i like being told what to think

Defining Truth in Terms of Belief is Bad for Critical Thinking

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.


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  • John Mayfield

    A problem, I think, for many students when thinking about these notions is that truth (in the correspondence sense) cannot be known because new facts may come to light in the future.

    A related problem that my students in biology struggled with is that science does not prove anything. After all, if you can’t turn to science for the truth (in the absolute sense, why not look to religious experts who do promise absolute truth). In addition, what is believed in science to be true is the consensus of the “experts” and this sounds awfully like a belief-based notion of truth to those not versed in thinking critically.

    Finally, there are those humanists (excluding philosophers of science, of course!) who deny the existence of any “ultimate” truth — I suppose they do this by denying the existence of indisputable facts.

    • http://www.criticalthinkeracademy.com Kevin deLaplante

      Hi John! Good to hear from you.

      Oh, there are some philosophers of science who deny the existence of “ultimate” truth, trust me!

      I think most of these problems come down to conflating questions about meaning (semantics) with questions about knowledge (epistemology). There’s no logical problem, for example between holding a fallibilist view of empirical knowledge (it’s always revisable in light of future evidence), and holding that what makes a claim true or false is the facts of the matter, and not our beliefs about those facts. It may well be that all knowledge claims are open to dispute, but that by itself doesn’t invalidate the idea that when a claim is true, it’s true in virtue of corresponding to the facts.

      Now, one objection to this way of talking is that we’re appealing to “facts” as though they were free-floating things that aren’t connected to our conceptual frameworks in any way. That objection needs to be addressed, but I won’t get into it here :)

  • twhite6878

    Then what are these facts? What are the facts of the matter? I know the earth not be static because that knowledge was discoverable and verifiable. I am struggling with this concept…

    • http://www.criticalthinkeracademy.com Kevin deLaplante

      What part of the discussion are you struggling with, exactly?

  • Jeremy Howson

    Hi, Kevin. I didn’t realize you had a blog going on over here at the Academy site. This is great!

    Is “ultimate” truth and “universal” truth the same thing? I assume they are but perhaps there are subtle differences.

    My question is if philosophers tend think of universal truth as being fixed– that only those things which are not subject to change can be universally true? Or could it be the case that a claim that turns out to be universally true today also turns out to be universally false tomorrow? I guess what is motivating this question is if it’s a problem for philosophers to incorporate a highly dynamic universe into the idea of universal truth?

    • http://www.criticalthinkeracademy.com Kevin deLaplante

      Hey Jeremy!

      I’m not sure what either of those terms is supposed to mean, without clarification.

      “Ultimate truth” isn’t something that philosophers tend to use. Informally it’s sometimes used to mean “the final word on the matter, not subject to further revision”, or “a maximally complete description that leaves out nothing”, or “from a God’s-eye view”, which all mean somewhat different things.

      “Universal” truth is sometimes used to mean “for all times and all cultures” (i.e not relative to history or culture).

      There are plenty of claims that could be candidates for universal truth in this sense. If “Hydrogen has one proton” is true, it’s true universally. “2 + 2 = 4″ seems to be a universal truth.

      But calling it “universal” isn’t as informative as one might think, since the interesting question is why, and in what sense, is it universal? Philosophers are more likely to talk about “necessary” vs “contingent” truths, where “necessary” implies that the claim is true in every possible world, while “contingent” means that the claim is true in some possible worlds but not in others. There’s a possible world, for example, where our solar system has a different number of planets, so the number of planets in our solar system is a contingent truth, not a necessary truth.

      Now, can a contingent truth be “universal”? I suppose so. If we think that basic laws of nature “could have been otherwise” — e.g. there is a possible world in which the conservation of energy does not hold — then such laws would only be contingently true, not necessarily true. But in the actual universe these laws apply universally.

      You asked whether it might make sense to say of a claim that it is universally true today but universally false tomorrow. I suspect that if we’re given a case of a widely accepted truth that appears to no longer hold (maybe the speed of light is actually decreasing very slowly over time), I doubt we would be inclined to call it “universal”. But maybe you have other examples in mind.

      I think you’re right that if we’re considering a domain or part of the universe where change is a regular feature, truths about the states of such systems wouldn’t be regarded as “universal”. But human beings always look for higher-order regularities. Maybe the change is governed by general principles, a “law” of change. In which case we might have a candidate for a universal truth in this higher-order law.