Daily Archives: January 25, 2017

Why Truth Matters

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

The sleep of reason produces monsters. ~ Francisco Goya

 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 allows 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: