Most of my introductory students have a hard time with the concept of “truth”.
Not fancy philosophical theories of truth, just the ordinary sense that philosophers call the “correspondence” conception of truth. On this view, to say that a claim is true is simply to say that it accurately describes, or corresponds to, the facts. “The earth is round” is true just in case the earth is, in fact, round. “Whales are fish” is true just in case whales, in fact, are fish (they’re not, fyi).
The important feature of this conception is that a statement can be true or false independent of what anyone happens to believe. In 1200 AD, pretty much everyone in Europe believed the earth was motionless and the sun, planets and stars moved around the earth. At the time they had very good reasons to think so. But the statement was false; the earth is not motionless, and the sun, planets and stars don’t move around it. It was false in 1200 AD, even though everyone believed otherwise.
My experience is that for most people the correspondence conception of truth is not a natural one, it’s not their default view. The default view is closer to a belief-based notion. When I ask students, “what does it mean to say that a claim is “true”?”, the most common answer is that we call a claim “true” when we think it’s been “proven”, when the evidence for it is so strong that we can’t really imagine it being false.
But this is to confuse the distinction between having reasons for believing a claim is true, and the claim being true.
The difference is important. On the correspondence conception, having enormous confidence that a claim is true doesn’t make it true. Having overwhelming evidence that a claim is true doesn’t make it true. If a claim is indeed true, what makes it true is the relevant facts of the matter, not what anyone thinks or believes about those facts.
Now, with a few examples you can get students to see the relevance of the distinction and agree that we need a concept of truth that is independent of belief. In fact, any form of serious intellectual or empirical investigation relies on it. Much of the history of science, for example, is a history of beliefs that were once widely believed to be true, but turned out to be false. We need a conception of truth independent of belief to even make sense of this way of talking. We need it to understand our common experience of once believing that a claim is true, but later discovering that it was false.
Students can learn the distinction easily enough. But if you let a few weeks pass and suddenly ask them to explain what it means to call a claim “true”, in my experience about 80% will revert to their default view, where “true” is defined in terms of universal belief, or “proof”.
This troubles me. It’s a distinction that is essential to any form of critical inquiry. Critical inquiry requires a concept of truth that acknowledges the fact that beliefs can be held with great conviction and still turn out to be false.
This tendency to default to a belief-based view of truth is politically troubling to me as well. George Orwell wrote poignantly about the perils of living in a society where governments control all sources of information and the general public can no longer conceptualize the difference between truth and official propaganda.
Modern liberal democracies have institutions that (when functioning properly) resist the drift to authoritarian control of information and belief. But I would be happier knowing that the right sort of critical attitudes were widely shared among the general public.
My worry is that they’re not widely shared, and that as a public we’re more vulnerable to control and manipulation because of it.