This essay is a discussion of the Correspondence Theory of Truth (CTOT) and how the theory fits into the philosophy of Objectivism. I will argue that properly understood, the CTOT is compatible with Objectivist epistemology. I will also discuss pitfalls that must be avoided to keep the door closed to skepticism.
Readers should note that I am writing here for two distinct audiences. The first is the Objectivist community at large, those who are already familiar with the philosophy. I am also presenting this essay to my Senior Seminar in Philosophy class at the University of South Carolina for peer review.
To the Objectivist community: Some have expressed dissatisfaction with an unqualified acceptance of the Correspondence Theory, and with good reason, as I hope to demonstrate. A proper understanding of the Correspondence Theory is necessary to defend against Juggernaut of skepticism that has been sweeping the academic community for the past century.
To my classmates: This paper is based on information contained in my in-class presentation of Objectivist Epistemology, and it assumes the truth of Objectivism. I will glaze over some technical aspects of Objectivist principles. I encourage any of you to approach me with questions about these principles as you are working through the text.
The Correspondence Theory of Truth
The first formal expression of the Correspondence Theory of Truth (CTOT) can be traced back to Aristotle, who wrote: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (Metaphysics 1011b25), though Plato wrote very similar formulations (Cratylus 385b2, Sophist 263b). Kant considers the issue so obvious that it doesn't even deserve arguement, writing "“The nominal definition of truth, that it is the agreement of [a cognition] with its object, is assumed as granted.” (Critique of Pure Reason, 82). The Correspondence Theory has endured over the centuries, in part because it is seemingly so axiomatic, so elegant in its simplicity.
According to the CTOT, a statement is true iff (if and only if) it corresponds to reality. If I make the statement "Dr. Donougho is the Professor of my Philosophy class," this statement is true iff Dr. Donougho is, in fact, the Professor. If anyone else is the Professor (or if I don't have a Professor), then my statement is false. According to most interpretations of the CTOT, my statement would be false even if I have every reason to believe that Dr. Donougho is the professor, but he is not in fact because some impostor has taken his place. One's context of knowledge is irrelevant. Please keep this in mind, as we will have reason to return to it in a moment.
The Correspondence Theory of Truth is an alluring philosophical principle on many levels. At root, it is an epistemological expression of axiomatic metaphysical principles. Two such axiomatic principles in Objectivism are the Law of Identity and the Primacy of Existence. The Law of Identity states that "A is A," or "a thing is what it is." The Primacy of Existence states that "existence has primacy over consciousness," implying that consciousness has no effect on the identity of entities. If one accepts these metaphysical principles, then the task of man becomes to discover the identity of the world around him. His consciousness does not have the capacity to create, only to identify reality.
The Standard of Omniscience
The biggest problem with the common interpretation of the CTOT is that it sets a standard of omniscience for truth, making certainty impossible. If we accept that certainty is impossible, then we leave the discipline of philosophy open to skeptics (who will gleefully agree that reality is unknowable) and mystics (who offer a supernatural source for certainty).
As mentioned earlier, one's context of knowledge is deemed irrelevant when determining the truth value of his statements. If I say that "Dr. Donougho is my Professor," then my statement is false even if I have every reason to believe that it is true. These kinds of situations are not uncommon. The history of man is marked by an ever-expanding degree of knowledge about the nature of reality. In the realm of science, when new data is discovered that contradicts old theories, then the old theories are discarded, and new ones devised. Does this mean that the old theories were always false? How can we ever be certain that our theories will not be contradicted by new evidence at some point in the future? This creates a problem. If truth is determined without regard to context, then one's context must be all-encompassing (i.e., omniscient) to make a claim of certainty. An omniscient standard of truth is incompatible with Objectivism.
Knowledge As Contextual
Objectivist epistemology lays the foundation for a bridge between subject and object, and the reconciliation between the CTOT and certainty. Objectivism states that absolute certainty is possible within a specified context of knowledge. Any statement made by a human being necessarily implies the preamble "within my context of knowledge." This preamble is necessarily implied because man, by his nature, is a being of limited consciousness. He is not omniscient.
For example, Newton's Laws of Motion are true, and will always be true, given Newton's context of knowledge at the time. Einstein has access to better technology and higher levels of mathematics, and was able to expand man's understanding of Physics. He discovered new data that could not be explained by Newton's Laws, and he was able to construct a new theory which did account for the data. It would be false for Einstein to state that Newton's Laws will always always be true regardless of context, but Einstein could agree that, give Newton's context of knowledge at the time, his theories are still true.
The contextual nature of knowledge allows man to continually expand his understanding of the world around him, while at the same time avoid being paralyzed by uncertainty. The rational man forms principles on the basis of evidence, and treats them as absolute unless and until he discovers new evidence that would require him to restructure those principles. This methodology can be applied to ethics, politics, and esthetics, as well as science.
