Nuts and Bolts 003: Analytic and Synthetic Truth

When he was presented with the accused man Jesus of Nazareth, the governer Pontius Pilate asked a question laden with philosophical importance: “What is truth?” It’s a question that I think was adequately answered centuries earlier by Plato: “The essence of truth is to say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not.” In normal english, the essence of truth-telling is to tell it like it really is.

In this edition of the nuts and bolts ( a series in which I cover the fundamentals of philosophy and later, theology), I won’t be wading through theories of truth. What I am going to do, prompted by a recent conversation, is to discuss the distinction between two different kinds of truths: analytic and synthetic. It might sound a bit artificial at first to talk about distinguishing between different sorts of truth. Some statements are true, and some are not. Right? Bear with me.

Here’s a list of statements that is true: 1) Write now Glenn is typing up a blog post about truth, 2) I just had a mochaccino, 3) Everything is the same as itself, 4) our van is blue, 5) a square has four sides, 6) 4 + 4 = 8. To say that the statements are true is to say that they correspond to the facts. However, this list consists of two different sorts of claims, and each type is true for different reasons.

Look at statements 1, 2 and 4. They are true because of how the facts just happened to be. Things could have been different. Things could have turned out so that I typed this blog post tomorrow, or an hour earlier than right now. I might not have had a mochaccino – I could have had a hot chocolate, or just a glass of water, but I happened to have a  mochaccino. Our car could easily have been painted a different colour. The facts just played out in such a way that these claims are true, but things could easily have been different. These claims are called “synthetic” claims, because they bring things together in a kind of synthesis. Take statement four. It brings together the idea of our van and also the idea of blueness. These two things don’t necessarily belong together, but just because of the facts as they are, these things have come together in the fact that our van is blue, and so the ideas are brought together in this statement. All synthetic truths are like this. For example the statement “rape is wrong” brings together the idea of rape and the idea of wrongness. “Microsoft Windows sucks” brings together an operating system and the quality of being suckful. Or think of more philosophical contexts. Imagine that someone has just presented an argument that you think is  fallacious. Saying “that argument is fallacious” or “that conclusion does not follow” (which is the same as saying “your argument is invalid”) would also be a synthetic statement, bringing together her argument or premise, and the concept of being fallacious or invalid.

Now look at statements 3, 5 and 6. They’re also true, but not for the same reason. True, they also line up with the facts, but they don’t just <i>happen</i> to line up with the facts. In fact the facts could not possibly have been any other way in these cases. Look at statement 5. Yes a square does, in fact, have four sides, but that’s because in order for something to be a square it <i>must</i> have four sides. Having four sides is part of the very definition of being square. Stated differently, there is no possible world in which statement 5 is false. The same is true of statements 3 and 6. Everything is the same as itself, because if at any given point in time, something is different from object <i>x</i>, then that thing is not object <i>x</i> but a different object. Likewise, there will never be a time when things change so that 4 plus 4 equals something other than 8. Statements like these are not synthetic, they are “analytic.” This is because they don’t bring two different ideas together. Look again at the statement about squares having four sides. Just by <i>analysing</i> the meaning of the terms, we see that the statement is true. We don’t need to do any evidence gathering to realise that 4 + 4 = 8. Analytic statements are true by definition.

Be wary of people presenting arguments or claims and giving them a bit of extra rhetorical “ompf” by throwing in the phrase “by definition.” For example over at Scott Klarr’s blog you’ll read: “If a god is not composed of matter or energy, then that god, by definition, does not exist.” This is not true at all. Sure, someone might wish to argue that in fact nothing but physical matter and energy exists, and because of this fact, a God who is not physical does not exist. But none of this is a question of definition, it’s a question of fact – facts that people clearly do not agree on.

As a second example, take the comments of an anonymous author here: “If, in order for a belief to be rational, I must have reasons for the belief, then faith is, by definition, not rational.” Again, this just misuses the phrase “by definition.” The author misleadingly suggests that s/he is talking about an analytic truth. The author might think that things held as articles of religious faith are <i>in fact</i> not supported by reasons, but this is a matter of contestable opinion, and certainly not merely a matter of definition. Even if it’s true, it would only be true because we checked the reasons that all religious people held their beliefs, and we discovered that they have no reasons for their beliefs.

So there you go: Analytic vs Synthetic truth.

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