The Truth about Objective Truths Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

Are there objective truths? That is, are there truths that are independent of us and our language, conventions, beliefs, attitudes, and social practices?

Common sense says yes. After all, isn’t it rather obvious that the truth about, say, the shape of the Sun has nothing to do with us whatsoever? And if not, then isn’t at least that true independently of us?

Nevertheless, the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth is often fiercely criticized. Famous philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty have asserted (at least in some of their moods) that truth is always subjective, socially constructed, and relative to perspectives.

This is no mere philosophical quibble. The notion of objective truth is what anchors all serious, clear-headed inquiry, and without it the distinction between science and pseudoscience breaks down. And while subjectivism about truth is a rare view among professional philosophers, it is highly influential in other parts of the humanities and social sciences, where, as a consequence, reason and argument have been to a large extent replaced by political ideology.

I will side with common sense. I will first give a very simple argument for the claim that there are objective truths. I will then go on to answer some concerns that often lead people to deny this claim or at least resist it.

The Simple Argument

My argument has just two premises.

The first premise is a principle known as the equivalence scheme, according to which truth always covaries with the way things are. For example, the truth about whether or not the sky is blue depends on whether or not the sky is blue, and vice versa. And the truth about whether or not dogs bark depends on whether or not dogs bark, and vice versa. Put a bit more technically, the equivalence scheme says that for any claim or proposition p, the following holds: p if and only if p is true.

If this seems trivial to you, then that’s good, because it is trivial (even though it has nontrivial implications, as we will see shortly). And if it doesn’t seem trivial, you are probably reading something into it that isn’t there. For example, it is important not to confuse the equivalence scheme with the so-called correspondence theory of truth. While the correspondence theory is a controversial piece of philosophical theorizing, the equivalence scheme is merely a conceptual platitude that any theory of truth has to accommodate to be a theory of truth at all, rather than a theory of something else. To see that the equivalence scheme is indeed a conceptual platitude, consider the following two sentences:

“The Earth is round, but it is not true that the Earth is round.”
“The Earth is not round, but it is true that the Earth is round.”

I hope you will agree that these sentences are incoherent.

The second premise of the simple argument is that many propositions are about aspects of the world that are independent of us and our language, conventions, or attitudes. For example, the proposition that the Sun is roughly spherical is about something—the shape of the Sun—that is independent of us. The same goes for most of the propositions that constitute the subject matter of the natural sciences and mathematics, such as the propositions that bacteria cause infections, that water is H2O, that 7 is a prime number, etc. By contrast, propositions about proper spelling, grammar, etiquette, and fashion are about aspects of the world that do seem to depend on us and our attitudes, conventions, and social practices. But the important point for present purposes is that at least many propositions are about objective matters.

Because the shape of the Sun is independent of us, and because the truth about the shape of the Sun is fixed by the shape of the Sun (in accordance with the equivalence scheme), it follows that the truth about the shape of the Sun is fixed independently of us. Hence, the truth about the shape of the Sun is, in this sense, objective. This simple argument can then be repeated for various other propositions, the upshot being that objective truth is abundant.

What might lead someone to reject the conclusion of this argument? I have already addressed one possible source of resistance, which is based on conflating the equivalence scheme with the controversial correspondence theory of truth. Let me address some further potential objections in the form of a Q&A.

Ministries of Truth

Objection 1: Haven’t we learned from Foucault and other postmodernist philosophers that truth depends on power? Each society has its regime of truth, as Foucault puts it. And if so, what is true is not independent of us, our language, conventions, and social practices.

Reply: What Foucault and similar thinkers really want to say is that what is believed, assumed, or held to be true depends on power, not that truth itself depends on power. For example, no human regime is powerful enough to affect the shape of the Sun, and thus no human regime is powerful enough to affect the truth about the shape of the Sun.

Moreover, given the emancipatory ambitions of postmodernist thinking, it is hard to understand why the idea that truth depends on power is supposed to be attractive in the first place. Consider the following example: In my country, Sweden, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the National Board of Health and Welfare until 1979. Surely, the right way of thinking about this, especially from a political activist perspective, is not that until 1979 it was true that homosexuality was a disorder (in Sweden). Rather, it was never true, but many people believed that it was true, and this is what allowed certain oppressive norms to masquerade as medical or psychiatric expertise.

’Truths’ vs. TRUTH

Objection 2: But isn’t truth at least relative to perspectives? Aren’t there many different ways of interpreting the world, and why should one of all these interpretations be privileged? Whose perspective can make a claim to reveal the objective truth, or Truth? Why think that there is such a thing as Truth, rather than just a multitude of “truths,” each dependent on a perspective?

Reply: First, the claim that there are objective truths does not rule out that there are also many subjective truths, which do depend on perspectives. As I touched upon earlier, truths about proper spelling and grammar are not “out there” waiting to be discovered. Rather, they are our constructions. (A more controversial example is moral truth, which most philosophers throughout history have regarded as objective but nowadays is more often thought to be subjective.)

Second, the claim that there are many different ways of interpreting the world is ambiguous. It could be taken as:

the psychological claim that different people interpret the world in different ways;
the moral claim that people have a right to interpret the world in different ways;
the epistemological claim that many different ways of interpreting the world are rational or well-founded; or
the metaphysical claim that many different ways of interpreting the world are true.

The first three of these claims are perfectly consistent with the claim that there are objective truths. The existence of objective truths does not rule out that people disagree about them, that they have the moral right to do so, or even that they can be rational in doing so (even though many disagreements are indeed due to irresponsibility or irrationality on someone’s part). The claim that there are objective truths rules out only number four above, the metaphysical. And this is as it should be, because two inconsistent interpretations cannot both be true. For example, Earth cannot be both a sphere and also not a sphere at the same time. In other words, if the flat-earthers are right, then the rest of us are wrong. And if so, saying that our interpretation is nevertheless “true,” or “true for us,” invites confusion.

Third, and relatedly, it is important not to conflate the claim that there are objective truths with the claim that certain truths are proven beyond any doubt or that certain truths are obligatory for everyone to believe in. For example, no one knows whether there is intelligent extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. In other words, no one’s perspective or interpretation is privileged with respect to that issue. Still, there is a truth of the matter. We don’t (yet) know what that truth is, but whatever it might be, it has nothing to do with our beliefs; it is simply not up to us whether or not intelligent aliens exist. Thus, the truth about this issue, whatever it is, is an example of an objective truth that is (so far) neither proven nor obligatory for anyone to believe in.

Fourth, those who claim that there is no Truth, only “truths,” should ask themselves what status they assign to that claim. They can’t say that the claim is True, of course, because they reject the idea of Truth. And if they say that the claim is merely “true,” or “true for them,” then it’s not clear why anyone should care. Thus, perspectivism about truth is ultimately self-defeating, because it denies itself the very objectivity that would rule out its opposition.

 

The World in Itself

Objection 3: You keep referring to objects and properties, such as the Earth and the Sun and their shapes. But haven’t we learned from philosophers such as Immanuel Kant that objects and properties are at least partly our conceptual constructs? The conceptual scheme embedded in our language functions as a set of “cookie cutters” that delineate various objects and properties. But you seem to presuppose that the world is organized into objects and properties in advance, and that is a spurious idea. The world in itself (what Kant called das Ding an sich) is an undifferentiated, amorphous lump.

Reply: I think this Kantian picture is wrong, although I don’t have the space here to explain why. However, I am not presupposing that it is wrong. Instead, the Kantian picture presupposes that I am right. To begin with, not just any cookies can be cut from the amorphous world-dough. For example, there is no way of delineating objects and properties so that it becomes true that there are human beings on Neptune, that rabbits play tennis, or that the Moon is made of cheese. Thus, the idea that our conceptual scheme delineates objects and properties is subject to various objective constraints, provided by the world itself.

(We could of course start using the term cheese in a different way, so that the sentence “The Moon is made of cheese” becomes true. But that is beside the point, because the sentence would only be true as it no longer expressed the still-false proposition that the Moon is made of cheese.)

Moreover, consider the following claims:

The world in itself is an amorphous lump.
Because the world in itself is an amorphous lump, the truth about the existence and shape of objects such as the Sun and the Earth is not independent of our conceptual scheme.

I take it that adherents of the Kantian picture hold these claims to be true independently of our conceptual scheme. Otherwise, they will end up embracing perspectivism, which, as we saw earlier, is a self-defeating position. And Kant himself, at least, would have none of it.

What Makes You So Smart?

Objection 4: How do you know what the world is like, objectively speaking? If you were a bit more humble, you would perhaps recognize that you only have access to the world via your own perspective, which is contingent and situated. You should take up a more critical stance toward the Enlightenment paradigm within which you operate.

Reply: I don’t claim to know that there are objective truths. I believe it, and I think I have good reasons for believing it. But knowledge is a high standard in philosophy, even an often unattainable one. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the claim that there are objective truths is just the claim that there are truths that are independent of us; it is not the claim that we know any of these truths. I think we do know quite a few of them (in mathematics and astronomy, for example), but that is a separate issue.

More importantly, however, we are all in the same boat with respect to situatedness. All of us see the world through our own perspective, and we all operate within intellectual paradigms. Those who maintain that there is no objective truth are no exception. What reasons do they have for their conclusions, and why are those reasons not undermined by the perspectival nature of their inquiries? Postmodernist thinkers tend to evade this issue, steadfastly applying their “critical” doubts in a highly selective and indeed uncritical manner —uncritical, that is, toward the highly politicized intellectual paradigm within which they operate.

Further Reading

Feldman, Richard. Reason and Argument, Second Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Frankfurt, Harry. On Bullshit. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Moberger, Victor. “Bullshit, Pseudoscience and Pseudophilosophy.” Theoria August 24, 2020. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1111/theo.12271.

———. “Pseudophilosophy Encourages Confused, Self-Indulgent Thinking.” Psyche February 9, 2021. Available online at https://psyche.co/ideas/pseudophilosophy-encourages-confused-self-indulgent-thinking.

van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics, Fourth Edition. New York: Westview Press, 2015.

Are there objective truths? That is, are there truths that are independent of us and our language, conventions, beliefs, attitudes, and social practices? Common sense says yes. After all, isn’t it rather obvious that the truth about, say, the shape of the Sun has nothing to do with us whatsoever? And if not, then isn’t …

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