The Correspondence Theory of Truth

According to the most prevalent theory of truth, one accepted by the majority of philosophers, and, as we shall see, implicitly accepted by all philosophers, is the Correspondence Theory of Truth. The correspondence theory says that truth is that which corresponds with reality. To be more precise, truth is a quality that applies to beliefs, statements and propositions which describe reality the way it actually is.

Beliefs, statements and propositions represent or depict reality as being a certain way. Beliefs are mental representations, statements are verbal or written representations, and propositions are the abstract logical entities which are expressed by beliefs and statements. If a belief statement or proposition depicts reality the way it is, then it is true. If it depicts reality in a way other than it actually is, then it is false.

For example, consider the proposition, "The cat is on the mat." This proposition can be expressed as a belief in someone's mind, as when Jane believes "The cat is on the mat", or it can be expressed as a statement, as when John shouts "The cat is on the mat!" or writes it on a notepad and hands it to you because he has laryngitis from shouting about cats being on mats. Sometimes philosophers will also speak of the truth of sentences, which are statements specific to a particular language. So "Je parle le Français" and "I speak French" are different sentences (which can be spoken or written) but make the same statement. They have the same "propositional content" and are truth-functionally equivalent, meaning they hold the same truth value—either both are true or neither are.

Again, when a belief, statement or proposition accurately describes the world is, it is true. When it does not,  it is false. In the above example, if the cat really is on the mat, then beliefs, statements and propositions which make this claim are true. If the cat is not on the mat, then they are false. The philosopher Tarski put it this way: The statement "Snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white.


Now this may seem obvious, but very often people say things like, "Well, that may be true for you, but that's not true for me," or say that we all have our own truths or create our own reality. These beliefs express the philosophy of relativism, which holds that truth is relative either to the individual or to one's culture or society. That is, the relativist believes that what counts as true depends upon what an individual or group of people believes, not on what corresponds with reality. Under individual relativism, often called subjectivism, each person determines what the truth is for herself. Truth, in this view, is defined simply by what an individual believes. What each individual believes is true for her.

Under cultural relativism, an individual can be wrong if his beliefs don't match up with his culture, each culture has its own standard of truth which is valid for it and it alone. For example, a relativist might say that it's true for us in 21st Century America that chronic seizures are caused by neurological diseases such as epilepsy, while it is true for pre-scientific cultures, that they are caused by evil spirits. Or, a cultural relativist might claim that it was true for people living in Medieval Europe that the sun revolved around the earth, but it is true for 21st Century Europe that the earth is round and revolves around the sun.

Sometimes a distinction is made between holding this view for truth in general (metaphysical relativism) as opposed to holding it only for moral or ethical truths (moral or ethical relativism). For example, a moral relativist might say that it is true in 21st Century America that slavery is wrong, but it was not true the pre-Civil War Deep South or the Roman Empire. Or she may believe that abortion is not right for herself, but may be permissible for others. A person could hold either of these views about morality, yet still hold that truths about the causes of disease or shape of the earth are objective in nature, rejecting metaphysical relativism while still embracing moral relativism.

Is Relativism Self-Referentially Incoherent?

One problem with relativism is that it's not clear how to take the relativist's statement "Truth is relative." Does he mean truth is really, absolutely relative, or only relative from his or his society's perspective? If he means truth is relative in the absolute sense, then his view is contradictory; he is claiming that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth! Claiming that relativism is true in the ordinary, objective sense of the word appears to be self-referentially incoherent, that is, it is the very act of making the statement contradicts itself. This would be analogous to uttering the statement "I am not speaking now." By the very act of uttering the statement, you demonstrate that it is false.

On the other hand, if the relativist is only claiming that truth is relative in a relativistic sense, then he is not really making a claim about objective reality and there's no reason to consider or accept his claim. It may be an interesting fact about him or his culture, but what does it have to do with what I believe? Thus relativism seems to be either contradictory or to merely convey a subjective or cultural perspective, not something we should accept as representing reality.

Is Truth Relative?

Have you ever had a false belief? Have you ever had an expectation or prediction and been let down or surprised? When you’re trying to make up your mind about what is true, do you look inward or outward. Do you look at what’s in your mind or do you look for evidence and use reason to evaluates the various alternatives? If the latter, then truth isn’t dependent on the contents of your consciousness. Truth is dependent on reality. When people don’t adjust their beliefs in accordance with reality they are engaging in self-deception and rationalization or exhibiting irrational bias. People who never adjust their beliefs in accordance with reality are institutionalized as mentally ill.

If truth is relative, there’s nothing to “figure out.” Evidence from the world is irrelevant to your beliefs. They are already true simply by virtue of your having them, and there’s no reason to change them in the light of new evidence. Rather than being he sign of an open mind, doesn’t that sound like a license for intellectual laziness and a sign of arrogance and narcissism? Is such a person any better than the dogmatist who claims to know the absolute truth? Neither the relativist nor the dogmatist is willing to change their beliefs in the face of contradicting evidence. Neither are engaging in critical thinking. Note that the correspondence theory is not the same as dogmatism. A person who holds to the correspondence theory merely understands and accepts that there is objective truth, not that they or anyone else knows all truths or is infallible.

Being A Relativist Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

If you reflect upon your everyday experience, it is likely that you will see that you really don't accept relativism. For example, if truth is merely subjective belief, could you ever have a false belief? What would it mean to have a false belief if whatever you believed was "true for you." If, in the course of conversation, someone refers to Los Angeles as the capital of the State of California is, would you say that that's true for them, or that they'd made a mistake? Or, suppose you, yourself believed that Los Angeles was the State Capitol, and someone showed you a map identifying Sacramento as the Capitol. Would you continue in your belief that it was Los Angeles, or would you change your belief on the basis of the evidence?

Can Relativism Make Sense of How People Learn from Experience and Revise Their Beliefs?

Haven't you, in fact, changed your mind about your own beliefs on many occasions, and didn't you do it because of some new experience, piece of evidence or argument made it seem that your former belief did not represent the world the way it actually was? For example, you may have believed in Santa Claus, but as you grew up, you came to understand that such a person does not actually exist. Maybe you saw a parent hiding presents under the tree instead of Santa Claus, or you noticed that there were two different men in Santa Suits at the Mall and they both couldn't be the real Santa. Or perhaps you heard the testimony of playmates that they discovered their parents secretly bought presents and hid them in their bedroom until the proper time. You changed your belief in accord with the reasons and evidence before you. If relativism were true, evidence would not matter. You would simply choose beliefs on the basis of personal preference and any beliefs whatsoever you chose would be "true for you." But this is not the way we form most of our day to day beliefs. Just think if you acted as a relativist in balancing your checkbook or deciding whether it was safe to cross a busy intersection!

Do we Create Our Own Reality?

If we are creating our own reality, that means that each person lives in her own world and there is no objective world which constrains, determines or affects it. Have you ever thought one thing and found out reality is otherwise? Then you don’t create your own reality. Has anything ever happened that you didn’t want to happen? Did you “create” that or did it happen to you because there is an objective world that doesn’t care about what you desire or believe?

People have differences in subjective personal reactions to the objective world. This can include what temperature of a room you find comfortable, what kinds of food you like, what kinds of activities interest you and emotional reactions to a bouquet of flowers, an action movie, a political speech or a religious testimony. These are affective (attitudinal or emotional) differences, based on differences in physiology, personality and individual experience and psychological associations. But attitudes or feelings are different from objective facts. The correspondence theory accepts that people have different physiology, personal tastes, attitudes and preferences and personalities. That is an objective fact of the world. In fact, when critically thinking, it is crucial to distinguish personal taste, preference and cultural norms from objective truth. This doesn’t mean that some truths are relative and others are not. It means that some thing aren’t “truths” at all. They are subjective. Truth is objective and open to disputation and debate; matters of personal taste are not. Matters of individual tastes and preference are about you. They can be used with personal pronouns because they’re personal. There are your tastes, my preferences, his attitudes or her feelings. Belief and reality are not like that. According to the correspondence theory, you should never use a personal pronoun with words like “truth” or “reality” because they are personal or subjective; they are impersonal and objective.

Sometimes people make mistakes. They believe their actions will lead to one result and they lead to another. Sometimes people form negative beliefs about themselves which turn into a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” These are facts about human psychology and the way personal attitudes or beliefs can affect behavior and in turn affect objective outcomes. They are very different from saying you are actually creating your own reality. Is the glass half empty or half full? The level of water is a fact about the objective world. Whether you interpret or think about the glass as half-empty or half full has to do with the way you frame it in your mind and the attitude you have about it. That doesn’t mean the level of water depends on your thoughts about it or make how full (or empty) the glass is relative.

