What is Truth?

It’s been in vogue to say that we live in a post-truth society (never mind that this is making a truth-valued statement). Fake news, wokism, QAnon, standpoint epistemology (i.e., “my truth”), distrust of institutions and experts, postmodernism, social media echo chambers, internet algorithms, Donald Trump, bias in mainstream media, secularization, and so on have all been viewed as the death knell of Truth by some subset of the population or another within the past couple decades or so. But what do people mean when they talk about truth or the truth? Are people talking about the same things? Let’s look at this a little deeper.

This post will be similar to a couple others I’ve made titled “What is Freedom?” and “What is Equality (and Equity)?” in that I will be making a sort of typology of “truth”.

First, I think we need to make a distinction between truth and the truth. The former is more general, looking at the nature of truth itself and what it means for something to be true. On the other hand, when we talk about the truth, we are instead saying that some particular object, event, or state(s) of affairs is actual (or, at least, was or will be actual, depending on the context). It’s the first that I will be interested in discussing here, because what truth is dictates how we characterize the truth.

It’s also important to point out that when it comes to the truth, there are many epistemological issues that come into play: is it possible for humans (or any conscious being for that matter) to ever even know what the truth is? Is it at least possible for conscious beings to have beliefs that correspond to the truth, even if just accidentally (i.e., are our beliefs in any way even structured in a similar way to what is even potentially true, or do we live in a complete illusion divorced from any actual structures of reality)? If it is possible for conscious beings to know the truth, then how do we discover the truth? How do we best justify that our beliefs about the world correspond to the truth? What is the best way to get at the truth? And so on. This is a tricky topic of which opinions vary and over which much ink has spilled. I will be attempting to keep things more general and not try to commit myself to any one version of what the truth is (although, as a human, I am biased and my biases may show through my attempt at neutrality).

With that preamble out of the way, here is how I would break down truth:

  1. Metaphysical Truth
  2. Logical Truth
  3. Objective Truth
  4. Ontological Truth
  5. Social Truths
  6. Experiential (incorrigible) Truths

I shall look at each of these in turn.

Metaphysical Truth

Metaphysical truth could be further subdivided into metaphysical truth of a more religious/spiritual kind and metaphysical truth of a more philosophical kind. In the former, questions such as “does God exist?” and “is the world purely physical, or is there some kind of spiritual substance, dimensionality, or transcendent/parallel realm that also exists?” The latter has to do with questions such as “do universals exist?” and “what underlies all of reality (e.g., is it mathematics, or physical material, or information (it-from-bit), or a simulation of some kind)?” and “what is the substance and the nature of consciousness” and “does free will exist?” and so on.

Whether humans (or any conscious beings) do, or can, know the answers to such questions is still undetermined and are still matters of rigorous debate. Yet, I think most people would say that, at least for most of such questions, there is a fact of the matter about them: there is some answer (perhaps even one humans have not ever considered) that obtains. Whether we know it or not, there is a correct answer to the question “does God (however one might want to define that) exist?” and so on.

Logical Truth

These are what philosophers might call analytic truth, or even truth by definition. The criteria for logical truth is the law of identity, the law of noncontradiction, and the law of excluded middle. That all bachelors are unmarried men is true is evident to anyone who has not changed the definitions of any of the words in the proposition “all bachelors are unmarried men.” Similarly, we know that it is true that no such thing as a square circle exists because the definitions of both geometric shapes – squares and circles – exclude the possibility of both applying to the same object (at least if we are being technical and talking about purely 2-dimensional shapes, such that it can’t be a square when looked at from one angle but a circle when looked at from another in 3 dimensions). We know as well that something cannot be purely 100% blue all over and also purely 100% red all over. We know that if I have 2 apples and I’m given 2 more apples, and I had not lost or eaten any of the apples, that I now have 4 apples (or, more simply, 2+2=4).

