On Truth and Falsity

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by Goran Markovic

Claiming that some statements are true and some statements are false is quite common. We say “true” and “false” non-reflectively and we say it often. What is less common is a debate over whether terms “true” and “false” ought to be used at all.

The story begins long ago in an ancient village. The peasants there were quite aware of the occasional phenomenon of the sun eclipse. It was a frightening thing for which they had both an explanation and a means to avoid what seemed like a certain catastrophe. The explanation was that a vicious dragon was trying to devour the sun. The means to resolve this problem was to gather every man, woman and child, bring out pots and pans and any noise-making device available, and create a racket loud enough to chase the dragon away. Each time they did this the sun came back. The dragon seemed to retreat.

It would be a common and correct thing to say that the peasants’ belief (that a dragon was trying to eat the sun) was not a true belief. The reason for saying this could be summarized as follows.

In the broadest sense, when we speak of ‘truth’, we have an idea of some correspondence with reality. For reality, again in a very broad sense, we can use the account C.S Peirce gives in his essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”: “Thus we may define the real as that whose [characteristics] are independent of what anybody may think them to be.”

Having clarified the meaning of “truth” and “reality” it is now quite meaningful to speak of truth, reality, fiction, falsity, etc. as a set of relations of correspondence.

Did the peasants’ belief correspond with reality? Would the same belief by anyone today correspond with the reality of the phenomenon of sun eclipse? Of course not. For this reason we are justified in calling such a belief false.

Our basic ability to navigate our environments safely is based on the fact that reality has certain features that are relatively stable and that our beliefs about those features can be true or false as they stand in relation to it. All of science is based on this. Truth, seen as a form of cognitive success, is indispensable. “Truth”, the word, which describes this cognitive success, is also indispensable.

The objection to using words “truth” and “falsity” is thus difficult to comprehend. It is an extraordinary objection and it requires and extraordinary justification.

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