Theories of Truth


The nature of truth is critical to an effective Christian apologetics. If we are to have a workable apologetics, it is not enough that we simply think or say that a given statement is true, for it is also essential that we have some notion of what we mean when we say that something is true, that is, what kind of thing truth is. Equally significant is that we offer good objective reasons for what we mean by truth, and that others can see for themselves why truth must be understood  in these terms. It only stands to reason, for example, that if religious statements are true in a way that is different from our ordinary meaning when we say something is true, we then have the formidable task of determining, if at all possible, in what way religious truth differs from our normal understanding of truth. On the other hand, it seems counterintuitive to accept the notion that truth can mean different things to different people, in spite of various disagreements as to what truth is. If this were the case, we could hardly expect to arrive at any kind of agreement (except by accident or coincidence) about any kind of claim, religious or otherwise. And equally crucial is the idea that we cannot simply say that truth is indefinable, or that we are incapable of knowing and determining truth, due to our human inadequacies, prior commitments or subjective preferences. This view seems to go against our best intuitions about the kind of thing truth is. The way we approach truth in our everyday lives, especially when we think there is no personal, intellectual or moral issue at stake, argues against this notion. We regularly think that what we believe matches up with the way the world actually works. All the same, we cannot expect others to accept the claims of Christian apologetics unless they have some sense that the notion of truth we are using gives us common ground for doing apologetics. We can build some inroads into common ground by investigating the various major theories of truth with a view toward clarifying the reasons we have for holding a specific theory of truth and why the concept of truth we ultimately offer up is a valid one.

      A theory of truth sets forth the criteria or conditions that a statement must satisfy if it is said to be true, and as such, it is meant to provide us with an account of what we mean conceptually when we say that something is true. For example, it is one thing to say that one knows or is justified or rational to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Verifying this truth is an epistemological matter of citing good reasons, arguments, or evidence for the statement. It is another matter to assert that the statement "Jesus rose bodily from the dead" is true, which merely identifies a statement as true, whether or not any evidence is cited for it. And it is a yet different and more basic thing to know what it means to say that "Jesus rose bodily from the dead" is a true statement, for this requires that one knows what truth itself is. Suppose someone says, "I know (or am rational to believe) that Jesus rose from the dead." This is an epistemic claim about knowledge (or rational belief), which requires good reasons, arguments, or evidence for the proposition in question. Part of a reliable knowledge claim is that the statement in question be true. We can't know Jesus rose from the dead if he stayed dead. Why? Because we can't know what isn't true. We can know that something isn't true, but we can't know something untrue, like twice two is fiveBut what does it mean to say that "Jesus rose from the dead" is a true statement? To echo Pontius Pilate, what is truth? This is less an epistemic matter, and more of an ontological or metaphysical one. There are three main theories of truth that try to answer this question by identifying the criteria or conditions that a statement must satisfy to be true: the correspondence theory of truth, the coherence theory of truth, and the pragmatic theory of truth.

      In order to have any kind of discussion about the different theories of truth, we must first say something about the language that is used to talk about truth. Western philosophy typically sees statements as the bearers of truth.  Generally speaking, a statement is a particular kind of sentence (i.e., a declarative sentence) which merely declares something to be the case.  It is through statements that we are able to speak of the content (e.g., Jesus’ rising bodily from the dead) of what is said.  It is not uncommon to refer to the content of what is stated as the bearer of truth (i.e., it is either true or false), and it is the act of making a statement that places a person in the cognitive position to form the belief that the content of the statement is true. The operative thought behind this is that truth is something objective, that is, while we are able to grasp it, truth is something independent and outside of us.

      The notion that truth is a relationship of some sort between language and the world has been a long-standing position in traditional forms of rationality (e.g., modern notions of evidentialism and scientific or philosophical realism).  This notion of truth is typically referred to as the correspondence theory of truth, and it will be suggested that this is the theory of truth that seems to best line up with both our commonsense intuitions and the biblical teaching of what truth is. The correspondence theory of truth asserts that a statement is true if and only if what it asserts about a given state of affairs is the case.  For example, "Jesus rose bodily from the dead" is true if and only if Jesus did in fact get up out of the grave after having been dead.  The statement “My fat, blind cat is lying on the mat,” to use another popular example, is true if my statement hooks up with the way things are in reality. I have truth if my statement agrees with some corresponding fact in the world, that is, if my fat, blind cat is in fact lying on the mat. If what is asserted by the content of the statement does not in fact describe the state of affairs as it really is, then the statement is false.

