This Friday’s Christian Worldview class featured a lengthy tangent over the definition of “truth,” which ended in a promise to pursue the matter further on this blog. After I had presented the classic correspondence theory of truth, a student objected that this definition “left God out of truth,” and proposed an alternative definition. Hopefully, my response here will help clarify an issue that I didn’t have time to fully address in class, and which I feel I didn’t really do justice to, as my brain was still not firing on all cylinders after a bad cold the day before. (My apologies to students who may have been confused by my attempts at explanation!)
The discussion began when I defined truth as “correspondence to reality.” An objection was made on the grounds noted above, and a counter-definition offered: “Truth is revealed by God through his word and his creation.” In this post, I will begin by explaining the correspondence theory of truth, consider the objections that were offered to it, then analyze the proposed counter-definition.
To begin with, it is important to clarify the point of the inquiry: What does the word “truth” mean? When I say a proposition is true, what am I actually saying about that proposition?
Quite simply, and intuitively, the correspondence theory of truth says that a statement is true if it corresponds to (accurately represents) reality. If I say, “God exists,” and God does in fact exist, then the statement is true. If I say, “I am typing on the computer right now,” and that is in fact what I am doing, then the statement is true. On the other hand, if I say, “George Bush is president of the United States,” then that is false, because in reality George Bush is not president. The statement does not correspond to reality.
It is impossible to think of an example of a true statement which does not correspond to reality, or a false statement that does, which is why the correspondence theory of truth has been accepted for millennia by thinkers both Christian and pagan. When I say, “This is true,” I mean, “This corresponds to reality.”
BUT THIS DEFINITION LEAVES GOD OUT
Yes, it does. But the definitions of “existence,” “intelligence,” “frog,” and most other concepts do too. There is no reason to shoehorn God into the definition of truth when I’m clearly not saying anything about God if I say, “It is true that I had pepperoni pizza tonight.” If I had pepperoni pizza tonight, then the statement is true, even if I am a pagan with no conception of God.
BUT GOD CREATED TRUTH
No he didn’t. Truth is not a created thing, for the simple reason that it isn’t a thing at all. It doesn’t exist in itself. It is a quality which may be predicated of certain propositions, much like “heavy” or “long” are qualities which may be predicated of certain bodies. God didn’t create “heavy.” You can’t find a heavy. It isn’t a thing; it’s merely a quality possessed by one thing (a rock, perhaps) as perceived by another thing (some intelligent being). If there were no bodies, there could be no “heavy.”
Similarly, “truth” is a quality possessed by a proposition, if the proposition accurately represents reality. If I say, “I have brown eyes,” and I do have brown eyes, then we say my statement is true. “Truth” is merely a way to say that the proposition accurately portrays reality; it is not itself a thing. If there were no propositions, there would be no truth.
BUT THIS DEFINITION OF TRUTH IS SUBJECTIVE
This was the most substantive critique offered, but it is based on a misunderstanding of the definition of truth, reading “correspondence to reality” as “correspondence to my perception of reality.” (The latter being, interestingly, more-or-less the definition of truth offered by the coherence theory of truth, which is the basis for relativism.) However, the whole point of the correspondence theory of truth is to emphasize that truth can only be truth if it corresponds to reality itself. It is anything but subjective, for it depends entirely on the objective: What is the thing itself? If every man in the world believes the earth is flat, and it is fact round, then they are all collectively wrong, for their perceptions do not correspond to reality.
Now, the separate issue can be raised, “How do we know what reality is?” Well, that can be difficult! Men are often wrong, and often about very important matters. That fact notwithstanding, to blame the definition of truth for our failure to always reach it is rather like blaming a target for our poor marksmanship… And merely selecting a new target is unlikely to improve our aim! (And in some cases, the “new target” will actually make things worse, which leads me to the alternative definition mentioned at the start of this post, since I am not merely arguing that the correspondence theory of truth is correct, but also that the counter-definition which was offered is not an acceptable standard of truth.)
“TRUTH IS REVEALED BY GOD THROUGH HIS WORD AND HIS CREATION”
My student’s primary objection to the correspondence theory of truth was that it did not directly involve God. In response, he offered the following definition: “Truth is revealed by God through his word and his creation.” There are several problems with this definition. (Note that these are problems with the fundamental ideas being expressed, not merely nitpicking objections to the specific wording.)
The first and primary problem is that this definition of “truth” simply doesn’t fit the word itself. While one cannot come up with a proposition that is true which does not correspond with reality, there are plenty of propositions that are true without being revealed in either Scripture or creation: “I like football.” “Barack Obama is president of the United States.” “Roses are red.”
When I say, “It is true that I had pepperoni pizza tonight,” I mean, “In reality, I had pepperoni pizza tonight.” Not, “God revealed through his word and his creation that I had pepperoni pizza tonight.” When I talk about something being “true,” I am depending on the correspondence theory of truth.
Furthermore – and this is the second major problem – what do I mean when I claim that some historical account in Scripture is true? Surely I mean something more than a mere tautological assertion that it is, in fact, in Scripture? If I say, “The scriptural account of Christ’s resurrection is true,” I mean that Christ did in fact die and rise again. Yet, if my definition of truth is “that which is revealed by God through his word and creation,” then when I say, “The scriptural account of Christ’s resurrection is true,” I am really only saying, “The scriptural account of Christ’s resurrection is scriptural (i.e. revealed by God through his word).” Such a circular affirmation certainly seems to go against the spirit of Paul’s testimony of Christ’s resurrection in I Corinthians 15, when he appeals to the reports of eyewitnesses (those who could say what actually happened – in reality).
Ironically, the statement “Truth is revealed by God through his word and his creation” is actually true. God does reveal truth through his word and his creation. However, not all truth is revealed in this way, and setting up “God’s word and creation” as the definition of truth doesn’t work for the reasons discussed above.
I’ve had to summarize some points to avoid making this post ridiculously long, but hopefully this is enough to give a coherent framework to my argument. If you are a Worldview student who’s here to see my followup to the class discussion, I’d enjoy hearing from you (either in agreement or disagreement) in the comments. Please don’t hesitate to disagree, or simply ask for clarification.