Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy

The Value of Truth

These days, the idea of “fake news” has been popping up more and more. We turn on the TV and there is a government official confidently saying things that are blatantly untrue. We surf the internet and are bombarded with “stories” and rumors that are, well, just made up. That, in and of itself, would be bad enough. But to make things worse, many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people are simply accepting these untruths as if they were real, often depending on whether the untruth happens to support what they already believe.

That brings up an important question. Is it a good idea to believe things that are true? That question seems like it would be a no-brainer. Of course you should believe things that are true. But is it that clear-cut? It seems that, in practice, it might not be. Ever since people have had beliefs, they have had false beliefs. The only difference now is that this idea has been making headlines.

“If you were to discover that one of your beliefs was false, would you change your mind?”

Asking if people think we should have beliefs that are true is one thing, but reword the question slightly and we find that many have a tougher time answering. This wording makes it seem like it would take much more effort. Changing one’s mind, even in the face of convincing evidence, sometimes in spite of convincing evidence, can be very difficult. Our brains just don’t work very well that way. So we need to ask ourselves, is the truth really worth all the effort? If it is often much easier to stick with what we already believe, why would it matter? What’s the harm? What is the value of believing things that are true?

It sure seems like there should be something of value there. Prominent thinkers from all walks of life seem to argue that the truth does hold some value, something worth putting in the effort to obtain.

Religious leaders:

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

Buddha

Philosophers:

“There is nothing more necessary than truth, and in comparison with it everything else has only secondary value.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Scientists:

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Even politicians:

“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

Winston Churchill

If you look at what those quotes have in common, they seem to be suggesting there is something powerful in the truth, something eternal, something apart from the whims of man, something that can stand up on its own. But still, what does that have to do with us as people, as thinking beings that need to decide how to best spend our energy, time, and resources?

To answer that, let’s first look at what a belief actually is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines belief as “something one accepts as true or real”. Beliefs are how we see the world. In our minds, we each have a model of the universe, kind of like a video game simulation. As we go about our day, we do things that are intended to affect the world in some way. We perform a certain action to move ourselves over to there, we perform a different action to get some food into our stomach, and so on. But we can’t just try random actions in the hope that what we want gets done. We need some way to determine what the best course of action would be. And this is where our internal model of the universe, our beliefs, are an immense help. Based on our internal model, we can predict what actions will be most likely to result in the outcome we want, and then we do that action. Now here’s the kicker. If our internal model of the universe is more accurate, we will better able to predict what results will come from various actions. There is the payoff. If we assume there is a real world, and if we want to do anything in that world, we will be better able to make those things we want to do actually happen if our decision-making process is good. And having beliefs that are true (i.e. having an internal model of the universe that more closely matches the real universe) will greatly improve our decision-making process.

Allow me to illustrate. Let’s say you’re flying in a 747, and the entire flight crew keels over and dies (this seems to happen a lot in these examples). After a brief discussion with the other passengers, you all decide that you will try to take over as pilot and land the plane. You don’t have any piloting experience, but you are really good at reading operating manuals. There are four manuals on board, one for each of the Boeing 747, the Boeing 707 (an older discontinued model), a Cessna 400 (a small, single propeller 4-seater), and a Keurig Single-Serving Coffeemaker. You only have time to read one of the manuals. Which would you choose? I hope you would choose the 747 manual, and the reason is that it would be the most likely to give you accurate instructions that will help you make the plane do what you want it to do. The 707 manual might be helpful, though it probably doesn’t address some of the more modern features of the airplane. The Cessna manual would be fairly useless, though it might give you some decent general aviation advice and might correctly label some of the controls. And I hope I don’t need to convince you that reading the Keurig manual would be a complete waste of time. But what if you really like the person who wrote the 707 manual? What if the Cessna manual is much shorter and easier to read? Or what if the thought of a nice hazelnut decaf would really make you feel warm and happy right now? Even though the other manuals might be more appealing to you, easier to read, or make you feel better, I think it’s obvious that they would still be less than ideal choices. If you read one of the other manuals, you will be more likely to crash the plane and get hurt or killed. Maybe not. It’s possible that after reading the coffeemaker manual, you luck out and are able to land the plane. Maybe. If you did, does that mean you made the right choice? Of course not. It means you risked a crash, just so you could have that scrumptious hazelnut decaf while you were doing it.

Let me toss out another quote for you, this one from The Bible:

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.”

Ephesians 4:25

Don’t forget about the other passengers on the plane! Your decision does not only affect you. They are on the same plane and in the same predicament as you are. The decisions you make, and the actions you take, affect everyone on board. How does that hazelnut decaf sound now? Does the value of truth seem a little more obvious now?

It’s not simply a matter of doing what feels right to you. By acknowledging the simple, obvious, facts of the world – that there is, in fact, a real world out there, and that the actions we take have a real impact on that world for ourselves and others – it should be plain to see that we have an obligation to ourselves and others to be responsible and act based on real, true, beliefs. We owe it to ourselves and to the other passengers on this plane to make sure we use the correct manual. Anything less would be simply negligent.

Your beliefs affect the decisions you make and the actions you take.
The actions you take affect yourself and others.

So read your internet memes and news stories. But show yourself, and others, a little respect. Don’t you deserve to arm yourself with the best information available?

You can handle the truth. It’s the alternative that’ll get you.

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