John 18:38—”Pilate saith unto him…”

“Ecce Homo,” Georges Roualt (date?), oil on canvas

I am haunted by truth—not by any fact in particular, but the truth as such. As Augustine said of time, if no one asks me, I know what it is; yet if I wish to explain it to whoever asks, I do not know.

I am hobbled in my understanding by inability to assent to the plurality view on the issue in the philosophical profession, the correspondence theory of truth.

Simply, the correspondence theory states that true beliefs and true statements agree with reality. That is, truth exists as a relationship whereby a mental or linguistic entity represents or conforms to some state of affairs.

This sounds inoffensive enough, but just scratching the surface, I find difficulties.

First, there is the question of how we could know when a truthbearer and a fact have aligned into the correspondence relationship. Insofar as we know the world, we only know it by way of bodily and mental mediation—our sensory organs are stimulated, and concepts are activated. Yet the correspondence theory almost suggests that we’re able to step outside our own subjectivity and measure our minds against things-in-themselves. How else could we know if appearance matches reality? Not from within subjectivity itself—for a subject can only ever compare mental appearances. From those appearances, the epistemic agent can make inferences about mind-independent objects; but having an inferential hypothesis about something is obviously not the same as corresponding with it.

Secondly—and maybe more fundamentally—there is the question of how the correspondence relationship is supposed to work. How is a mental state or bit of language supposed to “agree” or “conform” with a state of affairs? It seems to imply some sort of essentialism to say that there are discrete facts out in the world, and that certain mental or linguistic entities share a quality with those facts, even though those facts and the mental-linguistic entity might not have any relevant physical properties in common. In positing that two entities can have no similar qualitative or functional properties, yet nonetheless share some immaterial X, we see shades of the Aristotelean-Thomist metaphysics of “substantial” and “accidental” properties, and all the problems that come with it.

If we don’t think some essence is transferred from the world to the mind in the formation of true beliefs (or sentences), we cannot think of the production of truth as a sort of copying or translation.  Yet certainly true beliefs have a relation to the world, and are products of interaction with it. Beliefs are made when stimuli alter the structure of an organism, which generates information complexes whose form is dictated by the stimulation, and by the organism’s own conceptual overlayings. The resulting mental entity is “about” the thing which generated the stimulus, insofar as the thing was involved in the causal history of the belief’s formation, and the belief somehow aids the organism’s dealings with that thing (or just figures into its reasonings about it). But to be causally related to a thing and to be useful in dealing with a thing is by no means the same as “agreeing”.

I think I agree with the deflationists who say that there is no correspondence relationship, and indeed, no interesting metaphysical dimension to truth. I doubt that an arbitrarily intelligent robot that wanted to give a complete account of human activity would at any point be forced to impute a quality called “truth” to the beliefs that help hominids evade predators, make and keep lunch appointments, and launch rockets to the Moon. I think that our hypothetical superintelligence would just have to say that our brains process information in ways that allow us to react to and alter our environment in ways that are more or less congruent with our interests. If there is anything to truth, I think it is this sort of utility: True beliefs allow us to navigate the world, predict its machinations, and manipulate its objects accordance with our interests.

This may be all we can say about truth; but it is saying a lot.

It tells us why truth matters in the first place. Though there may be no deep ontological fact about truth, but it does make an instrumental and social difference. We are evolved organisms above the neck, just as we are below it. Our cognitive processes, just as much as our more tangible organs, were designed to facilitate our survival in a semihospitable environment. The reason we are epistemic agents at all is because knowledge is a powerful tool in our adaptive toolkit. Insofar as we care about the truth at all, most of us do not worry about it for its own sake, but because of the leverage it grants us over our surroundings and our milieu.

However, saying the truth of a belief is proportionate to its utility does not mean that what is “true” is what is pleasurable to think moment-to-moment, or what is immediately expedient. In order to serve our ends and interests, truths must track the hard, unyielding impositions of reality; otherwise beliefs are keys to solipsism and frustration. Pace Russell, those of us who adopt a pragmatic theory of truth are not committed to believing in Santa Claus because doing so “works satisfactorily in the widest sense” and might make us jollier or nicer. We understand the utility of knowledge as the capacity to forecast or control phenomena, and recognize that belief in Santa grants neither power. With Pierce, we should say that our conception of a thing is the totality of effects we observe, and the unseen effects we are compelled to infer based on observations. Belief in Santa Claus entails the further belief that presents will magically appear beneath the trees of the good, and coal in the stockings of the bad, all without mundane human intervention. If we wait until Christmas Day, we will see this doesn’t happen. In short, the consequences of Santa’s activity we would expect to observe if he did exist do not manifest. Thus, we can say the Santa Claus hypothesis has failed to support itself. From that point on, believing in St. Nicholas can only bring disutility.

So much for truth. Goodness and beauty are easier, because I doubt they exist.