Time and Truth


Time and Truth


Truth relates to time in an interesting way: once a fact obtains a corresponding proposition is instantaneously true. On the one hand is a fact, say the fact that it just started raining at a certain place, while on the other is a proposition (a belief or assertion), say that it is raining at said location, and the second thing acquires the property of being true at the very moment the fact begins to obtain. Generally, when an object acquires a property a propositional entity comes to possess the attribute of being true at exactly that time—there is no time lag—even though the two things may be far apart (even at the other end of the universe). It is customary to speak of facts as truth-makers, so we can say that facts make propositions true instantly. Facts and true propositions are not identical, yet facts can confer truth on propositions. The truth of the proposition is a consequence of the fact, though it is a consequence that takes no time (rather like logical consequence and unlike causal consequence). This can seem puzzling—like the “non-locality” spoken of in connection with quantum theory. How can the fact manage to reach across space and make a proposition true without any temporal delay? For it is not just that the fact obtains and the proposition is simultaneously true but that the proposition’s being true is a result of the fact obtaining. It would be different if the fact were simply identical to a true proposition, but that is evidently not the case, since facts are not true propositions and true propositions are not facts (they involve different ontologies). No, these are entities of different types, yet one can influence the other at arbitrarily large removes. (One might indeed see the puzzle as a motivation for regarding an identity theory of facts and truths with more favor.) In any case, it appears to be a fact that facts and truths are connected in this way—by a kind of instantaneous action at a distance. Notice that objects and singular terms are not likewise connected: objects don’t make terms refer to them—they are not “reference-makers”. We are more inclined to speak of terms as determining the object referred to, not of objects as determining the reference of terms. In the case of truth, by contrast, the entity in the world contrives to bestow the semantic property of truth on the extraneous propositional entity, which may be an utterance at some remote location (a different galaxy, say). The reason the proposition is true is simply that the fact obtains (an object has a certain property): that is the explanation of its truth.

            I won’t say anything more about how to resolve this puzzle, or even whether it really is a puzzle; I will simply take it for granted that truth has the property in question, viz. that truth is conferred at the exact time that the reported fact comes to obtain. My purpose is to use this property of truth to undermine certain ideas about the nature of truth. The property is thus not a trivial property consistent with any theory of truth but rather has polemical teeth. Suppose we try to identify truth with verification: then truth will turn out not to be simultaneous with the fact stated. For verification takes time and is generally subsequent to the time of statement. Suppose that at time t I say that there are five oak trees in my garden; and suppose it takes five minutes to verify that this is true: then the statement will not be true until five minutes after t, according to the thesis that truth is verification. There were five oak trees in my garden at t and so my statement was true at t, but the statement was not verified to be true until five minutes later, which would make it true then according to the theory that truth consists in verification. The only way to avoid this is to claim that there were no oak trees in my garden at the time of utterance and that there only came to be five oak trees at t + 5 minutes. But surely we want to allow that facts can be verified after the time at which they actually obtain (now the fact, later the verification of the fact). Truth arrives at the time of facts not at the time of the verification of facts, so we can’t tie truth to verification by identifying the two. This is why it makes sense to ask how long it will take to verify a proposition, but it makes no sense to ask how long it takes for a proposition to be true. Verification takes time, but it takes no time for a proposition to be made true. Verification is an activity spread out in time, but making-true is not similarly spread out in time—it happens instantly. We can say that a proposition can be verified as true, but we can’t say that a proposition can be true bybeing verified; the two concepts are logically quite different, as is shown in their relation to time. Similarly, we can say that a procedure of verification is time-consuming or that it was executed slowly, but we can’t say anything like this about truth (“It took so long for his assertion to be true”). We might choose to replace the concept of truth with the concept of verification, but we can’t claim to analyze the former by the latter. Simply put, verification is a temporal concept but truth is not. Such ideas as that truth is an “epistemic concept” fail because of this obvious point: evidence gathering is essentially temporal but truth is essential atemporal (in the sense intended here).

            The same goes for pragmatist theories of truth that seek to identify truth with something like “convergence of inquirers’ beliefs in the long run” or “what leads to human satisfaction”. These things also take time, sometimes a lot of time, but truth takes no time. Any theory that identifies truth with the effects of belief will fall foul of this point, since effects occur subsequently and are spread out in time.  Statements are true or false at the time you make them, depending on the facts, not at some later time. Intuitively, the facts immediately stamp propositions as true or false at the time they obtain no matter what the future holds; so any theory of truth that ties it to future facts will fail. Of course, our judgments of truth are enmeshed in time, being dependent on verification procedures, but truth itself is not—truth itself depends entirely on the prevailing facts (and suitable truth bearers). Truth comes straight from the world in the blink of an eye (so to speak). It is a peculiar property in this respect, and maybe a puzzling one, but any theory of truth needs to accommodate it.[1]


[1] We could add to Tarski’s famous formula the following truth about truth: “snow is white” is true at the moment that snow is white. It would be different if snow had to send a signal to the sentence to inform it that snow is white, since that would take time. No, truth is conferred on the sentence at the very second the fact obtains.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Apologies for the following naïve questions. I am trying to better understand what is a fact.

    What is the fact obtaining – actuality? When a fact obtains, is it always the case we have an example of a possibility becoming actual?

    Or, to relate it to another concept, that of state, does every claim of fact amount to a claim that the world, or some part of it, or some thing, is (or was) in a particular state, or type of state; where, critically, the claim implies that the world, or said thing, is (or was) not in other possible states. For example, that I am now in Sydney is a fact (because I could now be in some other place); but is it a fact that I am somewhere?

    This brings up another question, that is, whether facts are always facts about particular things, or just facts. For example, is it a fact that I exist? It is presumably a fact about the world that I exist, because I may not exist (and in fact, I didn’t at some previous time, and won’t at some later time); but it isn’t clear to me that it is a fact about me.

    Also, though facts may have an atemporal quality as you discuss, do facts always “live in time” in the sense that they must obtain. For example, is a mathematical truth, such that the set of prime numbers is infinite, a fact (that has always and will always be true, so never obtained); or, is it a property?

  2. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    Facts consist of objects having properties. The world is the totality of them (as someone once said). When a fact obtains a possibility is actualized. Some facts are necessary, such as the fact that I am a human being. It is a fact that you exist, a certain fact for you, though a contingent fact. There are mathematical facts if there are mathematical objects and properties, but some would deny this. Many deny that there are ethical facts (not me). Truth requires facts. Facts are what make propositions true. Facts obtain independently of language and thought (unless they are facts involving language and thought). Russell thought there are negative facts.


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