Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

Why Truth MattersI’ve had Why Truth Matters on the shelf for a while. I’ve read it a couple of times and dipped into it to re-read chapters many more. It’s a safe bet I like this book, but is it a good book? This ques­tion per­haps mat­ters for this book more than most. It’s a book about the import­ance of reason, evid­ence and above all truth.

It opens with an intro­duc­tion couple of chapters talk­ing about what we mean by ‘truth’ and how philo­soph­ers have tackled the sub­ject before mov­ing on to recent chal­lenges to the concept of truth. Later chapters are case stud­ies from vari­ous con­texts, such as dog­matic attacks on bio­logy, the ‘empower­ment’ or oth­er­wise of oppressed peoples and in aca­demia. It’s thought­ful and well-presented. Rather than vague attacks on post-modernists or other bogey­men, it cites spe­cific examples and explores either the reas­on­ing, or what has been sub­sti­tuted for reas­on­ing, behind vari­ous claims. I think its a reas­on­able explor­a­tion of the topic and by and large I agree with the con­clu­sions which is where the big prob­lem arises.

Do I like this book because it is a good book or because it con­firms my pre­ju­dices about cer­tain authors?

My first reac­tion was that it was a good book. I was fam­ilar with a lot of the examples and agreed with the reas­on­ing all the way. That bothered me. Different people have dif­fer­ent opin­ions. Wouldn’t it be a bit weird if you went through thou­sands of words and agreed with them all? Fortunately I’m in the habit of read­ing books twice, and the part of the second read­ing triggered a slightly stronger reac­tion.

So one intrinsic reason for think­ing we ought to respect the truth, and try to find out what it is, which entails not fudging it whenever we don’t like what we find, which entails decid­ing firmly in advance that we will put it first and all other con­sid­er­a­tions second – one reason for all this is simply that we can, and that as far as we know we are the only ones who can. We can, so we ought to. It would be such a waste not to.

It’s also an idea men­tioned on the back of the book. “The truth mat­ters because we are the only spe­cies that we know of that has the abil­ity to find it out.” That’s the bit I’d dis­agree with. I’d say that’s what makes humans spe­cial not the truth. As for the fact we can, that’s not really a jus­ti­fic­a­tion — it’s an excuse. There’s lots of things I could do, many of them wouldn’t even end in my arrest, but that’s not a good reason for doing them.

Really if it wasn’t for that com­plaint you wouldn’t be read­ing this review. It’s a dis­turb­ingly good book, and without some­thing to dis­agree with I’d be wor­ried that I wasn’t enga­ging my brain. The con­clu­sion is well presen­ted and not over-played and you can read part of that online too. If you skim it the con­clu­sion may ini­tially seem a little weak.

Some people do prefer to live in a thought-world where priests and mul­lahs claim to decide what is true. Others prefer to live in a thought-world where ideas about what is true are leni­ent, flex­ible, fuzzy around the edges; where it is pos­sible to sort-of-believe, half-believe and half-hope, believe in an as if or storytelling or day­dream­ing way. Others prefer – genu­inely prefer, not merely think they’re sup­posed to – to try to fig­ure out what really is true, as opposed to what might be, or appears to be, or should be. This is a pref­er­ence. One can adduce moral and psy­cho­lo­gical reas­ons for both pref­er­ences. The reas­ons we’ve given for think­ing truth mat­ters rest on pref­er­ences, and there’s no final defin­it­ive knock-down case for them, at least not that we’ve been able to think up or find. But reas­ons can be good reas­ons without being final ones.

That’s dis­sat­is­fy­ing, though as far as I can tell not the fault of the authors. Maybe it is true to say there is no irre­fut­able reason why truth mat­ters, there’s no reason the truth has to be pleas­ant. Yet the idea of pref­er­ences is strong. If you could be drugged so that you had no aware­ness of the out­side world, and placed in secure stor­age would it mat­ter?* If you have a pref­er­ence then per­haps you know why truth mat­ters and why the con­clu­sion isn’t weak after all.

You can visit the web­site for the book which also car­ries other reviews and it has numer­ous men­tions on Butterflies and Wheels.

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I know we’re get­ting Matrixy but I can’t stand the film and refuse to ref­er­ence it. Heaven by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen is far more interesting.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.