Published 06/18/2021

Andrew Jacobs is a student at University of Utah studying Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He focuses his philosophical mind powers on cats and good movies.

Ever feel like you don't know what's true? Philosophy can help

The other day, a friend explained their confusion over the constantly shifting public-health guidelines throughout the pandemic. "How can I even know what's true at all anymore," they asked me. "What does Truth even mean?"

As a philosophy student, I've been confronted with this type of question before. Descartes famously questions all Truth, defining the tradition of Cartesian Skepticism and ultimately concluding that the fundamental fact of reality is that he exists as a conscious being. This degree of skepticism hasn't frequently come up outside my personal thoughts and studies until recently. Unfortunately, while informed philosophical study has prepared philosophers to be well-suited to this problem, rarely are philosophically rigorous answers delivered in the public sphere in a digestible way. This is partly because the question of Truth is an ongoing debate—one that won't be resolved today—and partly due to the tendency of philosophers to complicate issues rather than simplify them. (I'm just kind of joking.) Despite the complexity of the problem, we can adopt a well-accepted standard of knowing what things are true and justify that standard to others.

What is Truth?

Let's get one thing straight. There are plenty of good reasons floating around in the public consciousness to question the foundational principles of Truth: changing scientific understandingstargeted social media narratives, and the fact that Berenstain Bears is spelled 'Berenstain' not 'Berenstein.' The term Truth is so ambiguously used and adopted by so many different people with different perspectives, that it's hard to nail down a firm, singular way of defining it. Can people have personal truths? Is Truth a matter of functionality or objectivity?

The most prominent theory of Truth is Correspondence Theory. Under this theory, Truth is a measure of the accuracy of propositions (i.e., statements that describe things). For example, the proposition that the sky is blue is true because it corresponds to a state of the world. If reality does not correspond to a proposition, that proposition is not true. When trying to find out what is true, we are really trying to figure out which propositions correspond to a state of reality.

Some people argue against this conception of Truth by pointing to past "truths" that now are deemed false. At one point in history, it was true that electrons follow set orbits around atomic nuclei. Now, however, we understand that electron positions are better understood as probabilistic fields or clouds. Was it true to say that electrons follow orbital paths before we knew otherwise? Under the Correspondence Theory of Truth, no, it was not true then and it isn't true now to say that electrons follow set orbits around the center of an atom. This might appear to demonstrate a breakdown in our ability to determine what propositions truly correspond to states of reality; however, the Correspondence Theorist would not agree. She would argue that previous accepted "truths" are only such because they were more accurate than previous propositions about that aspect of reality. As we formulate further accurate propositions to states of the world, we find further "truths."

Rationality and Accuracy

Naturally, the question arises, how do we know which propositions accurately—at least more accurately—correspond to a state of reality?

According to Miriam Schoenfield, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, "some connection between rationality and accuracy" must exist. She argues that this connection is one of constitutive identity—rational assessments and accurate assessments are made up of the same metaphysical material; they share their identity. Consider the possibility that this is not true. That would leave us with two distinct methods of acquiring beliefs, called epistemic plans, Schoenfield says. On the one hand, we could follow the "accuracy-optimizing epistemic plan," a method of aiming our beliefs toward being as accurate as possible. On the other hand, we could follow the "rational epistemic plan," a method of aiming our beliefs at being as rational as possible. Problematically, this would leave us having to choose between rational beliefs and accurate beliefs. Schoenfield argues that this puts us in a contradictory position of having to rationalize for accurate beliefs rather than rational beliefs, therefore making the most rational plan the non-rational epistemic plan. The only answer to this dilemma seems to be that the "accuracy-optimizing epistemic plan" and the "rational epistemic plan" are identical.

While not exactly a revolutionary view, it is worth proving and understanding that making accurate assessments about the world is to make the most rational assessments one can make about the world. If we are rational in our assessments, we will be making the most accurate assessments possible given the body of evidence available to us.

The Language of Logic

Given that Truth is a state of accurate correspondence with the world and that accurate propositions are rational propositions, all that's left to figure out is what it means to be rational.

Rationality is the application of reason to the content of thought. Something is rational when it conforms to proper reasoning. Many philosophers, including the philosopher Gottlob Frege, believe that Logic is what tells us "universally how [we] should think."

This isn't groundbreaking material either. It's intuitive to think that an illogical person isn't thinking properly or making correct rational considerations given their present evidence. People often misunderstand logic, however, to be a product of intuition or "common sense." On the contrary, logic aims to overcome the failures of our "common sense" thinking.

Frege states that the "task we assign logic is only that of saying what holds with the utmost generality for all thinking, whatever its subject matter." Logic as a discipline is intended to carve out correct patterns of reasoning, patterns that maintain their veracity regardless of the things considered. Whether we say A exists and B exists, and therefore, A and B both exist or if we say rain exists and grass exists, and therefore, rain and grass both exist, the pattern of logic (logical conjunction) maintains its truth value.

These patterns aren't very obvious written here in English, nor are they always obvious in general thought. Natural Language—the language(s) of human communication—is too ambiguous to make all of these patterns apparent. That's why we hear so much about logical fallacies. Thus, a Formal Language of logic was designed to make those patterns apparent. This formal language helps us make accurate and consistent logical assessments (e.g., contrapositiontransposition, etc.).

At its core, logic is a measure of the correctness of reasoning, a measure of the validity of one's rationalizations, and the key to understanding the Truth of the world.

Moving Forward

In answering my friend's question, "How can I even know what's true at all anymore," I offer this advice: be logical. Logical assessments yield correct rational assessments about the world and tell us which propositions are accurate about it.

If you're worried about understanding the world as it is, understanding what's true, turn to logical, rational, accurate propositions. In doing so, you'll be able to confidently say that you believe the truest thing you possibly can about a given topic.

For more information on thinking logically, check out this free course from Stanford. Alternatively, see this free video course from Zachary Fruhling at the College of Eastern Idaho.

The Weekly Phil is a publication exploring social, political, and individual issues through the lens of applied philosophy.

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