What Is Truth?


Truth is a notoriously slippery subject to define. Think about it: any definition of truth will only be helpful if it is true, but how will we know if our definition of truth meets that requirement, since that’s precisely the requirement that we’re trying to define?

This doesn’t mean that truth can’t be defined, though.  It just means that we may have to take a more practical approach to the subject.  For instance, we might ask ourselves “What is not truth?” That’s a much easier question to answer:  lies are not truth; mistakes are not truth. But why?  The answer is that lies and mistakes involve presenting something that is not-real as though it were real.

Lies and mistakes are inaccurate descriptions of the way things really are.  In other words, they claim to accurately describe reality but fail to do so.  Intention is irrelevant.[1] Whether the misrepresentation of reality is deliberate or accidental does not affect what philosophers call truth-value. The truth-value of a statement is simply a measure of the accuracy of each of the truth-claims in a statement.  For instance, if there were 10 wood blocks and 8 plastic blocks on the floor, the statement “there are wood blocks and plastic blocks on the floor” would have a truth-value of 100% even though it’s not terribly specific.  The statement “there are only 8 wood blocks and only 8 plastic blocks” would have a truth value of 50% because only one of the two truth-claims in this statement would be accurate.

At this point it is becoming obvious that a “true” statement is one which accurately describes reality.  Of course, many claims cannot be evaluated like the example above.  “Emily is a nice person” is a truth-claim but it can’t be evaluated with some kind of mathematical precision.  It is precisely because of this that some people will object to an objective view of truth where truth = an accurate description of reality.  They will point out that it is often very difficult to know how things really are.  Some will even go so far as to say that there is no such thing as “how things really are” because it’s all a matter of perception and/or opinion. How do you really know that Emily is a nice person?  For that matter, what exactly constitutes being nice?  Maybe Emily has been generous to you and that’s why you think she’s nice.  But maybe she was ungenerous to someone else, so they don’t think of her as nice.  So which is it?  Is she a nice/generous person or not?

You can see how it can get pretty muddy pretty quick, but here’s the thing:  there is a world of difference between saying that truth can be difficult to determine and saying there’s no such thing as truth.  Likewise, there’s a world of difference between saying that people often confuse their personal perceptions or opinions with the truth and saying that truth cannot be known at all or that it doesn’t exist at all.

Just because something may be difficult to detect doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, yet people make this kind of logical mistake all the time.  It’s fairly common these days to hear people say something like “there are no absolute truths”.  An absolute truth is something that is the way it is regardless of anyone else’s perception or even awareness of it.  So when someone says that there are no absolute truths, what they mean is that what we call truth is really nothing more than our own perception of reality or our personal beliefs or opinions.

Let’s think about this for a moment: “There are no absolute truths” is a truth-claim, so it has truth-value.  Moreover, it’s what we call a binary truth-claim:  it can only be 100% right or 100% wrong; it admits no gradients.[2] If it describes things the way they actually are, then it has a truth-value of 100%. If it describes things inaccurately (i.e. if there is even one thing that is true in an absolute sense), then it is 100% wrong.  But this statement is itself claiming to be an absolute truth; that is, it claims to accurately describe how things really are, all the time.  So if there are no absolute truths, then the statement itself must be false!  That would be like a mathematical proof that math doesn’t exist.  Yikes!  That hurts the head, doesn’t it?  But look:  when a statement is shown to be 100% wrong, then it is automatically true that the opposite of that statement is 100% true.  The opposite of “there are no absolute truths” is “there are absolute truths”.

“There is no absolute truth” can never be a true statement because it would have to disprove itself to be true.  Of course, you could say that “there aren’t many absolute truths, and this claim is one of the few”, but as soon as we admit that there are at least some absolute truths, then we are playing a different game entirely, aren’t we?  Now the task before us is to evaluate each truth-claim with the understanding that it might just be an accurate description of reality.  We must also recognize that this reality is independent of our perception, our opinions or our preferences.  These things may make it challenging to accurately discern reality but they do not have any bearing on reality itself. Just because discerning truth may, at times, be challenging, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.  Failure to make the effort is really only a descent into intellectual couch-potato-hood.

Once we see that truth is not a matter of opinion or perception, we realize that there are many truth-claims that are so important that they absolutely have to be evaluated. They can’t just be swept under the carpet.  Perhaps one of the most radical but important truth-claims that has ever been made came from Jesus of Nazareth when he said “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to [God] except through me.”[3] This is another example of a binary truth-claim, because it is either 100% right (the only way to get to God is through Jesus) or it is 100% wrong (there are other ways to get to God).  Since there are at least some absolute truths and since this is a claim to be absolute truth, we can’t just ignore this statement by saying “well, maybe that was true for him” or “maybe that’s true for some people but not for others”.  Nope.  It’s either 100% true or 100% false.  The question is, which is it?  For that we would have to start looking at the evidence.

Truth can sometimes be difficult to determine, but it’s not really hard to define.  At the end of the day, what started off seeming like a very complicated philosophical question has a pretty easy answer:  truth is that which corresponds to reality.  That’s a truth you can take to the bank.

[1] Both deliberate lies and honest mistakes have the same relationship to what is real.  For instance, consider this statement:  there was a full moon last night. Now, this statement is presenting a description of reality. But is it accurate?  It depends on when you’re reading this.  If you’re reading this on the day after a full moon then this will be an accurate description of reality.  But if you’re reading it 10 days after a full moon, then this will not be an accurate description, because it states that reality is one way when reality is not actually that way.  It presents something that is not-real as though it were real.  However, if, when you read these words, the statement “there was a full moon last night” is inaccurate, this is not because I intended to deceive you.  The accuracy of the statement has nothing to do with my intentions.  It simply either accurately reflects reality or it does not accurately reflect reality.  Of course intention matters when it comes to deciding if an inaccurate statement was simply a mistake or a deliberate lie, but intention has no bearing on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the statement itself.

[2] This is because the statement is “there is no absolute truth”. If the statement were “there are not many absolute truths”, then we would have to evaluate the truth-claim of this statement in a more nuanced way.

[3] John 14:6, New International Version of the Bible. The literal translation is “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father if not through me.”