Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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What Is Truth?

Truth, error and faith. Any idea, no matter how far-fetched, contains some objective content. Then are mermaids, witches and devils images of truth? The metaphysically-minded materialists, who interpret reflection one-sidedly, deny that there is any reflection of reality in error. Religious conscious ness, for example, is regarded as completely void of any objective content. But the history of humanity's search for knowledge shows that error does reflect, admittedly one sidedly, objective reality, that it has its source in reality, has an "earthly" foundation. There is not and cannot be any absolute error which reflects absolutely nothing. Even the delirium of the insane is a reflection of something. In all the above cases there are threads of objective reality, woven into fantastic patterns by the force of imagination. Taken in their entirety, these images do not add up to something true. Far from every phenomenon of consciousness possesses the same degree of veracity. But humankind lives and progresses not because its consciousness is cluttered with error, blind faith and falsehood, but because that consciousness also contains true knowledge. If cognition had not been, from the very beginning, a more or less accurate reflection of reality, man would never have been able to transform his environment creatively or even to adapt himself to it. The very fact of man's existence, the history of science and practice prove the truth of this assertion. This is not to say, of course, that human knowledge is not prone to error. In acquiring the ability to think abstractly and imagine productively, which has taken us far beyond the confines of what is given by the senses, people have earned the privilege of making mistakes and being carried away by all kinds of nonsense.

Animals are incapable of abstract thought but they do not make the same mistakes as man, who has evolved a whole world of fantastic, fairy-tale images, unbelievably bizzare, gorgeously beautiful or hideously grotesque.

Error is an idea or a combination of ideas and images that arise in the mind of the individual or society and do not correspond to reality but are regarded as true. This definition of error follows logically from that of cognition as the reflection of reality. Error is honest untruth. Unlike error, falsehood or deception is dishonest untruth. A person knows that a certain idea is untrue but for some reason or other he presents it as true. The person who makes a mistake leads others into error because he himself has erred. The liar, on the other hand, while deceiving others, is not himself deceived. Falsehood speaks of something that exists as non-existent and of the non-existent as existing. But truth has a force that the lie lacks: the latter is usually exposed in the long run. Someone has said that a lie is rather like spitting against the wind; the spit is bound to fly in the liar's face. Error should be distinguished from the mistake that is the result of incorrect practical or mental activiity, evoked by purely accidental, personal causes. It is commonly believed that errors are annoying accidents. But they have relentlessly pursued knowledge throughout history, they are a kind of penalty that humanity has to pay for its daring attempts to know more than is permitted by the level of practice and the scope of theoretical thought. The ancients saw the source of error either in the natural imperfection of our cognitive abilities, in the limitations of sensuous and rational knowledge, in lack of education, or a combination of all these factors.

The philosophy of modern times sometimes regards error as the distorting influence of emotion or will on human reason. Error is rooted in the social conditions of man's existence and in the nature of his mind, which may be compared to a mirror with an uneven surface that mingles its own imperfection with the image of the thing reflected. Thinkers have seen the source of error in free will and insufficient knowledge. According to Kant, the source of error lies in the fundamentally unjustifiable emergence of human consciousness beyond the bounds of possible personal experience in·to the objective world for itself, or in violation of the logical rules of thought.

Error is a historically conditioned, and therefore constantly overcome, discrepancy between knowledge and the object of knowledge. It expresses theoretically the limitedness of people's actual power over nature and their own relations, and results from the constant urge to overcome the limitations of existing knowledge and practice. Truth is a complex, contradictory process in which error is constantly overcome through the development of knowledge, while truth itself becomes increasingly complete and profound. People themselves are to blame for their errors, although the latter are by no means an inherent, immanent feature of human nature, but only a transient possibility realised on the basis of certain historical conditions.

By its very nature scientific cognition is impossible without a clash of different views, a struggle of beliefs, without discussion; it is therefore impossible without error. Only those who do nothing or who constantly repeat platitudes make no mistakes. Numerous opinions may be advanced on a certain question and quite often not one of them is correct. Every scientific discovery usually entails numerous errors, which are stages in the development of truth, as illustrated by the common expression "learning from one's mistakes". If the doors are locked to error, truth cannot enter the mind either. This is not to say, however, that one should look pessimistically on cognition as an endless groping among figments of the imagination. Errors are removed or gradually overcome, and truth, though sometimes badly wounded, fights its way through to the light. "One may have the desire not to burden oneself with the negative as something false, one may demand to be brought at once to the truth. Why should one become involved with what is false?... This notion is one of the biggest obstacles to truth.... Truth is not a stamped coin which can be supplied ready-made...."[1]

How many cases have there been in science when under certain conditions error proved to be truth and truth error! Even legends and fairy-tales come true in the course of time. For example, when the ancients began to describe atoms they made a tremendous discovery and at the same time became victims of error. They called particles of matter atoms because they considered them to be indivisible. They were right and wrong at the same time. Humanity has achieved its present level of culture not because of error but despite it. Attainment of truth is the prime task of science.

