What is truth? How can we know if something is true? Do all statements hold a truth value? Can we have subjective truths?
When not considered too deeply, these questions seem obvious, but upon greater consideration, they are far more complex. Isn’t everything?
In this article, I hope to explain truth and truth-apt statements, give a basic overview of the various theories of truth, and how truth can apply to conversations about morality, inclusive of some common issues that come up when discussing truth.
My goal is not to convince you of any of my positions on the other topics. I’ve explained where I stand a number of times on things like morality, for example, so I will just be using it as a tool to enhance my explanations of truth.
What is Truth?
Truth is something that has the value of being true. It is something that IS. A fact that is not swayed by opinion/belief.
Truth is binary. Something is true, or not true. Something not true is false.
This ties into the laws of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction. Something cannot be both true and false, e.g. in a given moment something cannot be both true and false like: something existing, someone being alive, the water has reached boiling temperature etc.
It also ties into the law of excluded middle. There is no other option than something be true or false.
From moment to moment, some truth values can change. Context could change the truth value too. Other things are true regardless of the context.
Summary: Truth speaks of something that IS regardless of what we believe.
So how can we tell if something is true?
This is a much harder question, and to answer it I feel we should start with the various theories of truth.
Theories of Truth
There are actually quite a few theories of truth, but the most important ones are:
- Correspondence theory
- Coherence theory
- Semantic Theory
- Pragmatic Theory
- Deflationary Theory
The Correspondence Theory of Truth
This is most simplistically put as ‘That which is in accordance with reality’.
It’s a really simplistic version of truth, and it makes sense. Water is wet, the snow is white, the air we breathe is made up mostly of nitrogen and circa 21% oxygen etc.
On the surface, it seems like that’s all we really need to really describe truth, but is open to issues.
For example, we know that we are not really experiencing all of reality. People with an extra cone in their eye can see far more colours than most of us. At best, our experience of reality is a hallucination we agree on.
So then, does this make what is true what everyone agrees to be true? It seems that we would disagree with this. For example:
- Most people in the world agree there is some sort of deity. We atheists would disagree with this
- Most people in the world believe in the Abrahamic deity. Other religions would disagree with this. (Along with us atheists)
- Most people in the world who believe in the Abrahamic deity, believe in the Christian version. Muslims and Jews would disagree with that.
It would seem that we need more than just an agreement.
Science can come into play with the physical realm, of course, test, repeat, display the results, and there can be a consensus around the interpretation of the results.
Of course, science doesn’t really deal with proving things absolutely true, just showing that with rigorous testing they haven’t been shown to be false yet so are considered true, at least for now. This does rely on certain presuppositions about reality though, which can lead to some objections.
A common objection to science might be along the lines of someone taking a solipsistic approach, or that we are in a computer simulation. Whilst this could be true, I think we should work within the parameters of our environment. Even if we are just brains in a vat in some form of computer network with a simulated reality, we should consider the reality we are in as real.
This is similar to how I describe value. Even though without life there is no value, so it is ultimately extrinsic, within a system that has life, there are things with intrinsic properties that add value.
Even though we can’t know our reality is real, our experience of reality is real to us, and we can’t do anything except live in our reality. So, we should be pragmatic and work within the confines of said reality.
Still, the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t really work. It’s acceptable for day to day, mundane things, especially for those of a subjective value like our preferences (it is true I prefer X over y) but when it comes down to it, the correspondence theory of truth is a bit of a tautology.
X is true because it corresponds to a fact. A fact is something that is true. It is true because it corresponds to a fact. It doesn’t really give us much to really discover if something is true. All it takes is for one of those facts to not actually be a fact and it crumbles.
Coherence Theory of Truth
The coherence theory of truth is much like the coherence theory of knowledge. Essentially, X is true iff (if and only if) it coheres with ____.
‘I was robbed with a jelly bean by a talking llama with wings.’
