The pursuit of truth is often thought to be "intrinsically" valuable.
We've been very, very busy here at Philosophy Talk. I'd like to say that that explains the slowdown in both my and John’s blogging. It does – sort of. We’ve just gotten back from a hecticbut exhilerating road trip. We recorded two shows up in Portland – one in front of an audience of professional philosophers at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association. That was a blast and I think it will make good radio.
But that was just a warm-up for a superblast. We made a combined TV/Radio special or pilot or something with the good folks at Oregon Public Broadcasting – who have been our partners from the beginning. I’m not sure when it will air on TV, but we’ll let you know when the folks at OPB decide. This may be the beginning of a new undertaking for the Philosophy Talk Crew. I can envision us doing, say, 6-9 TV specials per year.
It was a great pleasure working with the OPB folks and meeting some of the folks in Portland listen to our show. Thank you all for coming and being a part of a really special events.
I would also like to welcome all you philosophically mind folks up in Seattle to Philosophy Talk. We had our debut on KUOW2 -- KUOW’s HD radio channel -- Saturday April 1st at 4pm. If you don’t have an HD radio, you can still check us out via the web, I’m told, via KUOW’s live stream.
But to the topic at hand. Today’s show is about “The Value of Truth.” Our guest will be Simon Blackburn. I’m predicting Simon will be a fantastic guest. He’s a very fine philosopher and a great conversationalist. Unfortunately, for you outside the Bay Area, since this is a special “pledge week” show, with a funny structure to allow for pitch breaks (in which John and I will join in) stations other than KALW probably won’t play this episode. But we’ll put it up on the web, for sure, and you can listen at your leisure.
Let me say a few things about the value of truth to get today’s conversation started. First, it seems to me that truth is a very good thing. We think science is grand because it reveals deeper and deeper truths about nature. We typically would much prefer to know and be told the truth than to be told a lie. We hardly ever say to ourselves, “I know that false, but I choose to believe it anyway.” To believe something is to believe it’s true. Moreover, if your beliefs are true and you act on them, then you are likely to get what you want. I want a beer. I believe that there is a beer in the fridge. I believe that I can get to the fridge by getting up and walking toward it. Because what I believe about the beer and the means available to me are both true, then if I act on those beliefs I am very likely to end up getting just what I want. On the other hand, if I had false beliefs about the beer and its whereabouts, acting on them would be very unlikely to eventuate in my getting a beer – except perhaps by sheer accident.
This all makes it seem right to say that in some sense we aim at truth in much of our cognizing. Truth is what we seek to discover in science. It’s what we seek to believe for the purposes of acting in the world. Moreover, truth seems to have both instrumental value – witness the instrumental value of having true beliefs about the whereabouts of things that you seek – and intrinsic value – witness the intrinsic value of knowledge of the world.
On the other hand, it has to be noticed that not all truths are created equal. Some truths may be not worth knowing. We have finite minds, finite resources, and a finite amount of time. We could, I suppose, spend all of our time and resources seeking to know every possible truth, but that does not seem like the path of wisdom. What we want to know are truths that matter, truths that are relevant to our practical projects and concerns, truths that will be serviceable for action or explanation, or merely to day to day existence. Some truths are clearly more serviceable than others. And by serviceable I don’t mean anything crude or shallow necessarily. In science, we seek to uncover truths that richly explanatory and profusely predictive. Truths like that are bound to be the opposite of shallow.
But a still small voice objects. Wait! Wait!. Haven't you given up the ghost of truth, here? You've just granted, after all, that its not truth per se that matters but serviceability. Perhaps there are serviceable falsehood. Sometimes we should believe what's true. And sometimes we should believe what's false. But we should always believe what it is serviceable to believe. We should never prefer to believe the unserviceable truth over the serviceable falsehood.
But what could a serviceable falsehood possibly be? Well, think of approximations as one sort of serviceable falsehood. Newtonian mechanics is false. But when we’re talking about middle-sized dry goods, moving relatively slowly, it’s good enough.
Fair enough, the defender of truth might say, but that example doesn't make the point you are after. The serviceability of Newtonian mechanics has to do with the fact that it’s an approximation of -- drum roll please --- the truth. So if not truth than at least truth-relatedness still does matter, even granting your argument. Sometimes it's alright to believe what is merely approximately true -- but only if you can't do better or don't need to do better given your purposes.
Well, let's try another example, the still small voice says. Imagine a person whose psychology is such that in order to get anything done, she has to vastly overestimate her own abilities. Suppose if she were to have a realistic assessment of her own abilities, she would simply be paralyzed. On the other hand, if she vastly overestimates her abilities she would at least make the effort. And though she might not do all that she sets out to do, she at least accomplishes something. Her overestimation doesn't even approximate the truth. It's just flat out false. But if overestimating her own abilities helps her get on with her life and accomplish things she otherwise wouldn't, more power to her, the defender of mere serviceability now says.
We can easily multiply examples of this sort of thing. Much of what we believe about ourselves is false and not true. Human have some tendency to believe comforting falsehoods and to disbelieve discomforting truths. And you can give something of a practical justification for that tendency. Believing the comforting falsehood can help to get you through the day, can help to sustain practical projects. Believing discomforting truths, on the other hand, could be a recipe for falling into paralysis and despair. Why do that?
Here's a dictum: when it would be more useful or serviceable for the purposes of ordinary life to believe the comforting falsehood, do so. Of course, you can't really consciously set out to follow that dictum -- that's partly because believing something is a form of taking it to be true. You cannot both commit yourself to believing something and simultaneously explicitly acknowledge the falsity of what you commit yourselve to believe -- even if it is something it would be in your practical interest to believe.
But one of the wonderful things about the workings of the human mind is that its workings are often hidden from our own conscious scrutiny. Perhaps nature arranged it that way just so that we would have the wherewithal to believe the false, when doing so would be in our best practical interest. Wonderful thing that nature!
I can hear the stalwart defender of always believing the true arguing that we just shouldn’t have such messed up psychologies. We should have an insatiable psychological appetite for truth. Discomforting truths should spur us into action rather than paralyze us. Perhaps. But if 'should' implies 'can' and 'can' depends on what we are really and truly like, then I’m not so sure that we always have what it takes, psychologically speaking, to live up to the consequences of discomforting truth. And I’m not sure that those who try to rub our noses in discomforting truths that we would rather not believe are always doing us a favor.
These are just some preliminary pre-show thoughts. I’m sure I will spurred on to deeper reflection by the combined philosophical wisdom of John and Simon. I’m sure you will be too. So have a listen.