Logical truth is extremely narrow. The laws of identity, noncontradiction, and excluded middle are not applicable to many things in everyday life. The validity of syllogisms and material conditionals (at least in form, using abstract variables (e.g., “all S is P”)) are easy to establish and, for the most part, are uncontroversial. However, when applied to most everyday things, it can get a lot fuzzier (e.g., people can see the same video of some event and come to very different conclusions about the simple fact of what happened in the video). In other words, the soundness of a syllogism or material conditional is much more difficult to establish. It’s also made more difficult when other truths (such as metaphysical truths, or many of the truths I will discuss below) are contentious, when there are disagreements about the very definitions of terms or what the truth is.

Objective Truth

This, to me, is often what people mean when they say things about “reality out there” or “objective reality” or “mind-independent reality”. When we use the correspondence theory of truth, that which our beliefs correspond to is the “realm” of objective truth. This is the realm of truth that science is often concerned with. Objective truth also seems, at least on the surface, to be the easiest or most straightforward type of truth. But this can be deceiving. For instance, in what way could we say that a scientific theory is objectively true (in the sense of being true independent of the mind)? Is a virtual or simulated world objectively true?

And, of course, there is the sticky issue of whether we could ever know the objective (mind-independent) truth about the world. In quantum mechanics, this is often stated in terms of the measurement problem. In what way can we say that we are measuring objective (mind-independent) reality when A) all of our measurements are not just measuring that system in which we are interested, but is measuring how that system behaves when it is being measured (however we want to define a measurement) by our measurement device/process (the measurement is itself a part of the system being measured) and B) the measurement must be experienced and interpreted through our human consciousness?

Niels Bohr, who was a logical empiricist (positivist), essentially said that any statements about a quantum system that is not being measured is incoherent and meaningless. In a Kantian sort of dichotomy between the phenomena and the noumena, we can only speak of what is occurring in the phenomena (the world experienced through the senses, which is the world as it is measured by us) and ought not try to say anything about the in principle unknowable noumena (in principle because a measurement or observation automatically, by its very nature, brings something within the phenomenal realm, the noumenal realm being defined as that which is not being observed or measured). Some, like Karen Barad, have taken this to be a more metaphysical truth than an epistemological necessity. This, however, misses the point in that it is making the strong claim that objective (mind-independent) reality doesn’t exist as opposed to the weaker claim that we are incapable of ever knowing anything about objective (mind-independent) reality; to say that it doesn’t exist is making a claim to some knowledge about objective (mind-independent) reality.

I would further break objective truth down into abstract truth and concrete truth. The latter has to do with whether abstract entities, such as numbers, actually exist (and in what way they exist). It is what the question about whether mathematics is a process of discovery or creativity is asking: do sets exist? Do complex numbers exist? Do infinitesimal and transfinite numbers exist? Do fields (e.g., quantum fields) exist? And if so, in what way do such abstract entities exist?

We could also put abstract ideas such as liberty, beauty, morality, and so on in this sub-category, but those might also belong in social truths below. Some, however, do like to make the claim that, for instance, there is an ontologically “real” morality that in some way exists independent of, or transcendent to, human beings (i.e., murder would still be wrong even if there wasn’t anyone to be the murderer or the murdered). There is also a position that universals are ontologically “real” in some way, which could cover abstractions like liberty or beauty. The point here being that some people do take these social/psychological notions to have some sort of objective (mind-independent) reality of their own, and so fall in the realm of abstract truth under objective truth.

Concrete truth, on the other hand, have to do with tangible objects. As we’ll see in the next section on ontological truth, this isn’t as straightforward as it seems, but if we accept a naive, intuitive sense of the existence of concrete things, then it has to do with those objects we can interact with through our five senses. Rocks, trees, air, sunshine, mosquitos, food, cars, people, wind speed, the distance between Ankara and Tokyo, are all examples of things that exist in this concrete sense. Concrete truth is often the most straightforward types of objective truth. That a tree exists in a particular spot is not something most people will disagree on (except, perhaps, if people disagree on the definition of tree, but all parties will agree that some object, regardless of what mouth sound we use to refer to it, exists in a location to which all will agree if they are currently experiencing its existence using their senses).

