Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The debate on truth

As my previous posts indicate, I've been thinking a lot about truth. Let me make a big picture comment. I find it striking just how much the 20th century debate is driven by naturalism, even physicalism. A notable episode in the history, for instance, is Putnam's departure from metaphysical realism on the grounds that if metaphysical realism is accepted, it is going to be a scientific realism, and hence will lead to a physicalism incompatible with the language-world connections that metaphysical realism needs, as well as with ethics, so that we should reject metaphysical realism. It is widely accepted that if there is going to be a genuine language-world or mind-world truth connection of the sort that non-minimal correspondence theories claim, it will be causal and hence natural.

This makes certain portions of the debate not very interesting to me. It's obvious to me that physicalistic causal theories of reference have no hope of working, because we will all over the place need normative concepts (standard conditions, normal observers, typical cases, etc.), and attempts to spell these out in non-normative ways (evolutionary or statistical) only provide opportunities for the ever fun parlor game (a game for playing which can get tenure, which fact I am grateful for) of "Pin the Counterexample on the Theory".

At the same time, I think one can stand back from the truth debate as a whole, and say that there is something we can learn from the debate: it is hard to be a realist of a non-minimal sort (i.e., one with a positive theory of truth that goes beyond Schema (T)) while yet being a physicalist. There is an intellectual strain.

Nonetheless, I do not think the debate is worthless for those of us who are not naturalists. For some of the arguments in the debate probably work just fine even if one does not assume naturalism. Non-naturalism isn't itself a theory of truth! The task of finding a theory of truth is a really hard one for the non-naturalist, too. However, the non-naturalist labors under the advantage that some of the difficulties in the literature in coming up with a theory of truth are artifacts of the assumed naturalism.

It is worth noting that the traditional theist has a tool available for the theory of truth, a tool that should help progress to be made, namely a commitment to the existence of an extensionally correct and logically non-trivial characterization of truth:

  1. A sentence is true if and only if God believes what it says.
I do not propose (1) as a definition of truth. Nor is it a reduction of "true" to a non-semantic concept, since it presupposes the semantically loaded relation of x's believing what sentence s says. Nonetheless, it is just as much a "definition" of truth as Tarski's recursive one is: it gives an extensionally correct and non-circular characterization of which sentences are true. (One might worry about circularity if God is defined as omniscient. But then let's not define God as omniscient. Just define him as the perfect being, or as pure actuality, or as the necessarily existing first cause.)


Adrian Woods said...

Saying that something is true because God believes it, seems similar to saying something is true because the Bible says so.

I'll stick with the Aristotelian notion picked up my Moser in 'Knowledge and Evidence' of Minimal Correspondence. So something is true not because the Bible says so, rather the Bible is true because it corresponds with reality. And likewise with God, I think.

Moser makes an important distinction between a definition of truth and a criterion for finding the truth.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, there is a difference between the two views. It is false that:
(1) Necessarily, p is true iff the Bible says so.
But it is true that:
(2) Necessarily, p is true iff God believes it.

One difference is that there are worlds where there is no Bible, but there still are truths. The second difference is that even in our world there are many truths that the Bible doesn't say (e.g., I bet the Bible doesn't say that 283+7=290). But God exists necessarily and God necessarily believes all facts.

The question whether it is true because God believes it or God believes it because it is true is subtler than I used to think. We need to distinguish four claims:

1. It is true that snow is white because God believes that snow is white.
2. Snow is white because God believes that snow is white.
3. God believes that snow is white because it is true that snow is white.
4. God believes that snow is white because snow is white.
5. It is true that snow is white because snow is white.

Now some remarks:

i. One can't coherently believe both 1 and 3, and one can't coherently believe both 2 and 4.

ii. I think 2 is false, but one has to be careful. For if one takes Aquinas's view that God knows creatures by creating them, then we might say that God's knowing that snow is white just is God's making snow be white; but snow is white because God made it so; hence, snow is white because God knows it is so. This argument is fallacious because "because" creates a non-extensional context, but one might also have an extensional reading of "because" and thus be led to affirm 2.

iii. Perhaps surprisingly, 1 and 5 appear to be coherent. For we could think the following is true: It is true that snow is white because God believes that snow is white, and God believes that snow is white because snow is white.

iv. The following position appears coherent: 1, 4 and 5 are true, while 2 and 3 are false. Moreover, this position seems to be a realist one. On this view, the claim that snow is white is not a claim about God's beliefs. But the meta-claim that it is true that snow is white (when it is not merely a stylistic variant on the claim that snow is white) is in fact a claim about God's beliefs. One way of getting a view like this one would be to identify propositions with things that God believes or disbelieves. Then any belief about a proposition is a belief about God. Next one identifies true propositions as the ones that God believes and the false ones as ones that he disbelieves.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I wonder if the claim that God is truth might not be evidence for the claim that p is true because God believes p?

Adrian Woods said...

1. Do beliefs imply uncertainty? We have beliefs (I'm certain of that), if those beliefs are true in conjunction with some Gettier-proof justification, then I Know p. But this is never Certainty as in 2 + 2 = 4. I would think that God would have Certainty - Knowledge of a kind we dont have nor understand. Along those lines, as Kvanvig might say, God would have something more than just Knowledge or belief - but Perfect Understanding or what-is-more... Wisdom.

2. I think the usual rhetoric goes - if the Bible Says p, then p is True. Which seems an awful lot like - if God Believes p, then p is True. Granting your distinction about possible worlds, I think the beef here is making an object or person a criterion of T.

So again it is T not because the Bible says it, but because it corresponds to reality.

3. I'm meditating on God is Truth question.

Adrian Woods said...

You might like Bruce D. Marshall's, Trinity and Truth. He makes a similar move - like you - on Truth and God.

moller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moralman said...

Regarding the post that

"It is true that
'P is true if God believes it'"

is no more insightful than saying

if the sun rises in the east then it is the east where the sun rises.

This is hardly a "debate". Truth is any representation (usually a proposition) in accordance with the facts of the material world. This is self-evident, because where a proposition contradicts the facts of the material world it is said with little "debate" (the obvious exceptions being religion and economics!) that the representation is untrue. Therefore, it is much easier to recognize that which is untrue than it is to definitively identify that which is true.

normajean said...

Moralman, what do we do with propositions that have no clear correspondence to things in the 'material' world?