What is Truth and How We Know It?

Can We Agree to Disagree?

I think this is the all time’s most fundamental question if philosophy. Can we agree or disagree on anything? Without reaching agreement or disagreement, we cannot have a discourse, as we just talking pass each other. This shows up in a Plato’s dialog, where an example is give about two men arguing. One of them says that the horse is white and the other that the horse is black. Do these two men disagree? No as they can be talking about two different horses. One is talking about a white horse and the other one about a black horse. So they are not disagreeing, just talking pass each other. And even if it is turns out that the horse is white, they still not disagree, as one is talking about an existing horse and the other one about a non existent horse.

We can see that it is very important, that is crucial, that we have common ground, even to have disagreement, or any meaningful discourse. And what would be the most important and the most fundamental common ground, but to have agreement about what is truth.

What is Truth?

On the surface this seems a very easy question to answer, but it is very deceiving. It is deceiving because we all have this impression that  we know what is truth. But when we try to define it, we realise that it is harder than we thought. We may even come up with the conclusion, that truth is something which we know, but cannot define. Well for this reason, we better start with baby steps in order to find out what is truth.

Is Truth an Entity by itself, or a Property of something else?

The first step is to find out if truth is an entity, a thing by itself? That is, does truth exists by itself, and if it does, what is it? So what are we refer to, when we say: The truth is …? Or, what is it means to say: Jesus is the truth? Do we mean that truth is a person, in the form of Jesus? Or what we are referring to when we say that: The truth is hurt? Do we referring truth as an entity which causing us pain and suffering? Or, do we referring to a set of conditions which is painful? It is the later one. When we say something is true, we are not referring to an entity, but a property of something else. So what is that something else, that truth is the property of?

Does it make any sense to say: The house is true? Or, The colour red is true? No, it does not. So, we can see that things like houses, colours  cannot have truth as a property. We can phrase there statements like this: The house exists and: The red colour is vivid.  Now, we can say that these statements are true or not true. OK, so what kind of statement is: The house exists? It is a proposition, as propositions are statements about states of affairs, which either can be true or not true.

Sub Conclusion:

In conclusion, we can agree, that: Truth is a property of  propositions. Therefore truth is not an entity by itself. Further more, only propositional statements can have the property of truth.

How do We Know if a Proposition is True?

Now that we know that truth is a property of a proposition, here comes the hard part of working out, how can we know that a proposition is true. As we said, propositions are declarative statements about state of affairs.  That is statements about what is the case actually. So, a proposition has the property of true, if and only if it states what actually is the case. It is very obvious, that what makes a proposition true is dependent on the proposition. That is the truth maker of each proposition is dependent on the content of the proposition. For example, the proposition of: My House exists. Has the property of true, if and only if, the actual case is that my house exists. And the property of the proposition: The colour red is vivid. Only true, if actually that is the case. But, we would go different ways to establish that a house exists and a colour is vivid. While it is common to all true propositions, that they state the actual case. It is different proposition by proposition, how you establish the actual case.

Now, we arrived at the crux of the matter. That is, how can we establish what is the actual case, concerning each proposition. In short, we arrived at the problem of knowledge. How we know what we know. In other word we arrived at the field of epistemology. One would think, this is great. As, for thousands of years, hundreds if not thousands, of philosophers worked in the field of epistemology. So, they sure have an answer for us by now. Sorry to burst this bubble, but  this is not the case. After all these years and all the ink that was spilled over the issue. Philosophers reduced the justification of knowledge, to three unsatisfactory options, aka the Munchhausen Trilemma.

The Munchhausen Trilemma:

If we want to know that something is the case (true), we may provide proof. But the same question arrive of the proof itself and any subsequent proof. This is the problem of bootstrapping. We have the following three options.

  1. The Circular Argument. (Coherentism)  In this theory of proof, proofs are supporting each other. i.e. A is supported by B and B is supported by C … but at some point we return to A. hence it is circular.
  2. The Regressive Argument. (Infinitism) In this case we prove A with B and B with C and C with D … ad infinitum.
  3. The Axiomatic Argument. (Foundationalism) In this case, all proofs are based on axioms and certainty. Axioms are base assumptions, which are take as self evidently true, without giving proof for them.

As we can see, none of the three options is satisfactory, as they all have problems. But, some of the options are less unsatisfactory than others. The Regressive Argument is the weakest. But, Fallibilism in contemporary epistemology, redeems it a bit. Fallibilism states that we cannot prove things true universally, but we can prove them false. So, we can hold theories tentatively, until they are disproved, or become unnecessary.

