Category Archives: Truth

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:

Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit And Lying


(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 6, 2017.)

Emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton Harry Frankfurt‘s book, On Bullshit, was a surprise best seller a few years ago. Given the public musings of our recently installed President, I thought it time to revisit the main idea of the book.

Frankfurt starts his book by jumping right in: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” This is a truism, but it provides small comfort to those of us forced to listen to so much of what is said by politicians, generals, clergy, and other uninformed citizens. It is seems no pain is too severe for them to inflict on those with relatively well-ordered minds.

But what is bullshitting and in what ways it is similar to, and different from, lying? Here are the basics as Frankfurt sees them:

Main Similarities

1) Both liars and bullshitters (bsers) want you to believe that they are telling the truth.
2) And both want to get away with something.

Major Differences

Liars – 

1) Liars engage in a conscious act of deception.
2) Liars know the truth, but attempt to hide it. (that’s what they want to get away with.)
3) Liars spread untruths, but they still accept the distinction between the truth and false.

Bsers

1) Bsers do not consciously deceive.
2) Bsers just don’t know or care about the truth. (that’s what they want to get away with.)
3) Bsers ignore or reject the distinction between truth and falsity altogether.

(Notice that what the liar says is necessarily false. If I stole your wallet or know that Jupiter is a gaseous planet, and claim otherwise, then what I’m saying is false. But if I have no idea of what I’m talking about, and then make various claims my bullshit might turn out to be correct.)

To reiterate the main point. Liars know the truth and try to hide it; bsers don’t know or care about the truth and try to hide their lack of commitment to it. Thus bullshitting is more like bluffing or faking. Surprisingly, Frankfurt thinks bullshit is more dangerous than lies because it erodes the possibility of the truth existing and being found. As he puts it:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth … Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.

As to the cause of so much bullshit, Frankfurt argues that:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Brief reflections – I accept the basic distinction between knowing the truth and lying about it, and not knowing or caring about the truth, and then trying to impress people by talking about things you know nothing about.

I’m less convinced that bullshitting is worse than lying. To clarify, consider the following:

1) I am scientifically literate. Therefore I know that biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt. If I lie about this—say because I think that will  make you more likely to contribute to my political or religious cause—then I subvert the truth.

2) I am scientifically illiterate. Therefore I don’t know if evolutionary theory is true or false. If I bullshit about this—say because I want you to think that I know what I’m talking about—then I ignore the truth.

In these two cases I think lying is worse than bullshitting because the liar always subverts the truth whereas the the bser might inadvertently tell the truth.

But if the bser not only doesn’t know or care about the truth, but rejects the very distinction between the two, if the bullshitter believes that there is no truth, then bullshitting is worse. A world that denies the existence of truth is a far worse one that still accepts the difference between truth and falsity.

What I think is more important than any distinction between lying and bullshitting is the one between truth and falsity. Why? One of the reasons that Frankfurt gives for the importance of truth in his follow-up book On Truth. “How could a society which cared too little for truth make sufficiently well-informed decisions concerning the most suitable disposition of its public business?” I think this is correct, but I think there’s a lot more to it.

In my next post I will further explore why truth matters.

Mortimer Adler on Truth and Justice

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, September 22, 2014)

In a previous post I promised to discuss two great ideas—truth and justice. A lifetime of study wouldn’t suffice to properly discuss these two ideas, but I wanted to offer something.

There are many great ideas. The philosophical popularizer of last century, Mortimer Adler, wrote a massive tome entitled: THE GREAT IDEAS: A SYNTOPICON OF GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD, VOLUME II, MAN TO WORLD (1952). It contained 102 great ideas which Adler later paired down to six in his book, Six Great Ideas (1981).

Those six were: truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice. Adler distinguished these in triads: truth, beauty, and goodness are ideas we judge by; liberty, equality, and justice are ideas we act on. I think the organization of the triads is illuminating.

1. Truth

Adler holds that truth is the sovereign idea by which we judge. He believes that beauty is a special kind of goodness, which is itself a special kind of truth. He also holds that truth—by distinguishing certain from doubtful judgments, and by differentiating matters of taste and matters of truth—provides the ground for understanding beauty and goodness. Whether this is true or not I’ll leave for the reader to consider. 

Yet there is something intuitively plausible in this analysis. If we know what’s true, we would know what was truly good and beautiful. (This depends on the Adler’s acceptance of philosophical realism and a correspondence theory of truth.) But knowing what’s good or beautiful does not seem to entail that we know what’s true—the relationship is not symmetrical. Thus truth seemingly regulates our thinking about goodness and beauty; it is the one to which the other two are subordinate. And, as I’ve stated many times, if the truth isn’t important, then nothing much else is either. Truth is surely one of the greatest ideas.

2. Justice

As for the ideas we act on, justice reigns supreme. Here I find Adler’s argument especially compelling. He argues that justice is an unlimited good, while liberty and equality are limited goods. The distinction comes from Aristotle. Limited goods are goods we can have too much of, while we cannot have too much of an unlimited good. Societies can have too much liberty or equality, but not too much justice.

The argument is straightforward. For political libertarians, liberty is the highest value and they seek to maximize liberty at the expense of equality. They want near unlimited liberty even if the result is irremediable inequality, and even if large portions of society suffer serious deprivations. They may favor equality of opportunity, knowing that those with superior endowments or favorable circumstances will beat their fellows in the race of life. The resulting vast inequality doesn’t deter them, for in their view trying to achieve equality will result in the loss of the higher value, liberty. On the other hand, egalitarians regard equality as the highest value and willingly infringe upon liberty to bring about equality of outcomes. In their view equality of opportunity will not suffice, since that will still result in vast inequality, the supreme virtue in their eyes.