Are Beliefs "Based on Your Perspective?"

Students often say that people base their beliefs "on their perspective," belief system or what’s true for them. But what is a perspective or belief system but a collection of beliefs? Since what’s true are beliefs, isn’t “what’s true for them “also just more beliefs. So they base their beliefs on their beliefs? This doesn’t seem to make much sense. It seems circular and at odds with experience.

If you think about how you form your own beliefs, you’ll see they come from your experience of the external world, about which you form beliefs. Your beliefs are not about other beliefs. Your beliefs are about the external world, about reality. Not “your reality” or “my reality,” but reality itself, the reality of which we are all a part.

Now of course people remember their past experiences and draw general conclusions about why things turned out the way they did and attempt to explain them and predict the future. That’s part of critical thinking and the basis of science. But these higher level beliefs we use to evaluate new beliefs trace back to observation and interpretation  - or should do so.

Sometimes people simply adopt the beliefs of their parents, peers, community, culture or political leaders. Merely accepting a belief without questioning whether it represents reality is the opposite of critical thinking. Critical thinking implies skepticism about claims. Skepticism assumes the correspondence theory. When you are skeptical, what are you skeptical about? You are skeptical about whether a claim actually represents reality, that is whether it’s true or not.

Most of the time you don’t base your beliefs on a perspective or belief system; you have a perspective which is made up of these higher level beliefs and may rely on it to help you decide about new beliefs. But don’t confuse a belief system or perspective with reality. A belief system ought to be a means to an end - the end of having true beliefs - not an end in itself. A rational person will revise a belief system in the light of internal inconsistencies or as soon as she discovered it is at odds with reality.

Does the Existence of Bias Prove Relativism?

Think about it for a moment. Most of the time don’t you at least try to base your beliefs on objective reality? Of course perspective is influenced by our subjective experiences, and these can often be predicted in groups (but not individuals) based on demographic data such as age, sex, race, where you were raised and currently live, etc., but that does not make truth relative. Social scientists use these objective facts about people to make predictions about human behavior and social and political change, many of which are extremely accurate, indicating a correspondence with reality. These predictions are made based on an acceptance of the objective world and data which helps us understand human behavior, which is a part of the world. Suppose that a person’s belief on the future outcome of an election is based on who they want to win or who he “deserves” to win. Is that belief just as good as a sociologist or political scientist making a prediction based on demographics and polling data? Interestingly, some of the spectacular failures of political scientists, who should know better, on predicting the outcome of the last election, seem to have been caused by such political prejudice. Why is that a bad thing? It led to false predictions. But why rely search for evidence or try to avoid bias if your beliefs are already true for you?

Some forms of bias are due to a limitation of our experience and knowledge, but many others due to psychological factors that are under our control. Being aware of bias in ourselves and others helps us have a more objective view of the world. If relativism were true, bias wouldn’t matter. You believe what’s “true for you” and that’s always just fine (or is if you believe it). Bias is bad because it skews our view of objective reality. Relativism renders the concept of bias and the fact that it is bad incoherent.

Watch Your Language (and Other Tips from Analytic Philosophy)

Sometimes people speak in a loose fashion. When someone says that a belief is "my truth" or “her reality,” what he may really mean is “this is what I believe” or “she believes that so strongly that it’s like she lives in her own little world.” This may seem innocuous, but the words you use matter and using terms in a misleading way like this can lead to conceptual confusions. In this case, it’s a confusion between the fundamental concepts of subjectivity and objectivity, which are crucial to critical thinking. Philosophers or the analytic school, which traces back to Socrates, the father of philosophy, see language as very important. In the Socratic dialogues, the search for truth is couched in terms of a search for the definition of a word, such as piety, virtue, justice or knowledge. It is only after understanding what these words mean that can answer questions such as “Can virtue be taught?” or “Is justice good in itself or a means to something else?” or “What would a completely just state look like?” Answering these questions means grasping the essence of fundamental concepts, and that means having rigorous definitions and using language in precise ways. Do you really live in your own reality? Then how is it you're interacting with others and affecting them through your actions? Do you create your own reality? Then why do you get sick or have to pay bills or suffer any kind of pain or deprivation? Are you a masochist?