      While the correspondence theory is certainly not difficult to grasp (this way of thinking about truth can be traced as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in the fourth century BC), it is in part precisely because of the connection between a statement and its corresponding fact in reality that the theory experiences its detractors. Correspondence seems to work well for statements that express simple empirical facts like “Snow is white,” and even statements that declare seemingly more complex empirical facts like “The moon is approximately 240 thousand miles away from the earth,” but correspondence is a much more difficult notion when applied to non-empirical statements like “The monotheistic God of biblical Christianity exists.” That is, most of the simple empirical claims that we make can be verified to one extent or another as corresponding with the way things are in the world. It is easy, for example, to verify that snow is in fact white, and that the statement “Snow is white” corresponds with the way the world really is.  But it is a much more difficult thing to verify that the non-empirical claim “The monotheistic God of biblical Christianity exists” does in fact hook up with the world. How do we verify this kind of statement? We have no empirical way of showing that there is in fact a correspondence between this statement and some fact in the world. God’s existence is not something that we can get at with our senses. So while the truth of “Snow is white” and “The monotheistic God of biblical Christianity exists” is an ontological matter (their truth does not depend on our ability to verify or demonstrate that they are true), nevertheless, we seem to recognize that there is a close connection between the ontological status of statements and our attempts to justify our rational right to hold those beliefs by verifying that they do in fact agree with reality.

      But the way we go about verifying a correspondence between statements about God and the world seems different from the way that we verify empirical claims. For example, since God is a non-empirical reality, our evidence for thinking there is correspondence between statements about God and the world must be of a non-empirical or rational kind as well. It may be helpful to see that this is not exclusive to religious claims. In fact, we regularly think there is correspondence between the world and many of the non-empirical claims we hold. Most would agree that it is difficult for people to reject the rational principle found in the law of noncontradiction, the non-empirical claim that no statement can be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. For example, the statement “It is true that this circle cannot at the same time and in the same sense be a square” seems rationally unobjectionable. It makes so much rational sense to us that we cannot reject it and think that we are rational and right in doing so. In fact, we would have to rely on the law of noncontradiction in any attempt to reject it. When something strikes us as being as rationally unobjectionable as the law of noncontradiction, we tend to think it corresponds with the way the world really is. We have no way of getting around it precisely because it corresponds with the world at the rational or non-empirical level. So we cannot assume that there is not a correspondence between non-empirical statements about God and the world simply because we have no empirical way of verifying it. There are rational ways of suggesting that a non-empirical statement likely corresponds with the world, and it would be premature to reject the correspondence theory of truth simply because not every claim is open to verification of correspondence on some empirical level.

      Having said this, it is sometimes difficult to remember that what truth is and what we mean by truth is an ontological matter, rather than the epistemological matter of verifying a statement’s  truth by appealing to good evidence, arguments or reason. Confusion arises when a person rejects the notion that truth is an ontological matter of correspondence between a given statement and the world simply because that person is not able to verify that such a correspondence does in fact exist. Such an approach mistakenly conflates truth and justification. It is important to keep in mind that we are not always be in a position to verify for ourselves that there is correspondence between a given statement and something in the world; nevertheless, it is still quite reasonable to admit that there can be correspondence between our statements and the world whether or not we can verify it for ourselves. It may be true, for example, that there is buried treasure in my backyard, even though I’ve never verified it by seeing it with my own eyes.

      All the same, the correspondence view is not without its difficulties. Of central concern on the correspondence view is the realization that it is quite possible for one to have beliefs that are reasonably justified for that person (the reasons or evidence one has for holding a belief seem to correspond to the way things are in the world) and yet those beliefs could be false because they in fact fail to correspond with reality. I can, for example, mistakenly form the belief that there is a deer standing in my back yard simply because I seem to be seeing what looks very much like a deer. I may come to find out that it is only a statue of a deer, and on this more recent evidence, my belief turns out to be false even though I was initially quite justified in thinking there was a deer. The problem is that justification does not guarantee truth, and this opens the door for the suggestion of other possibilities as to what truth is.

      It is in part because of the conflation of truth and justification (confusing ontology with epistemology) that the correspondence theory is rejected in favor of the coherence theory of truth. Briefly, the coherence theory argues that a given statement is true if it coheres with or does not contradict any other statements within a set of statements that also cohere with each other. Truth is what is internally consistent. For example, if Joe believes that all the university dons are out to get him, that all university dons are evil, and that any attempt to convince him otherwise would be based on lies, then Joe would have a logically consistent belief about university dons. The idea here is that there is a logical implication that connects a given statement to every other statement within a set of statements. Each statement of the system implies every other statement of the system, and one cannot know the truth of any given statement apart from the truth of the whole system. A statement’s truth is a matter of its coherence and logical consistency within a system, as well as a matter of its own self-consistency.