If we were to see if the is coheres with other statements we could say:
- Llamas do not talk
- Llamas do not have wings
- No one (sober) has ever seen a talking llama with wings
- No other crimes have been reported in the area involving llamas or anything llama-like
- A jelly bean is an edible piece of candy and not something we would feel threatend by
- A llama couldn’t hold a jellybean
- and so on…
We could conclude that this is not true.
‘I went to the beach at the weekend’
- Beaches exist
- We know they had a plan to go to the beach
- They do not work weekends so it is a good time to do it
- They live within 30 minutes of the beach
- We have seen pictures of them at the beach before
We could conclude that this is a true statement.
Of course, with coherence theories, we run into the problem of people filling the blanks with various different things. Some might fill them with their preferences. Others with science. Another with their particular religion etc.
With the blank being filled with different things, the truth value could be different. This, in turn, means one person could say it is true and other says it is false. Something cannot be both true and false so we have an issue.
Like the coherence theory of knowledge, it doesn’t seem enough on its own, but it is a good check, even just as an internal one, to make sure everything you think is true is coherent.
The Semantic theory of Truth (STT) has many ingredients. The most important are as follows:https://iep.utm.edu/s-truth/#H2
(A) Truth as a property of sentences;
(B) Relations between truth and meaning;
(C) Diagnosis of semantic paradoxes;
(D) Resolution of semantic paradoxes;
(E) Relativization to languages;
(F) T-scheme (A is true if and only if A);
(G) The principle BI of bivalence;
(H) Material and formal adequacy of a truth-definition;
(I) Conditions imposed on a metalanguage in order to obtain a proper truth-definition;
(J) The relation between language and metalanguage;
(K) The truth-definition itself;
(L) Maximality of the set of truths in a given language;
(M) The undefinability theorem.
The semantic theory of truth is incredibly complicated in comparison to the previous two theories, which means that it ought to be closer to achieving a more accurate way to detect truth. If we examine the theory closely it sets up a number of things that theories of truth struggle with, though was also a bit rigid in places and complex to apply.
- It works for formal languages but colloquialisms and the like would struggle to apply this theory.
- It deals well with the liars paradox (e.g. “this sentence is untrue” or “I am lying now”).
- It deals mostly with linguistic truths and does it in a way hard to apply to the external world.
Pragmatic Theory of Truth
A Pragmatic Theory of Truth holds (roughly) that a proposition is true if it is useful to believe.https://iep.utm.edu/truth/#H6
This, of course, is a deeply flawed way to look at truth. I agree there are some truths we should deal with in a pragmatic way, as there is no way to prove otherwise. For example, our reality is real and we are not in a simulated universe. That if I slice someone’s throat, this causes real pain and is not a sprite in said universe etc.
However, in general something’s utility doesn’t make it true. It may be useful for someone to view another race or gender as a lesser people. That doesn’t make it true. Equally, the utility of something could change per person, or even per time. It might be useful for a person to believe in God because it gives them strength to persevere in hard times, whereas another might be going through the same hardships and their belief causes them to stagnate and pray for a solution.
We could find use in things that are false, and find true things note useful. I ate cabbage supplied by my neighbour tonight. This is true, but under the pragmatic theory of truth there is very little use anyone can get out of this, so would be false.
Whilst I do think a certain amount of pragmatism is required when considering truth, I can’t see the pragmatic theory being worth much by itself.
Deflationary Theories of Truth
Deflationary theories take a different approach. The above theories all discuss some attributes to compare to the proposition to aid in determining truth.
Redundancy theory speaks of certain redundant ascribing of truth values. The statement ‘I am hungry’ or ‘I can hear drum and bass’ can be written as ‘It is true that I am hungry’ or ‘It is true that I can hear drum and bass’ but this adds nothing to the statement. It is just a verbose way of saying the same thing.
Essentially it speaks of the only time truth is really relevant is when it is an indirect reference, and at that point, truth should be considered.
