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HUMR71-110 EPISTEMOLOGY AND THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
THEORIES OF TRUTH
AFTER READING THROUGH THE FOLLOWING LECTURE NOTES, YOU SHOULD BE ABLE
Give an account of the Correspondence Theory of Truth, including some of the
complications encountered by correspondence theorists.
Give an account of the Coherence Theory of Truth, including some of the
complications encountered by coherence theorists.
Give an account of the Pragmatic Theory of Truth, including some of the radical
implications of pragmatism.
Give an account of the Deflationary Theory of Truth, indicating how it differs
fundamentally from the other three theories considered.
Pojman, Louis P., What Can We Know? (Wadsworth/Thomson) See references in
Index under Truth (true) on p. 352. (This topic is scattered through the text.)
Four theories of Truth
If truth isnt everything that is important, it is still important. So what is it for a
description to be true? We may say that a description consists of at least one
proposition, and a common intuition is that when we say that a proposition (or
description) is true we are saying that there is something else that makes it true. But
what then makes a proposition (or description) true? There are three common
competing answers: the world (= the correspondence theory of truth), other believed
propositions (= the coherence theory of truth) and practical matters (= the pragmatist
theory of truth).
The Correspondence Theory of Truth
Probably the most common answer is that truth is a relation of correspondence
between a proposition and a fact (or aspect of factual reality).
Consider this rather trite example:
(1) The cat is on the mat
If (1) is true, then it is a fact that a particular cat (the cat of the description) is in the
relation of being on a particular thing (the mat of the description). The fact of the cats
being on the mat makes it true that the cat is on the mat. (How exciting is that!)
Here we have a description (the cat is on the mat) and it is true because a particular
arrangement of the world is in place; because the world is a certain way. (It is in the
cats being on the mat way.)
(2) Australia is an island.
If (2) is true, then it is a fact that Australia is an island. Is it a fact? That depends upon
the disposition of land and sea. It doesnt depend upon us or our inquiries or our
language: it depends upon the world itself. The meaning of the sentence Australia is
an island depends upon our language. But once it is settled what proposition is
identified by this bit of language, the rest is down to the world itself. Is the world
arranged such that a bit of it (we just happen to call Australia) is surrounded by
expanses of water (which we happen to call sea)? The relevant fact consists of the
arrangement of sea and land. (Of course, Australia isnt an island, there is more than
one of them. Im just equating Australia with Mainland Australia, for convenience.
Tasmania often gets overlooked in this way. Sorry Tasmanians.)
Now, just to be a bit painful about it, consider the description:
(3) The cat is not on the mat.
With what fact does that correspond? The cat up the tree? The cat running across the
road? It depends where the cat is and what it is up to. If it is up a tree, then the fact
that it is up a tree makes true the claim that it is not on the mat. If it is running across
the road, the fact that it is doing this makes it true that it is not on the mat.
That seemed relatively easy. What about this claim?
(4) Cats cannot fly.
What makes that true? What fact does it correspond to? A standard answer is that the
whole world being what it is makes the claim true. As it turns out, the world is such
that nowhere in it is there a flying cat. Our fact has to encompass the entire universe
because if there were a single flying cat anywhere, even in the next galaxy along, our
proposition would be blown out of the water.
OK. But this is even trickier. Consider this sentence.
(5) Australia is not a republic.
What makes this description true? It isnt a straightforward bit of the world (like the
bit of the world with seas and lands or cats and mats). If the description is true, it is
true because it corresponds to a complex social fact. The world is such that humans
treat each other certain ways (establishing norms of behaviour and laws that govern
behaviour) and one of these norms is about sovereignty (who gets to make laws by
decree) and Australia turns out to have a norm in which the Queen of Englands
representative gets to make laws by decree. That makes us a monarchy, not a republic.
Social facts are extremely complex facts. If you are going to accept the
correspondence theory of truth, you are committed to the existence of social facts,
made up out of layer upon layer of human norms and behaviours. Things get really
messy for the correspondence theory of truth, really fast.
The Coherence Theory of Truth
Let us turn now to the Coherence Theory of Truth. This is the second most popular
theory. The Coherence Theory holds that what makes (1) true (i.e. the cat is on the
mat) is the extent to which it coheres (sits well with) all the other things we accept as
true. For example (1) does not sit well with the belief:
(6) I can see the cat outside in the garden.