The strongest of the three is the Axiomatic Argument. Especially in logic, mathematics and metaphysics. All formal logical systems based on axioms, some times called postulates. Metaphysical arguments also based on axioms, unproven assumptions, some times called principles, or properly basic believes. It is also called, arguments from agreed premises. Without these axioms, we cannot do maths or logic or debate or communicate.

  Main Conclusion:

Finally we have established, that truth is the property of propositions. And that we can find out if a proposition is true, in metaphysics, by starting form axioms. That is based upon agreed principles, bedrock  assumptions, properly basic believes. Without these we cannot even disagree to agree. (jk)  So, we need to agree about the axioms, before we start a debate. Without them we just talking pass each other.

I leave you with one more thought. This is going to be the subject of my next blog entry. When I have time and mood for it: Everything is true or false within its frame of reference. Taken out of its frame reference, it becomes meaningless. Including this statement!

8 thoughts on “What is Truth and How We Know It?

  1. You give 3 options for a theory of justification: infinitism, coherentism, and foundationalism.

    All 3 of these options are species of justificationism. But a theory of knowledge doesn’t have to involve justification. For example, critical rationalism (CR) doesn’t have any role for justification. Why assume that knowledge requires justification?

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      1. Some quotes from your article:

        “how can we ESTABLISH what is the actual case, concerning each proposition. In short, we arrived at the problem of KNOWLEDGE.” [emphasis added]

        “If we want to KNOW that something is the case (true)….” [emphasis added]

        Furthermore, infinitism and foundationalism aren’t even theories of truth, so how can you be talking about truth when you discuss them? They’re theories of knowledge/justification. So you clearly segued into talking about knowledge/justification about halfway through your post.

        http://www.iep.utm.edu/inf-epis/
        http://www.iep.utm.edu/found-ep/

        So don’t bullshit me and say that this is an article that’s exclusively about truth. I didn’t make a mistake – YOU did. In any case, I can tell you’re not going to take this debate seriously, so I’ll leave it at this: you’re a sloppy thinker and your post is shit.

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      2. You call me a sloppy thinker, when you are a sloppy reader. Here is from your link about infinitism:
        “Infinitism is a family of views in epistemology about the structure of knowledge and epistemic *justification*. ”
        Please note that it clearly says that infinitism is not only about knowledge, but also about JUSTIFICATION. Also, please notice, I refer to infinitism in the How do we know it… section of the article, after I have established what is truth. So, it is clear, that in this part of the article I am concerned with justification. I mention knowledge in regard to justification and not in regards to any other aspects of knowledge.
        I hope this cleared it up for you.

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  2. You said: “Fallibilism states that we cannot prove things true universally, but we can prove them false.”

    This is wrong. Fallibilism does not state that we can prove things false any more than we can prove them true.

    A while ago, some physicists thought they had observed faster-than-light neutrinos. Such an observation would falsify the idea that nothing can travel faster than light. But it turned out they were mistaken, and their experimental result was caused by a loose cable. So, what they thought they saw was based on some assumptions (like the assumption that their experimental apparatus didn’t have any loose cables). Our observations always rely on assumptions like that, so all falsifications are *tentative*, and don’t constitute proof that the theory being tested is false.

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    1. Sorry you are incorrect. We can prove propositions universally not to be the case. All we need is one instance to show that a proposition is not true. You see it does not matter how many conformation of a theory, the next instance could dis-confirm it. But if a test really fails, that is not just apparently fails, then the theory fails.
      I do understand that it is difficult to make sure that an instance of failure is not due to something else than the theory is failing. But this is just implementation problem.

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  3. You said: “Further more, only propositional statements can have the property of truth.”

    I’m going to guess that you think propositional statements are physically instantiated in our brains as patterns of electrical activity (or whatever – the neurobiological details don’t matter). So a propositional statement is a kind of physical object. You say that propositional statements can be true/false. Therefore, some physical objects have the property of being true/false. But then you say that a house cannot be true. Well, why not? You didn’t really explain what’s special about neuronal activity that uniquely allows it to have the property of being true/false, whereas all other physical objects cannot have that property.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, but there are a number of mistakes in your criticism.
      First please note that truth is a property and not an object (thing, entity). When you say that: My house is true. It only make sense, if truth is an object. In this case, you are saying that two objects are the same thing, they are equal to each other. But since truth is a property, an object cannot be equal to a property. That would be category mistake. So saying that my house is true does not convey any meaning.
      Second mistake is you are changing domains, frame of references, when you “instantiate” the proposition in a brain.
      The third mistake is that you think that a instantiated proposition in a brain becomes an object. It is not. It becomes a property of the brain. So you cannot compare it to a house, which is an object. Again a category mistake.

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