Truth is the true reflection of reality in the consciousness, the reflection of reality as it exists for itself, independently of the will and consciousness of people.

Closely connected with truth and error is the concept of faith, which ordinary consciousness often associates with the meaning it has been given in religion. In the broad philosophic al sense faith should be understood as an individual's profound conviction of the correctness of his actions, thoughts or ideals. And this conviction may have a generic or a derivative character. As something generic, faith may be just blind everyday superstition or it may simply be a confidence in science, scientists and so on. As something derivative, faith is scientifically grounded, authentic knowledge and in this sense it is based on truth. Faith may be true, but this principle is not reversible.

The concept of truth is linked with the moral concepts of honesty and sincerity. Truth is the aim of science and honesty is the ideal of moral motivation. Fruitful studies in science and philosophy are impossible where fear of the consequences of thinking is stronger than the love of truth. Truth is authenticated knowledge and knowledge is strength, the greatest strength of all. It cannot be destroyed by prisons, penal servitude, the gallows, the guillotine, or the stake. The burning bush of truth will never burn out. Giordano Bruno died at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome as a martyr to scientific truth. His body perished in the flames but truth remained, it was indestructible. Although the great majority, misled by all kinds of false arguments, may be against it, truth is bound sooner or later to win through. An ardent and selfless love of truth is often to be found in individuals who are richly endowed morally as well as intellectually.

The objective content of true knowledge. All truth is objective: its content does not depend on the subject, his intentions or will. A correct answer to the question, "What is truth?" presupposes recognition of the fact that outside our consciousness there exists an infinite world developing according to objective laws. Truth is the accurate reflection of the object in the consciousness of the subject. Authenticity is the mode of existence of truth.

Since it is the correct reflection of the object, truth always has objective content. If we conceive ideas that have no correspondence in reality, it is clear that these concepts have nothing to do with truth and cannot therefore stand up to the test of practice.

Any truth is objective. There is no such thing as unobjective truth. Subjective truth is merely an individual's opinion. So the definition that we have given of truth is at the same time a definition of objective truth. Truth is not reality itself but the objective content of the results of cognition. Its content does not depend on the will, desire, passion or imagination of human beings. Only objective knowledge corresponding to the essence of things themselves allows the individual and society to control natural and social processes; one can control the forces of nature and society only by obeying their objective laws.

Can there be several true statements about one and the same phenomenon in one and the same relation? There may be many opinions but there can be only one truth!

Truth as a process. The relativity of truth. The principle of correspondence. The statement that the world is knowable does not mean that an object is revealed to the subject, the knower, at once in all its attributes and relations. Our life is not a placid existence in the lap of truth but a restless and constant search for its acquisition. Science is not a stockpile of ready-made and all-embracing verities but a process of finding them, of moving from limited, approximate knowledge to knowledge that becomes ever more embracing, profound and precise. This process has no limit. The ideas of finite and immutable truth are illusions that have nothing to do with true science. The mental vision of the scientist is always an incomplete picture. Some things are well known and have become trivial, others are not quite comprehensible, others doubtful, others insufficiently proven, others contradict new facts, and others are entirely problematic.

When we try to understand a certain object, we have to reckon with its inexhaustibility and tendency to change. Every object has a vast number of properties and enters into countless relations with other objects. It would take a very long time to know these properties and relations. In the history of science we find many cases when scientists agreed that all the properties of an object had been established, only to discover later that it had other properties besides. Water, for instance, was considered to have been studied inside out. But science then discovered something called "heavy water", with properties hitherto unsuspected. Recent research has shown that a number of the peculiarities and states of water depend on the influence of outer space. And the problem of the distribution, role and specific properties of water in the universe still awaits a satisfactory solution.

As proven knowledge increases, the circle of probable knowledge also expands. We are still able to grasp only a little of the boundless mystery-story of existence.

Truth is relative inasmuch as it reflects an object not exhaustively but within certain limits, certain relations, which are constantly changing. Relative truth is limited true know ledge about something.

Scientific knowledge, even the most authentic and precise, is relative in character. The relativity of knowledge lies in its inevitable incompleteness and probabilistic nature. For example, our knowledge of the atom, molecule, electron, living cell, organism, man himself, no matter how profound, is only partial, it gives an incomplete reflection of the properties and essence of these objects. Truth is historical. In this sense it is a child of the epoch. It is in the nature of truth that it breaks through when its time comes.