      The coherence view is initially appealing because it seems to get around the gap between justification and truth mentioned above. As we have seen, some beliefs can have adequate justification (good reasons for thinking that they are true) and yet still be false. This thought by some to undermine the correspondence view. But on the coherence model we have truth when a given statement adequately coheres with an appropriate set of statements, and when a statement is justified by way of that coherence, it is considered true. The view releases us from the concern with whether the statement actually hooks up with the world as it really is. Truth is a matter of the internal relation among one’s beliefs, not something external to one’s system of beliefs.

      But this apparent virtue of the theory is not without its problems. It seems intuitive to us, for example, that what Joe believes about the university dons is false even though it is logically consistent and coheres well with his other appropriate beliefs, and yet as long as Joe’s belief coheres with an appropriate set of beliefs, it is true on the coherence view. This approach ends up denying something that seems quite intuitive to us, namely, that it is possible (and often is the case) that one has a reasonably justified belief that is false. As we have seen, on the coherence view, so long as a belief adequately coheres with an appropriate set of beliefs, the belief is considered true on account of that coherence. Since there are no external criteria that could count against it (i.e., that it does not in fact correspond with the world), it is difficult to see how we could ever arrive at a reasonably justified false belief. The upshot is that the coherence views cuts us off from any mind-independent reality when considering a statement’s truth, and yet it is precisely our desire to get at the world as it really is that seems to strike us at the intuitive level when considering the matter of truth. But advocates of the coherence view think this approach has appeal because of our supposed difficulty of directly apprehending the world apart from skewing reality by way of the interpretations that we force upon the world as a result of our preconceived ideas. Many who hold to this view think that it is just plain wrong to think we have access to a mind-independent reality.

      Another common objection to the coherence view is that it is possible to have several systems which contradict one another but are individually consistent. Consider again Joe’s belief about university dons. Suppose instead that one of Joe’s friends, Sam, has the belief that all university dons are out to favor Joe, that all university dons are only benevolent, and that any attempt to convince Joe otherwise would be based on lies. In this case, Sam’s belief about what the university dons think about Joe is also logically consistent and coheres well with his other appropriate beliefs, and since Sam’s belief coheres well with his own appropriate set of beliefs, it is true on the coherence view. These are clearly two contradictory sets of beliefs, that is, they can’t both be true, and yet they would both be considered true on the coherence view. Likewise, contradictions also arise when we consider how some individual beliefs fare in different systems. For example, Joe’s specific belief that the university dons are out to get him is true on his own account since it coheres well with his appropriate set of beliefs, and yet the very same belief is false when one attempts to include it among Sam’s appropriate set of beliefs since it clearly does not cohere well with that set of beliefs. So Joe’s specific belief about the university dons, when applied to both sets of appropriate beliefs, ends up being true on one account and false on the other. 

      As a final matter of consideration, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the coherence theory does not seem to do justice to the way that we normally reflect on our beliefs. Rather than thinking about the truth value of entire systems of belief in terms of their internal coherence, we tend to bring to the bar of reality our quite individual beliefs. Many of the individual beliefs of which we are conscious are produced by our intentional mental states.  For example, my belief that my sudden hunger attack can be satisfied by eating an apple that I earlier saw on the kitchen counter is something that is easily confirmed as corresponding to the way things are by going to the kitchen and finding an apple on the counter. The truth of my individual belief does not involve entire systems of belief. In light of this and other issues, many would suggest that coherence is at best a negative test of truth. As we have seen, a statement is not necessarily true simply because  it adequately coheres well with other statements within a system, yet it also seems intuitively clear that no statement that is inconsistent with other true statements can itself be true.  

      A third option is the pragmatic theory of truth. The pragmatic theory denies that we have truth when our statements about the world describe the world accurately. It is argued that we cannot get the world as it really is, uninfluenced by our desires and expectations. The best that we can do is to find some useful way to deal with reality. Simply put, a person’s statement is true if it serves some social function or accomplishes some practical utility, that is, if it is workable or useful to one’s ends. The implication here is that truth is relative to a particular person at a particular time. To put it another way, a statement is true if it does what it was intended to do and false if it fails to do so. What is true is what I believe works for me or what is useful for me to believe, even though it may be contradictory or logically inconsistent.  If it is useful for me to believe, for example, that twice two is five, or that I can travel to the sun without burning up (so long as I travel at night), then it is true for me.

