Tests for Truth

Scott Key

By Ted Murcray

The question of the nature of truth lies at the heart of each of our disciplines.  In our contemporary setting this question has acquired additional significance.  For many in the Academy today, the question of truth is considered, at minimum, unimportant and, depending upon the thinker, at the maximum, evidence of thinking fraught with presumed elitism, or racism, or aspirations of domination, or extreme ignorance.  All statements asserting truth are considered by some as veiled efforts at control through the not so subtle exercise of raw power.

              This has not always been the case but the impact of Modernity on contemporary culture has produced a wide spread assertion of relativism that robs the concept of truth of any meaning or significance.  Often relativism is asserted with an absolutist affirmation that reveals a self-contradictory stance. 

              Historic Christian thinking has asserted that human beings are capable of some knowledge of the truth. This is not perfect truth or complete truth or truth that is indubitable, but rather, truth that reflects our common experience of Reality and drives us to seek the knowledge and insight which would allow us to state more clearly the truth that lies before us.  This recognizes that our statements about truth are not themselves infallible, in every instance, but that truth itself remains infallible and objective and the proper goal of the intellectual quest.

              Within the history of the human discourse about truth three “tests for truth” have emerged that can help us understand the nature of truth and how this question remains relevant for our disciplines.  Sometimes these three “test” are presented as three theories of truth each of which can stand alone and serve as the basis for all discussions about truth.  I have come to understand that each approach that I will discuss here is not able to stand alone without the support of the other two approaches.  With this in mind, I will refer to them as “tests” and not as “theories” of truth.

              The oldest and most widely followed approach to truth is called the “Correspondence” test of truth.  This approach asserts that human beings can know the “properties’ and “relations” of things in the world.  By the word “properties” it is asserted that every “thing” or “entity” that is knowable can be distinguished from other “things” by the properties that are unique to it or to its kind of thing in the world.  All the things known to us as “dogs” share some common properties that make dogs different than cats.  The word “relations” refers to the understanding that every “thing” is connected or stands in a “relationship to” every other thing in the cosmos.  The dog that I take for a walk has a relationship to every “thing” that the dog stops to smell or every “thing” that prompts the dog to bark.  As we come to know an entity, then we discover properties and relations that are consistently part of our experience or interaction with that thing.   We call these consistent features “facts.”  Reality, then, is the sum-total of the facts that we have come to know about the entities in the world.  When we make a statement about a particular dog or the class of entities called dogs that properly corresponds to all that we have come to see as the consistent features of this entity then that statement can be called a “true” statement.  This statement corresponds to Reality.  We admit that sometimes statements are wrong about the “things” we are seeking to understand around us.  So statements are relative but that does not mean that “truth” is relative.  Truth is the name we give to that collection of properties and relations that make something what it is, in itself, separate from our engagement with it.  Truth, then is an objective quality.  We discover truth but we do not make or create truth.

              The second “Test” for truth is called the coherence test for truth.  This approach to truth is deeply related to the correspondence test and is part of the discussion about knowledge found in the earliest strands of the human record.  This test argues that “truth” is part of an organically constructed whole.  We will use the word “truth” refer to the way some feature or entity or thing “fits” by function, by physical relationship, or by aesthetic quality, or by philosophical analysis to something else that is understood to be a “whole” thing.  The jaw line and the structure of the teeth of a particular kind of dog help us identify the kind of dog we are inspecting and the jaw and teeth are integral to the whole nature of that breed of dog.  It can then be said, correctly, that a certain jaw bone with certain kinds of teeth, is a true indicator of a certain kind of dog.  There may be exceptions in individual specimens but as a class of entities a particular kind of dog will have a similar jaw and teeth structure. 

In the last two hundred years, or so, this particular test for truth has come to mean something different than what thinkers of earlier ages asserted about coherence.  This test or approach to truth has come to assert that human beings construct our notion of Reality based upon the knowing structure of our minds.  We have no control over that knowing structure and can only know what our minds are capable of knowing and constructing of our experience of Reality.  Human beings impose on our experience a structure that is produced, not by the experience of reality outside our consciousness, but rather by the “given” structure of our minds.  So, we construct Reality we do not discover it. 

