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The Deflationary Theory of Truth

November 12, 2013

According to the deflationary theory of truth, to assert that a statement is true is just to assert the statement itself.

(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This is the basic claim of deflationists. It seems to fit in nicely with our common sense understanding of truth. In the past this kind of common sense approach to a philosophical problem, I always viewed suspiciously. Like when G.E. Moore tried to argue against idealism by kicking something to show it is really there. I saw it as a cop out of the philosophical problem, a refusal to even recognise the problem at hand. But recently I have come across this deflationary theory of truth, and it seems to confirm a feeling I have long held. As for very long I have read of logicians such as Tarski come up with tautological definitions of truth: identity statements like, “a is a”, “a is not-b” etc.. which seem completely redundant, but just fill our psychological need for an explanatory basis.

But maybe, just maybe, says the deflationist, there is no explanatory basis for truth, and there doesn’t need to be one. This is a great opportunity for us to dispose of much of the mystique surrounding this notion. The “truth” has been the holy grail of the whole era of the enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Only those in possession of it can famously remove the sword from the stone. The rest of us must stand and watch in awe at these magicians of reality, these scientific experts.

A great thing about this theory is the removal of all those purely academic second-order debates you may or may not have heard of, such as, meta-ethics, meta-philosophy etc.. Debates that chew up words, churning over meaning of terms, but never use those terms to guide their own practices in their lives. As they are all locked away in some dark corner of a university.

An example used by Simon Blackburn in The Big Questions of Philosophy is the moral issue of capital punishment. He argues: you do not have both a first order issue of whether capital punishment should be allowed and a second-order issue of whether there is any underlying truth of the matter that capital punishment should be allowed, (the famous philosophical point of debate between objectivists and relativists on which they think so much import hangs). You only have the first order debate, and its truth value does not take us to a new level of enquiry. Truth is a transparent concept.

So rather than waste our time worrying about the threat of relativism or wasting our time trying to debunk objectivism where ever we see it, we should get ourself embroiled in the only real issue of truth, the human context of the first-order debate about whether or not capital punishment should be allowed. We all have a voice in this debate, there is no neutral arbiter, no objective guarantee, only an agreement to be reached about the truth of the matter over time by intelligent and rational human beings considering the relevant factors involved.

Another positive implication of the theory is that it argues, when we have a group of true propositions, or commonly agreed to be true propositions, such as:

  1. Water boils at 100 degrees celsius at sea level
  2. David Cameron is the current prime minister of the UK
  3. Torture is a bad thing
  4. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969

We do not need to seek some property they all share as a result of being true. They are true, or accepted by most as true in their respective fields on a first-order level, but there is no truth on a second-order level, explaining why they are all true, or giving them some justification or foundation. Truth is a plastic concept that is free-floating within the human domain. It does not have some other-worldly or pre-worldly mystical foundation. So we see here how it once more removes the mystique of “truth”. This almost religious need to appeal to a higher authority.

A danger here is that truth in our society is almost like the law in providing a neutral standard securing order amongst us. To say truth is just a human invention, as the deflationary theory of truth is ultimately saying, is potentially a dangerous path to follow. But as human awareness spreads and grows in this global era, I think people are more able to understand how law and truth are human inventions, and how this does not take away any of its authority.

Do we now lose a sense of truth and significance to the universe itself, beyond human concerns? It does seem that this is a consequence of the theory. But then, our understanding of what the “universe” is and what “reality” is, are themselves conceptually constructed for us by people who provided the meaning for our language as it now is… Yet there is one area of freedom here. If truth is a human invention, we can reinvent it ourselves to some extent during our lives. And we can do this through our own independent and unique connection with our own personal reality. We cannot justify this connection as “true”, but when we are feeling and perceiving it, living it, we are not worrying about adding the property of “truth” to it.

This has been quite a technical post, it is a debate that has become lost in a jungle of concepts. A jungle some people are quite happy to hide and reside in. I am not one for seeking such academic security, and I think for this reason the deflationary theory of truth provides us a hope. A compass giving us a set direction for getting clear of it all in a straight line, rather than circling round and around in the bushes, which it is all too easy to do.

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