“Context is all” (Margaret Atwood). Does this mean that there is no such thing as truth? To answer this question, it is first necessary to define truth. One of the best definitions of truth is a ‘justified true belief,’ but it can also be defined as a statement proven or accepted to be true. In essence, truth is tough to define, so we are going to take ‘the truth’ as something which is believed to be accurate by most people. As a society, we take what others see as truth and what our ideals are based upon.
Friedrich Nietzsche is known to have said, “there are many kinds of eyes… and consequently there are many kinds of ‘truths,’ and consequently there is no truth.”1. This implies that the context of truth and the individual opinion matter so much truth cannot exist, as it constantly changes. Thus, the context of information is a significant factor in how truth is viewed. However, it has not been agreed upon whether reliance on context means no such thing as truth. This essay will explore several different ways of finding the truth and how they relate to Atwood’s view of the context. Then a conclusion will be made as to what extent the connection between contextual information and fact means that truth is nonexistent.
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The first method I am going to look at is the correspondence theory2. It insists that truth depends on how the world behaves, not on an assertion made by someone else, or on how one feels it should be. A statement is only true if, and only if, it corresponds to something in reality. This is described well by Thomas Aquinas “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”3. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was brought about by thinking in a correspondence mindset4, and it has had any bearings on how we see the world today. This theory is based on the reliance on ‘how the world works’ as its context to information.
This agrees with Atwood’s statement about truth and context; however it does not imply that therefore there can be no such thing as truth, it is more centred on the idea that truth without context is not applicable to our lives. On the other hand, there are three main problems with this theory that cause it to be criticized by modern thinkers of today. The first criticism of this theory is the problem with facts. The theory relies on truth being equivalent to a fact, however that brings into play our reliance on what is a fact. Moreover, certain facts are depended on more than others, for instance, we take the fact that ‘London is the capital of England’ with more certainty than the general fact that ‘all metals can be shaped’, or the negative fact that ‘there are no monkeys on mars’.
There is no strict book of fact, and the facts we use can and do change – for instance, it was once thought that the world was flat – this means that since our facts change, then so can the truths around us. As to whether there is no such thing as truth, in this case, it could be argued that since we cannot be sure that our views will not change, we cannot be sure that the truth is accurate, and so in a sense, there is no such thing as truth. Critics of this theory would use Margaret Atwood’s statement as proof that there could be no absolute truth instead of setting a condition with which truth should be viewed to make it relevant.
The second censure of this theory is that correspondence can never be absolute. Experiences can be described with ample detail, and pictures can give us a sense of how something should look: however, the fact is that the truth described will never be the same as the truth experienced. For example, the painting ‘Still life of fruit’5 can give a good representation of fruit, and show us what it looks like and give us a sense of the texture and taste of it; however, you cannot eat the painting, and so you cannot experience it in the same way as the artist. This criticism brings into light a different way of looking at truth.
Rather than an all-or-nothing thing, the truth can be given in a series of degrees because it is still clear that some pictures or descriptions are more accurate or useful than others. This would mean that truth does exist, but it must be taken in degrees of accuracy and usefulness, which would rely on placing the fact, or the truth, in context. So by using Atwood’s claim, truth can still exist but must be taken with its context to give it usefulness in degrees.
The third reproach of correspondence is that truth cannot be determined in isolation. Context is crucial to determining truth and to applying it usefully in our surroundings. For instance, the only way to find out if something is an illusion would be to compare it to other things that appear true in this instance. An example of this is whether there is an alligator under the bed- a child may be convinced that they can see it. Still, it becomes an apparent impossibility when put in proper context since it would be tough to get an alligator under a bed or to keep it alive.
Truth in this sense is still very much a real thing. However, it is also vital to remember that without its context, it cannot be proven true, and so without context, truth is meaningless. So a vital point to consider is whether because the truth is useless and ‘untrue’ without context, there is no such thing as truth. Another theory that I have looked at is the coherence theory6. The coherence theory suggests that something is true if it fits with our overall set of beliefs. This theory is based more on thinking about an idea, or truth, unlike the correspondence theory, which relies more on experiencing a truth ourselves.
Knowledge by testimony can be achieved through this method of thinking, for it involves seeing how coherent a piece of evidence is and using this as a base for finding the truth; an example of this would be the O. J. Simpson murder trial, where there was no clear set of evidence to rely upon. Coherence is also good at establishing the truth of an empirical proposition. It can be beneficial as a negative test of truth and means that we do not need to investigate every outlandish claim. The coherence theory implies that as long as truth can be taken in context with other beliefs, it is undoubtedly in existence, thus backing up Atwood’s assertion. However, there are some criticisms of this theory.
