A Czech Philosopher Comes to the Defense of Truth

In contrast to lie or error, truth is usually understood as an idea that corresponds to reality (or the quality of such an idea), and the existence and accessibility of truth is taken for granted. But the gap between common sense and “critical thinking” concerning truth is very wide. Modern philosophers have explored the obstacles that prevent us from achieving certain, objective, and universal knowledge of reality and concluded that the assumptions of common sense are highly questionable. So is truth done away with? Not at all—but one has to be extremely careful to avoid the traps.

To express ideas, we need words, and the meaning of words is far from static. Every language conveys a certain perception of the world and historical experiences of a community that cannot be perfectly expressed in another language; the understanding of words can change over time and vary with individual speakers. If we cast a critical eye on reality itself, we find that it is not as “real” as one might expect. One just needs to look around to see that things (including ourselves) are always changing. This observation has led to the ancient/modern idea that the unchanging essence of things is an illusion. We are told that nothing is a given, not even human nature—modern man substantially differs from the ancient or medieval man. If reality is not fixed, it cannot be described by unchanging truths; on the contrary, it would mean that all “truths” necessarily evolve.

The most serious problem relates to correspondence. How can ideas correspond to reality? Influential modern philosophers say there is an abyss between our minds and the world (if it exists at all). We perceive the world through our senses, without any guarantee that we are not deceived, and reason probably distorts reality by applying templates to it. Even if we know with certainty that man can think, man’s thinking may be completely subjective. These philosophers say that all we have are subjective images and experiences or some constructions of our reason; moreover, reason (the ability to attain true knowledge) and freedom (which is a necessary condition for achieving true knowledge) cannot be proven. This would mean that cognizance is based on faith: since first axioms are uncertain, rational knowledge is an illusion.

All these objections against truth have led to relativism: the view that the validity of all ideas is limited. We do not know reality as it is, only as it appears to us through our senses. Every era, culture or individual sees the world from different perspectives, there is no universal standard to compare them, and nothing is certain. To claim otherwise would be a sign of pride and intolerance. It would be absurd to say that some beliefs are wrong or that a certain religion is closer to truth than others. However, relativism obviously contradicts itself. It states that there are no certain, objective and unchanging truths while claiming certainty, objectivity, and universal validity for itself. Is there a solution to this embarrassing situation?

The contemporary Czech philosopher Jiří Fuchs offers a solution called “noetics” that he discusses at length in his book Illusions of Sceptics (2016). He claims it is a mistake to ask “how” before knowing “if.”Modern philosophers have asked how cognizance works and concluded that achieving objective, certain, and universally valid knowledge that corresponds to reality is impossible. But the appropriate starting point is to ask, “Does truth exist at all?” In other words, is true knowledge accessible to us? A negative answer leads to contradictions. If there is no true knowledge, it is impossible to present the statement, “There is no true knowledge,” as true. If one says that there is no truth, they explicitly deny what they implicitly claim. But why do contradictions pose a problem? Fuchs explains that the principle of non-contradiction is not an arbitrary law, but rather an inevitable condition of thinking. A contradiction paralyses thinking, introduces ambiguity (something is and is not at the same time), and therefore annihilates itself. Attempts have been made to bypass the law of non-contradiction by suggesting that on a higher level, contrary statements can create a synthesis. However widely accepted these apologies of contradiction may be, they are a failure. They inevitably claim what they deny. In order to present a statement as true, it is necessary to avoid ambiguity and to claim objectivity, certainty, and universality, regardless of the “level of thinking.” A contradictory statement simply cannot be thought.

If a negative answer is impossible, we are left with a positive one—truth exists. But this is not yet a victory of truth, but rather the beginning of a battle. It is necessary to refute objections which seem fatal. One of them is aimed at the essence of truth, i.e., correspondence between thinking and reality. Fuchs admits that the “exteriorizing” concept of correspondence which seeks to align a statement and the part of reality that it describes actually uncovers an unsurpassable gap between them. In order to decide if a statement is true (it corresponds to reality), we would have to express its relationship (correspondence) to reality by another statement, whose relationship to reality would be described by another statement, etc. We would be left with an unlimited number of statements whose truth would disappear into an infinite distance. Therefore, truth must be sought elsewhere: within a statement itself. Correspondence in this sense means that the predicate adequately describes the subject, or “corresponds” to it. The subject of a statement represents an object (reality), and the predicate represents what is known about it (thinking).

This view of correspondence is in conflict with the nominalist approach to concepts, which states that concepts are just names that do not and cannot really grasp the objects that they are used for. But Fuchs points out that this would lead us back to contradiction and annihilation. If concepts or general terms do not correctly identify their objects, it is impossible to present the nominalist statement (or any statement) as true. Nominalists use general terms and inevitably assume that they identify their objects (“thinking,” “knowledge,” “names”) correctly. The only acceptable solution is realism, which does not necessarily mean that general terms really exist in a world of their own, but rather that they do convey substantial characteristics of objects. Even if we do not know how this is possible.

Another objection states that trying to prove truth as a value of thinking is circular reasoning. The instrument and object (i.e., reason) are identical. Fuchs admits that this is the greatest danger in the discussion on truth. It is indeed necessary to presume that true knowledge is possible, from the first moment of any argument. So are we critical enough if we cannot set this assumption aside? To clarify this, it is necessary to define what circular reasoning is and why it disqualifies as a proof. To prove something means bringing it to evidence using premises that have been previously confirmed. If the conclusion is one of the premises, nothing has been proven. However, in Fuchs’ argument, the existence of truth is not used as one of the premises. The basic requirement of critical thinking is to call everything into question. It would be a mistake to say that critical thinking requires that we set aside everything that has not been proven, in other words to regard everything uncertain as false. The appropriate approach to this delicate problem of truth is to keep in mind that nothing is certain at the beginning, including the law of non-contradiction and the existence of truth. So one can use truth “as an instrument” from the beginning and verify its existence later in the procedure without violating the requirements of critical thinking.

To conclude, thinking is only possible if the following is true: the principle of non-contradiction is valid, things have a fixed essence, and concepts convey the characteristics of objects correctly. The understanding of truth as correspondence between thinking and reality cannot be avoided, and relativism that denies the possibility of universal, certain and objective knowledge must be rejected. In short, if we stay on the level of rational thinking, truth cannot be denied. This finding is indispensable for discerning fundamental errors which are prevalent in contemporary philosophy and theology. The simple rule that what contradicts itself cannot be true is a great aid for avoiding error and confirming the truth. 

Marie Tejklova

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Marie Tejklová earned a degree in English and Sociology from Palacky University in Olomouc (Czech Republic). She lives in the Czech Republic and works as a translator.

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