The Performative Theory of Truth argues that ascribing truth to a proposition is not really characterizing the proposition itself, nor is it saying something redundant. Rather, it is telling us something about the speaker’s intentions. The speaker – through his or her agreeing with it, endorsing it, praising it, accepting it, or perhaps conceding it – is licensing our adoption of (the belief in) the proposition. Instead of saying, “It is true that snow is white”, one could substitute “I embrace the claim that snow is white”https://iep.utm.edu/truth/#SH7b
This, of course, could get a little silly. It requires a change in basic logic. Essentially it seems to be saying that there is no real truth just what people accept as true (or believe to be). Perhaps it is an acknowledgement of the inability to absolutely detect what is true, and as such truth is taken on a performative level, yet if I was to suddenly tell you I do not like skapunk it would not make it true and nor would you accepting it.
Prosentenctial theory of truth
The central claim of the prosentential theory is that ‘x is true’ functions as a prosentence-forming operator rather than a property-ascribing locution.https://iep.utm.edu/truthpro/
Frankly, I don’t think this ties into truth all that much, it is similar to the performative theory of truth, and speaks of how we are using truth rather than helping us establish truth.
Summary of The Theories of Truth
There are a number of theories of truth, these are the most commonly used or spoken about. If I am honest, none of them really work by themselves. The semantic theory of truth is probably the closest in robustness, but it is far too rigid and difficult to apply in day to day life.
Like with the theories of knowledge, all of them seem to be describing different aspects of truth, and whilst on their own do not fully work, in combination they can provide a more robust way to examine truth.
I would personally be pragmatic in my approach (not saying it has to be useful to be true, just that there are certain brute facts and axioms we have to accept to get anywhere like reality is real) and tie in correspondence theory with coherence theory. In some respects, I understand our conclusion of what is true is more a statement like that in performative theory, but I think there is still an actual truth out there.
Equally, I can stand up and turn the light switch off, the lights can go out and I can say “the lights are off” and this would be true. Sure, I agree that it might be redundant to assign a truth value to this, but that doesn’t make it not true. So if we can conclude, at least within the experience of reality, some things are true, then there must be a truth, something that is in accord with reality, that coheres with a standard, even if we are not at the point where we can be absolutely certain about that.
So, if some things are clearly true, but are so evident it is redundant discussing them, other things are so unknown we don’t know if they are in accord with reality and at best they are either useful to believe or say they are true is more speaking of our attitude towards the proposition than the actual truth value itself, it does seem like it is quite hard for us to fully explain, explore and discover truth.
This is, however, one of the things I like about science, and the theory of knowledge known as fallibilism. Whilst we might not have absolute certainty of a thing being true, only the certainty of a thing being false, with enough testing, reasoning, knowledge, coherence etc we can justify considering something as true until such time it is proved false. The more it is tested, poked, prodded, and the longer it is “not false”, the higher the probability of it be true is.
I do believe that truth exists, that other than the really basic self-evident things like “I am hungry” and “I like the smell of her perfume” we can’t say with absolute certainty things are true, but we should be pragmatic about them and operate in a way here if something has a very high probability of being true then we ought to consider it true, whilst being mindful that it is no certain thing and to always keep checking in on said truth to see if it holds up.
In philosophy, to say that a statement is truth-apt is to say that it could be uttered in some context (without its meaning being altered) and would then express a true or false proposition.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth-apt#:~:text=In%20philosophy%2C%20to%20say%20that,false%2C%20unlike%20questions%20or%20commands.
Truth-apt sentences are capable of being true or false, unlike questions or commands.
Essentially, when something is truth-apt it has a truth value. It can be true or false. “It is raining outside” is truth-apt. It will either be true or false. “What is your favourite kind of weather?” or “Go outside!” are not truth-apt statements.
Generally, when we think about truth-apt statements, we consider only the objectively true. The truthmaker is not agent dependent. In other words, it is true regardless of the agent’s perception. But is that always the case?
