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Epistemological Theories of Truth: A Brief Overview

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For centuries philosophers have been debating one another over metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and political theories. But the most important out of these is epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Epistemology may very well be the most important branch of philosophy because it is needed in order to justify the truth value of propositions or beliefs. It asks questions such as: how can we know reality? How can we justify our beliefs? What is truth? Does truth exist outside of the mind or only within it? There are three main theories of truth that philosophers have posited in order to answer these questions. There is the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory. This will paper attempt to explain all three and will show the strengths and weaknesses for each theory along with arguing for the best of the three (or some type of synthesis between them).

The correspondence theory says that truth is a relation between a proposition and reality. That is to say that reality is what makes the proposition true, not the other way around. If a proposition makes a statement about a reality and the statement corresponds with the reality then that proposition is true. If one were to say, “Obama is presently the President of the United States” this proposition is true because Obama actually is the present President. The proposition corresponds with reality. Prima facie, this theory seems to be correct as to what truth is. There are some criticisms of the theory, though. The first and most basic criticism deals with the existence of an external reality. How can one even know that an external reality even exists? How can a proposition correspond if there is no reality to correspond to? This objection seems absurd to take into account at first but it has honestly been taken seriously in the past. Descartes had this doubt that he could be living in a dream world and that an evil genius was deceiving him. If an external reality does not exist, then every belief we hold about an external reality is completely false. It seems impossible to fully verify and prove the existence of an external reality but is it irrational to hold a belief in an external reality? Many philosophers would say no. This objection seems to be purely out of empty skeptical doubt. The second objection to the correspondence theory is based on verification principles. How can one verify every correspondence? Consider the statement “Christ died in 30 AD.” How can one verify this proposition with something that does not exist anymore because it is now in the past? One could show a correspondence by pointing to sources such as writings from historians at the time that show Christ died. Our propositions do not have to only be verified empirically. The verification of the correspondence could be verified through a priori reasoning, external evidence such as historical documents and so on and so forth. It seems that the correspondence theory is more likely than not to be true.

The second theory is the coherence theory. This theory states that a belief is true if it coheres with other beliefs a person may hold. Beliefs are seen as a web. There seem to be a few good things about this theory. Firstly it helps avoid verification like the correspondence theory depended on. Since true beliefs are based off of other true beliefs than there is no correspondence to determine what truth is. Secondly it overcomes problems dealing with propositions that are in the past such as Christ’s death. Because the beliefs are interconnected, then one can rationally hold to beliefs regarding history based on the belief that historians are not lying or making up things. But does this coherence make the belief true? A person can have a perfect set of cohering beliefs and yet still have a false view of reality. Consider scientific beliefs. A theory such as the theory of evolution can be believed and then from that other theories can be justified on its truth value. But if evolution is false then all the beliefs cohering to evolution seem to be possibly false as well. It seems like there has to be at least one first belief that is independent of the ones that follow. Not every belief can cohere to all the others. And if there is a first belief how does one determine that belief to be true? The correspondence theory might be able to work for this first belief.

The pragmatic theory of truth is the final theory out of the three. It says that the truth of a belief is defined by its practical consequences. The truth is the one that works the best. For people back in 1800s America, slavery was true for them because it worked for them (helped them create an economy, helped with hard labor etc) but now in the modern age, slavery is false because it does not work and stirs up racism. This pragmatic view seems to create relativism – the view that truth has no real objective basis in the world and thus whatever works is true at whatever time. This could be why pragmatist C.S. Peirce thought that science was the best way of finding the truth (Lawhead 464). The truth is a consensus among people and can be falsified. One moment we are believing in some scientifically proven truth the next moment it is disproved and we are believing something else because it works for our time. What would the pragmatists say to ethical propositions? Murder is wrong only because it being wrong works for the world. This theory seems to deny mind-independent truths and seems to make everything subjective.

The correspondence theory of truth seems to be the best out of all three. It shows that propositions correspond to the world and they do not have to always cohere to other true beliefs in order to be considered true. Also they do not have to be verified in order to be true as the propositions are true in themselves if they correspond to a reality. And even if they do have to be verified, empirical verification is not the sole source of verification. If empirical verification were the only method then the existence of an external reality for instance would be entirely impossible to prove or disprove.

Works Cited

Lawhead, William F. The Contemporary Voyage: 1900 –. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002. Print.

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1 Comment

  1. Oge says:

    This was very heplfull

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