True to Life: Why Truth Matters

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"In this book, Michael Lynch argues that truth does matter, in both our personal and political lives. Lynch explains that the growing cynicism over truth stems in large part from our confusion over what truth is." True to Life defends four simple claims : that truth is objective; that it is good to believe what is true; that truth is a goal worthy of inquiry; and that truth can be worth caring about for its own sake - not just because it gets us other things we want. In defense of these "truisms about truth," Lynch diagnoses the sources of our cynicism and argues that many contemporary theories of truth cannot adequately account for its value. He explains why we should care about truth, arguing that truth and its pursuit are part of living a happy life, important in our personal relationships and for our political values.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An engagingly written, carefully reasoned defence of 'objective truth' as a respectable, even desirable goal and standard." Barry Allen The Globe and Mail

" True to Life is a passionate demonstration that truth matters; it is strikingly clear and painstakingly reasoned, and ranges from technical work in the philosophy of logic to a discussion of the role of truth-telling in government." Anthony Gottlieb The New York Times Book Review

"This is an important and timely volume, and philosophy owes Lynch a considerable debt." Duncan Pritchard The Philosophers' Magazine

"True to Life is a bracing antidote to the disease of postmodern cynicism that renders truth impossible and leaves us with nothing but wind-blown opinion." Douglas Groothuis The Denver Post

"True to Life...asserts some simple truths about truth; for example, that it's good, [and] that it's worthy of pursuit..." Richard Halicks Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262122672
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2004
  • Series: Bradford Books Series
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael P. Lynch is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut and the author of Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity and True to Life: Why Truth Matters, both published by the MIT Press.

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Table of Contents

Pt. I Cynical myths 7
1 Truisms about truth 9
2 Is the truth unattainable? 21
3 Is truth relative? 31
4 The truth hurts 45
Pt. II False theories 59
5 Truth as a means to an end 61
6 Truth and the scientific image 75
7 Truth as fiction 101
Pt. III Why truth matters 117
8 Truth and happiness 119
9 Sweet lies 147
10 Truth and liberal democracy 159
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First Chapter

True to Life

Why Truth Matters
By Michael Lynch

The MIT Press

ISBN: 0-262-12267-7

Chapter One

Truisms about Truth

The Conversation-stopper

Ask someone what truth is and you are apt to be greeted by either puzzled silence or nervous laughter. Both reactions are understandable. Truth is one of those ideas-happiness is another-that we use all the time but are at a loss to define. This is why the question "What is truth?" is so often treated as rhetorical.

One of the reasons truth seems so difficult to describe is that we have conflicting beliefs about it: we sometimes think it is discovered, sometimes created, sometimes knowable, sometimes mysterious. When we use the idea in ordinary life-as we do when we agree or disagree with what someone has said-it seems a simple matter. Yet the more we stop to think about it, the more complicated it becomes.

It would be nice if we could sort out, once and for all, everything we thought about truth-to find out the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the truth, as it were. Nice, but practically impossible. The thesis of this book is much simpler. Of the many things you could believe about truth, there is at least one that you should believe: truth matters. Truth, I shall try to convince you, is of urgent importance in both your personal and political life.

The idea that truth matters actually sums up four claims. Together, these truisms, as I'll call them, explain what I meanby "truth" and what I mean by its "mattering." Accordingly, I begin by introducing these truisms about truth, with an aim toward convincing you that they are just what I say they are, obvious truisms. This doesn't mean that everyone agrees with them. As I already noted, some of us are confused about truth-we have contradictory beliefs about it. So we may believe these truisms but also believe something else that undermines our belief in one or all of them. Moreover, nothing is so obvious that someone hasn't proclaimed it to be false, misguided, naive, incoherent, impossible, or corrupting for the young. And lots and lots of folks, as we'll see, continue to say as much about these four ideas.

Wittgenstein once remarked that the job of the philosopher was to "assemble reminders"-to point out to us what has been right there in front of our face all along. While this isn't all that a philosopher does, there is a lot of sense in this point. The very familiarity of something can make us forget, or even deny, its importance. When that happens, we need to be reminded of its role in our everyday life. This is what we need in the case of truth.

