I’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.
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.