      It is one thing to take a pragmatic view toward certain behaviors or actions, and it is quite another thing to take such an approach with respect to truth. If I am out on the open sea, for example, and my life raft suddenly springs a leak, it probably matters very little to me what means I use to stop the leak. Of course, we are all aware that some ways of fixing a leak in a rubber life raft are better than others. I may regret that I left my patch kit in the truck, but when it comes to a matter of life or death, I am quite willing to use whatever practical means I have available to keep my life raft afloat. But does such an approach work equally well when dealing with the matter of truth? Most of us can see with a little reflection that a pragmatic theory of truth  falls seriously short of what our common intuitions lead us to think about the nature of truth. While taking a practical or useful approach to various behaviors and actions makes reasonable sense, it is not difficult to see that, if truth is what is useful to a given person at any given time, then truth is a relative thing, and even necessary truths could be deemed false for anyone who does not find them useful. Such an approach is counterintuitive. It is necessarily true, for example, that all squares have four sides. But on the pragmatic view, we would not be required to accept such a claim as true. Furthermore, statements that do not accurately reflect the world could still be true if they turn out to be useful for someone. Likewise, statements that seem to hook up with the way the world really is could be false simply because they are not found to be useful to one’s ends. On this view, for example, biblical statements such as “Jesus rose from the dead” would be considered false for the person who thinks the statement does not serve any useful purpose.

      So, as we have seen, a proper notion of truth distinguishes between ontological and epistemological matters.  What it means to say of any statement that it is true is to consider the ontological question.  But when I think about the question of whether any specific statement is true or false, I am thinking about an epistemological matter.   Much of the confusion surrounding different theories of truth comes from mistakenly thinking that if we answer the epistemological question (i.e., whether we know that a specific statement is true or false), we have therefore answered the ontological question (i.e., that a specific statement is true).  The false assumption behind this is that, since epistemological questions are difficult to answer, the matter of what truth is must be equally difficult to determine.  But such a mistaken approach to truth can be easily corrected.  A more workable approach to truth considers what features of language and reality make a statement true (an ontological matter) and then goes on to the further task of objectively evaluating specific statements for the purpose of determining their truth or falsity (an epistemological exercise).  So once we determine what sort of thing truth is, it is anticipated that we can demonstrate with reasonable sufficiency whether any specific statement is true.  And while a theory of truth does not supply us with the specific conditions or procedures for verification (the epistemological concern), it does suggest that one will probably have some idea of how to go about verifying or determining the truthfulness of a statement. 

       In addition, the correspondence theory of truth is consistent with certain other metaphysical assumptions about the external world, such as the notion of realism.  Realism is the belief that there is a mind-independent state of affairs that obtains externally to us and independently of our sense of experience.  While realism itself is not a competing theory of truth, there are theories of truth that are realist theories (e.g., some form of correspondence).  On this account, although it is often difficult to verify whether a given state of affairs expressed by the content of a statement has in fact obtained, it is, nevertheless, the state of affairs that the statement asserts or the state of affairs believed that is at issue in the correspondence theory.  This means that on a realist theory of truth, the belief that snow is white is true only if snow is white in the mind-independent world.

      The point is that realist theories suggest that such external realities do exist.  So, while realist theories do not ensure that we will get beyond our own psychological and personal predilections for how we determine the data of our beliefs (or that we really know what is in the objective world), they do offer an idea of what kind of conditions a statement (i.e., what gets expressed through a belief) must attempt to satisfy in order for one to be considered rational in holding it.  While other theories of truth (e.g., the coherence and pragmatic theories) do not necessarily exclude the condition of correspondence to the world in order for a statement to qualify as true, such correspondence is not a necessary condition for truth. 

      The correspondence theory offers one of the best possibilities for avoiding confusion between epistemic and ontological factors when considering the rationality for one's beliefs.  On the correspondence view, the ontological conditions that make a statement true are different from the epistemological procedures one uses to determine whether a given statement is in fact true.  One's approach to epistemic justification (i.e., the reasons a person gives for holding a belief, together with the relation among those reasons), while it bears some relation to one's theory of truth, does not require a specific theory of truth (i.e., the ontological conditions that a statement must satisfy in order to be true).  In other words, one's theory of truth is not about what gives a person a rational right to hold a belief.  Rather, it's about what makes a statement true in terms of the conditions that the statement must satisfy.  The point is that a statement may be true, even though no one believes it to be true (or even if no one has verified it or been in a position to verify it as true).  This means, in addition, that it is the matter of epistemic justification (i.e., the warrant, evidence, or grounds that one gives for holding a belief) that makes a person rational in either holding a belief or rejecting it as false.   

 


(An edited version of this document can be found in The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, ed. Edward Hindson and Ergun Caner, 478-82. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.) 

      Bibliography 

      Beckwith, Francis, and Gregory Koukl. Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998. 


      Feinberg, John S. “Truth: Relationship of Theories of Truth to Hermeneutics.” In Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, 3-50. Grand  Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan, 1984. 


      Groothuis, Douglas. Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000. 


      Holmes, Arthur F. All Truth is God’s Truth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983. 


      Kirkham, Richard. Theories of Truth: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. 


      Murphy, Nancey. “Anglo-American Postmodernity.” In Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics, 7-35. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1997.

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