Epistemology

Start Free Trial

How do you know if something is true?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Great question, and one that humanity has been struggling with since its inception! Moral statements, such as "murder is wrong," are more challenging to prove true than something objective, such as "the sky is blue." For objective statements like the latter, we use a truth-discerning system of inquiry known as science!

Science was developed to distinguish truth from falsehood. It uses observation, logic, and repeated experimentation to test hypotheses, separate variables, and ultimately develop theories about the world. In the parlance of scientific inquiry, however, a theory is not a guess about something; instead, it is the simplest and best validated explanation for a specific phenomenon. Theories are the best way to approach truth, but they are not truth itself; science acknowledges the possibility that new evidence may contradict a previously established theory and thereby debunk that theory. Because of this, no theory is considered true.

Consider the theory that the Earth is round. We begin by defining what we mean by "Earth" and "round" before considering the implications of this categorization. If the Earth is indeed round, one may conjecture, wouldn't that mean that a ship moving away from me towards the horizon would slowly drop from my view? The next step one would have to take would be to perform an experiment by watching a ship as it crosses the horizon and observing whether or not it does actually drop from view. If it does, then the theory is valid. If it does not, then a new theory must be devised. Though we cannot conclude that we have discerned objective truths through the inquiry process of science, this process does help us distinguish fact from fiction and therefore allows us to approach objective truth.

I've posted the link to the eNotes science page to help you understand how science operates as a truth-seeking process. I hope this helped!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There is an entire discipline within philosophy called "epistemology" which is dedicated to the problem of understanding how we come to and evaluate knowledge. First, it is important to understand that different types of knowledge must be evaluated differently.

Take the statement "The distance between San Francisco and New York is 3,000 miles". One could evaluate this statement by measuring the distance oneself or relying on the expert consensus one might find in atlases, online distance calculators, etc. In this case, its truth depends on correspondence to an external state of affairs.

The statement "a bachelor is an unmarried man" is true in a different fashion. One doesn't need to investigate anything in the world to determine this, but "unmarried man" is part of our definition of the term "bachelor."

Statements like "torture and murder are morally wrong" depend on belief systems, and can only be evaluated within the context of those systems. Other statements such as "I prefer pizza to hamburgers" are reports of internal states -- de gustibus non est disputandum.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team