Some concrete truths are more difficult, mostly due to human limitations. The ancients thought the sun revolved around the earth because that was the way it appeared at their size and position. We needed instruments, such as the telescope, to expand our senses (reducing our limitations) in order to discover the reality of the situation: that the earth revolves around the sun. Other concrete truths are open to skepticism because, perhaps, it was an event that occurred but is now in the past and is therefore inaccessible to direct observation, or because people don’t otherwise have a direct observation (such as flat-earthers who haven’t witnessed with their own eyes the curvature of the earth due to never having been to outer space), or because they don’t have the technical expertise required to interpret data (or if they just think the data are bogus altogether). Once again, however, people would tend to agree that there is an answer to the question of what concrete objects (and their relations) actually exist, even if they think it is not now known, or if it could ever even be known, by human beings.

Ontological Truth

Ontological truth is what a lot of analytic philosophy are concerned with: compositions, constitutions, mereological sums, and natural kinds. It’s one thing to say, in the naive, intuitive sense that “there is a pile of sand over there”, but it’s another to define what we mean by “pile” and “sand”. For pile, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions to call something a pile? Is there a point where some collection of grains of sand is not a pile, but the addition of one more grain of sand makes it a pile? And how might we define a grain of sand anyway? By the chemical elements that constitute it? By its size and/or shape? By its relationship to things external to itself?

The following video does a good job of describing these composition/constitution/mereological issues:

I would also add to the realm of ontological truths questions like: what is space? What is time? In what way do physical processes, relations, and events exist? Is space (and time) something that exists in the “objective” sense as discussed above, or are they something that consciousness brings to bear in order to make the world comprehensible? Was the proposition “on the day and time that these words are typed it is 26° Celsius” true even 10 billion years ago (i.e., the problem of future contingents)? In what way does a process, such as galaxy formation, or evolution by natural selection, or photosynthesis, or riding a bicycle, exist (i.e., in what ways is it true that “processes X are the necessary and sufficient events that must transpire for a galaxy to form” or “undertaking procedure Y is the correct or necessary and sufficient or best way to ride a bicycle”)? In what way does an organization, club, or corporation exist (i.e., what does it mean that “Amazon” the corporation did this or wants that or began to exist on July 5, 1994)? What is the ontological status of types and tokens?

We could also include works of fiction. For instance, in what way does Frodo Baggins exist? It’s easy to say “he doesn’t exist”, but there is a sense in which Frodo Baggins does exist insofar as he is a character that people know about. Additionally, there is a canon about Frodo, where if someone says “Frodo took a spaceship to the moon” another could say that this never happened. If we are only looking at some sort of “objective” truth, of course, Frodo also never lived in a place called the Shire, because neither Frodo nor the Shire ever existed in the “objective” sense. But even if we think about it in this way, “Frodo” exists as ink markings on paper and digital bits that tell your computer or phone to make the correct colors in the correct places on the screen so as to put those letters in that order.

Another important aspect of ontological truths are what are called natural kinds. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about the metaphysics of natural kinds:

The principal metaphysical questions concerning natural kinds are fourfold. First, are the kinds that we think of as ‘natural’ kinds genuinely natural? Or are our classification processes more anthropocentric than that? Secondly, are our natural kind classifications really classifications into kinds? Thirdly, what are natural kinds? Are natural kinds any sort of entity at all? Are they basic ontological entities or are they derived from or reducible to other entities (e.g., universals)? Fourthly, do natural kinds have essences?

As regards the first question, the general problem is to determine which of the kinds to which science makes appeal, if any, correspond to real natural kinds—those existing in nature, so to speak—and which of these kinds are merely conventional—those whose boundaries are fixed by us rather than nature. The second question builds on the first by noting that in addition to classifying things in a natural way, classification by natural kinds, is also classification of things into kinds. What then is it to classify by kind? Then, if natural kinds are genuinely natural and genuinely kinds, what are they? Are there entities that are the natural kinds, and if so what can we say about the nature of such entities? Are they irreducible, basic, sui generis entities (alongside, for example, particulars and universals) (Ellis 2001; Lowe 1998)? Or can they be reduced, say to universals (Armstrong 1978, 1997; Hawley and Bird 2011) or to clusters of properties (Boyd 1991, Millikan 1999)? The third question asks whether there are properties that might be essential for kind membership. Natural kind essentialists hold that natural kinds have essences (Ellis 2001, 2002; Devitt 2008), where the essence of a natural kind is a property or set of properties whose possession is a necessary and sufficient condition for a particular’s being a member of the kind. That fact is a so-called essential fact concerning the kind; it is a fact that, in Fine’s terms, stems from the identity or nature of the kind (Fine 1994).

Now, there is a lot of crossover between ontological truth and metaphysical truth. I thought that ontological truth deserved its own entry, however, because as abstruse and theoretical as ontology can seem, it does tend to have more real-life application. Indeed, I’d say it is at this point, in ontological truth, where we start running into the issue I mentioned at the outset of this article, that of the post-truth condition of our modern society. It’s in ontological truth that differences in definition arise, thus adding that fuzziness to logical truths I discussed above. Were the events of January 6, 2021 an instance of a riot, a peaceful protest, or an attempted coup? Can Donald Trump declassify classified documents with just a thought? Does “executive privilege” apply to the office of president, or to the person who is (or used to be) president? Is someone who was born male, but who now identifies as female, actually a female? And what about if they undergo extensive medical interventions (sexual reassignment and/or gender-affirming procedures)? How do we define a genetically modified organism (i.e., almost all of what we eat has been genetically modified through selective breeding, but many wouldn’t define, say, an organic banana as GMO)? How do we define gain-of-function research? Can a thing change over time, or does it always possess some fundamental essence that persists through time (a question that’s important in criminal justice and in the court of public opinion)?

Taken in a more practical sense, ontological truths are concerned with those (necessary and sufficient) conditions that must hold for something to be what it is. What conditions must obtain for something to be a crime vs. being justified? What conditions must someone satisfy in order to be male or female (or if something in-between or outside that binary exists)? If someone commits a crime, or says something offensive, when they’re 17 years old, should they be held to account for that when they’re 40 years old (i.e., how much is the person still the same person at 40 as they were at 17)?

It’s thus here, at ontological truth, where the post-truth condition begins eroding social cohesion. If people are unable to even agree on the definitions of things, the sorts of truths I’ll talk about in the below entries become all the more intractable.

Social Truths

Social truths are truths that, as the name would suggest, are (A) truths that have to do with living organisms, and (B) truths that are contextually dependent. What (A) means is that these truths supervene on the minds (and perhaps even consciousness) of living organisms, and so we cannot simply appeal to some physical fact to explain it. Why it is that we use red lights for stop and green lights for go can’t be explained by appealing to the differences in wavelength between red and green light. What (B) means is that these truths are not timeless, but are subject to change when conditions change. For instance, urbanization occurred because of the industrial revolution; it was the change in material economic conditions that largely drove this significant social change. This is why making sweeping generalizations about psychology and sociology is difficult when most or all of the data is collected from WEIRD subjects: people living in western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies. This context is important for understanding that the results of many studies in psychology, sociology, and economics are going to be more idiosyncratic than one might realize.

This type of truth I would also subdivide into four sub-categories: dispositional truths, social organizational truths, cultural truths, and social kinds.

Dispositional truth has to do with truths that are more like tendencies or predilections. It’s also where studies in behavioral economics having to do with incentives and game theory are important. In this sub-category, appeals to evolutionary psychology will often come up, explaining that given conditions A, people have a tendency to engage in behavior P because of past evolutionary pressures making behavior P confer greater survivability or reproductive opportunities when conditions A arise; but given conditions B people will instead tend to engage in behavior Q (again because of our evolutionary past). Similarly, it’s also used as the explanation as to why females, on average, are more social and nurturing while males, on average, are more systematizing and aggressive.

Social organizational truths has to do with how humans organize themselves into hierarchical and horizontal structures. It therefore has to do with what duties and responsibilities people have by virtue of their positions within those structures: a boss, manager, or superior of some sort has certain duties and responsibilities that differ from their subordinates, and there are therefore different social expectations on the two. People can be held responsible for things they weren’t directly involved in (e.g., a mob boss who has never fired a gun in their entire life can still be responsible for murders he ordered his subordinates to perpetrate; indeed, people often hold the U.S. president accountable for things they have no direct control over, such as gas prices). We therefore have the descriptive aspect of social organizational truths (it is the case that X is the boss of Y, but W is the boss of X; it is the case that A is the sibling of B and a parent of C; it is the case that P works for company Q and is subject to the legal jurisdiction R; and so on). But there is also the prescriptive aspect, which is something like: because X is the boss of Y, X has duties and responsibilities i, j, and k while Y has duties and responsibilities p, q, and s; failure of, say, the duties j and k therefore are the fault of X and not Y, since X was expected to do j and k but X was not expected to do j and k.