One of these being that coherence is not sufficient to determine truth. Though it is an excellent negative test of truth, it is less valuable than a positive test. An example is that although it is easy to say that a shark cannot be in a freshwater lake, it cannot prove that just because it is a freshwater lake, it must contain freshwater bluegills. While coherence is said to be a necessary condition of truth, it is not a sufficient one. For example, although a film may seem coherent and make sense to an audience of people, this does not mean that it is true, for many films are either based on fiction or have twisted factual events for entertainment.
This criticism highlights a need for further context, as Atwood implores. It implies that the coherent context has to be taken into account and other contextual information, such as its correspondence to fact. Yet, it is still believed that there is and can be the truth. Another criticism of coherence is that it cannot exclude crazy beliefs that do not cohere with the population. It is easy to twist the truth with a bit of imagination by sticking to an initial false belief. An instance of this could be the idea that ‘I own an invisible pink elephant’: this could be consistent with the fact that pink elephants don’t exist by claiming that they are invisible and so we cannot see them.
This criticism of the coherence theory seems to suggest that there is indeed no such thing as truth if, even in context, we cannot determine whether something is true or not. It also goes against the opinion of Margaret Atwood, as she believes context is everything, and this criticism asserts that context has no bearing. On the other hand, many philosophers believe that coherence can lead to complacency. Just because a fact does not correspond to our method of thinking does not mean that it is false. On the contrary, it becomes possible for us to reject perfectly truthful ideas because they do not fit into our current method of thinking.
An example of this would be that if a patriot who believes that an American president can’t lie finds evidence that Richard Nixon was a corrupt, lying man, they should not- as the coherence theory implies- discard the evidence, but should instead change their ways of looking at the subject. This criticism suggests that, although it may be unpleasant, from time to time, we need to question our assumptions and the ways with which we view the world. This implies that truths can change with new evidence. However, another way of putting this is that the contextual nature of truth is constantly changing, and it is our knowledge of the context which is changing, not the truths themselves.
This puts the problem in the light of Atwood’s statement and, if anything, only supports it when phrased thus. When one thinks of the problem in this way, it becomes completely reasonable to say that there is such a thing as truth. The Pragmatic theory of truth7 defines a proposition as valid if it is valuable or works in practice. This theory is very down to earth and removes all kinds of nonsensical ideas. The only way necessary to determine the truth is to put it to use in the world. The only thing that concerns a pragmatist is what difference a statement’s being true or false makes in practice. This counters less what is necessarily true and more what facts are found to be more helpful.
Therefore, the question of truth is not encountered by pragmatism but is overlooked for the usefulness of falsehood. Thus Atwood’s context above would be how it is helpful in our lives. One criticism of the pragmatic theory is that a statement can be helpful but not true, and true but not useful. Theories in science are often used to simplify calculations, and are very useful; however, they are not entirely true: For example Newton’s laws versus Einstein’s laws. There are also some things that are true but can never be used in practice, for instance, inconvenient truths about ourselves that are never found to be at all useful.
This suggests that in this theory there is no set view of truth, and therefore it is made nonexistent. The context does not define the truth in this view and so Atwood’s statement does not apply. A second criticism of the pragmatic theory is that two contradictory theories could both be true. A good example of this is religion because, although all religion is useful for making people behave in a kinder way, they cannot all be true. This further supports the argument that truth is a nonexistent thing but is replaced with untrue, but useful, facts: against Atwood’s statement.
The final criticism of the pragmatic theory is that the phrases ‘useful’ and ‘works in practice’ are far too vague to define truth- which is in itself vague. Perhaps useful could refer to helping us through daily life; however, the things that help us through daily life are not necessarily true and are often not even useful in the long run. This suggests that truth does exist; but that it has to be based on contextual information and that no one method of finding the truth is effective in all situations. Margaret Atwood is famous for her writings of dystopian novels, and they often revolve around possibilities for the future.
She herself does not use truth in the official sense of the word, as her novels are mostly fictional, but she has explored the possibilities of truth and how it can change. From this exploration of various theories, we have not reached a conventional conclusion. However, the one thing that seems to be consistent in the majority is the fact that truth can, and does exist: one has only to find it. Truths themselves do not change, but the contexts we can see around them do, and thus with changing contexts we find an apparent variation of truth. Truth is also not necessarily a set thing. There are varying degrees of truth, depending on how solid their base of contextual information is. To conclude, context is vitally important to the realization of truth, but it is clear that truth itself still exists: it is simply hard to find.
- Taken from ‘http://overtherainbough.blogspot.com/2004/06/friedrich-wilhelm-nietzsche-1844-1900.html’
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- De Veritate Q.1, A.1&3; cf. Summa Theologiae Q.16 – taken from ‘http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-correspondence’
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- Painted by George Claire (1830-1900) – taken from www.intoeuroart.com
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