The Implied Conditional of Absolute Principles
Another helpful way of viewing absolute principles is in the form of a logical conditional. One can assert "If there are no aspects of reality outside the context of my knowledge which come into play, then principle X will always hold true." If one has properly formed his principle, and integrated it with all of the evidence available to him, then this statement will always be true, forever and ever.
One can view this logical conditional the same as any other, in terms of truth value. We can represent the statement as:
p = there are no aspects of reality outside the context of my knowledge which come into play
q = principle X will always hold true
Note that the truth value of this statement follows the same format of any other conditional statement. If 'p' is true, then 'q' must be true. If 'q' is false, then 'p' must also be false. And if 'p' is false, then the truth value of 'q' is indeterminable.
Let's return to Newton to demonstrate this method in action. Newton makes the claim that "if there are no aspects of reality outside the context of my knowledge which come into play, then The Laws of Motion will always hold true." If Newton acquires evidence that his Law of Motion does not apply to a particular case (for example, when entities approach the speed of light), then he knows that an element outside his context of knowledge has come into play. Now, he is challenged to integrate the new data with his old principle, modify it, or discard it favor of a new one. Note that, while 'p' and 'q' in the above example can have varying truth values, the logical statement p-->q is itself an absolute principle.
A New Perspective on CTOT
I have argued that theories and principles can be held with absolute certainty within a specified context. How then can one marry this with the CTOT?
When one formulates a theory based on evidence he has gathered, and integrates it without contradiction into the whole of his knowledge, then his theory does indeed correspond with reality. He has properly identified a relationship between his consciousness and some specified aspect of reality. It is important to keep in mind that a conceptual consciousness is an entity in reality, and an understanding of that consciousness is an instance of correspondence. One's integration of data into concepts and principles corresponds to the reality of his conceptual consciousness, and the contents therein.
One will never be able to step outside of his consciousness and make propositions based on information unavailable to him, but that does not mean that his limited theories do not correspond to the aspects of reality within his contextual range. It is unfair, and indeed irrational, to demand that man define "truth" in terms of the metaphysically impossible, i.e., omniscience.
The Importance of Semantics
An understanding of epistemological concepts is critical to maintain the integrity of philosophy as a discipline. In academic circles, classrooms, journals, online discussion forums, and even private philosophical conversations, the defenders of rationality must insist on the precise use of epistemological terms like "truth" and "certainty." The reason why there is so much misunderstanding about the proper application of the CTOT is that many just assume that the CTOT requires a standard of omniscience. This misunderstanding must be identified, clarified, called out, and rooted out of existence.
When engaged in discussion with an intellectual opponent, especially on issues of epistemology, take care that your opponent is not demanding that you step outside your context of knowledge in order to make a claim of certainty. A flaccid refrain of rationalistic "what ifs" does not take the place principled, logical, evidenced-based discussion. In the of spirit of Socrates, define your terms, and challenge your opponent to define his.
I must anticipate a challenge to my argument with respect to communication. If all knowledge is contextual, and each individual is working from his own context, then how can one defend against the charge of relativism? Is it reasonable to assume that one can effectively communicate with other individuals, and that the ideas being communicated are understood in the proper context?
My answer to this last question is 'yes!', given that one goes to the effort of defining his terms. This is why the precise definition of philosophical terms within one's own mind is so important. Individuals may define concepts in subtly different ways, so when a misunderstanding arises, the first step is to make sure that participants in a discussion understand each others' context of knowledge with respect to the issues being discussed. Misunderstandings are always possible, but can be limited through proper discourse of ideas.
Also, while individuals may have different contexts of knowledge at any given time, as men we all have access to perceptual concretes. Another method of clarifying interpersonal communication is to logically reduce ideas as close as possible to the perceptual level.
Looking Forward: A Complete Theory of Induction
There are many challenges in the field of epistemology that must still be overcome. The most important of these, in my view, is a more complete theory of induction. Logical induction is man's method of forming rational principles based on evidence of the world around him. Ayn Rand presented a powerful theory of induction with respect to concepts in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, but some questions remained unanswered.
First, what degree of evidence is required to form a (contextually) absolute principle? In Objectivism - The The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff discusses degrees of certainty with respect to principles (p67). He classifies theories on a graduate scale, from "possible," to "probable," to "certain." But what delineates these degrees of probability? More importantly, at what point can one settle on any given principle as "certain?" One clue offered by Peikoff is that in order to settle on a principle, "all evidence points in one direction, there is no evidence in any other direction, and no contradictory evidence." This idea is helpful, but insufficient.
If philosophers can agree on the CTOT and proper standards of rational discourse, then I believe these questions are answerable within our lifetimes. The only way to defeat the specter of skepticism in the academic community is through our consistent and determined effort to define our terms in philosophy with the most rigorous logical integrity.