Why Truth Matters

Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent (1896). Olin Levi Warner, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

 “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care about how you got your money as long as you have got it.”
~ Edmund Way Teale

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 8, 2017.)

In my last post I discussed Princeton emeritus professor Harry Frankfurt’s distinction between lies and bullshit. I suggested that the difference between truth and falsity is even more important than the difference between lies and bullshit. Now I’d like to elaborate.

There are many reasons to revere truth: along with beauty and goodness it is one of the great ideas we judge by; it is universally regarded as a virtue; it is something, on this planet at least, that only humans discern; it is necessary to make good decisions about living our lives; and it allow us to predict the future and avoid future dangers. But there’s more.

When I started teaching ethics 30 years ago I learned that truth-telling is one of the only moral imperatives across cultures. Why would that be? Simply put, human communication is pointless unless we assume that others will tell the truth. If I ask you what time it is or for directions to London, I’m assuming you won’t lie. If I assume the opposite, there’s not much point to those questions. Sincere, honest exchange essentially is communication, all the rest just manipulation. Another problem with lies, ignorance, and bullshit is that they undermine our rationality; they leave us slaves to our passions; and they keep us groping in the dark when we try to solve problems. Problems are hard to solve when you start with truth, much more so when you begin with falsehoods. Lies and nonsense will ultimately be our downfall, however temporarily attractive they may be. But why?

If we disregard the truth we’ll undo the project of classical Greece and the Enlightenment, when humans realized that reason could improve their world; if we disregard the truth we will remain slaves to the reptilian impulses of our anciently-formed brains; if we disregard the truth we’ll destroy our planet’s atmosphere and biosphere and kill ourselves. People suffer when the truth is distorted. So it is our choice. Face the truth of our biological and cultural heritage and transcend them, or we will all perish. But why is this so hard to understand?

I think that those so careless with their bullying, destruction, ignorance, power, and naked pursuit of self-interest just don’t realize or care how fragile biological and cultural life are. We live within a thin blue line that separates us from the unimaginably cold and dark emptiness of space. Our atmosphere, climate, and ecosystem support life only if we support them. Culture too is extraordinarily fragile. It took 10,000 years to achieve, but we can destroy it in an instant. But even if we survive biologically, imagine living in a post-apocalyptic world. A world in which we have to reinvent physics, mathematics, chemistry and computer science. Where we would have to reconquer fire, reinvent the wheel, rediscover electricity. Where we would have to reconstruct atomic, relativity, evolutionary, gravitational, and quantum theory. A world without engineering, dentistry, or medicine, without art, literature, or music. Think really hard about all that. Thomas Hobbes described such a state of nature like this:

“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Why then the hubris of ignorant people? They come and go, flickering flames with moth-like lifespans, nonetheless convinced of their importance. For some perspective they might contemplate their own death, or hear the voice of Carl Sagan:

5 thoughts on “Why Truth Matters

  1. The universe is indifferent to our desires; it has no more opinion on “right action” among macrocephalic apes than it has an opinion on whether it is “right” for a black hole to devour a star. Our morality is our own invention. Thus, our valuing of “the truth” is always contingent on our faith that our imperfect and incomplete data are adequate; and that knowing “the truth” leads to a easier existence. (The counterindication for this being knowledge of Lovecraftian “cosmic horror.”)
    Evidently, the intrinsic wiring that gives us a desire for a moral compass was selected for because it encouraged mutually advantageous behaviors among members of a small clan.
    But small clans stopped being the most prosperous forms of organization for our species between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture and empire.
    The prosperity of the individuals in large, anonymous groups has become decoupled from the prosperity of the metaorganism, civilization. Desperation leads to innovation; innovation leads to prosperity; prosperity leads to parasitism; parasitism leads to collapse; collapse returns us to desperation. This is the beating heart of a beast disinterested in the desires of any one upright monkey.
    We’re deep into the parasite phase. When each of those “leads to” bridges multiple human generations, how do we convince key players to sacrifice their self-interest for the betterment of a future they will never see? Especially if our efforts to induce change make *us* more likely to bear the brunt of the self-sacrifice?
    I have only modest plans for my life. While I remain sound of mind and body, I will accumulate funds and avoid pain. I’m working toward the goal of the cryonic preservation of my brain. Sometime between now and 2091, I will become so decrepit that I lose consciousness along a trajectory which one would expect to end in death.
    What follows will be a reawakening in an entirely new circumstance … a world I can only hope has tamed the beast.
    (I suspect I am certain to reawaken — I subscribe to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I deduce there will always be timelines in which my brain was adequately preserved so that “I” can be revived.)

  2. Some random thoughts on truth:

    Our biological nature includes a capacity for falsehood arising from optimal sexual strategies. The most successful male (in terms of his influence on the gene pool) was the one who could convince the most women that, if they would permit him to impregnate them, he would in turn provide for the resulting children — and then renege on the deal. “Love ’em and leave ’em” is a euphemism for an optimal sexual strategy: “Impregnate ’em and leave ’em.” — but only if you can get away with it. In the small hunter-gatherer groups of the Pleistocene, this was impossible, but with civilization came the ability to keep moving on to new groups.

    Meanwhile, the optimal female sexual strategy is to nail down a good provider of nutrition for the kids while obtaining genes from the most genetically desirable male.

    Both of these strategies require a talent for successful lying, and an equal talent for successfully detecting lying. They are summarized in the two definitive questions for sexual relationships between males and females: “Will you still love me in the morning?” and “Is it really my child?” The difficulty of the latter has led to a great deal of infanticide by males, which in turn has induced newborns to look more like their fathers than their mothers — a good survival strategy.

    Homo Sapiens has developed the ability to lie more effectively by inculcating the ability to actually believe its own lies — that’s the best way to evade lie detection. Thus, Mr. Trump honestly, sincerely believes that millions of illegal aliens voted against him. He is especially good at believing whatever he perceives is most beneficial for other people to believe about him — which is why he has so successfully hoodwinked millions of voters. It is unlikely that Mr. Trump has any actual political beliefs of his own; he simply wraps himself in whatever beliefs he thinks will most endear him to voters. Like the chameleon Martian in Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”, he has no identity of his own.

    And therein lies the penalty for deception: by believing his own lies, Mr. Trump has long since destroyed Donald Trump. There is no longer a genuine human being inside that body. It is just a doll dressed up to look impressive to others. Having reached the pinnacle of society, Mr. Trump finds it hollow, for there is simply nobody inside that body to truly appreciate the achievement.

    In one of my favorite movies, Excalibur by John Boorman, Merlin at one point says “When a man lies, he murders a part of the world”. It’s a great line — Merlin gets a ton of great lines in that movie. But I would alter it to be: “When a man lies, he murders a part of himself.”

    This line of thinking suggests that Mr. Trump is long since dead, a walking husk of a human being, bereft of human existence. By contrast, I have struggled to maintain a discipline of honesty, which is frustratingly difficult to accomplish. We lie to ourselves in a thousand ways. But each honest step forward brings me to closer union with a reality so much grander than my own petty existence. It is worth struggling for.

    Thus, like the Buddhist monk, I say “Make me one with everything”.
    And the street vendor replies “Comin’ up: one red hot dog with everything!”

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