The people of every epoch cherish the illusion that at long last, thanks to the strenuous efforts of previous generations and their contemporaries the promised land of truth has been achieved and thought has reached a peak beyond which it can climb no further. But time passes and they find that this was not the summit but only a small hillock, which is often either trampled down or at best used as a base for further, endless ascent. The mountain of knowledge has no summit. Each subsequent theory is more complete and profound than its predecessor. Moreover, new scientific truths do not throw "old" truths on the scrapheap of history, but supplement them, concretise them or embrace them as necessary elements in more general and profound verities. The whole rational content of previous theory becomes part of the new theory that succeeds it. Science throws out only the claim that it was exhaustive. Previous theory is interpreted in the new theory as relative truth and thus as a specific case of a fuller and more accurate theory (Newton's classical mechanics, for example, and Einstein's theory of relativity). Such a relation ship between theories in their historical development is known in science as the correspondence principle, according to which theories whose correctness for one or another sphere of phenomena has been tested by practice, by experiment are not dismissed as false upon the appearance of new, more general theories, but retain their significance for the previous sphere, as a particular case of the new theory. This principle rests on the fact that relative truth is objective truth. When speaking of the relative character of truth, one must bear in mind that this refers to truths in the sphere of scientific theory and not to the empirical stating of facts. Our knowledge of empirical facts may be true or untrue. But it cannot be relatively true. A court of law, for example, has no right to punish a person unless the case is completely proved against him. No judge has a right to say: "The accused may or may not have committed a crime, but let's punish him just in case."

The absolute in truth. By absolute truth one means exhaustive, maximum knowledge of the world as a whole, full realisation of all the potentials of human reason, the achievement of frontiers beyond which there is nothing worth knowing. Is this possible? In principle, yes. In reality the process of cognition is carried on by succeeding generations, who think very restrictedly and only in terms of the given level of development of their culture. Absolute knowledge is therefore only an aim for which science strives and to which the road is endless. Complete knowledge does not exist; we can only approach it, as we do to the speed of light.

The development of science is a series of consecutive approximations to absolute truth, of which each is more precise than its predecessor.

Absolute truths are those which, having been once stated with complete clarity and authenticity, do not encounter any further counter-arguments. In this sense an absolute truth is a reflection of a thing that remains true under all conditions of its existence. Such absolute truths are represented in science by such statements as "Nothing in the universe is created out of nothing and nothing disappears without a trace" or "The Earth revolves around the Sun". These are old truths and general ones, but they have not ceased to be true. Fully authenticated facts, the dates of events, of births and deaths and the like, are also ranked as absolute truth. But these truths are ordinary trivial statements.

The term "absolute" is also used of any relative truth in the sense that if it is objective it must contain something absolute as one of its elements. Absolute truth is a piece of knowledge that is not refuted by the subsequent development of science but enriched and constantly reaffirmed by life.

Humanity seeks full knowledge of the world. And although it will never attain such knowledge, it is constantly approach ing it and every step in that direction, although relative, contains something absolute. Taken as a whole, our knowledge of nature and the history of society is not complete, but it contains many grains of the absolute. The development of any truth is an accumulation of moments of the absolute.

Science commands not only absolute truths but also and to a greater degree, relative truths. The absolute is the sum-total of relative moments in truth. Every stage in the development of science adds further grains of truth to this total.

It may be said that any truth is both absolute and relative. In human knowledge taken as a whole the specific gravity of the absolute in truth is constantly increasing.

The concreteness of truth. One of the basic principles of the dialectical approach to knowledge is recognition of the concreteness of truth. Recognition of this principle means approaching truth not abstractly but in connection with real conditions. The concreteness of truth means that we must pinpoint the decisive concrete historical conditions in which the object of cognition exists and identify the essential properties, relations and basic tendencies of its development. Concreteness is the real connection and interaction of all aspects of the object, knowledge of it in all the wealth of its interactions. A statement about an object is true if it exactly reflects the object in the stated conditions; different conditions require a different statement. A true reflection of one moment of reality may become false if it is divorced from its context, from certain conditions of place, time and its role in the composition of the whole. For example, a physical organ cannot be comprehended without an understanding of the organism, an individual cannot be comprehended without understanding of society, and a historically concrete society at that, and outside the context of his specific biography. The statement "water boils at 1000 C,, is true if we are speaking of ordinary water at normal pressure. It is not true if we are referring to "heavy water" or if we change the pressure.

Every object has general features and also its specific qualities, its unique "context of life". So besides a general approach, one must also have a concrete approach to an object in accordance with the principle: truth is never abstract, always concrete. Are the principles of classical mechanics true, for example? Yes, they are, if applied to macrobodies and to relatively low velocities.

For one and the same process truth cannot be eternal, given once and for all. The process itself develops, the conditions in which it proceeds change, and the truth that reflects it undergoes modifications. What was truth in certain conditions may become untrue in others.

