What is truth? Pilate asked Jesus who stood before him. This remains the question. In the gospel of John, Jesus says that he is “the way, the truth and the life.” What does this mean? How can a person be the truth? The most popular contemporary theory of truth is the correspondence theory of truth. According to the correspondence theory of truth, truth is the correspondence of propositions to reality. This theory of truth seems to me to be severely inadequate. It seems to me to be very modern, not modern in the sense that it is somehow superior or advanced, but modern in the sense of being post enlightenment and reductionistic or naturalistic. It seems to carry some modernist or enlightenment assumptions within it. To spell out these assumptions, I will have to draw a picture of how the correspondence theory of truth (CTT) sees the world, truth, and our relationship to it.
Foundational to CTT is the idea that there is a real, knowable, physical reality. Reality is not a construction of our minds as the idealists would have it, but rather, our perceptions correspond to something ‘out there,’ that produces those perceptions. In short, the CTT entails realism about perceived reality. On the CTT, truth is when our ideas or propositions correspond to reality. So, in order for there to be such a thing as truth, there must be something real to which our propositions correspond. This is where I argue that the person who holds to the CTT must also believe in a perceiving consciousness, outside of space and time, who sees all of all of history, past, present, and future, in one long flow: God, in other words. Take a historical example; a CTT proponent might argue that the proposition “John lived in 500 BC” is objectively true. Now, let’s say there is no evidence that John ever existed, (let’s leave aside the question about how our CTT proponent could know about John in that case) to what would the proposition correspond? John is long dead, he doesn’t exist anymore, there is no evidence that he ever existed, how could it, on the CTT, be true that John lived in 500 BC? The proponent of CTT would have to argue, absurdly, that John is somehow real, that he is somehow existing in 500 BC contemporaneously with the person from 2018. The only way out of this dilemma, in my mind, is to have John exist in God’s eye view of the world: the vision of all of space-time reality from the perspective of an all knowing, timeless God. This is the Monarchical vision, a static, motionless view of all of space and time, stretched out like a long tube. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1: the Monarchical Vision
So, the CTT seems to entail realism about perceived reality and the existence of a deistic God. The CTT also seems to presuppose scientism: the view that science is the only way to truth. Science seeks truths about the physical world; but can’t say anything about ethics, aesthetics, and so forth. Like science, the CTT falters when dealing with symbolic, subjective, moral, aesthetic truths. Think of the following propositions: “Mona Lisa is sublime.” “Love is a rose.” “Murder is wrong.” “I feel sad.” To what do these propositions correspond? I can’t think of anything. The CTT proponent seems to be compelled into scientism; only truths about the physical world can be objectively true. Metaphorical, subjective, moral, or aesthetic truths are either rendered meaningless or relativistic. Not the best epistemological situation to be in.
So I have now sketched out the correspondence theory of truth and simultaneously exposed its naturalistic proclivities. It seems to presuppose materialism with a deistic God observing the whole show from a far away, disinterested perspective. It seems to border on scientism, dismissing other domains of truth as irrelevant “subjective truth.” Of course the Christian proponent of the CTT would object to the charge of naturalism and would want to affirm a “supernatural” realm in which these other kinds of truths can be grounded. I think however, that this is to simply fall into the modernist trap. This separation of “natural” and “supernatural” or heaven and earth leads to wide ranging distortions of Christianity and truth itself. In his 2017 Gifford Lectures, NT Wright lists 4 ways the God/world split has impacted how we see various domains of life. I will paraphrase Wright’s list and add my own thoughts.
- History and Modern mythology. This split of “supernatural” and “natural” has spawned what I call the modernist mythology. It’s a creation myth, not unlike those told by the ancients, though far less profound and much more muddled and untrue. The story, repeated over and over in new atheist circles, can be seen as a variation of the glorious Christian drama of creation, fall, redemption and renewal: evolutionism (evolution without God), Humanity’s fall into superstition, redemption by science and the eschatological triumph of science, reason and technology. This narrative is reflected in the periods we use to describe history: the dark ages, the enlightenment, modernity. Basically the idea is this: people of the past were stupid and superstitious, they didn’t know anything, and we have nothing to learn from them. We now have science and that makes us way smarter. CS Lewis called this attitude “chronological snobbery.”
- Separation of Church and State: Christianity becomes something relegated to the private sphere: practice your beliefs in your own home if you like, but don’t let it influence your decisions, politics, or anything in the “public sphere.” Religion becomes an activity, instead of a life. It gets a small parcel of space and time: once a week on Sunday. I often wonder about the impact of the implementation of “clock time,” in which our day increasingly became controlled by the clock. Did this have the effect of giving religion its own “time slot” within the day? Instead of all of life, all of nature, all of our activities being for the Glory of God and under the dominion of the King, we divide our day into the “spiritual” and “earthly.” Going to church is “spiritual,” it’s the parcel of time God gets, its “food for the soul.” The rest of the day? Well, that’s earthly. That sounds more like the deistic God of naturalistic supernaturalism than the Christian God of creation.
- Nature and God: We have also separated God from his creation. The Pauline distinction between “spirit” and “flesh” is distorted to mean heaven set against earth or supernatural set against the natural. Paul wasn’t speaking, like the Gnostics, of an evil natural world and a pure soul, he was instead affirming the goodness of the created order and calling us to renounce our carnal self (what Kierkegaard would call the aesthetic stage) and to “live in the Spirit.” A further distortion is the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” causation, this is again, a deistic view of the world. It envisages a clockwork universe, run by natural laws, with a God who occasionally “supernaturally” intervenes, violating the laws of nature to perform a miracle. The medievals made a distinction between primary causation: God acting directly within his created order, and secondary causation: God acting in the world through his creation. God is always acting in the world and bringing his purposes to bear. Christian Eschatology is also distorted. The wonderful hope of resurrection and renewal of creation is turned into “souls going to heaven.”
- Epistemology: This fourth point leads me to the heart of my argument against the CTT. The modern split of heaven and earth has also deeply affected our ways of knowing. For the medievals, rationality was a way of being, a proper integration of all spheres of human knowledge within a properly ordered life. A unity of knowing with existing. Our modern notion of reason is something quite different. For us, the word reason conjures up the idea of the dispassionate pursuit of objective truth, ensuing existence and subjectivity. To be rational is to transcend yourself and to accept the results with stoic indifference.