Saturday, October 17, 2015

What is the value of Truth?

First things first. I'm interested in the those beliefs that people have about the world, human nature, the meaning of life, etc. The Big Truth(s) that are felt to be about other people and to be sufficient justification to employ force against other people [I could have just as well have written “organize society”] when politically feasible. Factual truths are a lesser concern here. The sheer variety of what people believe and have believed in the past is astonishing. Even with the fairy tales told by some about the eternally unpleasant consequences of adhering to the wrong Truth, there are very few, if any, harmful effects to be observed. Obviously, with such a stupefying diversity of beliefs as to the content of The Truth a question naturally arises. Does the actual content of Truth matter at all? These various beliefs about the content of Truth cannot all be correct. Further, the absence of observable harmful effects also means that there is no penalty for errors in believing some doctrine or ideology to be True even if it is erroneous (which is much more likely, just going by the numbers). It is a common superstition about Truth that not everyone's Truth can be true.

I had occasion to read about Wittgenstein's Bug in a Box. Everyone has a box and no one can look in anyone else's box. All we know about the contents of another person's box is what they say about it. Usually this is used to demonstrate that the meaning of a sensation for instance pain is in the language used to describe and talk about the sensation. The Bug in a Box also applies to the concept of Truth.

Roll this around for a while. There is widespread agreement on the value of Truth. At the same time, there is much disagreement as to what this Truth actually is. Truth’s possible contents also includes the doctrine that Truth is empty or meaningless, i.e., “the Truth is that there is no Truth.” The plethora of possible Truths is no argument against the utility of the concept. One’s superstitious valuations and attitudes towards propositions, beliefs or ideologies brings advantages and disadvantages.

I might have been a little hasty in saying there are no observable adverse consequences to mistaken belief. There is often a hefty penalty from one's neighbors and compatriots for believing differently, but that is not a consequence of one’s “erroneous” beliefs. Ostracism and persecution for one’s beliefs is a consequence of believing not that The Truth possesses infinite value, but the content ascribed to The Truth in one’s locale possesses infinite value. It is tediously commonplace for this distinction to be ignored, assuming that it is even recognized.

When looked at closely, the beliefs and superstitions about Truth and its contents are used to justify and explain a way of life. If, for the sake of argument, the Truth of Conservative Evangelical Christianity is taken as True, then, of course, a life in which homophobia, misogyny, rigid gender roles, mindless conformism, and a shocking lack of curiosity about God’s Works are all prominent makes perfect sense. If, however, Truth is a placeholder whose content is irrelevant and probably erroneous, then a hard question comes to the fore: why ascribe Truth to this rather than that? Why, precisely, do these beliefs appeal to you and not those others over there?

My own answer is simple enough. Traditionally, we believed that our actions, morality and ethics were a consequence of our beliefs and truths about the world. I suggest an inversion: first comes a way of life with our predilections, desires, fears and habits. Then, come our beliefs and superstitions which make our habits, predilections and hard-won insights appear reasonable and prudent, even wise.

Traditionally, the search for Truth was carried out with much fanfare and apparent attention to scruples, honesty and conscientiousness. The values and way of life that made the most sense in light of this newly found Truth was felt to be, if not the only one possible, then certainly the best of all possible ways of living. All of this was done “unconsciously,” I should add. Has a view of the world ever been constructed and worked out with conscious intent to praise and valorize a particular way of living?

Would the results of this project be any less valuable merely because they do not lay claim to the finality and exclusivity traditionally ascribed to Truth?

God is dead and free spirits are running amok.

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