The two claims: the cat is on the mat and I can see the cat outside in the garden
do not cohere with each other. Something has to give. I have to make my beliefs
cohere as a total package. So what else do I believe about cats, mats, gardens and such
things? I believe that my eyesight is pretty good (when I am wearing glasses; and I
believe I am wearing them now; I can feel them on my nose). I believe that a single cat
cannot be in two places at the same time (time-travelling cats may be an exception;
but I do not believe that my cat is one such). I believe that my memory of the cat being
on the mat is a few minutes old. And so on. With a set of beliefs like this it is obvious
what is true and what is not. (6) I can see the cat outside in the garden is true (it fits
with everything else I believe, including the beliefs I have derived from my senses) and
(1) the cat is on the mat if false. It doesnt cohere with everything else; it is a mistake;
my memory of where the cat was a few minutes ago has misled me. It doesnt fit, so
it has to go.
A coherence theory of truth must deal, not just with the beliefs I have, but the beliefs
everybody has. There will be plenty of contradictions in the set of all beliefs, but the
truth will consist of the best, most coherent subset of these beliefs: the subset of
beliefs that form the most coherent package.
I hope you can see how complicated this theory is going to become, once fully
developed. Not all beliefs are equally significant. Beliefs drawn from the senses are
more robust than mere guesses or memories. Scientifically tested claims are more
solid than mere hypotheses. Mathematical and logical beliefs (e.g. 1 + 1 = 2) are
seriously hard to revise. I would throw out a hell of a lot of beliefs before I was even
tempted to dismiss beliefs like this. Perhaps the most coherent set of beliefs is one
that gives special weight to really sturdy beliefs and less weight to peripheral or poorly
formed beliefs. Truth is defined by that set of beliefs that ideally coheres where it is
harder to dismiss robust beliefs and easier to dismiss weakly supported beliefs.
Another complication: does the set of truth-defining beliefs consist merely of beliefs
we happen to have now? Or is it the ideal set of beliefs? For example, consider the
belief there is intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. Is this belief true or false (or
neither)? What is the point of counting up all the people who believe in intelligent life
and all the people who dont and seeing who wins? Is truth a form of democracy?
(Socrates asks this as a rhetorical question in Platos Cratylus he thinks it obviously
cannot be.) One answer is to say that a belief in extra-terrestrial intelligence is true if
and only if a fully completed survey of the galaxy would include the belief like this one:
the Camhives of Udania are intelligent. The Camhives (whatever they are) arent
from Earth; they are from somewhere near the centre of the Milky Way and they are
pretty smart. If this is what we would believe if we were able to complete our survey
of the galaxy, and it fits – ideally with all the other beliefs we acquired as part of our
survey, and all our other beliefs in general – then, and only then, would it be true that
there is intelligent life outside the galaxy.
This seems like the best answer, because otherwise what is true would vary depending
upon what our beliefs happened to be. What was true in medieval times is different
from what is true now. But if most people once thought that the Sun orbited the Earth,
for example, and that thought fitted perfectly well with what else they believed (and
why would it not?), then it would have been true. But heavenly bodies dont change
their interrelationships just because people change their beliefs. So the coherence
theory of truth needs to define truth in terms of an ideal set of beliefs, including those
based on future and possible observations, not just on current and actual
Consider again proposition (4) Cats cannot fly. I think this is probably true. What makes
it true? The correspondence theory says somewhat messily the whole world and
the absence of flying cats in it makes the proposition true. The coherence theory says
again somewhat messily were we to survey the entire universe looking for flying
cats, we wouldnt find any and anybody who said they did find some were probably
hallucinating. So our ideal set of beliefs about the universe will include the belief that
there are no flying cats in it.
One more example. Consider (5) Australia is not a republic. You might recall the mess
we got into trying to work out what bit of the world makes this true. I said something
vague about complicated sets of norm-driven behaviours. Things are easier for the
coherence theorist. It is true that Australia is not a republic because beliefs formed by
people inside Australia and outside of it cohere around the idea that the Queen of
England is our monarch; and that rules out our being a republic. (Thats why we have
the British flag stuck in the corner of our flag, like a postage stamp affixed to the wrong
Pragmatic Theory of Truth
The coherence theory of truth identifies truth with ideal belief-sets: those that form
the best, most coherent, complete package of beliefs. The pragmatic theory of truth
adds its own twist to this. Truth is best belief, but what counts as best is a practical
matter. The pragmatic theory of truth was developed most famously by two American
philosophers – William James and Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced purse).
The Pragmatic Theory is best summed up in the maxim the true is the expedient in
belief, just as the good is the expedient in action. This makes truth goal-relative. For a
proposition to be true is for its acceptance to be useful for achieving your purposes.
To put it in summary form, the truth of a proposition consists in its being practically
effective for you in achieving your goals.
Obviously, pragmatists dont mean this to apply in too simplistic a way. Consider the
following thought. My goal is to be happy. Believing that I am immortal makes me
happy. So it is true that I am immortal.
