Against the Sanctification of Truth

August 19, 2013

To revere the truth is to romanticize a tool

 

TruthWhy do we value the truth? We take the answer to this question for granted, but if asked, our first reaction might be that knowing what’s true is… well, useful. Being able to discriminate nutrients from poisons, good stocks from bad, and authentic folks from charlatans has obvious practical payoffs.

But characterizing the truth as a mere tool seems to cheapen it. We make a point of saying that we value the truth not just for what it can do for us, but for its own sake. The truth is more than just a means to an end; it’s an end in itself. In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes how cultures and social groups unite around values they designate as sacred. In our culture, “the truth for its own sake” is such a sacred arch-value – witness the homage we pay to veritas in our universities’ mottos. We don’t just value the truth; we revere it.

I want to argue that the veneration of truth is misguided, and even harmful. I think we overrate the truth, and that sanctifying it takes our eyes off the outcome to which we should be dedicating our efforts: maximizing desirable effects.

Recognizing this requires understanding what truth is, and the function that truth-seeking evolved to serve. The contents of the world, and particularly, its cause and effect relationships, are not of idle interest to living things. The #1 question facing an organism at any given moment, and the question upon which the survival and replication of its ancestors depended, is: what should I do? The better it can read the environment, the better it can choose actions that leverage the natural laws of cause and effect to its advantage.

The behaviorists were the first to systematically study how we learn to maximize rewards through our behavior, but the actual process by which we map environmental inputs to efficacious actions was to them a black box, and most were content to leave it that way. Not until the cognitive revolution did psychology start to fill in the box and reveal how we navigate the world: we build mental representations of it that we use to try out potential actions and estimate their likely effects.

“Truth” in its most common meaning is simply the correspondence of our mental representations with the environmental phenomena they model. It’s an accurate map of the physical world. Evolution didn’t give us maps for the sake of having maps, it gave them to us to help us navigate the world and find things that benefit us and avoid things that harm us. Our information processing system is designed to answer the “what should I do?” question. Like the rest of our biological systems, it was shaped by natural selection for the purely utilitarian purpose of promoting the continuation of our species. Knowledge evolved for the purpose of informing behavior.

Viewed from the perspective of its biological origin, truth is thus not an end, but a means to a single, prosaic, end: the replication of our genes. Living organisms are by design ethical consequentialists: the expected effects of their actions are both necessary and sufficient reason for choosing them. To guide us, evolution designed in us indicators – primarily positive and negative emotions – of environmental patterns that are more or less likely to contribute to the health and safety upon which the replication of our genes depends. The feedback loops that guide our behavior train to these indicators: we seek the good and avoid the bad, all in the service of spreading our genes.

A funny thing happened on the way to our perfection as replicating machines, though. We developed higher consciousness and an awareness of self. The positive affective states that nature crafted in us as proximal objectives intended to serve the distal goal of genetic replication – from the carnal (sexual excitement, enjoying a tasty meal) to the contemplative (fulfillment, peace, happiness) – have become ends in themselves for us as individual organisms. To thrill, to savor, to feel joy, contentment and satisfaction – those are the goals to which most people dedicate their actions, for the experiences themselves.

What does this have to do with striving for truth? Sometimes mis-modeling the world – believing things that aren’t true – serves our individual-level goals better than veridical knowledge. Believing a better life awaits us in the hereafter makes it easier to bear the slings and arrows of this one. Attributing effects to false causes reduces uncertainty, the bane of a conscious organism’s existence. Distorting our personal attributes – overestimating our abilities and downplaying our faults – makes us feel better about ourselves and can give us the confidence to successfully undertake tasks that an accurate self-assessment would have aborted. (For a catalog of beneficial self-deceptions, see Shelley Taylor’s Positive Illusions.) The only truths we ignore at our peril are those that come back to bite us… and many don’t. There are plenty that we can flout and actually come out ahead on a cost/benefit analysis.

It’s probably an understatement to say that the position I’m taking here is likely to be unpopular. My knocking of truth off its pedestal is bound to offend many of those sworn to honor and uphold it. It will strike them as something akin to heretical, but my point is that there’s nothing holy about truth in and of its nature. Sanctity can only be conferred on it, and that act, like all human acts, is calculated to create an effect – in this case, to serve as a unifying value that gives a culture identity and purpose. It is ironic that many of the truth’s most fervent worshippers are members of the scientific and skeptic communities who treat it as a replacement for God, even though its reverence is no less religious than worshipping spirits or deities.

Objections

What about the many times that people seek the truth with no visible payoff except the knowledge itself? Aren’t these examples of non-utilitarian value? No immediate payoff, perhaps. But just as a squirrel stashes nuts when they’re in abundance, evolution likely trained us to squirrel away facts of no current use to us on the chance that they’ll be useful in the future. In this way, the truth has inherent value (all knowledge of the physical world is potentially useful) but not intrinsic value (value in and of itself, unconnected to its practical utility). Evolution made knowledge-seeking pleasurable to encourage us to do it. That pleasure is for us an end in itself.

What about esthetics; the elegance, beauty and wonder of truth? That’s an affective response – a pleasurable effect – and one that doesn’t even require veridical knowledge, as countless takers of LSD trips can attest.

But aren’t you essentially espousing hedonism? Hedonism’s goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. If “pleasure” is defined in the broadest possible way to cover the whole spectrum of gratifications from the sensory and immediate to the contemplative and measured, and it is recognized that the interdependencies between different kinds of pleasurable experiences point more toward their optimization than their maximization as a practical zenith, then yes, I’m making a case for hedonism.

In common use, hedonism refers more often to short term physical pleasures, whose habitual overindulgence can preclude experiencing other pleasures that typically mark a balanced, fulfilling life. The greatest danger of making pleasure our goal is in defining it too narrowly. Thus the positive psychology movement arose to study how we can achieve a broader happiness, and even that movement is sometimes criticized for neglecting eudaimonic aspects of well-being like meaning and purpose.

But what about other, larger entities that have a stake in our actions? It’s naïve to think that the decisions we make based on our understanding of what’s true don’t also serve higher level purposes for which we as individuals are just instruments. Just as the invisible hand of our genes influences many of our choices to serve their ends, we’re also part of social and other large systems that pursue their own ends through our actions. These superordinate goals are not our concern as individual organisms. Unless we choose to make them our concern, in which case they become just another personal goal we pursue for its gratifications.

Asterisks

We need to stop personifying the truth as if it were a Greek muse, and abandon the mantra “truth for truth’s sake.” The truth doesn’t have a sake. The physical world doesn’t care if our mental representations accurately model it or not1. Strip away the utilitarian functions that knowing what’s true serve for living things, and there’s nothing left to value. In other words, knowledge is power – period.


1Or as the title of an album by Nada Surf nicely puts it, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy.

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