Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Truth and Value in Philosophy

(This post is not comp-related; it's just an attempt to crystallize something that I was thinking about today.)

Many philosophers (including me) tend to operate under the assumption that a claim has value only if it is true.  This assumption is propped up by a vague worry that the only way to deny it would be to adopt an unattractive view about truth, such as nihilism,  some kind of relativism, or an obscure post-modernism.

This worry is unwarranted.  The problem (or at least a problem) with the assumption that a claim has value only if it is true is not that there is no such thing as truth, or that truth is not absolute, or that truth is not an important desideratum; it is that truth is too high a standard to apply across the board to all intellectual endeavors.  Truth requires total precision, an absence of ambiguity, and complete fidelity to the facts.  It's difficult to think of any claims outside of logic and mathematics that meet this standard.

One might admit that truth is too high a standard, but deny that it is too high an aspiration.  That is: we should always aim for the truth, even if we can never reach it.

I agree that, within a particular inquiry, one should aim to be as faithful to the facts as possible, all else being equal.  However--and here's the point that I want to emphasize--one should not place such a high premium on truth that one neglects interesting and important approaches to interesting and important topics on the sole grounds that those approaches to those topics will not yield claims that are true, or even very nearly true.

Consider the account of the nature of science that Kuhn presents in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.    Many critics have pointed out that many aspects of Kuhn's view are false.  Take, for instance, the claim (implicitly suggested if not explicitly stated in Kuhn's account) that any sufficiently mature field of science is governed by one dominant paradigm at any given time.  It would be easy to multiply examples of seemingly mature fields that contain multiple competing paradigms, and perhaps fields that don't seem to be governed by any very unified paradigms at all.

I don't claim that critics should not compare Kuhn's account of science to actual scientific practice and to point out disparities.  What I do claim is that one should not be too quick to move from the claim that Kuhn's account is false in many respects to the claim that Kuhn's account is not useful or valuable for understanding science.

Kuhn gave us is a highly original way to think about science.  That framework is imperfect in many ways.  If we take it too seriously, it can lead us astray.  But by giving us a new way to think about science, it allows us to notice things we would not otherwise have noticed and to draw connections we might not otherwise have drawn.  It may be that, even though Kuhn's account is false, we're better off with it than without it.

The same could be said about any number of ambitious projects, particularly in intellectual history.  Dewey's The Quest for Certainty and Collingwood's The Idea of Nature are good examples.  We philosophers tend not to read such works any more, and we (at least most of us) certainly don't attempt to write them.  One reason we shun such large-scale projects, I think, is that we realize that any picture we can paint with such broad strokes will inevitably misrepresent the complex, messy reality of the phenomena we wish to characterize.  What we say won't be true.  Moreover, counterexample-mongers will advance their careers by pointing out that what we say isn't true.

But maybe that's ok.  Maybe what we say doesn't have to be true to be illuminating.  Fidelity to the facts matters, but it doesn't matter so much that any significant departure from the facts completely vitiates a project; and it doesn't matter so much that we should only pursue projects for which near-perfect fidelity to the facts is an achievable goal.


  1. I suppose one wants to consider first of all statements of general import known to be at variance with one or more “factual” statements falling under their scope—this would be perhaps the toughest case for the claim that statements that are false & known to be false could nevertheless be of value (and of genuine epistemic value, one wants to say, not just instrumentally, e.g. because they're easier to calculate with).

    So: Newton’s laws are false and known to be false and yet valuable?

    I’m not sure what to say about Collingwood (haven’t read that for a while, but I’m glad to see that someone is reading it). A historian would undoubtedly want to qualify, if not deny, many of his broader claims. So another case comes to mind. Statements false on their face that we think could be brought within spitting distance of the truth if they were suitably qualified. That there has been, over the past 400 years, an expansion of political rights to groups previously denied them is true “on the whole”, even though there have been contractions from time to time. —D. Des Chene

  2. Thanks for the constructive remarks.

    I take your first point to be something like the following: a false set of ideas can be valuable instrumentally even when a corresponding set of ideas that is available that "truth-dominates" the first set in the sense that, for every consequence of the former, there is a corresponding consequence of the latter that is in all respects at least as close to the truth. For instance, the consequences of the false set of ideas may be generally easier to derive and close enough to the truth for most purposes. However, the false set of ideas wouldn't be any more valuable than the truth-dominating set in an epistemic sense that doesn't take pragmatic considerations into account. That's clearly right, and seems to characterize at least roughly the case of Newton's laws.

    Does the same kind of thing happen in the humanities? Maybe, but I think that painting with broad strokes can have advantages beyond the instrumental advantages of being relatively easy to hold in one's mind and derive consequences from--for instance, like "higher-level" theories in the sciences, they can capture general patterns that are not apparent apparent at a lower level of analysis. Those patterns generally won't be exceptionless, however, and might differ in some ways from what the account describes even in the best cases for the account.

    It certainly can be valuable to regard accounts like Kuhn's or Collingwood's critically. But one should also attempt to regard them appreciatively. Doing so requires (for me at least) getting over a tendency to regard truth (in a strict sense) as a sine qua non for philosophy.

  3. Regarding the truth, I suppose you mean that the claim has an answer, a number say. But in the foundations of quantum mechanics, Asher Peres talked about counterfactual outcomes of experiments. How do we know the true answer if we do not do the experiment?: he said his mother motivated him by posing such "what ifs".

    But quantum mechanics is a bit different. Unless the statistical nature of QM is resolved into ontic states, I cannot see how a sound philosophical basis exists.

    I am not a philosopher, but do think about the foundations of qm, and I have to agree with Einstein that qm is incomplete.

    How can philosophy resolve Nature if it is statistical?