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Is it the Truth? Humanity's Long Search for Elusive Anwers

Nasir Baba is a Faculty member with Usmanu Danfodiyo University and a fellow of the African Humanities Programme (AHP), ACLS.


Is it the truth? This is the first of the Rotarians' 4-way test. This is by no means a simple question as anyone who has attempted to answer it would tell. But the question of truth, I believe, is a universal one. For the Rotarian, I assume, truth is (or at least should be) a way of life. As a teacher, I too am concerned with the truth not necessarily as a way of life but because I must impart knowledge and knowledge must be true knowledge. This essay delves into the question of truth. Specifically, it addresses the question: what is the truth? I must, however, humbly admit that I do not have the answer to this question. If by the end, this essay has propelled you into having second thoughts concerning the question of truth, I shall consider my mission as accomplished.


What is Truth?

What does the Rotary Club mean when it asks “is it the truth?” When an employee swears to his/her boss that they are speaking the truth, what do they really mean? What does an irate wife mean when she swears to her husband that she is telling the truth? These questions correspond to the one cynically asked by Pilate over two thousand years ago and to which there are no definitive answers. In fact, there are some sceptics who doubt that the human mind is capable of attaining truth with any certainty. Consequently, any judgement passed by a human being should be suspected and doubted. If you ask them for reasons, the advocates of this approach like Phyrrho and the other Sophists will say the human mind cannot discover reasons which could give any definitives to speculations about truth. To them, such an activity about the truth that we are engaged in now is at best a mere theoretical exercise and at worst a fruitless undertaking.

Rene Descartes' Methodical Doubt

Closely related to the above stance is the position that was taken by Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and associates who doubt any statement of fact not because of some inherent inability of the human mind to grasp the truth but as the first stage towards revealing the truth of any statement of fact. They call this position methodical doubt. According to them, nothing should be accepted at its face value, without the relevant supporting evidence or proof. Hence, according to this position, every stance needs to be doubted unless evidence or proof is provided in its favour. Any statement, fact, or principle is accepted as true if it is corroborated by proof or evidence. Even though this answer to the question of truth may appear logical enough, surely it creates a problem in that each truth is then subjected to another criterion or another form of truth (evidence or proof) for it to stand as true. This evidence or proof must itself be leaned on another truth for it to hold, and the chain of questions, in this case, becomes endless and so does the search for truth.

Phenix Validation Procedures

Our journey to the search for truth takes us to a firmer ground laid by Phenix (1958) who defined truth as the knowledge that is confirmed by validation procedures. These validation procedures serve as the criteria or yardsticks for truth. However, according to Phenix, there is not just one criterion of truth, instead, each area of endeavour or source of knowledge should provide its criteria which should agree with his approaches to reality. In this case, there cannot, therefore, be a single answer to the question "what is truth"? that can serve all purposes at all times. Consequently, the question of truth has been addressed differently by scholars of different philosophical or ideological persuasions.

Rene Descartes and associates doubt any statement of fact not because of some inherent inability of the human mind to grasp the truth but as the first stage towards revealing the truth of any statement of fact. They call this position methodical doubt.

Theories of Truth

The Coherence Theory of Truth

To this theory, ultimate reality (for instance the world in which we live) is rational and systematic. It follows therefore that our knowledge of this reality must also be systematic. It is true if it forms a system just as the ultimate reality. In this case, a statement or piece of knowledge is true if it agrees with the system of concepts or relations already established as true. The truth of a statement or a proposition is the extent to which it compares with what is already known to be true. Any such statement or proposition becomes significant only when we see it in its total context. For instance, if someone should say this shirt I am putting on came into existence out of nothing, this statement will be considered untrue because it does not cohere or agree with what is already known about the process of producing a shirt. In this respect, when the Rotarian asks: is it the truth, this theory will ask whether the statement in question agrees with a continuously developing system of knowledge.

