RTH4 – Correspondence with reality

by Neil Rickert

In my previous post in this series, I explained why I thought there were problems with truth as correspondence to the facts.  In this post, I will discuss the idea of truth as correspondence with reality.

There’s an intuitive sense in which “correspondence with reality” seems to be about what we think we mean when we talk about the truth of a statement.  The biggest difficult, though, is that we would need a good account of what “correspondence” means before we could ever get started with using truth.

To illustrate the problem, consider two photographs of the same scene, both taken at the same time and from the same location.  Yet let’s suppose that these two photographs are very different.  How would we tell which one is true or which one corresponds to reality?

As it happens, what I have in mind is that one of those two photographs was taken using black and white film, while the other was taken using color film.  So they look very different because of that difference in coloring.  We would normally say that both of those photographs were true.  So it must be that our idea of correspondence is flexible enough to accomodate the two different forms of photography.

Truth by convention

It often seems to me that we judge truth by whether we are properly following standards.  In my photography example, the standards that we follow for black and white photography are different from the standards that we follow for color photography.  We judge a photograph to be true if it is consistent with what should have resulted from following the standards.  Similarly, we have standards for measuring temperature.  A statement about the temperature would be considered true if it is consistent with the temperature that would have resulted from following the standards.  If I point to a bird, and day “that’s a cute dog” it would be deemed false because I have not followed the standards of word usage for “dog.”

The word “standard” is a bit awkward here, for it suggests a set of official rules to be followed.  Often we are instead following rules and practices that have been adopted by common consent.  These are better referred to as conventions than as standards.  So when I suggested that we judge truth in accordance with standards, that would be better said that we judge truth in accordance with the following of conventions.  Hence the term “truth by convention.”  And I’ll note that some of our precisely defined standards are often called conventions, as in “measuring conventions.”

Quine on “truth by convention

Quine has a well known publication, where he argued against truth by convention.  He was specifically arguing about the case of mathematical truth.  I don’t believe his argument applies to what I have been discussing, because he was using “convention” in a far narrower sense.  He was restricting it to conventions of logic, including definition of a work as an abbreviation.

I don’t want to say more about Quine’s argument here, though I might consider posting on it at a future time.

Correspondence as a theory of reality

As I see it, the idea of correspondence works better as a theory of reality, than as a theory of truth.  For example, we send a space probe to Mars to take photographs and to report on wind, temperature and other conditions.  We decide whether those photographs and reports are true, based on whether they were generated in accordance with the appropriate conventions.  And then we use those true photographs to tell us something about the nature of the reality of the Martian landscape.

I expect that human vision works in somewhat the same way.  That is, our brains develop standards or conventions on how they will represent information about the world as neural signals.  The neural representation could then be said to be true if it is in accordance with the standards that the brain has developed.  And from that, it builds our visual experience of the world.

Or, to summarize:

  • develop standards or conventions;
  • form representations of the world which are true because they follow those conventions;
  • conclude what the world is like, based on those true representations.

The effect of altering conventions

One reason some people are skeptical of the kind of conventionalism that I have suggested, is that conventions can be somewhat arbitrary and changeable.  We saw that in our Yahoo group discussion, where one participant suggested that changing conventions amounts to monkeying with properties of the world.  My response was that when we change conventions, we are not really monkeying with properties of the world.  Rather, we are changing which properties of the world we choose to use.  I gave that argument in message 1393, and my answer seemed to resolve the concerns.

I can illustrate that with my earlier example of a black and white photograph, compared to a color photograph.  The black and white photograph typically picks out more details in the shadows than can be seen in the color photograph.  And, of course, the color photograph picks out color properties.

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