Cultural truths are those social truths that are most context dependent and subject to change due to the ever-evolving nature of culture (often in response to material conditions). Culture, broadly speaking, is constituted of the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of a network of people. I use the word network rather than “group” or “population” because when we think of a culture, it must be amongst people who interact (by some sufficiently small degree of separation). If two different peoples who never met or communicated with each other ended up, by pure accident, with identical beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, we wouldn’t say that those two groups of people share a single culture. Thus, it is not enough that people hold the same or similar beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, but that these things are developed, transmitted, reinforced, and mutated through communication and interaction between members of a culture (the propagation of memes in the social scientific sense of the word). Culture therefore also has both a descriptive and a prescriptive sense: we can describe the different beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of some network of people; but also, within that network, different people take on different roles that determine what is expected of them. Similarly, intercultural interactions will have all parties bringing different expectations based on perceptions of the outside culture. But, it’s also possible to belong to multiple cultures, and we take on different personae based on which one we’re currently immersed in due to the different expectations of us (e.g., when I’m immersed in, say, the culture of Dungeons and Dragons, there are different expectations about me than when I’m immersed in the culture of science; or, more generally, between me with my friends and me at work).

As for social kinds, I said of (process) social kinds in my review of Metamodernism: The Future of Theory by Jason Ananda Josephson Storm the following:

Meanwhile, process social kinds contain some of the following (provisional) properties:

  1. High Entropic: significant variation (regional and temporal), diverse instantiation, consistently changing, lacking in equilibrium, and few properties possessed by all members of a social kind
  2. Undefinable: no necessary and sufficient conditions that are not too strong or too weak
  3. Interdependent: the properties of social kinds arise due to interactions with other social kinds
  4. Crosscutting: objects and actions can be members of multiple social kinds (e.g., something can be both political and religious)
  5. Abstractions/Reifications: social kinds are abstractions and generalizations, but then through reification are often made to appear as if they are natural kinds
  6. Historically/Culturally Contingent: if history had been different, then the social kind would have been different in some important way; different cultures and languages will have different social kinds
  7. Normative: social kinds are often laden with values and moral dimensions
  8. Mind-Dependence: social kinds exist because of ongoing attitudes and beliefs

Thus, instead of the Aristotelian substance or static object view of categories (X is A in a timeless sense) we instead have processes (X does A, or X becomes A, or X became A, or X A‘s in the sense of a verb). This is why things like race have been turned into verbs like racialized – “…the object is just the continuous possibility of the activity” and “social objects, such as governments, money, and universities, are in fact just placeholders for patterns of activities” (John Searle as quoted by Storm). And so, Storm says, the real question shouldn’t be, for instance “is this object art?” but instead “when and how is this object art?”

What’s shared between each of these four sub-categories (dispositional truths, social organizational truths, cultural truths, and social kinds), is that they have these descriptive and prescriptive aspects to them. Psychologists, sociologists, behavioral economists, and anthropologists tend to be more interested in the descriptive side (at least ideally, but everyone has an agenda (except me)). Meanwhile, politicians and activists tend to be more interested in the prescriptive side, and in particular the ways in which such prescriptions can and/or ought to change, progress, evolve, or remain the same.

It’s here, in social truths, that things get even fuzzier. Different cultures, for instance, will have different views about what is (where the copula is could be extended to something like is the truth or is in truth or is true) good and right, or what is bad and wrong. People will have different ideas about what duties and responsibilities a person occupying some position in a hierarchy actually are or ought to be, or even whether that hierarchy actually exists or ought to exist. People disagree to what extent humans have a tendency to do one thing or another, or which subset(s) of people have this or that tendency or to what extent. Everyone has a different idea about how the economy works and how it ought to work, what role the government takes or should take in a society, and which laws are proper and just and which laws are improper and unjust, and each side will point to different things to justify their position (different data on, say, crime rates or harms caused as a function of some law or policy; or by appealing to something more deontological like human rights).

