What Is Truth?

Author Aaron Brake Published on 02/06/2018

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate wasn’t the first, or the last, to ask this.

The question, at first blush, may sound profound. In reality, I think we all know the answer to this age-old inquiry. I say that because we presuppose a certain definition of truth in our speech and actions every day of our lives. Perhaps the problem is not that we do not know what truth is but rather that we do not know that we know. In other words, we may not be confident in our knowledge of what truth is because we struggle to articulate a definition. But this is easily remedied if we take a few moments to reflect on the nature of truth.

Three Views on Truth

Historically, there have been three dominant theories of truth put forth by philosophers:1

First, there is the pragmatic theory of truth: truth is what works. Three major problems with this view are as follows:

Problem #1: The view seems counterintuitive. For example, there are some true beliefs which are not very useful (e.g., the belief that my cat has grey and white fur), and some false beliefs which may turn out to be very useful (e.g., my false belief that people actually read my articles is useful motivation to continue writing them).

Problem #2: The view is self-defeating. If truth is what works, then the pragmatic theory itself must not be true, since most philosophers throughout the ages have not held to the pragmatic theory (i.e., it didn’t “work” for them) but rather have found the correspondence theory to be much more useful!

Problem #3: The view implies relativism. Imagine two individuals who hold contradictory beliefs. On the pragmatic view, as long as these contradictory beliefs are useful for the respective individuals who hold them, we would have to conclude they are both true. But if that is the case, then truth is relative, a view which itself is untenable and self-refuting.

Second, there is the coherence theory of truth: truth is logical consistency (coherence) among a set of beliefs an individual holds. Three major problems with this view are as follows:

Problem #1: This view implies that contradictory propositions can be true. On this view, it is possible for two different people to hold contradictory beliefs yet for both beliefs to be “true” as long as these beliefs cohere with each individual’s web of belief respectively. This leads to the absurd notion that contradictory propositions can both be true.

Problem #2: For the same reasons as problem #1, and like the pragmatic view, this view implies relativism. On the coherence view, what is true is relative to each individual’s belief system. Two contradictory beliefs may both be “true” as long as they cohere with their respective systems. But relativism is false; therefore, like the pragmatic view, the coherence theory must be rejected.

Problem #3: This view, like the pragmatic view, seems counterintuitive. The reason is that the coherence theory cuts the knower off from the real world. What is true is not what matches reality but rather what coheres within a given system of belief. But most people intuitively understand that truth has something to do with the way the world really is.

Coherence is important but not enough. It is a necessary condition for truth but by itself is not sufficient.

Finally, there is the correspondence theory of truth: truth is when an idea, belief, or statement matches (or corresponds with) the way the world actually is (reality).

This may rightly be labeled the “common sense” view of truth. While not taught explicitly in Scripture, it is assumed throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The correspondence theory of truth states that an idea, belief, or statement is true if it matches, or corresponds with, reality. In this sense, reality is the truth-maker, and the idea, belief, or statement is the truth-bearer. When the truth-bearer (an idea) matches the truth-maker (reality), they are said to stand in an “appropriate correspondence relationship,” and truth obtains.2 Consider the following statements:

  1. Donald Trump is the current President of the United States.
  2. The city of Los Angeles is located in California.
  3. Elective abortion kills an innocent human being.

Are these statements true? They are if, in fact, they match reality. Statement number 1 is true if, in reality, Donald Trump is the current President of the United States. Statement 2 is true if, in fact, the city of Los Angeles is located in California. And statement 3 is true if elective abortion really does kill an innocent human being. Easy enough, right? Aristotle put it this way:

To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true; so that he who says anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either what is true or what is false.3

A Case for Correspondence

Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland notes two main arguments which have been advanced in favor of the correspondence theory of truth: the descriptive and the dialectical.4

The descriptive argument simply presents specific cases that help illustrate the concept of truth. For example, in Moreland’s bookstore case, an individual named Joe has the thought “Richard Swinburne’s book The Evolution of the Soul is in the bookstore.” When Joe enters the bookstore and sees the book, he actually experiences truth, a correspondence relation between his thought and reality. Again, this is the “common sense” definition of truth since it is the view we all presuppose in our daily actions and speech; i.e., everyone assumes the correspondence theory of truth when reading a medicine label or dialing a phone number.5 This leads to the second argument.

The dialectical argument asserts that those who deny the correspondence theory of truth or present alternative theories actually presuppose the very thing they reject, showing the self-defeating nature and incoherence of their alternative view. Moreland presents this argument in the form of a dilemma:

Those who reject the correspondence theory either take their own utterances to be true in the correspondence sense or they do not. If the former, then those utterances are self-defeating. If the latter, there is no reason to accept them, because one cannot take their utterances to be true.6

In other words, either a proposed view of truth corresponds to reality or it does not. If it does, the arguer presupposes the correspondence view, the very thing he rejects when arguing for an alternative view. On the other hand, if a proposed view does not correspond to reality, then we have no reason to accept it.

In short, denying the correspondence theory of truth is an implicit admission that one’s view should not be taken seriously, for only a view which matches the way things really are is worthy of our attention and belief. Contrary to the postmodern adage, truth is not “stranger than it used to be.” Rather, truth is what we have taken it to be all along, what we assume it to be every day.

Correspondence and the Christian

Is the correspondence theory of truth optional for Christians? I don’t think so. The apostle Paul stated,

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. (1 Cor. 15:14–15)

Our belief in the resurrection is not true simply because it works for us (the pragmatic view) nor because it is consistent with our web of Christian belief (the coherence view). The Christian belief in the resurrection of Christ is true because it is an objective fact of history that corresponds with reality! Indeed, how could the early Christians point to the empty tomb as verifiable evidence of the resurrection unless, in fact, the tomb was empty? Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis concludes,

Therefore, the correspondence view of truth is not simply one of many options for Christians. It is the only biblically and logically grounded view of truth available and allowable. We neglect or deny it to our peril and disgrace.7