…such was the subject of a recent Socratic Seminar (Socratic seminars are basically class discussions on a certain question/text that are more student-directed, rather than teacher-directed) in an English class of one of my colleagues.
The day before the discussion, she put up a status update on Facebook to the tune of “this should be interesting. Lots to talk about,” as if the question was controversial or somehow hard to answer.
I commented, somewhat sarcastically: “uuhhh..answer: correspondence with reality. End of discussion.”
My comment, though I was trying to be funny and witty (I probably royally failed), was only somewhat sarcastic. That is *the* answer. A statement or belief is “true” when it matches, corresponds to, or aligns with an actual state of affairs in reality. Aristotle, though by no means the inventor of this, was perhaps one of the first to articulate it when he said:
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.
Boy, thank goodness we have philosophers (sarcasm implied there).
Now, that doesn’t mean that no other answer has been proposed. Plenty have. Some philosophers have argued that “truth” is when a statement or belief coheres and meshes well with your other beliefs (called the “coherence” view of truth), while others have insisted that we can’t know reality as it is in itself; we can only know our perceptions. These fellas hold that concepts in our minds do not match with (or fail to match with) reality–they construct reality. This is called the “constructivist” view of truth (see a trend here?).
Richard Rorty, Duke U. philosopher, is famous for quipping, “truth is what my peers let me get away with saying.”
Funny story: one time, whe Rorty gave his version of truth, Alvin Plantinga, of Notre Dame fame, shot back: “Richard, we are not going to let you get away with that,” shining a light on the slightly self-defeating nature of the statement.
Notice this, though: no matter what the alternative version is, they all have one thing in common–they all assume the correspondence view of truth. They wouldn’t make sense without it. In other words, folks who think truth is something other than correspondence to reality say something like this: “truth is NOT correspondence to reality. Truth is ____.” To which one can always ask, “are you accurately describing truth?” In other words, does the alternative view of truth correspond to what truth really is, or is it just a statement of the speaker’s belief? If the latter, it can be written off as “just a belief.” If the former–if the person making the statement is purporting to describe reality, purporting to describe what truth is really like, they’ve really shot themselves in the foot.
A few comments down in the Facebook thread, my colleague noted: “if you were in the discussion, they (the students) would have plenty to say. Many would question you and disagree with you.”
To which I replied: “…and in so doing unwittingly confirmed my view.”
The only way in which their disagreement would matter and make any sense is if they would say that my claims do not accurately describe/match up with what truth really is, i.e, my claims do not correspond to reality. Otherwise, who cares? If, in their disagreement, they would just be expressing their personal taste or preference, why bother? Why have an in depth and principled socratic discussion over what would only amount to ice cream tastes? Only if we are talking about reality would I want to waste ANY energy at all in the dialogue.
So how did the discussion go? I asked my colleague that question the next day, and she said that it actually turned out to be quite a discussion, and she summarized some of the things her students remarked. Their comments clued me in that they were really answering and asking a bunch of different questions that departed from the original topic somewhat. That doesn’t mean they weren’t good questions to ask/statements to make, but it sounds like they never really got around to addressing the topic directly…I’ll just lay it all out here and hopefully you’ll see what I mean:
* “One’s beliefs and perceptions are shaped largely by their environment and how he was raised.”
Yes, true. Question, though: so what? What follows from that? Does that mean that said person doesn’t know the truth? Does that mean that no one can know the truth? The answer to both questions is “no.” Just because one’s beliefs or views have been shaped by his surroundings (“if you were raised in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim, not a Christian.”) doesn’t mean the views he does hold are false, unjustified, unknowable, or that the person doesn’t hold those beliefs for rational, solid reasons. To suggest otherwise would be a major non sequitur.
* “How can a person be sure that their religion or belief on truth is the correct one?”
Good question. Short answer: take the claims of the religion, along with the reasons and evidence supporting those claims, and compare/contrast with the claims of other religions. The first thing you’ll notice is that a) they can’t all be true, and b) they all aren’t on equal footing when it comes to rational justification.
Sometimes, people ask this question not as a genuine query or search, but as a way of skeptically dismissing someone who does strongly hold to a certain belief. Some, when confronted with a strong believer, merely shrug, mumble “how can you know?” and walk away, without waiting for an answer. This is the lazy man’s way of justifying his own intellectual laziness.
Someone who asks that question but refuses to actually go further and seek an honest answer to the question is not a real player in the game. Until these folks demonstrate that they take the enterprise seriously and are willing to think through how one could know, I tend to not take them seriously.
* “How can someone know his views are correct if he hasn’t explored the alternatives?”
Another good question. If you haven’t done this, you need to do so. You could be wrong, so comparing your worldview to the worldview of others will only benefit you. You’ll either figure out you got it wrong, and you’ll need to change your view, or you’ll figure out that you are onto something, in which case you’ll gain confidence and peace. Either way is a win for you. People of all stripes, atheist, Jewish, Buddhist, Agnostic, Skeptic, not just the Christian, need to do this.
By the way, though some detailed examination of other beliefs is needed, for some worldviews and religions, this need not be complicated. For example, if a religion claims that evil is an illusion or that the individual is an illusion (as do some strains of Hinduism, and some atheists), that pretty much disqualifies that one right there. Pretty easy to say that in an academic classroom setting removed from the flotsam and jetsam of reality; quite another thing to state it with a straight face at the foot of the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In other words: though you will need to do a great bit of digging on some questions and for some worldviews, some questions can be answered and some worldviews eliminated with common sense, so don’t fret and make the search more complicated than it needs to be.
*Religion (in large part) is handed down from parents and surrounding influences when children are young.
Yes, this is the case with many people. As is commonly said: “if you were born in China, you’d be Buddhist,” or “if you were born in Iraq, you’d be Muslim.” First, while that is generally true with a wide swath of people, that does not mean we should conclude environment or locale determines belief. Christians are dispersed the world throughout, and we see all the time instances of people rejecting the worldview of their culture. Difficult, yes. Rare, comparitively. But very possible.
Secondly, it is an error to conclude from the observation above that such a belief gained through the influence of one’s own culture is therefore unjustified. You can’t fault a belief on it’s source; that is the genetic fallacy. Beliefs are true or false wholly apart from the environmental influences that might have caused it. Just because someone might have received his beliefs from his parents does not make those beliefs false, and does not mean the person can’t know his beliefs are true. It is a semi-interesting observation of human nature, nothing more.
*When is it okay to lie? When is it not okay to lie?
Quick answer: if it is 1942 in Nazi Germany, and you have Jews in your basement, you get a pass. Otherwise, I usually advise against it.
All these statements and questions are interesting, but they are a way’s down the road, and, strictly speaking, someone that brings them up in the context of the “what is truth?” topic is changing the subject. The answer to the question “what is truth?” is fairly simple.