Ok, seriously. What is truth? Like, what is it?
It would be nice to answer that question straightforwardly, but the problem is that truth is a word with many possible meanings. Just look at all these definitions:
Truth is “the body of real things, events, and facts”1
Truth is “the state of being the case”2
Truth is “a fact or principle that is thought to be true by most people”3
“The correspondence theory of truth is at its core an ontological thesis: a belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity – a fact – to which it corresponds. If there is no such entity, the belief is false.”4
Truth is “the true facts about something, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed”5
Some of these definitions are even opposed to each other! Is truth something that most people believe, or is it something real beyond beliefs? Is truth meaningful words obtained through science that might correspond to something real, or is it a belief that happens to correspond to something real?
Of course, there are no right or wrong definitions. Language works by attaching meaning to certain symbols, sounds, or things. If I went to a country where truth referred to “a fat and tasty pig,” that would be perfectly acceptable.
But even though truth could mean a fat pig, a real belief, or popular opinion, what do we mean by truth?6 What do other people mean by truth? If I think truth is one thing and you think truth is another thing, then it’s like we’re speaking another language! If I were to confess in court to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth, what am I actually saying?
What does the word “truth” usually mean?
Let’s step back. Let’s start with some surface-level knowledge about truth, and see where it leads us.
What’s at the surface?
On the surface, we have the everyday usage of the word “truth.” If we’re able to figure out what truth means in the context of a normal conversation, it will help us understand which of the various definitions of truth apply in different circumstances.
People talk about truth all the time. For instance, read this short story7:
The Common Usage
You can speculate as to what happened after that. Did Robby manage to keep his lie? What were the consequences of that?
Regardless, the whole point of the story was when Elena said, “Are you telling me the truth?” From the context of the story, we can tell that what Elena meant was, “Are you telling me what actually happened.” Remember that.
As another quick example, imagine this guy named Jordan working by himself in an office cubicle. Suddenly, Jordan’s coworker walks up to him and says, “Hey Jordan. So… Umm… Somebody just ran into your car in the parking lot… and it’s busted up real bad.” Then Jordan said, “What! Are you sure?” And his coworker replies with, “No, seriously Jordan. I’m telling you the truth.”
So, what we can see is that in everyday usage, truth means that: “What I’m saying is how it really is in the real world.” Because of this, Jordan’s coworker could have said instead, “I’m telling you how it is in the real world.”
What does this mean?
This means there is a general understanding that truth and the real world match up. If it is true that there is an orange in the refrigerator, then in the real world, there is an orange in the refrigerator. If there is an apple in the refrigerator, then it is true that there is an apple in the refrigerator.
By the way, the idea that truth and the real world match up is called the Correspondence Theory of Truth, because truth and the real world correspond with each other.
This diagram shows how the truth and the real world match up.
What if there is no real world?
However, before we continue I must admit that these (imaginary) people have assumed that there is a real world. Most people believe there is a real world simply because it’s so obvious! It’s obvious that there are things outside of me that I can touch and see. And these things change even when I’m not looking or thinking about them.
But does this whole discussion about truth have any relevance for those who don’t believe in the real world? Well, not really. But, no one is able to claim that everything is a lie.
Many people who deny reality will say, “Reality is an illusion that my mind creates.” While these people believe almost everything is fake, they at least acknowledge that their mind is real, and that means there are true things about their mind. Because of this, all of the points that follow still apply to someone who denies external reality (the world outside of your mind) because they still believe in some sort of reality—internal reality (your own awareness and mind).
Also, I would argue that no one can deny internal reality because it is impossible to deny your own existence. By telling themself, “I do not exist,” a person acknowledges their own existence by using the word, “I.”
Illusions Are Caused
In addition to these points, R.C. Sproul said in a discussion with a philosopher, “And even if it were an illusion, we’re not stopped there… Now, what’s having the illusion? Is the illusion real? And [the philosopher] said, “Well, I guess we have to say that if there’s an illusion, something’s having an illusion, cause you can’t have an illusion of illusion without having something having the illusion” (quote starts at 7’33”).
Basically, what they were saying is that illusions are caused by something. If you see a mirage in the desert of a lake, even though what you’re looking at is not a lake, it’s still something. While it would be more accurate to call it a reflection of the blue sky caused by heat bending the light like a mirror, even so, a reflection is something, not nothing!
Is truth just statements people make about reality?
In the examples of everyday uses of truth, Robby’s mother and Jordan’s co-worker were using the word “truth” to say certain things were real. But is truth limited to that? Is truth limited to words?
