Michał Karzyński

Changes in the concept of 'truth' during the 20th century


Classically, in realist philosophy the World was considered to be embedded in an absolute framework of space and time within which all events and objects have their place. Religious people referred to this framework as the ‘thoughts of God’, scientists involved it in their theories as the invisible aether and philosophers searched for it as the ‘ultimate truth’. Each sentence could be judged true or false based on the correspondence of its meaning with this absolute framework, commonly referred to as the ‘real world’.

Even though already Plato pointed out that all absolutes exist in a realm beyond human experience, it was not until the 20th century, that the consequences of this begun to be fully appreciated. During this century what we perceive as ‘true’ changed dramatically bringing unprecedented revolutions to most areas of human life. In science the relaxation of the rigid materialistic framework allowed for new and radical ways of thinking including Einstein’s relativity theory and Heisenberg’s paradoxical uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. These developments changed the way physicists think of the world allowing them to ponder the existence of multiple universes and the role of consciousness in creating reality, etc. In religion the 20th century brought about ecumenism, an interfaith dialog never before possible. Morals became more relativistic, people more understanding and equal, politics more democratic and philosophy post-modern.

It would be impossible to judge, whether the changes in the definition of truth were causes or consequences of these processes, but it is nevertheless interesting to try following the concept’s evolution and this will be the topic of my essay.



Throughout the centuries, ever since the Renaissance, a battle existed between the empiricists and rationalists about who has the proper means for investigating the truth about the world and the soul. The battle was largely unresolved, because the latter group failed to provide satisfactory explanations of the physical world, while the former could not deal with metaphysical questions. It was in the 19th century, when empirical science begun to produce advances in technology that people, in awe of modernity begun to believe that the proper way of investigating reality was found. With the development of the scientific method however it was beginning to become clear that there is a whole class of metaphysical problems, which it could not resolve. Science could explain the orbits of planets, predict the trajectory of projectiles and even begin to answer questions about the origin of man, but it could not deal with something as obvious as the existence of God. At the turn of the 20th century it became clear that the empiricists’ definition of truth as correlation of theory with experiment needed to be changed or extended.



One of the attempts to reconcile science and metaphysics was the Pragmatic method devised by William James and Charles S. Pierce. This method assumed that if all empirical results of two different theories were identical, then both were equally true. This is a straight forward logical assumption, which could be used to resolve purely verbose and insubstantial quarrels, but James interpreted it differently. He used the pragmatic method in a way opposite to Occam’s law of parsimony. James was a man with a ‘will to believe’ and he used the pragmatic method not to skeptically discriminate against unfounded theory, but rather to promote a new definition of truth. James assumed that if all evidence presented is equal, the theory one chooses to believe should be the most beneficial one. He went further, suggesting that the most beneficial theory is the true one.

It is not a coincidence that the Pragmatic definition of truth was developed in the United States of America, and that it became so popular there. That country, which strongly believes in the regulatory mechanisms of democracy and the free market, naturally accepted a new means of ‘natural selection of ideas’. For the Pragmatist truth was an entity which evolves and the force which drives its evolution is its pragmatic value, the ability to make people happy. Since people pursue happiness, they will accept such beliefs which are most beneficial for them (and thus the most true).

The pragmatic philosophy makes no reference to an absolute test of truth, and thus anything can be considered true as long as it does not contradict empirical facts. This notion applied itself well in the culturally diverse United States. James assumed that different groups of people could hold their own beliefs as true, which would allow them to coexist peacefully.

This idea was later picked up by Postmodernists, who defined truth as consensus, but rejected any discriminatory tests or comparisons of belief systems. To the postmodernists truth was a pluralistic and individualistic notion. Their idea was to arrive at truth through a coherence of all theories, which everyone could agree with.

There is a difference however between the pragmatic definition of truth and the radical postmodernists “consensus definition”. While neither defines truth through reference to an absolute, the former is relativistic, while the latter pluralistic. The pragmatists’ truth evolves and changes with time and understanding of the world, the ‘consensus truth’ may vary between groups but is more static.

Practical applications of both notions prove problematic. The ever-changing pragmatic truth offers no firm basis for formulating moral judgments. If it is beneficial for me to believe that a certain law is wrong, I may break it without guilt. In fact the term ‘pragmatist’ in English language is used to describe a person, who willingly alters their principles in order to achieve desired results.

‘Consensus truth’ faces the problem of arriving at an agreement in the first place. This requires institutionalized consensus building, of which democracy is an example. Unfortunately not all problems lend themselves to legislative processes, especially in secular states. Also, we have not yet developed global institution able to arrive at and execute compromise solutions to disagreements. These problems can lead to religious conflict and supremacy of certain powerful states over others, conducted by people who are opposed to fundamentalism and dictatorship.



Many philosophers, scientist, and logicians found themselves on the other end of the spectrum in the discussion of truth. They could not accept truth as a relative product of one’s fancy and insisted that there exists an absolute framework of time, space and logic, which they aim to discover. The truth for them exists independently of man, and the quest for it is an ever-more-exact approximation of this absolute by means of testable theories. We may point here to Bertrand Russell, who advocated the philosophy of logical analysis and claimed that the role of a philosopher was a “disinterested search for truth”.

These materialists rejected problems of metaphysics as unscientific and refused to investigate them. They also rejected all non-empirical forms of “higher” or pre-given knowledge. Their ultimate goal was to construct a system of theories, able to explain all phenomena, which would be based on pure logic and not be based on any dogma or axioms, other then those empirically obtained.