This is no good; if only immortality were that easy. Pragmatists, rather, have in mind
the idea that a system of beliefs (a conceptual scheme) generates truths if and only if
it is deeply useful for us as a conceptual scheme. Scientific belief is true, when it is,
only because the system of science its principles, techniques and technologies are
useful for us when we try to achieve our goals (e.g. cure diseases, travel to the Moon
and get back again, predict what will happen to the climate in 30 years, and so on).
Similarly, religious systems of belief are true, when they are, only because they are
useful to us as we try to achieve different sorts of gaols (e.g. cope with mortality and
suffering; be at home in the world; experience a spiritual love of the world, and so on).
When belief systems appear to clash (such as when science appears to clash with
religion) the pragmatists will say that the clash is only apparent. The two systems of
belief are about different life challenges, and do not contradict each other. When a
religious person says they believe in the transcendent wisdom of Vishnu, and worship
him accordingly, they are not making a scientific claim at all. They are making a
personal faith statement. The truth conditions for this statement are quite different
from those of scientists. They are not making predictions or building technologies;
they are finding a way of coping beautifully with the human condition. And the truth
of their religious belief lies in just that.
There are some quite radical implications in store for you if you choose to travel with
the pragmatists. For one thing, truth will come in degrees. One system of belief will
be truer than another if it better serves our needs. Thus, one religion might be truer
than another, just because, as a system of belief, it helps us cope better with the
Another radical implication of pragmatism is that truth is relative to human purposes.
As purposes change, truth will change. For example, the truth of religious belief fades
in a secular world. Its not that God is puffed out of existence by secularists. (God is
not a scientific hypothesis; God is not a thing.) Its that religious belief that once served
a profound human purpose becomes false and irrelevant as our goals in life subtly
alter. Consider an extreme case. Say we discovered a genetic modification that turned
us into immortals. In a world of immortals, there would be less need for religious
consolation, so religious systems of belief that were once true may be no longer true
(or may be less true than they once were).
Consider a political example. Belief in liberal democratic politics is only as good as our
political purposes. If these changed from cooperation and equal, mutual respect (the
goals of liberal democratic politics) to post-apocalyptic survival, then truths about
fairness and justice would change too. Its not that a post-apocalyptic world would be
unjust; it is that it has no room for justice as we understand it now. Beliefs we held
dear about what is just and unjust no longer apply are no longer true. (Scientific
belief will survive in a post-apocalyptic world, because we still need to fix things, and
we will still need to search for a cure to the zombie virus.)
Deflationary Theory of Truth
Correspondence, Coherence, and Pragmatism are all substantial theories of truth.
They equate truth with something (respectively, facts, coherence, usefulness). The
truth is out there: literally. The deflationary theory says that there is no property of
truth. Truth is a logical operation; it is a way of making generalisations. Nothing more.
How does this work?
Consider the propositions:
(1) Rome is the capital of Italy
(2) It is true that Rome is the capital of Italy.
What additional information does (2) provide over (1)? Nothing. They both say exactly
the same thing. This idea is behind the Deflationary Theory of Truth. Truth isnt a
special property of propositions: it is just a way of repeating the proposition.
Consider now the proposition:
(3) It is false that Berlin is in Italy.
What does this say that is not said by:
(4) Berlin is not in Italy.
Again the answer is nothing.
So what does truth describe? Nothing. What does it mean to say that something is
true? It is just to say whatever it is again.
So what is the point of having the words true and false in our vocabulary? What
function do the words play? According to deflationists, they help us to generalise.
Consider the sentence:
(5) Everything Aristotle ever said was true.
I can say (5) (it isnt true, by the way) without having to list everything Aristotle ever
said. Thats handy, but its not earth-shattering news. This is why the theory is called
deflationary. It deflates the pretensions of philosophers trying to theorise truth.
Deflationary theory of truth is controversial, mostly because it overlooks the task of
trying to explain or understand what separates our true beliefs from our false ones.
Deflationists say that nothing separates them as such. One by one: The cat sat on the
mat is true if and only if the cat sat on the mat; Australia is an island is true if and
only if Australia is an island. Vishnu is the sublime and transcendent principle of
creation is true if an only if Vishnu is the sublime and transcendent principle of
creation. The big question is: is this a dodge? Is it just a clever way of avoiding asking
the hard questions? The jury is still out on that one; as it is still out on all the theories
HUMR71-110 EPISTEMOLOGY AND THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
Lecture Notes 3 The Problem of Justification
AFTER READING THE FOLLOWING LECTURE NOTES YOU WILL BE
Expound the traditional or standard view of knowledge,
as put forward by A. J. Ayer and Roderick Chisholm, and
understand the differences between them.
Explain why the Gettier problem threatens the standard
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