In more recent years, this has come to mean that we construct Reality by means of the words we use to describe it, or impose upon it, or use to control it.  If this is “true” then the concept of truth does not reflect a Reality that is objectively outside my consciousness but only is a product of a linguistically produced understanding created by a person, a “subject,” that is embedded in time and place.  It is then, radically subjective and unconsciously reflective of all the biases and prejudices that every particular person has whose individual experience of life is the sum-total of all they know or can know.  I cannot know anything about the dog-like entity before me other than by experience of this critter and I cannot assert any knowledge that can be understood about the class of entities called dogs or about what they are like outside of my experience of them.  All my knowledge of this entity is imposed upon it by the structure of my mind which cannot know either what the dog is in itself or what I am in myself.  This form of the coherence test for truth which dominates the understanding of many thinkers today reduces all knowledge to personal experience and all personal experience to subjective relativism that strips the concept of truth of all its meaning.  As may be clear, this approach to truth, if left alone, is also deeply contradictory.   The assertion that all truth is constructed is itself “constructed” and hence cannot be understood as a universal claim. 

The last “test” for truth is one that American culture knows well.   This is called the Pragmatic test for truth.  This approach says that truth is a feature of utility, or what works to enhance survivability or solve a problem or produce a greater utility.  Truth is a tool or instrument of problem-solving.  Sometimes this is called the “instrumental” test for truth.  Truth is not a property or a relation nor is it something that fits a “whole” or complete understanding of some entity.  Truth “happens to an idea” as William James writes.  When I try something in the midst of a problem-solving situation that is triggered by an issue of my survival, in some respects or in actual fact, and the something I try yields a greater chance of survivability for me then I can say that the “idea” (the thing I did) is true.  It works.  When I refer to that thing before me as a “dog” and my companion understands what I am saying then my use of the term “dog” in reference to that thing in front of me is “true” because it works to alert my friend about the dog.  In the final analysis, experience is all we can know and truth is merely a tool that helps us solve the problem before us.  It will all change tomorrow because there is not final or ultimate truth.  So, some thinkers who assert this test for truth as the only test needed argue that the use of the word “truth” to refer to this action that yields greater survivability is unnecessary and unwarranted.  They advise that we should stop using the term “truth” at all.

In my opinion, the correspondence test of truth is the strongest and the one most often in our minds when we use the word “true.”  But even this test cannot stand totally alone.  A statement that corresponds with our experience of Reality must also “fit” with other statements about Reality and provide guidance for the next step of our discovery process.  Thus, all three tests are implicitly present in any well-argued assertion about reality.

Bruce D. Marshall asserts that all three tests for truth are combined by historic and Biblically shaped Christian thought.  His full argument is rich and complex but it can be summarized briefly as follows.  Jesus is the “true icon of the Father” (Col. 1:15) because the Word become flesh is the Word of God.  There is deep correspondence.  This is confirmed by the witness of the New Testament.  This illustrates the correspondence test for truth.

At the same time, the Triune God knows all truth, which includes all true conditions for truth for all sentences and beliefs, so that God’s knowledge of all the cosmos fits together in a whole that coheres with all activity in the cosmos.  Thus, all things “cohere” or “hold together” together in Christ (Col. 1:16) – “by him,” “through him,” “for him,” and “in him,” all things hold together.  Thus, the Biblical understanding of truth utilizes the coherence test for truth.

Our life together as a part of the Body of Christ, the Church, is made possible only by God’s grace in and through the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit who guides us “into all the truth” (John16:14).  The Holy Spirit provides the access to the experience by which we come to the conviction that the central confession of the Church is true and that a life lived in conformity to those true convictions, which are consistent with the witness of the Biblical revelation and the life faithful witnesses, is a life lived by the power of the Holy Spirit and a life lived under the Lordship of Christ.  This is the pragmatic experience of the church throughout all time.

All three tests for truth are necessary.  All three tests for truth lie at the center of each of our disciplines.  All three tests for truth must be explored and utilized by us to fully engage our disciplines for the Glory of God.  Such an engagement will prove valuable only to the extent that our exploration of our discipline from within the contours of the Biblical worldview will lead us to a deeper sense of wonder in the presence of the Triune God through whom we experience and know “grace upon grace.”

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