Most philosophers subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth. This theory holds that there is a world external to individual human beings and that it is accessible to us. We create internal representations of this world which are deemed to be true when they correspond with it. In other words, there is an objective reality external to us, and we form beliefs about it which may or may not be true. Some philosophers have expressed doubts about objective reality, but very few would be willing to put it to the test with their lives or wellbeing.
Each of us holds a personal worldview. This is a set of beliefs about the external world which influence our perspective, values, and actions. It is established in our childhood and youth, and is received mainly from others via upbringing and culture. However, as we age, we gain ever greater personal experience through contact with reality and with other worldviews. This can challenge our own worldview and, in response, we either modify it or adopt strategies to avoid doing so.
Unfortunately, objective truth is surprisingly difficult to know. In practice, most of our beliefs lie at intermediate points on a scale from certainly true to certainly false. Our level of confidence in a belief can be assessed by asking ourselves how “comfortable” we are to make decisions assuming it to be true. “Comfort” is the absence of fear, grief, and other negative emotions. This means that the more confident we are in a belief, the fewer negative emotions we will experience when making decisions based upon it. The implication is, of course, that to improve our overall emotional state we will seek certainty in our beliefs. However, how we go about this varies from individual to individual.
We may seek certainty by defending our worldview. There are many reasons for this: changes require effort; can cause confusion and psychological difficulties; or may alienate us from our family, friends, or society. Defensive strategies include forgetting, altering, or belittling any contradictory information, rationalisation, being selective about our social contacts, etc. Thus, our worldview tends to have an inertia, and often only changes when it can no longer be defended.
There are, however, significant benefits to be had from a worldview which corresponds with objective reality. Firstly, the closer it is to reality, the better we can predict events. This, in turn, helps us to survive, prosper and procreate. Secondly, the closer our worldview is to reality, the fewer the inconsistencies that arise when we interact with the world. This, in turn, means less effort in defending or adapting it, less confusion, less distress, and a lower likelihood of mental ill health. On the other hand, cultural and peer group pressures attach to particular worldviews. The closer our own is to that of others, the fewer the inconsistencies that arise when faced with their opinions and expectations. So, the less effort we must put into defending or adapting it. Thus, even when we are very confident in a truth, we may find difficulty in continuing to hold it.
Except in the simplest of cases, total certainty is impossible. However, some beliefs can be judged more likely true than false, or vice versa. This depends on personal experience, supporting or refuting evidence, our confidence in its source, and consistency with other information judged more likely true than false.
Looking at these in more detail:
- Personal experience includes day-to-day experiences as well as scientific procedures such as repeatable experiments, etc. We perceive the external world with our senses and though these are fallible, they provide us with our most reliable source of information.
- The universe is consistent and does not contradict itself. So, if two beliefs do contradict one another, then one must be false. It is possible for two falsehoods to be consistent with one another, but as the number of falsehoods grows so too does the likelihood of inconsistencies. The greater the body of consistent information, therefore, the more likely it is to be true.
- Supporting evidence is any information that is consistent with a belief. Refuting evidence is any information which contradicts it. However, it can be unclear whether our original belief or the contradictory information is false. Much depends on our confidence in the source, but to add to the complexity, this itself is a belief.
In my next post, I will describe the risks and benefits of interacting with the worldviews of others.