Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth?

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief (roughly speaking).

After my last contribution to our conversation, Ernie has responded in three parts. I will respond to just the first part tonight.

In Absolutely - Not? Ernie agreed to change the first of our four epsistemological statements to "Belief in truth is inherently good", instead of "absolutely good". But he continues:

However, I just want to make sure we're clear about what we're giving up in so doing. In particular, I don't think this statement fully supports my original definition of Hard Truths:

In short, I am asserting that it is virtuous to pursue truth (no matter the cost), and vicious to suppress truth (no matter how convenient). That may not mean we should always tell the truth to others (there's often wiggle-room for self-preservation :-), but that we should at least be honest with ourselves.

The result is what I might instead call Solid Truth. By downgrading truth from 'absolute' to 'inherent', we leave open at least the theoretical possibility that there may be other 'inherent' goods which could on occasion supersede, or at least conflict with, Truth. For example, I might say that "Health" is "inherently good", but that doesn't necessarily justify any and all measures to promote health.

Put another way, we can no longer use "Belief in Truth" as an inviolate 'greatest good', i.e., the basis of a full-blown normative ethics. We can certainly come up with "corollary goods" that are supportive of Truth's "inherent good", but we must (for now, at least) remain agnostic about whether they are "always" good. That doesn't mean they are not, or can not be, completely good -- we just don't know they are, so we can't rely on that.

All that said, I actually think this is a good change to make to ensure that this epistemology truly reflects our shared beliefs. However, I just want to make sure my understanding of the significance of the change is consistent with his.

As I think about this, the distinction I would try to make is that while it is always better to believe truth than falsehood, it is not always better to pursue truth than to do anything else. First, our choice to pursue knowledge could lead us to neglect other important ethical duties. "Sir, I see that you are drowning, and I do have a life preserver right here, but I am quite busy studying the behavior of this fly crawling along it, and as I am sure you agree, gaining knowledge is always good." That is a ridiculous example, of course, but I hope it makes the point clear. Other "goods" do sometimes supersede the activities of correcting belief. This does not mean that believing falsehood is itself ever better than believing truth; rather, the marginal utility of some improvements to belief are lower than the marginal utility of some other courses of action.

Second, the means of gaining certain kinds of knowledge may violate other ethical principles. The pursuit of truth does not justify torture, for instance. The knowledge that results is not inherently bad, but the actions we undertake to gain the knowledge may be, depending on your ethics.

These are the kinds of considerations I had in mind when I suggested replacing "absolute" with "inherent" or "non-contingent". And these are just the kind of things that Ernie suggests would be a consequence of changing the statement. My justification for these changes does involve ethical principles that we have not yet discussed, but I would not expect the details to be important in making this distinction now.

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