Testing for Truth


The Three Truth Tests

I think one of the biggest problems faced by all of us today is how to determine who to trust and what is true. In the Christian tradition, perhaps the most famous question to be asked of Christ is ‘quo vadis’ or ‘what is truth?’ History did not record an answer. The question, in most interpretations, is seen as a sarcastic one. Pontius Pilate, the questioner and local governor, is looking at a man claiming to be God, or at least that’s what people are saying. So Pilate seems to be asking, “If you are God or the Son of God or the Messiah, then you should know what truth is. So, what is truth?” Pilate is a man who has become frustrated with the lack of absolute answers and in his frustration he is now laughing at the idea that there is any such thing as truth.

There is another way to ask the question ‘quo vadis,’ ‘what is truth?’ It’s by asking the question sincerely and with a real desire to know. In another post, I talked about the three characteristics of truth; it is public, independent, and eternal. (Her Truth, your Truth, my Truth— whose Truth? ) There are also three tests for truth; these are the correspondence test, the coherence test, and the pragmatic test. We make frequent use of each of these tests every day and often use more than one at a time because each test has some holes in it.

Correspondence TestGo Look for Yourself

The truth of a claim can be checked with the correspondence test to see if the claim corresponds with reality. If I say, “The dog is in front of the fireplace,” then you can check the truth of that claim by looking to see if in reality the dog is in front of the fireplace. The implication of this test is that truth is something you get up and go look for. The hole in this argument is that you may be looking in the wrong place or that some aspect of what you’re working on requires reasoning rather than observation. Another possibility is you’re misinterpreting what you see or you’re seeing an illusion realistic enough to make you think you’ve seen the truth.

Coherence Test: Does this fit with other stuff I already know?

Any incoming claim we are assessing must jibe with other claims we know to be true. We want to know if the current claim before us is consistent with our previous knowledge. There should be no contradictions. If the new claim fits with the others, it’s true; it coheres; it sticks together (that’s what the word ‘coherent’ means).  This test implies that you can reason your way to the truth through argument. Aristotle was fond of that approach, and favoring argument over observation may have hampered the advancement of science for thousands of years.

Galileo had to fight the orthodox view of his time which stated that Aristotle was right when he claimed you can think your way to truth, and no other approach could yield truth. Galileo thought empirical data had something to say about the matter of truth.

Trouble is we need first-hand observation to determine truth in quite a number of cases. We can’t reason our way into confirming we have squirrels in our attic. We’ll have to have some proof. Unless we have previous knowledge. The sound of squirrels in the attic may be so familiar to some that there’s no need to look in order to know the truth. We’re the ones who’ve had empirical experience of squirrels in the attic before, and we can establish the truth of the present claim because what we know now fits with other things we knew before. The basic question with this test is: Does this claim fit with other claims I already know to be true?

A potential problem: you can make almost anything appear to be coherent. This is one reason gullible people believe conspiracy theories: the theory can be patched together with unsupported assumptions and made to appear coherent. Another thing that can be coherent but not true is a work of art like a novel.

Pragmatic Test: Does it work?

Perhaps the most nitty gritty of the tests for truth: if it works, it must be true. A claim that is pragmatically true must be applicable in practice; it must work in reality. Think of policy statements. If the policy works in the real world, if it generates practical results, then we can say it’s true. Frequently things like cultural behaviors or established practices that ‘work’ are seen as ‘true’ in this way. The weak point with this test is that there may be things that ‘work’ but aren’t true. For example, telling a child there is a Santa Claus can be seen as pragmatically true in that the statement ‘works’ to satisfy a child’s curiosity and skepticism. On the other hand, the correspondence and coherence tests may cause us to come to a different conclusion about Santa.

There is no foolproof road to the truth—just look at all the fools who think they know the truth. There is no single way to approach the question ‘quo vadis?’ Sometimes one of these tests will be enough to satisfy, but using the tests in conjunction with each other can give us more confidence that we’re heading in the direction of truth.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.