Introduction: Preface and Outline
Every assertion that we make and all explanations or theories that we might devise seem, in some way, to impinge on the notion of truth. This book will develop into an exploration of truth that looks to everyday experience, to nature, culture, philosophical scholarship and science for inspiration.
Superficially, it appears that without the idea of truth we would be devoid of logic and our lives would be a muddle. If we did not accept that some concept of truth was required, we might believe, like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, that it is always time for tea (1). Nevertheless, I feel the need to distinguish the logical, emotional and practical need for a concept of truth in an idealised sense and attribution of truth claims about our outstanding of the world and our place within it.
It is my contention that we are addicted to claims of truth when even when they are unnecessary and add nothing to our understanding. [There are of course those who take the opposite view (2).] We can wean ourselves off this addiction by instead focusing on why our beliefs are justified. Uncertainty is often virtuous. Rather than adhere to the ancient idea that knowledge is justified true belief we can simply accept that claims of knowledge or understanding require some form of justification.
I feel very strongly that in coming to a philosophical understanding of truth, we need a synthesis of theories derived from the contemporary philosophical literature. However, why should we feel obliged to favour one currently fashionable theory over another if each can contribute meaning to us in some way? For me it makes more sense to see how apparently competing current ideas can enrich and deepen our understanding when brought together. In addition, we need to consider how science appears to produce theoretical statements about the world that can be considered provisionally acceptable.
For a Student and General Readership Not Specialists
I have deliberately chosen not to expand on the arguments in a way that general readers or students might find excessive. Rather than always write in the abstract, as is common in many philosophy texts, where I have found it possible, examples are given here that illustrate particular points. For the student, it is hoped that this book will act as a primer with a distinctive flavour. Hopefully, this work is also written in a fashion that those with a general interest in the subject of truth, belief and knowledge might find illuminating and interesting. As a fan of the online magazine Aeon (3), and the BBC Radio 4 programme and podcast ‘In Our Time’ (4), which deals with the ‘history of ideas’, I have attempted to write for fellow readers and listeners and so have aimed at people of a reflective disposition. Nevertheless, I have chosen not to delve into the world of ancient Greek philosophy and religiously inspired thought, although I acknowledge that much of our intellectual culture in the West has its origins there.
Outline of the Sections that Will Emerge
1) General orientation, a note about the use of the word ‘faith’, an example of justification in scientific practice and some thoughts to ponder
2) Five idealisations of truth are examined in section two. The way we use the word ‘true’ in logical reasoning, for example, requires a surprisingly detailed explanation.
3) The third section then examines five major explanatory theories of truth that in themselves could be developed into separate volumes.
4) In section four I will briefly present a collection of topics that enrich and expand the concept of truth; these include subjects such as the nature of meaning, context, reference, fallibility and a relativistic outlook.
5) The fifth section deals briefly with progress in science and particular topics often discussed in the philosophy of science such as complexity, levels of explanation, emergence, prediction, verification, error and probability. My overall aim here is not to understand science in philosophical terms but instead to do the opposite; enrich my epistemology by learning from science.
6) In the sixth section, I will try to achieve a synthesis of what has gone before and so try to persuade the reader that we can have a deeper understanding of truth if we give due weight to many of the apparently competing contemporary theories and ideas.
7) Lastly, there is an autobiographic note related to the word truth, i.e. what is the personal context in which I write?
Where readers wish to pursue particular subjects in more detail, I will suggest additional reading material in more detailed books and also in a wealth of good articles in free online encyclopaedias of philosophy or other online sources. Hopefully, this present exploration will make these more advanced sources easier to comprehend.
A Particular Argument
Despite the introductory nature of the text, I will also advance particular arguments about truth. The justification of ideas is, for me, more important than arbitrary decisions about when I have formed supposedly true explanations. I will argue that truth value of a particular claim, as we perceive it, is no more or no less than what we have learned to accept through, personal experience, education, cultural and scientific means, both as a society and at particular points in our personal development. In philosophical jargon, this view might be labelled as pragmatic, ‘deflationary’ and ‘contextual’ (5,6).
You should be warned that at least one philosopher, sees acceptance as ‘a lesser state of mind’ when compared to an idealised conception of truth (6). The idea that you merely accept some declarative proposition rather than have a formal proof that will last to the end of time is supposedly inferior. Remember, that if you are ever a jury member deciding the outcome of a murder trial, this ‘lesser state of mind’ might be all that could stand between you and the punishment of the accused.
My personal synthesis also emphasises that all abstract ideas we formulate and all assertions that we make about ourselves or the world around us need to be viewed in context. Since philosophers constantly invent new ‘isms’, this way of thinking is now known as contextualism. Patrick Rysview in his opening remarks about contextualism in his article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes this outlook as a ‘recent and hotly debated position’ (6).
Reader Experience and Reaction
Whether particular ideas expressed here are hotly debated or not, please consider this book to be a brief exploration on which you should place your own interpretation and emphasis, since the concept of truth is enriched by reflection upon personal experience and the context of our ideas.
Some readers will have strong disagreements with what is written in particular places. At least, that is what I would hope. There has however been no desire on my part to insult anyone or to persuade people that their personal belief systems are foolish. There is more than enough of that sort of intolerance and vulgarity in the world already.
If you disagree with what I have written and have constructive criticisms, please feel to contact me and express your point of view. Anyone is free to use the illustrations that I have created for this website on a non-profit making basis. Contact can be made with me through the ‘Contact Form’.
1) Carroll, L (1868) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
2) Overcoming the Justificationist Addiction by David Miller
3) Aeon Magazine,
4) In Our Time, BBC Radio 4.
5) Blackburn, S, Truth, Britannica.com
6) Rysiew, R (2016) Epistemic Contextualism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy