What is really happening when a set of symbols, such as a statement or a thought, “gets at the truth,” as we like to think of it? What is it for symbols to be in touch with the facts? The use of symbols to uncover the truth about truth is bound to be fraught with paradoxes, and if a noncognitive experience of oneness with the mapped territory is the answer, this experience may not be as the Buddhist would have it. Instead of feeling at peace as a quieted mind at one with the sea of interconnected events, we might feel obligated to lament our absurdity with a round of horror or embarrassment on our impersonal creator Nature’s behalf.
Three Faulty Theories of Truth
At best, this conception of truth appeals to a metaphor, comparing a mind-to-mind relation to a mind-to-non-mind one, but the comparison is weak not just because of the obvious and relevant dissimilarities, but because of the dubious origin of this way of conceiving of our role in the world. If a mind such as God is the ultimate reality, and God created us according to a plan which would have us use natural facts for our benefit or to demonstrate our worthiness to spend eternity with God, then a factual description of something might be one that indirectly puts us in harmony with God. God’s artifact, that is, the world we describe, would be aligned with our artifacts, namely with our utterances and mental representations, and so this conception of truth would be no mere metaphor. Just as mortal minds can agree with each other, so too they could literally agree with the divine mind. But if we assume atheism, as we must when practicing philosophy while being faithful to the spirit of our time, we’re faced with the awkwardness of any attempt to salvage this theistic projection of ourselves onto a horrifically-impersonal world. Assuming theistic religion was perpetrated to further sundry inauspicious agendas, such as early Neolithic warlords’ domestication of large populations, the tainted remnants of that sort of religion are unlikely to augment a pure-hearted pursuit of knowledge.
Next, there’s the coherence theory of truth, which says a statement is true if it coheres with other statements such that the system’s self-consistency rationally justifies us in believing any of the cohering statements. As you can see, this theory merely reduces truth to an epistemic criterion of reasonableness. One sign that a speaker may be onto something is if her statements hang together so that she’s not contradicting herself like a deranged person. For example, if someone’s narrative of what happened the night she witnessed a crime doesn’t change when the police press her for details, a jury would have reason to trust her report. We assume that the world doesn’t contradict itself, that we occupy a natural order bound by some metaphysical logic, not a chaotically-shifting pseudospace, and so we think our belief systems should mirror this rational wholeness of facts.
However, this second conception of truth is abortive for at least two reasons. First, there are plenty of cases in which a coherent worldview, the internal order of which gives us some reason to trust it, turns out nevertheless to be wrong. Monotheism, astrology, Nazism, and the like may all be more or less coherent systems of thought, but none has the merit of being true. At most, coherence is an indicator but not a sufficient condition of truth. Likewise, a statement must be meaningful to have a chance of being factually true, but many meaningful statements are mistaken or even preposterous. Second, coherence in general can’t be the same as truth, because natural systems throughout the universe are coherent with respect to how their components operate, but that doesn’t mean, say, a solar system is a veridical account of anything. Again, the reason epistemic coherence is regarded as meritorious is because natural events in general are assumed to be regular and orderly. This point, though, goes both ways: if a belief system should mirror natural regularities, by being self-consistent, those systems must already be coherent even though they obviously aren’t themselves true with respect to anything. So coherence can’t suffice for truth. And if we say it must be statements or beliefs that cohere for there to be truth, their key distinguishing feature is their semantic meaningfulness but meaning turns out to be just as mysterious, not to mention as originally magical or supernatural as truth.