'What is truth?', asked jesting Pilate, and would not wait for an answer. That was one of his better decisions, for the subject is large with uncertain answers. Philosophical theories tend to concentrate on truth in connection with statements but even with statements there is no accepted theory. I shall consider questions of truth in assorted contexts.
A witness in a court of law is expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That is some undertaking! Realistically, the best a witness can do is to tell nothing but the truth, in the limited sense of not telling lies in answer to the questions which counsel asks. That would certainly not be the whole truth. Indeed, the witness might be prevented from providing helpful information towards the whole truth, either because counsel’s questions did not request it or because counsel (for reasons of his own) did not want that side of the story to come out.
On the first requirement − to tell the truth − the best a witness can do is to give his/her view of what happened. But psychology textbooks never tire of describing experiments which show how inaccurate and biased our accounts can be, no matter how sincere and convinced we are. The most we can hope for from courts of law is that the probing of several witnesses by counsels on both sides can provide, if not the whole truth, at least a roughly accurate version of what happened. But a lot depends on the skill of the counsels.
I was once called to be a member of a High Court jury. I made to take my seat when counsel objected to me. I slunk away in shame. While I was putting on my coat at the door, a policeman came rushing down with a note from counsel saying: 'You won't remember me but I was one of your students and my arguments are so weak that I'd feel embarrassed with you looking at me!'
Truth in the arts presents very different problems. According to Hume:
Poets …though liars by profession, always endeavour to give an air of truth to their fictions.
I suspect Hume was winding us up with that remark. At the end of the poem, Fern Hill
, Dylan Thomas wrote:
Time held me green and dying,
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
The meaning of the entire poem, its insights into the human condition, are condensed in these lines but the lines are not true or false in the way statements of fact are. Nevertheless, they express profound truths of the kind to be found in great literature. Of course, literature can also falsify experience, as in literary kitsch. But let's not be too high-minded − a good murder-mystery can cheer us up after a tiresome day.
Painting can offer another kind of truth. For example, Rembrandt's portraits of an old man and of his mother show a compassionate insight into old age. The point is persuasively made by the psychiatrist Jonathan Green. In Advances in Psychiatric Treatment
, he argues that works of art 'carry their cultural power by being ways of embodying states of mind' and that 'inferring mental states is not only a core psychiatric skill but also one we exercise in looking at art'. In a telling image, he says: 'The painting sucks in attention to itself', or as the French philosopher, Merleau-Ponty, puts it in The Phenomenology of Perception
: [art is] 'the act of bringing truth into being'.
Abstract music is the hardest to discuss in terms of truth. It is easy to see the glorious truth of Beethoven's Ode to Joy
at the end of his ninth symphony. But music without words is harder to assess for truth. I remember after a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No.5
my companion said: 'If only that were true!' There was something behind the comment, but what?
Truth in science raises other problems. Indeed, is science concerned with truth at all? It is possible to identify two views of the aim of science. One view dominates funding bodies and perhaps the general public: that the aim of science is not truth but rather the control of nature for human benefit. An extreme version of this view is provided by the 17th-century philosopher, Francis Bacon, in Novum Organum
(1620), when he says that: 'Truth and utility are here the very same thing'.
Without going as far as Francis Bacon, the aim of funding bodies generally is to promote what they regard as 'useful knowledge'. For example, the importance of science for medicine in terms of this approach is an importance internal to medicine; science matters to the extent that it informs medicine, and other areas of public utility. But an alternative view is that the primary purpose of science is to understand nature.
How does understanding nature relate to truth? The building blocks of science − the experiments and tests − will contribute to the provisional acceptability of a hypothesis, or to its falsification. Let us suppose that the hypothesis is not falsified but seems rather to explain the available data. Does that mean it is true?
The philosopher who provided the most interesting answer to this question was Adam Smith. He argues in a short work called The History of Astronomy
that questions of truth are in fact irrelevant to the acceptability of a complete theory (as distinct from its building blocks). His point is that theories in science are accepted at a given historical period because, in his words, they 'soothe the imagination'. He says that he himself was tempted to think that Newtonian physics was true, but he realised (rightly as it turned out) that it was accepted simply because it appealed to the imagination of scientists at that period in history. Indeed, many of the greatest physicists go along with Smith's account and speak of the beauty of a theory rather than its truth. Perhaps that was what Keats meant when he said 'Beauty is truth'.
The final question is the one discussed most in philosophical literature: what makes a statement true or false? Some philosophers have an easy answer. They argue that we don't need a theory of truth at all, that when we say of a statement, 'That's true', we are not describing a relationship between words and the world but simply saying 'I agree'. That approach may be too facile. There are two more substantial theories: the correspondence and the coherence theories.
According to the correspondence theory, a statement is true or false to the extent that it corresponds to the facts. Thus, 'The cat is sitting on the mat' is true, but only if the cat is, in fact, sitting on the mat. But there are difficulties with this approach. To take just one, how are we to understand the notion of 'correspondence'? In the cat example, 'correspondence' invites us to form a mental picture. But consider: 'COVID-19 is causing a recession'. How does correspondence work in that kind of example?
The way round the objection may be to drop the word 'correspondence' and find some looser word which still points to whatever is the reality which the statement is about. A phrase such as 'is in accord with' might cover many cases.
An alternative is the coherence theory − to the effect that a statement is true if it coheres with others. But if 'coheres with' simply means that the statement is supported or entailed by others, then it can be pointed out that false statements can support or entail each other. Some statements must surely be true independently of other statements otherwise we might have a self-supporting ball of rubbish; or there might be other alternative coherent groups of statements.
What is behind the coherence theory is the point I raised when discussing the problems of the witness who is expected to tell the 'whole truth'. Individual statements point to a much larger story of events that has no beginning or end to it; they can never be the 'whole truth'. The 'whole truth' is for God.
I have said nothing about truth in politics. In that sphere, the 'whole truth' is for Satan.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow