Back to Basics (1). Truth-telling: A Core Value

I start with a question: are we, or are we not, better off knowing what is true, or at least part of the truth?

Of course we are. No one needs a “theory of truth” to see this and understand it. Not even philosophers!

Acting on a false idea or belief will often get you into trouble. Maybe more than often. Maybe not right away — but sooner or later. All thinking people know this. Not all of them face it.

Truth is just the facts of reality. Some facts of reality disclosed in experience, some inferred through reason, some uncovered through some combination of these two, and a few arrived at by selected other means. The results include truths of immediacy (one might call them), logical and mathematical truths, scientific truths, historical truths, truths about ourselves and our psychology (human nature), basic truths about systems that underwrite many of the others, moral truths, religious truths, and perhaps more (and naturally some of these overlap with others),.  

There is merit, that is, to the motivating idea behind a classic such as G.E. Moore’s “In Defense of Common Sense,” however turgidly written that was! Here is one hand. Here is my other hand. One rests on my desk. The other is typing. Both exist independently of my perception of them, as does the desk and my keyboard. Therefore the “external world” exists, and I know this. No Cartesian rabbit holes of methodological doubt are necessary since I’ve no Peircean positive grounds for doubt.

Others:

It is true that two people live in my apartment at this particular time and place.

It is true that an apple falls when I drop it because of Earth’s gravity.

It is true that Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981.

It is true that seven plus five equals twelve, that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse, and that all statements that contain contradictions are false. (Unless we’ve cheated somehow, or are not operating under “normal” conditions.) 

It will turn out to be true that we humans are primarily emotional beings with the capacity of reason.

It is true that love is better than hate, and that peace is superior to violence. Therefore the former in each pair is morally praiseworthy.

It is true that systems are ubiquitous — in our experience and behavior, in the world at large (biological organisms are systems; so are corporations; so are government agencies; so is the U.S. economy), in the chemical and subatomic realms, at the level of stars and galaxies, and so on.

I think it true that God exists, even if the most successful arguments are indirect, and if answers to questions about how God works (and the specifics of what He wants) are often elusive.

It should be a given that some truths are very hard to find, and some may well be impossible to find. It is either true, or it isn’t, that there are extraterrestrial civilizations, for example. We may never know which it is, but of one thing we can be sure: one or the other is true.  

I certainly don’t limit my categories of truths to these, and I tend to agree with Richard Rorty that we neither have, nor need, a “theory of truth” that underwrites them all, spells out an “essence” (or abstraction) which we find in every category, beyond our capacity and willingness to see them all as factual. That search for an “essence” was the, er, essence of Plato’s mistake which has haunted Western philosophy for over two thousand years.

Getting rid of the abstraction probably doesn’t accomplish a whole lot. Although it may seem to. This is an indication of the grip it has held on the philosophical imagination. This is something philosophers have struggled with since the Platonist-Cartesian-Kantian axis gripped Western philosophy and has never truly let go, not even in the wake of Peircean pragmatism or Wittgensteinian analysis.

I assert that truth is a core value: not in the Platonist sense of some kind of universal we have to come out of the Platonist cave to see, but as a commitment not divorced from our everyday experience and our desire to discover and communicate.

Our subject divides into: finding (or learning) the truth, as much as is possible; and telling it (our title), to the best of our ability. There is an important caveat: we should wish to avoid hurting others whenever possible.

For sometimes the truth hurts. Truth can be painful. This is why many people don’t want it, and will come up with all kinds of ways of rationalizing ideas that are patently untrue, or methods that lead to comforting illusions.

We soon discover that no one can be forced to accept an idea against his/her will, not even a patently truthful one in front of their eyes, and there is no point in trying. For those who are teachable and can tolerate the fact (or truth) that sometimes the truth hurts, they can learn things that will make the pain go away or at least minimize it. Truth-telling, when it hurts or threats to hurt, should have this payoff.

For whatever else, the world does not appear to have been designed to make us feel good. Our psyches seem filled with tendencies designed to warn us of dangers out there. Some of these dangers are real, some not.

My commentary here makes three assumptions, and it is important to spell them out clearly. (1) I am assuming reality is such that determinate truths or facts exist to be discovered. Call this an assumption of the truth of realism in some sense of that term. And (2), that the human mind is such that it can acquire imperfect knowledge of factual truth; fallibilism. The qualification imperfect is very important. Perfect knowledge, based on perfectly closed systems of proof, does not exist outside of pure logic, mathematics, and geometry. Gallons of ink have been unnecessarily spilled struggling with the consequences, when the simple realization of the imperfection of our senses and cognitive abilities would have sufficed. Epistemic perfectionism leads to a paralyzing skepticism.

What we can hang onto is the fact, for fact it is, that the enormous edifice of aggregate human achievement on which civilizations are built becomes completely mysterious if these two assumptions are false.

This, of course, ties truth and knowledge to problem-solving, and to a post on that subject yet to be written.

It also ties in with the idea that there is plenty of room for disagreement over concrete cases. It is important that this not vitiate realism, because we are fallible. Since our institutions are comprised of fallible human beings, they are fallible from top to bottom. This leads to (3):

We ought to oppose censorship in all forms. C.S. Peirce admonished: Do not block the path of inquiry. John Stuart Mill warned against the potential for harm in censoring even what we believe to be false, On Liberty. Censorship accomplishes little beyond protecting an approved narrative and permitting it to harden into dogma. This protects supporters of the narrative (which may be demonstrably false and is being protected because it satisfies its supporters’ need for emotional comfort but cannot stand up to criticism).

In sum, censorship does not protect the rest of us, nor the mission of any inquiry that aims to serve the finding and reporting of what is true.

I should observe in closing: this is a new series. I am reconfiguring my activity as a philosopher and an author around this site — an obvious choice since I own the domain and control it. Mark Zuckerberg can’t censor it. Google can’t cancel it. Lost Generation Philosopher is on a WordPress platform, and neither of those owns WordPress.org or WordPress.com. So I figure I am safe in doing what I want to do on here, which is create a Hub of content that can be spun off in different directions: articles for sites ranging from Medium to NewsWithViews.com, a course I have started writing, some fiction, more.

Hence the Back-to-Basics theme, which will unite this and two posts to come.

Expect more posts here in the future than in the past (although I know that seeing will be believing). The next one will be on Freedom as a Core Value. The third will be on Self-Improvement. There is no better time to articulate these than the present.

***

I should note that this site is not monetized. Independent philosophers, i.e., philosophers outside of academia, also have to buy groceries and pay bills. If you enjoy this content, please consider my Patreon.com monthly “tip jar.”  One-time private donations through PayPal are also acceptable (email: freeyourmindinsc@yahoo.com).

My book What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory is available here and here.

Please watch for future announcements.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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