no word longer than five letters. If only all philosophers were this easy to read!)

This commonsensical lower-case-t understanding of truth that Beckwith and Aristotle propose is what philosophers call the Correspondence Theory of Truth.

In other words (longer words), on the correspondence view truth is a condition or state of affairs that exists when a statement of what is the case is the case. Falsity, on the other hand, is a condition or state of affairs that exists when a statement of what is the case is not the case. Lies are falsehoods intentionally presented as truths.

A corollary of the above is that reality (not belief or faith) makes propositions true or false.

Significantly, as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer astutely observes, propositional statements are not the only candidates for the correspondence view of truth: “stories too are truth-bearers that enable us both to ‘taste’ and to ‘see,’ or better, to experience as concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction. What gets conveyed through stories, then, is not simply the proposition but something of the reality itself.” (Vanhoozer describes the Bible’s stories as “richly propositional.”)

Still, the corollary remains: reality makes the stories (“rich propositions”) true or false. That the stories are true means they correspond to reality, whether that reality is physical, abstract, moral, or spiritual. Otherwise they are false.

What, then, is truth (with a lower case t)? It’s this: an accurate portrayal of reality.

Truth (with an upper case t) would be what—or who—is ultimately Real.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, located in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada.)

For further thought:

3 comments:

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

For an important discussion of postmodernism and truth, see J. P. Moreland's essay here.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Also, take a look at J. P. Moreland's much-easier-to-read "What Is Truth and Why Does It Matter?"

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Also, a philosophical-theological postscript is appropriate.

Truth (with a lower case t) is this: an accurate portrayal of reality. Truth (with an upper case t) would be what—or who—is ultimately Real. Theologically, then, Truth (upper case “t”) is, according to Scripture, understood to be Jesus.

Some comments from Kevin J. Vanhoozer may be helpful (again) here:

“God is the paradigmatic communicative agent, and his word is true because it is absolutely reliable. There is a correspondence between what he says, what he does, and who he is. Jesus Christ is the truth because he is God-keeping-his-word; as God’s ‘kept’ word, Christ not only bears but is the truth, a personal bearer of the way God is. Truth in the context of theological interpretation must never be merely theoretical (a mere correspondence relation) but practical, transformative, and relational (a covenantal relation). We enter into the convenantal relation of truth when our words, thoughts, and deeds conform to the image of the one who is the truth incarnate.” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” in Andreas K√∂stenberger, ed., Whatever Happened to Truth? [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005], 124.)