This theory sounds very much like the commonsense approach the sole criterion of which is that the new idea looks very much like the old for it to be true. The question to ask is whether in this fast-moving technological world some such an outlook can be sustained.

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The correspondence Theory of Truth

Each one of us as a human being thinks and acts as an individual. In other words, each one of us thinks as a subject and act as a subject. To that extent our actions and thoughts are subjective. However, there are realities that exist outside and independent of our subjective actions and thoughts. These are called extramental realities. They are called extramental because they remain what they are independent of our thoughts about them. A spade is a spade and the fact that we give it a different description or thoughts will not change that objective existence. A spade is therefore in its very essence is an extramental object.

So, on the one hand, we have a person's subjective conceptions of reality and, on the other, we have reality’s objective existence which is independent (unaffected or unchanged) by these subjective conceptions. Truth happens when the subjective concept of our intellect corresponds or matches with the extramental or objective reality as it is. According to Thomas Aquinas truth is the correspondence of the intellect with the experimental object. Therefore, if this table is red and I said it is red, my prescription of it corresponds with its actual reality, therefore what I said is true. If however, my description of it (assuming I said it is blue) does not correspond with its actual reality (red), then I am not speaking the truth. To the Rotary’s question ‘is it the truth?’, this approach would answer yes it is if it is just as it is; or no it is not if it is not as it is.

Therefore something is true not simply because it coheres with the old but mainly because it corresponds with the extramental object that it describes. If the new knowledge coheres with the old, it is because the old knowledge itself is true; the old knowledge corresponds with what is the case. To this theory, truth is absolute, not relative; it is universal, not circumstantial.

The Utilitarian Theory of Truth

This theory simply sums up the pragmatic approach to the problem of truth. To the pragmatist, humanity should concern itself not with the abstract and the speculative but with things and events that can be perceived by the senses. Experience, not spiritual or mental substance, is the centrepiece of pragmatism. Consequently, the truth of an idea must be sought in experience or practice. An idea cannot be true or false in the abstract, it must pass through the crucible of experience. An idea or thought is true not because it corresponds with some experimental or external reality, it is true because it works; it has valid consequences when it is put into practice. Truth is therefore the usefulness of an idea in practice. The truth of an idea lies in its consequences and these consequences are objectively, and if possible, scientifically tested.

By implication, anything that cannot be subjected to an empirical test (interested in experience) cannot be considered true. To this theory, truth is neither static nor absolute. It is dynamic because it changes (when it no longer works) and relative (because it can change from one generation to the other). Therefore to the Rotarian’s question of ‘is it the truth’ this theory would answer: yes it is if it works out right in attaining some objectives and it has valid consequences which are empirically tested. The criterion of truth is not some extramental object or some system of thought, it is experience. Truth must be found not in abstraction but practical experience. The truth according to William James is the class name for all working values in practice.

The criterion of truth is not some extramental object or some system of thought, it is experience. Truth must be found not in abstraction but in practical experience. The truth according to William James is the class name for all working values in practice.


Is it the Truth?

From an exposition of various conceptions of truth, we now turn to the problem of this presentation: is it the truth? The truth they say is bitter, that is for those who have found it and tasted it. The rest of us who are still searching for its meaning, have a long way to the bitterness of truth. If you ask me, I would say the journey has gone long enough. First, we believe that the human mind is capable of attaining the truth. Second, truth, as we have seen, approximates things as they are. Our knowledge of things as they are is greatly aided by the great achievements of humankind in science and technology. The truth is not, therefore, oblivion nor is it a mirage, it is very much within our reach and our capabilities. That is why we should ask of everything ‘is it the truth’ for the answers are possible.


Kneller, G.F. (1971). Introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Okafor, F.C. (1988). Philosophy of education and third world perspective. Enugu: Star Publishing Company.
Phenix, P.H. (1956). Philosophy of education. New York: Holt, Rhinehart, & Winston.

© 2021 Nasir Baba

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