Since every given truth is incomplete, it is quite justifiable to ask about any theory or idea: to what degree of accuracy does it reflect the object? Because of this incompleteness the application of any given truth is limited. And if one takes any truth "too far", extends it beyond its frame of reference, it can be reduced to absurdity.

The principle of the concreteness of truth means that we must approach facts not with general formulas and schemata, but with maximum consideration of the decisive conditions, and this is totally incompatible with dogmatism.

The criteria of truth. What guarantee have we of any truth in our knowledge? What forms the basis for distinguishing truth from error, from lies and mistakes? In other words, what are the criteria of true knowledge?

Descartes and Spinoza, for example, proposed clear and distinct apprehension as the criterion of truth. Clarity was what was perceptible by the observing reason. Only that which could be clearly apprehended and gave rise to no doubts could be considered true. Descartes' examples of such truths were mathematical statements such as "a square has four sides". Such truths have a distinctness that rules out all doubts. They are the result of the "natural light of reason". Just as light reveals both itself and the surrounding darkness, so is truth the measure of itself and of falsity. Leibnitz defined the truth of an idea as its clarity based on the clarity of all its elements. This view of the criteria of truth was historically progressive. It gave precedence to the power of human reason. But it did not take into consideration the fact that clarity itself also requires criteria. The mere fact of obviousness does not guarantee truth. History has severely judged many clear and obvious "truths". What was quite clear to science yesterday, today becomes incomprehensible. What, it once seemed, could be more clear and obvious than the immobility of the earth? And many regarded this as an obvious truth and believed in it fanatically.

The Conventionalists saw the foundation of truth in any fact that had been conventionally agreed upon between groups of scientists, capable of judging what should be considered true or false. Other thinkers advanced the principle of universal significance: what corresponded to the opinion of the majority was true. But long before this Democritus had said that questions of truth could not be decided by a majority vote. History abounds in cases where only one person was in possession of true knowledge in a certain field while all the rest were mistaken. We have only to recall Copernicus and his discovery, which no one else was prepared to believe.

The pragmatists maintain that truth is anything that justifies itself in practice, that helps to achieve the required aim. True ideas are those that "work", that are useful.

The fundamental principle of scientific thinking lies in the following: a proposition is true if one can prove that it applies in certain specific conditions, or if there is an acknowledged precedent for its having been so applied. This principle may be termed the principle of "realisability". Through the realisation of an idea in practical action knowledge is measured against, compared with, its object and reveals the actual degree of its objectivity, the truth of its content. The veracity of a principle can be proved only by its successful practical application. Any proposition which is directly or indirectly confirmed in practice, or which may be effectively realised in practice, is correct. If a person compares his concept of things with other concepts that have been practically tested, he thereby indirectly, through this correct image, compares his own concept with the object itself. Correspondence between a concept and its object is fully proved only when one can find, reproduce or create such an object, corresponding to the concept that one has formed. The truth of a theory is the necessary guarantee of its realisability. For example, the practice of launching artificial earth satellites confirmed the correctness of the theoretical propositions and calculations on the basis of which these satellites were built.

The criterion of practice cannot fully confirm or refute any notion completely. It is flexible enough to guard us against treating knowledge as an ossified truth that needs no development. At the same time it is sound enough to allow us to argue successfully against the varieties of agnosticism.

"The atom is indivisible." Is this true or false? For many centuries it was considered true and practice sanctioned it. In those days the atom was indeed indivisible, just as today it is practically divisible and elementary particles are as yet indivisible. Such is the level of contemporary practice. Practice is a "cunning" creature. It not only confirms truth and exposes error, it also keeps quiet about what is beyond its frame of reference.

Practice has many different facets and various levels of development, beginning from empirical experience and ending with rigorous scientific experiment. It is one thing to consider the practice of primitive man obtaining fire by means of friction. And quite another, the practice of the medieval alchemist trying to find the philosopher's stone that would change base metals into gold. Modern space flights, physical experiments with equipment of tremendous resolving power, computer calculations and heart surgery, the liberation movements of peoples, these are also practice.

Some theoretical propositions may be directly confirmed and put into practice (for example, the geologists' assumption that there is uranium ore in a certain place at a certain depth). Others have to be practically confirmed by extremely circuitous ways, involving long or short intermediate links, through other sciences, through the applied fields of know ledge, through the revolutionary action of the masses, whose effect may show only years later. This is how certain mathematical ideas, the propositions of theoretical physics, biology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, history, aesthetic theory, and so on, take effect. Everything that is truly scientific must inevitably, directly or indirectly, sooner or later, be realised in life.



Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Werke. Vollständige Ausgabe. Zweiter Band. Phänomenologie des Geistes, Berlin, 1832, Verlag von Duncker und Humblot, S. 30.

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