Truth Is Objective

If I know anything, it is that I don't know everything and neither does anyone else. There are some things we just won't ever know, and there are other things that we think we know but don't. Grant this bit of common sense, and you are committed to the first truism about truth: truth is objective.

Early on in Shakespeare's most celebrated play, Hamlet and his rather bookish friend Horatio see the ghost of Hamlet's dead father. Not surprisingly, Horatio has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that a dead Danish monarch is haunting the castle battlements. Hamlet's response to Horatio's worrying is brusque: there are more things in heaven and earth, he says, than dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy. Hamlet's point is to remind Horatio that he doesn't know it all because the universe is bigger than we are.

Not only, like Hamlet, are we sometimes ignorant; we also make mistakes. People once believed that the Earth was flat. Most of us now regard this as a rather silly idea. But imagine for a moment living in a time before advanced mathematics, before long-distance sea voyages, before airplanes, before photographs. Would you believe the Earth was flat? Of course you would. Just look at it, you would say, gesturing off toward the (flat) horizon.

Even well-supported scientific theories can be wrong. Seventeenth-century chemists, for example, noted correctly that something similar happens when metal rusts and wood burns. Undergoing both processes results in a loss of mass. According to the very best science of the day, the common cause was the release of an invisible gas, "phlogiston," into the atmosphere. Since this gas took up space, had weight, and so on, its loss explained why both metal and wood got smaller after rusting and burning. It is easy to snicker at the phlogiston theory nowadays, since while there is a gas involved in both processes, it is actually oxygen, which is gained, not lost, by the relevant system. Phlogiston doesn't exist. Yet the phlogiston theory was a very reasonable hypothesis at the time. It was highly confirmed by the standards of the day. The most knowledgeable scientists believed it. Yet it was mistaken.

The ever-present risks of ignorance and error underline the fact that whatever else it may turn out to be, truth is objective. Just because we believe it doesn't mean it's true, and just because it is true doesn't mean we'll believe it. Believing, as we say, doesn't make it so. The truth of Mt. Everest being the tallest mountain, for example, has nothing to do with whether I believe it or not. What matters is whether Mt. Everest really is the tallest mountain, and if it is, then presumably it would be even if no one had ever been around to see it. Of course, if there weren't any language-users around, then Mt. Everest wouldn't be called "Mt. Everest," since it wouldn't be called anything at all. But it would still be there, just as it would if we had called it something else, like "Mt. Zippy."

Voltaire once quipped that "let us define truth, while waiting for a better definition ... as a statement of the facts as they are." Voltaire meant this as a joke, but as working definitions go, it is pretty good. And Voltaire himself was probably thinking of a famous remark of Aristotle's that "to say of that which is, that it is, and of that which is not, that it is not, is true." This is even better. When we say something true, the world is as we say it is. And when we believe truly, the world is as we believe it to be. It is the way the world is that matters for truth, not what we believe about the world.

In this sense, the objectivity of truth isn't, or shouldn't be anyway, controversial. As I've indicated, it is a consequence of accepting what everyone already does (or should) admit: we don't know everything and we can make mistakes.

The idea that truth is objective is sometimes put by saying that true beliefs correspond to reality. And that is fine, just so long as we realize that this phrase leaves room for disagreement about the nature and extent of what "correspondence" and "reality" amount to. Some hold that beliefs can't be true unless they correspond to mind-independent, physical objects like mountains, electrons, battleships, and barbers. On these theories, truth is always radically objective, since what makes our beliefs true on such accounts is always their relationship to real physical objects. This is obviously a matter of high philosophical theory, however, and not a truism. You don't have to believe it in order to believe that truth is objective in the minimal sense I've been describing.

