The Fidelity Theory of Truth



The Fidelity Theory of Truth



We are accustomed to deflationary accounts of truth according to which there isn’t much of interest to say about the concept—it’s just a way to avoid repetition, a convenient shorthand, and strictly redundant. We are also accustomed to rigorous technical definitions, geared to formal languages, in which truth is rendered mathematical. The concept has been tamed, dethroned, and demystified—deflated. But maybe it needs to have some air pumped back into it and treated with more reverence—inflated. Maybe truth is more interesting than we have been led to believe, carrying more of a metaphysical wallop. Following that hunch I propose what I call the “fidelity theory of truth”, which can be succinctly stated as follows: A statement S is true if and only S it is faithful to reality. Clearly the operative notions here are faithfulness and reality, the former being a relational notion and the latter corresponding to an object standing in that relation. The sense in which truth is faithfulness can be illustrated by reference to the concept of a faithful copy of an original: a faithful copy accurately represents or duplicates what it is a copy of. In that way it is true to the original: it has “fidelity”. To be false, then, is to be unfaithful to reality, to lack fidelity.

            It is a significant fact that we describe marital fidelity using the word “true”: you may have a “true love” that is “true to” you. These concepts are intertwined: the general idea is that of two entities chained steadfastly together, not diverging or deviating. It is as if a true statement is one that does not “cheat” on reality, which sticks close to reality, not straying from it. This conceptual connection imbues the word “true” with a normative dimension: it is good to speak truly because it is good to be faithful (to be true to something). Truth is fidelity to reality, which is better than succumbing to fantasy. The usual definitions of truth make no effort to capture the normative aspect of truth, but surely this is a non-negotiable feature of the concept, so it is good to build it into the definition. Truth is bonded to reality as people are bonded in marriage (see how inflationary I am being!). We can also use this mode of definition to unify two uses of “true”: as applied to propositions and as applied to pictures. A picture can be described as a “true likeness” and also as “faithful” to its object. Thus we can say: a picture P is a true likeness of an object x if and only if P faithfully depicts x; or P is true to x if and only if it faithfully depicts x. Again there is a whiff of the normative here: it is good to create faithful depictions and bad to create unfaithful depictions.  [1]

            Am I then resurrecting the picture theory of meaning and truth? No, because we need a different account of faithfulness in the case of propositional truth, as follows: a statement is faithful to reality if and only if it accurately describes reality. Now we have brought in the concept of accuracy, which also belongs with pictorial truth: a faithful reproduction is precisely an accurate reproduction. Fidelity is defined in terms of accuracy—pictorial or propositional. This allows truth to come in degrees, since representations can be more or less accurate. A given statement might not describe reality with complete accuracy, as when I say of a mostly cloudless sky that it is blue or of the grimy snow in my yard that it is white (the general sentence “snow is white” is not entirely accurate, i.e. not entirely true). We can have accurate description and accurate depiction, as well as the lack of these, and that is what allows the use of “true” in both contexts: the underlying concept is that of accuracy.  [2] What the concept of fidelity adds is the admonition to strive to be faithful to something. Our language clothes the (fairly) neutral concept of accuracy with a virtue-theoretic concept of faithfulness–as if we have a duty to make our statements true. The duty of truthfulness is a duty of fidelity. And there is only one reality (but as many forms of unreality as there are errors and fantasies): we must be faithful to that reality and to it alone—no dalliances with “alternative realities”. Truth demands representational monogamy.

            Usually the theorist of truth limits himself to the word “true” (possibly supplemented with “true of”), but we also need to reckon with the locution “true to” and to take into account the broad way in which these words are used—it isn’t all a matter of propositions being true sans phrase. Once we do that we see the link to pictorial truth (“true likeness”) and we glimpse the link to the concept of fidelity. Now our concept of truth is beginning to expand into something more interesting than deflationary accounts would suggest; but we have yet to add the other main component of the theory, viz. reality. The way I formulated the theory has it that a true statement is one that is faithful to reality. One might say “faithful to the facts” in the hope of sounding less portentous, but really this notion of “the facts” is just the notion of reality—the totality of all that is real. It would not do to reformulate the theory as follows: a true statement is one that is faithful to fantasy. Nor would it be right to say that truth is fidelity to human knowledge or to what is useful. We must employ a concept that injects the requisite degree of realism into the definition of truth—and what better concept to do that than the concept of reality (we could even say “mind-independent reality”). Thus the concept of truth is defined by reference to the resounding concept of REALITY: not this or that reality, but reality as such—the whole shebang. Statements must be faithful to the world, to actuality, to how things are. A statement stands in a certain relation to this all-encompassing entity (not just to bits and pieces in it): and it is true or false according as it is faithful or unfaithful to this entity. When we predicate truth we are, according to this pumped-up theory, speaking of the whole world, of everything that is; we are not just speaking of the specific things the statement in question concerns.  [3] Double inflation! This is what we must be true to—this is our marriage partner in the search for truth. We have an obligation to Reality to be faithful to her in our statements and beliefs. This is a far cry from the pared down, “’snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white”, which says nothing of reality as a whole or of being faithful to her. Our general concept of truth is bound up with our general concept of reality (“how things are”), probably the most general concept we have—a metaphysical concept if ever there was one. To put it pretentiously: Truth is fidelity to the Real.

            This accounts for the sense we have that truth is a profound and substantive concept, contrary to the dismissive and trivializing tendencies of the deflationary theory. Predicating truth is asserting a relation between a statement and everything there is, where that relation is heavily infused with normative force. This is why we say such things as, “You are out of touch with reality” when someone says something egregiously false: the speaker has failed in his duty to stand in the faithfulness relation to reality as a whole, as evidenced by this particular lapse. To speak of truth is not merely to speak of statements and what they are about; it is to speak of the wider reality in which everything has being. Thus it is not the case that the sentence, “’snow is white’ is true” means the same as the sentence “snow is white”, contrary to the so-called equivalence thesis: for the latter makes no use of the concepts of fidelity and reality, while the former does (albeit implicitly). The word “true” is bursting with large exciting ideas and is not the dull placeholder it is often reputed to be. To be true is to be true to reality, where truth-to is a matter of being faithful to something.


  [1] It is notable that standard theories of truth neglect the locution “true to”, but surely it is desirable to bring it into the picture—consider “true to the facts”. Maybe “true to” is basic, not “true” or “true of”.

  [2] The OED defines “accurate” as “correct in all details” (it defines “correct” as “free from error”). This is not to import the concept of truth itself into the definition, since a picture may be accurate without being true: truth emerges as a special case of this more general notion. Thus the definition is not circular (not that circularity is always a vice, so long as the circle of notions is wide enough). 

  [3] One reason we need to formulate the theory using this very broad concept is that different statements concern different kinds of subject-matter and have different kinds of logical form (not every statement is subject-predicate); we need to be able to generalize over every type of statement and every subject-matter. Another reason is simply that the theory is most naturally formulated in this way: it just sounds intuitively right to say, “Truth is faithfulness to reality”. 

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