Usually when faced with these kinds of questions, people will retreat to a more restricted claim that our beliefs can affect our behavior and that this can in turn affect the outcome of events in the real world, but this is quite different from the claim we create our own reality. They may also point out that people with different sets of preexisting beliefs may interpret objective events differently or have a different subjective experience than another person, but again, this is a claim about the objective world. If you believe you have no shot at getting a job, that might result in a lackluster interview after which you indeed wouldn't get the job, even if your chances of getting it were objectively quite good. If you think no one likes you and you ask a clerk for assistance and receive no response, you are likely to believe they intentionally ignored you when they may simply be daydreaming after a long day or hard of hearing. These are well-documented facts of human psychology, but none of them imply anything about truth or reality being subjective.

What is a Question?

Let’s try to step back to the most fundamental level of intellectual inquiry. What is a question? That which is in search of an answer. What distinguishes one question from another? The particular answer for which it searches. What is an answer? An answer represents a state of affairs in the world, conceptual or empirical. An answer is a proposition. What is a proposition? A simple declarative statement about the character or nature of a thing, or the state of affairs of the world. Some answers are about definitions and concepts, such as the answer I just gave to the question "What is a question?" These are conceptual propositions. Some answers are not about concepts but about what exists, what is real or is the case, such as "Is it raining?" These are empirical propositions. When a proposition describes the world as it is and corresponds with reality, we say that it is true. If it describes the world in a way other than it is, we say that it is false. When we ask a question, we evaluate answers based on how likely they seem to match up with reality. We thus assume the correspondence theory of truth by the very act of questioning. If what I believed was already automatically true for me, what need would I have for questions? Why would I need to ask anyone else, think, ponder or read a book? I would already have "my truth."

What Are Beliefs? What Are Beliefs About?

Propositions must be given concrete expression to be understood and communicated. A belief is a mental representation, a propositional attitude such that the subject views a given proposition as true. The belief is subjective, but what the belief is about is not subjective. A belief is not about itself or (typically) about other beliefs. A belief is the world, about reality. Whether the belief is true or false does not depend on the subjective mental state of the believer but rather the state of affairs of the world referenced in the proposition the belief is about. "It is raining" is not about the believer's subjective mental state; it is about the external world. If the world is otherwise, the belief is false, regardless of how convinced the believer is of its truth.

Don't Confuse Truth with Rational Justification ("Proof")

Whether you can prove a belief is irrelevant to whether it is true, though using evidence and logic is the only way to discover whether or not a belief is true. A belief is true depending on whether or not it corresponds with reality. Even though we may lack the evidence to tell whether a well-specified, non-ambiguous, meaningful belief is true or false, we know that it is either true or false. There is no third (or forth) choice. This is known as the Law of Excluded Middle. When there is insufficient evidence, the rational thing to do is to withhold judgement, as W. K. Clifford suggests in his famous essay, "The Ethics of Belief." Clifford also suggests that it is your moral duty as a human being and a member of the human community to do so, and that not doing so can lead to disastrous consequences for yourself and others.

Does A Lack of Consensus Mean Truth is Relative?

Widespread disagreement does not indicate the truth is relative; it indicates a lack of sufficient evidence available to some or all parties or perhaps that various forms of bias are at work. The proper attitude in these circumstances is extra caution and skepticism, not concluding that in the absence of consensus that one belief is as good as any other (relativism). There is always one right answer to any question. That right answer will be the one which corresponds with reality, which describes the world as it is. This right answer not defined by your subject feelings or decided by some external authority. It is defined but the way the world is and is to be discerned, if at all, through dispassionate, rational argument, that is, through critical thinking.

Truth and Knowledge

To sum up, truth is correspondence with reality, beliefs may or may not correspond with reality. When a belief does correspond with reality, it is true. When a belief describe reality other than it is, that belief is false. The way we figure out whether a given belief is true or false is through the use of empirical evidence and logic, but whether we can prove a belief or not is different from its being true. Evidence and logic are how we prove a belief is true but that’s not what makes it true, i.e. what its being true means. What makes a belief true is that it corresponds with reality. When we have sufficient evidence that a belief is true and it is in fact true, then we know it to be true.