A truthmaker is quite self-explanatory, at least when you know what it is… it is the thing that makes something true. We generally think of a truthmaker as not agent dependent, but if we are dealing with something like a preference, for example, “I like the taste of chocolate” is a statement that has a truthmaker to it. “It is true that the author of this article likes the taste of chocolate”. This truth is agent dependent. Is there more to a subjective truth-apt statement though?
We often hear people talking about subjective truths, but this can sometimes be understood in the wrong way. A subjective truth doesn’t have any power on the external world, that is to say, it doesn’t change it. It really is just saying “It is true that x is my opinion”
If someone says “It is true for me that the earth is flat” – they are making an error in their statement. What they are actually saying is “It is true that it is my opinion that the earth is flat”. It doesn’t alter the reality around them and actually make the earth flat.
Similarly, if we think of preferences, someone could describe their favourite music. They might say “Metal is the best music in the world!”. This again is an error in phrasing. What they are saying is, “It is true that I prefer metal to any other kind of music.”
Expressing a preference or opinion doesn’t have the same sort of external truth value. It is talking purely about the agent expressing it. However, agent A’s opinion does hold a form of objectivity to agent B. That is to say; if A expressed “Metal is the best!” and B expressed “No, Drum and Bass is the Best!” that doesn’t actually change A’s opinion. They are both expressing preferences. These are only true for them.
This leads me into a discussion of how truth relates to morality.
Morality is the principles of good/bad and right/wrong behaviour.
There are a number of different takes on morality, and most people will vehemently defend their position as if they have all the answers. The truth is, we don’t.
Part of the issue when discussing morality is tying in the concept of truth to it. As there is a generally muddy understanding of truth, and often an equally muddy understanding of morality, we find ourselves talking past each other and not having the same conversation.
There is No Truth
One way to consider morality is the non-cognitive approach. That there is no truth value, and we are just expressing our desires, emotions, intuitions etc. (e.g. emotivism).
This does mean that there is nothing truly moral or immoral, just what we feel to be the case.
As this is an article on truth, I feel that we should move on for now.
Moral Realism / Objective Morality
Moral realism states that there are, at least some, actual moral truths. That is to say, regardless of what people believe to be the case, there are some objective truths to reality.
It doesn’t mean all moral statements are truth-apt, we may be making errors by assuming some moral statements are truth-apt and could just be expressions of emotion (error theory), but there are SOME moral statements that hold a truth value that is true regardless of what an agent believes.
For example, the statements:
- It is our duty to help those less fortuanate than us
- Torturing babies for fun is immoral
- It was never moral to own slaves
- Stealing is immoral but permissible in some circumstances
Would hold a truth value, regardless of if people believed it or not.
Objective is not the same as absolute or universal. The context could change the truth value. Objectivism is just speaking of a value above opinion.
Summary: Moral Realism / Objectivism – there are at least some agent independent moral truth
Moral Relativism states that there is no objective truthmaker. In this instance, the truthmaker is the society/culture and is also agent dependent. Any agent within the said culture is held (objectively) to the standard of the culture, but each culture decides what is moral for it.
Therefore judging another culture, e.g. “It is immoral for x culture to kill homosexuals and atheists” is actually an error in phrasing. As the truthmaker is with the culture, what you are actually saying is, “I don’t like that x culture thinks it is moral to kill homosexuals and atheists.”
Equally, as a person within your own culture, you might not agree with certain things that are considered moral/immoral. This doesn’t change whether it is moral/immoral, but if enough individuals agree the culture could shift and head in a new direction.
Another thing to consider is, statements like “Slavery was always immoral” do not make sense in a relativistic theory. If morality is relative, then the truthmaker is culture AND time-dependent. Therefore, if a culture deemed slavery moral at the time, it would be moral at the time.
Summary: Moral Relativism – The truthmaker comes from the culture and time. Agents within the culture are held to that standard.
There are a few kinds of subjective morality. For example, emotivism could be regarded as a form of subjectivism. However, we are going to be speaking of the truth-apt theory, Moral Subjectivism.
Within moral subjectivism, we are saying that the truthmaker is personal opinion. That is to say, if agent A deems action X is moral, it is moral for A to do X. It does not matter what B thinks about agent A doing X, as the truthmaker is personal opinion, much like the music preference example I gave earlier in the article.
It should be noted that Moral Subjectivism can actually be referred to as a form of Moral Relativism, except the relative scale does not relate to the cultures & times, but agents.
With it being a form of relativism, it holds to the same issues moral relativism has with judgments, except they go down to the individual level rather than the cultural.
If agent A thinks it is moral to torture babies for fun, it becomes moral for A to torture babies for fun. If B says it is immoral to torture babies for fun, it is immoral for B to torture babies for fun. If B says it is immoral for A to torture babies for fun, under moral subjectivism, they are actually just expressing “I don’t like that it is moral for A to torture babies for fun”.
It is common for us atheists to judge the Bible or Qur’an as immoral, whilst similarly making claims that morality is subjective. This is also an error in phrasing because if morality is subjective, we can only speak of what is moral for us. What we are actually saying is things like “I don’t like that it is moral for Yahweh to commit mass genocide.”
Summary: Moral Subjectivism – The truthmaker is the agent’s opinion and only relates to the agent, much like a preference.
Do you think there is a form of truth to moral statements? Do you think this is given by the culture? Someone’s opinion? Is there a value of truth that is true regardless of the agent’s perception? These are moral-cognitive approaches that speak of there being truth to moral statements. The question then becomes “where is the truthmaker?”
There are, of course, other moral theories and bits of moral terminology you can discuss. The GDC have a nice little cheat sheet you can check out here: https://greatdebatecommunity.com/2021/06/11/moral-terminological-cheat-sheet/.
Can the Truthmaker be in Multiple Places?
The simple answer to this is no, due to the law of non-contradiction, but there are different ways to discuss morality so we could be charitable and say that in some contexts there could be.
For example, we can talk about morality in two ways. Descriptively and normatively.
Descriptive statements describe how it works in practice. Essentially descriptive morality describes what people believe are right and wrong, but not necessarily is right or wrong.
Normative statements describe how it ought to work. It is the conclusion and two rational agents would come to given the same information. Essentially, normative morality describes what is right and wrong, regardless of what people believe.
Therefore we could say that descriptively morality seems to work in a relativistic sense but normatively it is objective.
This doesn’t actually make the truthmaker in two places, but people are operating as if the truthmaker is in the culture but they ought to be operating differently.
Even if you took an anti-realist approach, but thought there were truth-apt statements to be made about morality (cognitive anti-realism) you would still need to place the truthmaker in either subjective OR relative. It cannot be both. It could be neither if you went for a form of non-cognitivism, but we shall assume that you do think there is truth to be held about moral statements, just not objective truths.
Relative and Subjective?
If morality was both Relative and Subjective it would mean the truthmaker was in both opinions and culture.
If culture C decided behaviour x was immoral, x would be immoral for anyone in the culture.
Agent A is in that culture but decides behaviour x is moral. This makes it moral for the agent, but also not moral because they are in the culture and under relativism, the culture holds the truthmaker. We are stuck in a contradictory loop.
If morality is relative then x is immoral, but with enough agents thinking x was moral, the culture could shift. Once the shift is completed x would then be moral. The truthmaker is still with the culture, but the agents influence the culture.
It’s the LAW!
To help explain this a little better I figured I would give an example that may be more relatable to the average person. Law.
Now, the law is different to morality, and whilst some might equate breaking the law with doing something immoral, others might argue certain laws and punishments for breaking laws are also immoral.
What we are discussing, however, is truth-apt statements.
e.g. It is illegal to murder is true or false.
The law in any particular country is relative.
It differs from country to country (and in some places, state to state).
Something is either illegal or legal.
In the UK:
A statement like “Raping is illegal” is TRUE.
A statement like “Eating a Sandwich is illegal” is FALSE.