It is clear that what guides such investigation is a belief that the world is based on an absolute framework, which is complete, rational, non self-contradictory. Furthermore this framework is to be based on a logic, which man can comprehend. In other words it is based on the assumption that God is a logician, or as Einstein said, that God does not “play dice with the Universe”.

My question however is such: do we have reason to believe that God, or the Universe follows our human logic?

There is no doubt that science in the 20th century made remarkable progress. The developments in physics, chemistry and biology allowed development of technologies, unimaginable a hundred years ago. Yet upon close scrutiny, we find a world of contradictions and paradoxes.

Perhaps the most convincing definition of truth in accordance with the demands of logical analysis was given by Alfred Tarski. At first glance his definition is simple: “a sentence is true if it is satisfied by all objects, and false otherwise”. However there is no way of investigating any property of an infinite set of objects, so any general sentence cannot be proven to be true. Tarski writes: “the notion of truth never coincides with that of provability, for all provable sentences are true, but there are true sentences which are not provable”. Tarski’s full theory is complex, but it does conform with the laws of logic. There is a problem however, because the statement “is true” belongs to a different language (a metalanguage) then the sentence it describes. Is this only a problem of semantics?

The logician Kurt Gˆdel, on whose work Tarski based his theory, delivered a spectacular blow to the philosophy of logical analysis. He proved that no logical system can be complete. He proved that in all logical systems there will be true sentences for which no logical proof can be given, without extending the set of axioms. If the world around us really is based on logic, then it may contain questions essentially unanswerable.

Current developments in the field of quantum mechanics bring further questions. The nature of the world seems to defy logic and be filled with paradoxes. Can particles really exist in all possible places at once? Does a conscious observer really create reality? Is it possible that there are infinite universes parallel to ours? These paradoxical questions cannot be answered within the confines of our current understanding of logic.

The final argument against truth in materialistic empiricism was refined by Sir Karl Popper. He established the most convincing presentation of the scientific method given so far and concluded that science does not lead to truth, because it cannot give any proof of it’s theories. Deductive logic can only produce hypothesis and science can only progress on the basis of falsifying invalid ones. Popper states that even if we did arrive at the final truth, we would have no way of knowing that we did.

The above presents, on three different levels, reasons to doubt that empirical materialism is the way to find truth. Some of these problems may be technical, some may be resolved by a redefinition of our logic, some may be due to fundamental limitations of human cognition. It is interesting to ponder, however how strong the trust in the materialistic absolute framework remains. It is the myth of modernity, which remains with us, because we wish it to be true. We need it because evidence-based logical analysis gives us our only tool for rejecting false beliefs and unsubstantiated dogma. Yet it remains largely unnoticed that the assumption that the world is a rational, logical system, which can be modeled by mathematics is yet another axiom of this philosophy.

There is another problem. If we believe that the world will provide us with the truth, we end up desperately trying to find answers out there, instead of looking for them in here ñ within ourselves. This brings us to the final philosophy I wish to discuss, namely Integralism of Ken Wilber.



Wilber’s philosophy is also based on a belief in an absolute system, but his absolute is not limited to the external world and also exists inside each of us. In fact, he describes four different validity claims, four ways to seek truth, all of which “are correct, falsifiable within their own domain”. He does not deny science or empiricism, he embraces them, but says they can only provide answers to questions of the external physical world. This approach suffers from the fundamental doubts already described, but Wilber extends the search for truth into other spheres.

Our inner subjective experiences cannot be objectified by reference to external realities, so another system is devised. According to Wilber, psychological development is an evolution of ever-wider reaching, less self-centered consciousness, with the final aim of arriving at a universe-centric consciousness of Spirit. Referring to this model Wilber explains the sources of psychological problems, as arising from misunderstandings, or mistakes committed at any level of this development. The validity-claim here is truthfulness, and problems arise from self-deception. The role of a psychologist is to help people understand their inner evolution and aid them in overcoming obstacles they may have stumbled upon.

The third sphere Wilber deals with is the domain of our inter-subjective, cultural interaction. He also objectifies this domain by reference to his evolution of global conscious model. His initial stance is postmodern ñ he claims that all myths and beliefs are equally valid, as long as they do not run into conflict with each other. If conflict arises and there is a need for judgment, he referees to the criterion of world-centrism in deciding which stance is better. Wilber wishes for a world in which ego-centric or ethno-centric motivation will be marginal, while global decisions will be made according to the needs of the whole world, by globally-aware men.

The very brief outline of Wilber’s stance on truth and the criteria for judging it (the scientific method on one hand, the global-centric selflessness on the other) gives but a glimpse of his philosophical model. Integral philosophy manages to combine science with mythologies and gives us a criterion for moral judgments. In this sense it goes further then any of the other theories mentioned in this text. However, by replacing the set of logical and materialistic axioms with those of the journey-towards-Spirit, it may go further then most people of the Western cultures are willing to follow. Nevertheless it is a fascinating philosophy, which should not be shunned because of it’s axioms.



All philosophies contain axioms, even the most materialistic and logic-based ones assume the existence of a rational universe. There is no way to construct a belief system without axioms and so I do not believe that a final and absolute definition of truth will ever be formed. It is interesting however that the matter continues to give so much thought to intellectuals throughout the world. We must be idealistic by nature…