On The Nature Of Truth

Posted in Logic, Philosophy, Religion, Science on  | 7 minutes | 2 Comments →

Truth almost escapes definition. Rather, it is what is. Houghton Mifflin defines truth as, “conformity to fact or actuality; fidelity to an original or standard; reality; actuality.” Thus it can be said with confidence that the truth regarding any particular event can only be what actually exists or happened, and the truth of any belief can only be its correspondence to that reality. Any given statement regarding life or history can either be true or false, fact or opinion, and while some are easily verifiable, others are not. Especially in the arenas of religion, politics and science, most facts are buried under tons of corporate agenda, human ambition and political motive.

Most of our early encounters with the ideas of truth and falsehood likely stem from a parent or guardian demanding us to tell the truth about a particular series of events. When you were a little rugrat running amok around the house terrorizing things, in response to some accident or crime the authority present probably asked you, ‘what happened…and tell the truth!’ If your mother asks, Who tipped the fish bowl? and you were the one who tipped it, the statement that your sister tipped the fish bowl is an ntrue statement. In this case, that you tipped the fish bowl is an absolute matter of fact and exists as such independent of your opinion or anybody else’s. Similarly, if somebody were to say ‘Justin Timberlake never ripped Janet Jackson’s shirt revealing her boobie on national television’ they may be laughed at because everyone knows that it happened. Thus we see that truth is synonymous with something that exists or happens in actuality.

Any given statement or belief is said to be true when and only when it can be found to agree or correspond with an actual fact. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322 bce) also took this position, concluding, “If there is a man, the statement whereby we say that there is a man is true…reciprocally, if the statement whereby we say that there is a man is true, then there must be a man.” Most every day in major cities across the globe, young people grind down handrails on their skateboards. This statement cannot be both true and false simultaneously, but rather stands as a matter of fact or fiction regardless of one’s belief. One can obfuscate the statement by semantically dismantling it and raising needless debate over the meanings of words such as 'most' or 'young,' or one may choose to disbelieve the statement on the fact one has never personally observed skateboarders performing this event, but it happens every day. That it happens every day remains true however we define the words so long as our definitions are reasonable, and whether one chooses to believe it is true or not. Truth is that which corresponds to past, present or future actuality. A false statement is one that violates actuality. When the first statement can be proven true undeniably, the second contradictory one becomes untrue by default. If it is true that you were in San Francisco all day long on April 4, 2004 then the statement that you were in Los Angeles all day long on April 4, 2004 is false.

Notice that in Aristotle’s example of the existence of a man, the true statement does not cause the actual existence of the man, but merely reflects it. The truth of the statement depends on the existence of the fact, not vice-versa, “…for it is because the actual thing exists or does not exist that the statement is said to be true or false…”   Another potentially misleading statement is the commonplace declaration of, ‘I’m not superstitious.’ This phrase carries the presupposition that magic, celestial beings and the like are somehow only real if a person is superstitious and believes in them. The objects of superstitious thought such as angels or demons are either real in actuality or they are not. They do not exist if one is superstitious and then non-exist if one is not. Things are not true because we say so, things are true if they correspond to past, present or future actuality.

Some will say that truth depends on perception but upon more critical scrutiny this argument crumbles. Take as a horrible example the statement,"The sky is blue." First off let us secure accurate definitions of the pertinent terms. Well, what exactly is the sky? And what exactly is blue? At its root, the sky is an arrangement of oxygen molecules, and blue is the reaction of the brain and retina to a certain spectrum of electromagnetic energy. The sky itself is not blue. Rather, the human eye perceives the sky to be blue due to the wavelengths of light reflected through it. To a man born colorblind the sky is not blue. Now wait a minute – did this author just contradict the previous assertion that truth is irrelevant to perception?

Let us further clarify the original argument, being more specific: "At midday, the oxygen molecules in our immediate atmosphere reflect light in the ~475nm wavelength, and the normal human brain and retina will always register this frequency as blue." Though the eye of a man born colorblind will perceive the sky as gray, it remains true that the light falling on the defective eye is still of the same ~475nm wavelength classified as blue. Likewise, the woman born deaf may not perceive the realm of sound, but her perception is incorrect, as the realm of sound exists. Though it doesn’t exist "to her," it does exist. If she were to sign, "Sound doesn’t exist because I can’t hear it," she would be incorrect. A more correct communication would be, "I am unable to hear sound." To say, "Sound doesn’t exist for a deaf person" is incorrect. Sound exists for the deaf the same as it does for those blessed with hearing.

Truth does not change with perception. The mere existence of truth points to a standard outside ourselves. Barring the hypotheses of those pesky quantum physicists, the concept of reality as a plane independent of human interpretation corroborates the idea absolutes; it suggests that the universe is what it is regardless of what we believe or perceive (developments in quantum theory explore the idea that observation causes existence). If all human beings were to perish tomorrow, the reality of the earth and the universe would still exist.

In assessing matters of fact or statements of truth we must be aware of any special conditions implicit in the arguments. The statement, "All people have two hands" is not universally, or absolutely, true. However, the statement, "All people born naturally on planet earth without defect or concomitant disfigurement have two hands" would seem to fit the category of universal, or absolute, truth. Also, the spatial or temporal context under which a statement is made must also be included, and the inclusion of specific dates or special circumstances must be on the table in order to allow a proper assessment. Delivered on October 27, 2004, the statement, "This author is alive" corresponds to the current, absolute reality of October 27, 2004. In the previous example of the sky the reader will note the inclusion of the time requirement "at midday" in the beginning of the statement. The sky can also "be" gray, purple, orange, red or even black depending on the position of the sun.

We see that in assessments of truth, specifics and clarification are of utmost importance, and before they can properly debate a certain issue, all people involved must be on the same page as regards the definitions of any words involved. We should be wary of all-inclusive words such as "every, all, never, only…" etc. and we should only use such words when they are appropriate. We must also scrutinize every argument for hidden presuppositions or assumptions.


  1. What about science? In science truth is a reproducible set of observations. So, if two people say the sky is purple this could be a true observation and the scientist would seek a new form of colour blindness. In fact scientific truth is providing access to events in the world to individual observers via experiment. As such it is the comparison of personal experiences and includes the subjective observations that are found in sciences such as psychology.
    In fact most measurements are about things that cannot be known by individuals. An electrical voltage of 5 nanovolts is known as a deflection of a meter, not as the actual thing. So what we call “truths” about the world are sets of inferences based on reproducible (and potentially personal) observations of events that are only related to the underlying truth.
    Ultimately the only undeniable “truth” is the personal experience of the scientist. Which brings us to incorrigibility…
    This is a very different idea from your conclusion that “The mere existence of truth points to a standard outside ourselves. “, it suggests that truth points to a standard within ourselves.

  2. cl


    In science truth is a reproducible set of observations.

    Correct, but that two people misperceive light in a certain wavelength does not make it true that the sky is purple. So that the sky is purple does not become a true statement as you seem to imply. It does make it correct to say the two people are colorblind, as you say.

    …it suggests that truth points to a standard within ourselves.

    I disagree. Gravity is true and it exists outside of us. No subjective standard within us affect gravity. Objective truths are not amenable subjective standards and the converse appears to hold as well.

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