The law is objective to any person within a culture. That is to say, their personal opinion will not make something illegal.
A rapist can’t be caught raping and say “well in my opinion rape is legal” and have the police go “oh, well, ok then, carry on.”
Of course, the opinions of people can cause some uprising over laws they don’t agree with. They could vote for people they think to respect their values, try and pass bills and all sorts. Eventually, they could make something illegal, legal, or something legal, illegal.
Smoking pot is now legal in some states in America.
It wasn’t legal until the culture decided to change the law though.
Lots of people in a lot of countries feel pot should be legal. That doesn’t make it legal until the culture passes the law to make it legal.
So, the opinions of the people on law are not truth-apt. They, of course, influence the culture, but it is not until the change is brought about that the law is changed and therefore the truth is changed.
If you re-read the statement passage above but replace illegal with immoral and legal with moral you might understand the issue regarding morality as both relative and subjective.
Summary Of Moral Truths
If a statement is truth-apt then it is something that does have truth to it. If you think morality has truth-apt statements then you are taking a cognitivist approach to it.
Truth-apt statements are capable of being true or false.
They are not capable of being true AND false.
This would violate the law of non-contradiction and therefore be irrational. It also ties into the law of excluded middle, given a particular context, it is either true or false, there is no third option like both or neither.
When discussing morality, terms like subjective and relative have a specific meaning.
Relative relates to the culture and the time.
Therefore, the truthmaker for a particular context relates to the culture at a particular time.
It would mean that if it was once considered by the culture that action x is moral but no longer is, it would mean that it was moral at the time in that culture.
To that end, it would mean that statements like “slavery was never moral” do not make sense, because it was considered moral at a time by a culture, and if morality is relative, the truthmaker is in the time and the place.
It also renders judgements on other cultures moot, as the truthmaker comes from the specific culture. Saying Culture X is immoral for killing homosexuals and atheists is actually an error in phrasing because the truthmaker is the culture, therefore the statement is more “I don’t like that culture X finds killing homosexuals and atheists moral.”
Subjective, whilst technically a form of relativism means based on personal opinion.
The truthmaker is the personal opinion (rather than the cultural opinion).
There are other forms of subjectivism like emotivism that are not truth-apt, but we focused on the cognitive approach for this article.
If morality is subjective it means the truthmaker is personal opinion and therefore if someone thought “It is moral for me to torture babies” that makes it moral for them to do so.
It also makes others judgements on that statement being “immoral” an error. What they mean is “I don’t like that that it is moral for that person to torture babies.”
If you say they are both relative and subjective, that means you have the truthmaker in two places. That means the culture could say it is immoral, and the person could say it is moral. They can’t both be true. It is, therefore, irrational to consider morality both relative and subjective. It is likely that what you mean is opinion shifts the culture, and the culture holds the truthmaker.
The Truth of it All
Due to the nature of reality and how little we really know about it, it can be hard to really discover if something is true or not, at least with the absolute certainty one would hope from truth. This is why, in some respects, moral relativism and subjectivism make it easier to point where the truth is, much in a way we can talk about our personal preferences or culture’s laws.
When it comes to any form of objective truth, it can be hard to really know if something is true. That doesn’t stop it from being true, of course.
At best, I think we should be pragmatic in our approach to truth. If something can be justified well, and not shown to be false then it is fair to consider it true, but until we have a better understanding of reality we should always be checking to see if what we once thought was true still holds up to scrutiny.
When having a conversation, make sure you’re clear in your terminology. Sometimes, using the underlying meanings is better than using the terminology as it will explain your precise position. Using terms like relative and subjective, for example, carry a very specific meaning within morality and speak to a form of truth, yet you could be using these terms in a way that is atypical for the topic causing a breakdown in communication.
As we can see from our examination of truth, it is mostly about language as apart from things like preferences, or equations (maths and logic) we can find it hard to pin down if something is definitely true. If we are also muddy with our language, it can be hard to pin down what we are saying at all.