RTH3 – Correspondence with facts

by Neil Rickert

In my third post on our debate on Putnam’s “Reason, Truth and History” I will discuss the idea of truth as correspondence with the facts.  There are two versions of the correspondence theory that I see mentioned from time to time.  Those are:

  • truth is correspondence with the facts;
  • truth is correspondence with reality.

Of those, by far the most common is the first.  I’ll discuss the second version in a future post.

The idea of truth as correspondence with the facts leaves me shaking my head.  It makes no sense to me.  One of the participants in our online debate expressed the problem by saying it is glib and vacuous, a comment that he attributed to Strawson.  You can find that yahoo groups message here.  And that “glib and vacuous” pretty much sums up my view.

In normal usage, people think of a fact as a true statement.  So, to say that truth is correspondence to the facts is to not say anything at all.

Truthmakers

One of those in the discussed took “fact” to refer to a metaphysical entity that he called a “truthmaker” – see message 1330.

Finally, facts aren’t themselves true or false but are truth-makers. The fact that it’s raining in Boston right now is some way in which the world is. Thus, I don’t see why there couldn’t be facts without there ever being any sentient entities. In such a world, it would be a fact that there are no sentient entities.

I would guess that people who use correspondence with facts are mostly talking about truthmakers, or something similar.  That is to say, they are probably not thinking of their correspondence theory as circular reasoning.  For myself, however, I do not find the truthmaker idea at all useful or persuasive.

The last part of the above description of truthmaker, is that it allows there to be facts in a world with no sentient beings.  That part is fine.  I don’t see that sentient beings are needed.  What is needed, is a language that can be used to refer to things in that world.  Once there is a language, there is a potential for true statements, which I would see as facts – assuming, of course, that there is a way of characterizing “true” for such a world.  Whether or not there are sentient beings in that world speaking that language would not seem to matter.

The problem for me with truthmakers, is that I do not see how they could possibly be accessible.  And if we have no access to truthmakers, then it is not clear what it would even mean to say that a statement corresponds to some of those truthmakers.

Take the example given of raining in Boston.  Normally, I would know that it is raining in Boston, because somebody told me.  That would seem to depend on a statement of fact, rather than a truthmaker.  If I were in Boston, I might be able to tell by looking out the window.  In that case, my visual system is providing me with data, which is a representation of reality so is like a statement.  I don’t know how I would access the truth maker itself.  It is widely believed that our only access to reality is via representations, and that seems to deny the possibility of direct access to truthmakers.

We could, presumably, have a statement that expresses the fact given by a truthmaker.  But how would we know whether that statement was true, if we could not check whether it corresponded to truthmakers?

That’s why the truthmaker idea seems dubious to me.

I can understand the idea of truthmakers as a component of an idealized model.  It is sometimes useful to talk about idealizations.  However, it seems to me that, in our ordinary lives, our use of facts is very much a pragmatic activity, so not something that would be well modeled in an idealization.

I’ll discuss the idea of correspondence with reality in a future post.

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