What is truth?

 Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce Homo.

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:

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