The solution recognizes that liberty and equality are both subservient to justice. An individual should not have so much freedom of action that they injure others, deprive them of their freedom, or cause them other serious deprivations. One should only have as much freedom as justice allows. Analogously, should a society try to achieve equality of outcomes even if that entails serious deprivations of human freedom? Should we ignore the fact that individuals are unequal in their endowments and achievements? No says Adler to both questions. We should only have as much equality as justice allows.

Regarding liberty, justice places limits on the amount allowed; regarding equality, justice places limits on the kind and degree it allows. Thus justice is the sovereign idea among those that we act on—it places limits on the subordinate values of liberty and equality. Too much of either liberty or equality results in an unjust society. I agree with Adler, justice is the ultimate idea of moral and political philosophy.

True and False Beliefs

Pursuant to our recent posts concerning differentiating truth from falsity, especially in science, I happened upon a piece in the New York Times titled “When Belief and Facts Collide.” The author is Brendan Nyhan, PhD in political science from Duke and currently Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth. (Nyhan has been described as a “liberal to moderate” political blogger, although in 2006 “he came under attack from the editors [of The American Prospect] for unwarranted criticism of liberal pundits.”1)

Nyhan begins by asking “Do Americans understand the scientific consensus about issues like climate change and evolution?” The answer, Nyhan found, is no. Moreover, “… beliefs on both topics are divided along religious and partisan lines. For instance, 46 percent of Republicans said there is not solid evidence of global warming, compared with 11 percent of Democrats.” This suggests that people may not be aware of the scientific consensus on such issues and need to be better informed. They many not know that evolution is as certain in science as gravity or that 97% of climate scientists believe human activities are causing global warming.

However some studies have found that knowing about the science makes little difference in people’s beliefs. They may know the science but be unwilling to believe it when it contradicts cherished political or religious views. “This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction, health-care reform, and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.”

What should we do? Nyhan suggests we might “try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues–for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican … or an evangelical Christian …” He also argues we “need to reduce the incentives for elites to spread misinformation to their followers in the first place. Once people’s cultural and political views get tied up in their factual beliefs, it’s very difficult to undo regardless of the messaging that is used.” To dissuade purveyors of misinformation we might increase “the reputational costs for dishonest elites might be a more effective approach to improving democratic discourse.” (Or let factcheck.org or similar groups play a bigger role in informing the public. Whether this will work is another matter.)

And, as Nyhan notes,

The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals, especially when political parties and other identity-based groups get involved … Those groups can help to mobilize the public and represent their interests, but they also help to produce the factual divisions that are one of the most toxic byproducts of our polarized era. Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.

In the end, I find myself at an impasse. As I argued in my last post,“When Should We Argue?, some arguments are futile because, as E. O. Wilson said, people don’t want to know, they want to believe. I find this all so depressing. Still I will conclude as I did in my previous post.

… as I age I find myself, as Thornton Wilder said, being weaned away from life. During this process we should try to better the world, while sustaining the hope that new generations will continue the endless fight for truth and the justice. (In a future post I hope to address two of the greatest ideas in the history of human culture–truth and justice.)

And in my next post I will discuss these two great, great ideas. 

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendan_Nyhan

Knowledge and Power: Our Retreat from the Enlightenment

Francis Bacon                                                 Thomas Hobbes

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, August 11, 2014)

New York Times columnist and Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently wrote an interesting piece, “Knowledge Isn’t Power.” This contrasts with the received view that knowledge is power. Here is the opening paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia’s entry:

The phrase “scientia potentia est” (or “scientia est potentia or also “scientia potestas est”) is a Latin aphorism often claimed to mean organized “knowledge is power.”It is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, although there is no known occurrence of this precise phrase in Bacon’s English or Latin writings. However, the expression “ipsa scientia potestas est” (‘knowledge itself is power’) occurs in Bacon’s Meditationes Sacrae (1597). The exact phrase “scientia potentia est” was written for the first time in the 1651 work Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, who was secretary to Bacon as a young man.1

For the philosophically uninitiated Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) “was an English philosopher … [and a] philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method ..Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.”2 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) “was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.”3

Not surprisingly the idea that knowledge is power originated with an influential thinker who sparked the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, and one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes. Interpretations of the phrase include the idea that knowledge increases one’s ability or potential, or improves one’s influence or reputation. In the prescriptive sense the idea is that knowledge should be powerful. It should inform and guide our public policies and decisions, and that by doing so (scientific) knowledge has power.

Krugman’s worries that scientific knowledge is losing its power to influence public policy. Instead, we have the appearance of knowledge holding sway. Many are largely influenced by demagogues or the ignorant rather than the educated. For example, there is a virtual consensus on a wide range of issues among leading economists “representing a wide spectrum of schools and political leanings, on questions that range from the economics of college athletes to the effectiveness of trade sanctions [to] whether … the Obama “stimulus” — reduced unemployment … [to] whether the stimulus was worth it …” Nonetheless policy makers and the public are often unaware of or ignore expert advice. This is not to say that the professional consensus is always right, but it does raise the question: “Are we as societies even capable of taking good policy advice?”

Reflections – Obviously if the answer is no to the above question, then knowledge has lost much of its power. And it is not only in economics but in biology, climate science, and other disciplines that policy makers ignore scientific consensus. This makes you wonder if our species can avoid disaster. Because ultimately the truth about economics, biology and climate science trumps ideology–evolution is still true, vaccines still prevent disease, and the climate is still changing. If our decisions are not informed by our knowledge, then they will be informed by our ignorance. We will return to the pre-Enlightenment world ruled by superstition and emotion, rather than reason and evidence. Let us hope that we act in accordance with the latter. After all, our survival depends on it. And if that doesn’t matter nothing else does. 

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientia_potentia_est#Interpretation
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Francis_Bacon
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobbes