Yesterday night while I was eating Popeye’s by myself and doing my best to practice social distancing in these dark times of Coronavirus, I was reading a book on philosophical arguments (review forthcoming) and one of the authors of the book discussed how it was difficult even if one had a solid definition for a subject to deal with logically demonstrating the validity of one’s definition. The example chosen was the definition of truth as justified true belief. The question of what is truth has always been a fascinating one for me, given my interests in theology and philosophy. It has often been said that we live in a post-truth society, but the desire of people, even journalists, to be taken seriously, demonstrates that whatever we may think about the truth claims that others make, we think seriously and highly of our own truth claims and are willing to fight for them even in a world where skepticism is quite common. Today, as is my fashion, I would like to look at the definition of truth as justified true belief and then examine briefly the problematic aspects of all three elements in the definition.
Let us begin from the end and then move onward. Truth is a subjection of belief. That which is believed is held to be true or professed to be true, and it goes without saying that not all that is held to be true or professed to be true is in fact true. It is likewise important to note that for something to be true it has to be held to be true by someone. The truths of quantum mechanics, such as they were, are only true if they are known or believed by someone. For some people, belief is sufficient for them to consider something to be true, truth claims are notoriously difficult to prove to other people (we will consider this problem later at more length), and people who hold very different sets and standards of beliefs will find it difficult to prove anything to the satisfaction of the other. Nevertheless, regardless of what we believe to be true, there are plenty of other beliefs that we believe to be false and mistaken, and this tends to create a great deal of conflict between people whose truth claims violently contradict each other and where there may be limited ways of either of them communicating in a language or using evidence and reasoning that the other would find to be valid. To be sure, the existence of an all-knowing God makes truth claims very easy to conceive, but those who deny God’s existence and authority and who find sense data and reasoning and communication problematic consequently imperil the ability of truth to be recognized because beliefs are viewed as subjective matters unworthy of bringing to the attention of others.
The state of trouble of our world may be easily understood by the fact that saying something is true or not is a problematic statement. As someone with strong beliefs regarding the objective nature of reality, truth is that which corresponds to the objectiveness of reality. There are also some truths which are based on what is objectively within our subjective reality. We may affirm what we believe to be true and that which matches our own subjective and internal understanding of reality and may not be a liar, but if our assertion contradicts the belief and internal reality of someone else we are not likely to be believed or viewed as truthful and honest people. The correspondence of truth with an external reality is made more difficult by the ability we have in recognizing what is true. Humanity has an incredible capacity to be deceived by others as well as to engage in self-deception, and it is by no means easy to know the truth about ourselves nor to know the truth about others. Nevertheless, to the extent that there is a reality that we act upon and that simultaneously acts upon us, truth exists regardless of our ability to recognize it or act on it.
Intriguingly enough, to philosophers this is not enough for something to be true. For a philosopher, someone may have a true belief about themselves or about the world as a whole but it may not be sufficient to be viewed as truth because that true belief is not sufficiently justified. Justification is a terribly difficult matter. How does one justify anything? If someone attempted to support a political claim, for example, by citing CNN or the Washington Post, I would hold them in derision and their claims would have no standing with me because I do not view their sources as having any authority with regards to truth. I am willing to generously concede that people believe them to be true, but only such people whose insight I do not respect or regard. Likewise, while I am fond of citing scriptures as support for what I say, to someone who does not view the Bible as an authority, such justification is likely to be seen as lacking. To the extent that we do not believe anything that contradicts our beliefs, others who believe differently may find it impossible to justify anything they claim, or to accept any justification they make should they be so unreasonable as we are (as they often are). Even should we appeal to rigorous logic, such logic depends on the truth of premises that may be doubtful and often depends on unrecognized assumptions that may not be true. And no matter how far we go back in terms of questioning assumptions, we may not reach a place where we have common ground with someone where we can both seek to justify our own assertions as to the nature of reality. And that is a great shame.