An issue here is that, unlike in metaphysical, logical, or objective truths, there is no fact of the matter: there is no one right answer (and certainly no timeless answer) to the questions “how is society organized?” or “how ought society be organized?” in the way people would agree that there is a correct answer to the question “does God exist” or “are all bachelors unmarried men?” Even if people disagree with what the answers to those questions are, most everyone will agree that there is a correct answer to those questions; this is not so when we get into the realm of ontological truths, and even more so in social truths. Obviously, opinions vary widely on the topic of social truths, and it is a place where our various cognitive and cultural biases really come into play. More than that, though, is that societies are extremely complex hyperobjects and no single person, or committee of people, have access to all of the relevant information to make even an all-encompassing correct descriptive truth-claim about society, much less an all-encompassing correct prescriptive truth-claim about how society ought to be organized. Furthermore, when it comes to normative and prescriptive claims, different people (individuals and cultures) have different notions of what a properly functioning society even is, or toward what sorts of ends should our policies and social organization be oriented (i.e., we don’t all agree on what the good life is).

Experiential (Incorrigible) Truths

We’ve now gotten down to the most subjective of subjective truths. Our own personal experience of the world is the hardest for us to doubt for ourselves, but it is the easiest to doubt those of others. When I see a shadow moving in a dimly lit basement, it’s impossible for me to doubt that I saw it. I can doubt an interpretation that I have of it, but that I saw it is incorrigible.

This is also a place where the post-truth condition gets hairy. One reason is that there is a tendency to want to take our own incorrigible beliefs at face value (i.e., to accept our first knee-jerk interpretation of it). For instance, when someone says or does something we disagree with, it’s easier to just think that person is an asshole than to try being charitable or take context into account (see fundamental attribution error).

But it’s also because it is so easy to doubt another person’s experience. That someone can identify as the opposite sex from which they were born, or that they have experienced sexism or racism in the workplace, is easy for others to doubt or deny. When someone submits a complaint about sexism or racism against themselves, for instance, it’s not uncommon for others to say it was a misinterpretation (it may be the case that the perpetrator did not intend to cause offense or harm, but that it did cause offense or harm is an incorrigible experience suffered by the victim), or that the victim is overly sensitive or has a victim complex, or even that the victim is making it up for some ulterior motive (unfortunately, this does happen from time to time, which only hurts the people who are actual victims by lending credence to this line of skepticism). The other side of the same coin is also when people attempt to ascribe experiences to others, such as the notion of white fragility (i.e., saying that the only reason a white person wouldn’t buy into CRT is because it hurts their feelings to have their privilege called out).

As I said, personal experience is probably the trickiest type of truth (or “truths”) we encounter. Our own experience is so vivid to ourselves, yet so inaccessible to anyone else, that it makes the sharing of such truths potentially extremely difficult. All the more so when trying to share such experiences between people who have undergone very different life experiences.

Concluding Remarks

As usual with these kinds of typologies, there are probably a number of different ways others might categorize or sub-categorize these things. For instance, a sub-category that might apply to multiple of the above would be causal/dependence/grounding truths, where something is true only because it is caused by something else, and/or it is true in virtue of something else being true (e.g., my being a brother is only true because I’m male and because I have siblings).

We could also apply notions such as possibility, potentiality, actuality, contingency, and necessity to many of the above categories of truth. Are there such things as necessary objects/beings? In what way does something exist as a potentiality (especially if said potential is never realized, or is somehow prevented from being realized)? And so on.

There is also the distinction between propositional truths, procedural truths, and truths of acquaintance (the three types of knowledge, where here I am taking that knowledge is justified belief of something that is true).

The main point with this exercise, however, is that when we talk about truth in general, the truth, or my truth, or the end of truth, or our post-truth world, these can mean a number of different things and are likely to be interpreted in different ways by different people. If we want to get at what the truth is, we first need to consider what kind of truth we’re even talking about. The truth is, the truth is what the truth is.