Words communicate truth. But words are not the only thing that can communicate knowledge about reality. The body language of the person in this photo communicates fear:
And the sunset in this picture communicates serenity or calmness as opposed to violence or hatred:
In the Bible, it says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4 CSB). So, the heavens can speak and communicate with no words, and it seems that their speech can be translated into words because it says “their words [have gone] to the ends of the world.”
Actions are also able to communicate. For example, you can communicate the truth: “I love you,” by showing love. Or you can communicate how to do something by showing someone, without even saying anything.
Before we saw that the everyday understanding of truth is: “What I’m saying is how it really is in the real world.” If inanimate objects like the heavens can “speak” to communicate truth, then it seems like the everyday understanding of truth still applies very well.
And actually, the idea that truth can come from reality speaking for itself is an everyday usage of the word, “truth.” An illustration of this can be found in the story of Jordan and his co-worker. The previous example ended with Jordan’s co-worker saying, “No, seriously Jordan. I’m telling you the truth.” Now, if Jordan was still doubtful because he was so in shock by the destruction of his car, his co-worker could have taken him to the window looking over the parking lot and said, “Look Jordan. Can you see the truth now?”
What Jordan’s co-worker probably doesn’t realize is that he implicitly said, “Jordan, you’re looking at the truth.” What was the truth? The truth was the reality of the smashed car.
Think about it like this: imagine that reality—everything you can see and touch—is showing you itself through your senses and is continually telling you true things about itself.
Here’s an example: If you see a boat in the water, you are able to tell someone, “Hey, there’s a boat in the water.” But did anyone tell you there was a boat in the water? No, so how did you know that the boat was in the water? Who told you? You didn’t just make it up, did you? Well, it wasn’t any person who told you (or was it… more on that later), it was reality itself.
Somebody might respond at this point (using fancy words and complex ideas) with, “No, good sir. Reality has not spoken in this instance. Rather, the empirical observatory process is achieved through the senses taking in data, the brain organizing that data into patterns based on previous stimuli, and then the brain matching up those patterns with summations of those patterns known as words, which are learned by experiencing those patterns and then receiving social reinforcement.”
While this may be true, you cannot deny, good sir, that reality communicated the data. And, it is evident that language changes based on the surrounding environment because reality is communicating different patterns.
Truth is reality; Reality is truth.
This means that truth and reality are inextricably connected. Even more connected than we concluded earlier. In fact, we can now say that truth is reality, and reality is truth. Or, everything that is real is true, and everything that is true is real. While you may think I’m repeating myself, let me explain.
Many people have the understanding that truth is correspondence. When I asked Bing Chat about truth it said, “Truth is the correspondence between our beliefs and reality, or how accurately we represent reality in our minds.” Here, look at the beautiful drawing below:
So, there’s a stick figure person, and all of their beliefs are in the thought bubble. There are true beliefs, and there are false beliefs. Many people’s understanding of what truth is and why it is true looks like the second drawing below:
Truth, as depicted in this diagram, is all of Robert the Stick Figure’s beliefs that match up (correspond) with reality as the arrow pointing between The Real World and Truth shows. And lies are beliefs that have no basis because they don’t match up with anything.8 Truth comes from reality (the arrow that points from reality to truth), and every truth points to something real (the arrow that points from truth to reality).
But do you see the difference in this understanding? Truth is trapped in the belief bubble! So, in this sense, truth is true things that people like Robert believe and nothing more. Even though this way of thinking admits that everything that is true is real, it does not admit that everything that is real is true. See how much bigger the real world is than Robert’s tiny belief bubble. Robert doesn’t know everything, so some things that are real are not truths.
Can truth die?
Plus, what would happen if Robert died? That would mean the truth would die along with him. That’s probably why a common line in stories is: “If he dies, then the truth will die along with him.”
But the truth doesn’t die! It can still be found in The Real World. That’s why scientists say, “I want to find the truth.” They’re able to find the truth. They don’t go into the real world and then happen to create the truth in their minds if they follow the scientific process correctly. Instead, they find the truth if they look with honesty. Science is seeing. And seeing gets you to the truth.
A more accurate drawing of how truth works.
So what would a more accurate drawing of how truth works look like? (That is, more accurately, a more accurate drawing of how truth works according to the everyday understanding of truth. But that’s too long of a title.) I present you with:
What this drawing shows us is that truth is part of the real world; it is reality itself. And truth doesn’t come from Robert’s neuronic patterns in his brain. Instead, what Robert has is the knowledge of the truth.
Wait a sec… What about those other definitions of truth?
In this article, we’ve seen that in everyday usage, truth is defined as reality and words that correspond with reality. But what about the other definitions of truth we saw earlier? Why are there more?
In the next article about truth, we’ll look into answering those questions.
Edited for clarity and conciseness on 8/25/2023. Access the previous version here.