We don't have to know everything about something to be able to talk about it. Take, for example, the hard drive of my computer, which (I blush to confess) I know next to nothing about. I don't know what it is made out of (little bits of metal and plastic probably), I don't know where it is exactly, and I don't know really how it gets its job done. But I do know what that job is: it acts as the main information-storage facility for my computer, where it keeps the various programs and files. For most purposes, this working description of a hard drive is good enough. It picks out what we generally mean when we talk about such things. Indeed, a lot of our ordinary concepts are like this, and it is a good thing too. This is why we can talk about something like gravity in a meaningful way before we know its real underlying nature, or even if we never learn about its real nature. We know what gravity does before we know what it is.

Our basic belief in truth's objectivity is like my basic idea of my computer's hard drive. We know the job of true beliefs, even if we don't know exactly how they get that job done. True beliefs are those that portray the world as it is and not as we may hope, fear, or wish it to be.

Truth Is Good

Nobody likes to be wrong. If anything is a truism, that is. And it reveals something else we believe about truth: that it is good. More precisely, it is good to believe what is true.

Why do we find it so obvious that it is good to believe what is true? One reason has to do with the purpose of the very concept of truth itself. Humans tend to disagree with each other: we squabble, spat, form different opinions, and construct different theories. Yet the very possibility of disagreement over opinions requires there to be a difference between getting it right and getting it wrong. When I assert an opinion on some question, I assert what I believe is correct. You do the same. And when we disagree, obviously, we disagree about whose opinion is correct. So if there is no such thing as reaching one (or none, or even more than one) correct answer to a given question, then we can't really disagree in opinion.

My point is that we distinguish truth from falsity because we need a way of separating correct from incorrect beliefs, statements, and the like. In particular, we need a way of distinguishing between beliefs for which we have some evidence, or are endorsed by the Pentagon, or denounced by the president, or make us money, or friends, or simply feel good, and those that actually end up getting it right. It is not that we can't evaluate beliefs in all those other ways-of course we can. We can, and should, criticize a belief for not being based on good evidence, for example. But that sort of evaluation depends for its force on a more basic sort of evaluation. We think it is good to have some evidence for our beliefs because we think that beliefs that are based on evidence are more likely to be true. We criticize people who engage in wishful thinking because wishful thinking leads to believing falsehoods.

So a primary point of having a concept of truth is that we need a very basic way of appraising and evaluating our beliefs about the world. Indeed, this is built right into our language: the very word "true" has an evaluative dimension. Part of what you are doing when you say something is true is commending it as something good to believe. Just as "right" and "wrong" are the most basic ways to evaluate actions as correct or incorrect, so "true" and "false" are our most basic ways to evaluate beliefs as correct or incorrect.

Indeed, the connection between belief and the truth is so tight that unless you think something is true, you don't even count as believing it. To believe is just to take as true. If you don't care whether something is true, you don't really believe it. William James put this by saying that truth "is the good in the way of belief." Others sometimes say that truth is the aim of belief. This is not literally so of course. Beliefs don't literally aim at anything. But both expressions get at the idea that truth is a property that is good for beliefs to have. Since propositions are the content of beliefs, and it is the content of a belief and not the act of believing that is true, we can also say that truth is the property that makes a proposition good to believe. In believing, we are guided by the value of truth: other things being equal, it is good to believe a proposition when and only when it is true. Since what is good comes in degrees, we can also put this "norm" or rule by saying that other things being equal, it is better to believe something when and only when it is true. Or more loosely: it is better to believe what is true than what is false. I don't mean that it is necessarily morally better. Things can be better or worse, good or bad in different ways. Clear writing is an aesthetic good; tasty food is a culinary good; and believing true propositions, we might say, is a cognitive or intellectual good.

Truth Is a Worthy Goal of Inquiry

Values guide action. The value that, other things being equal, it is good to keep my promises implies that I ought, other things being equal, to try to keep my promises. The goodness of keeping one's promises gives me a reason for acting in some ways rather than others. So too with truth: it is good, other things being equal, to believe what is true, and intuitively, this gives me a reason to do certain things; most obviously, I should, other things being equal, pursue the truth. The goodness of believing what is true means that having true beliefs, like repaid debts or kept promises, is a goal worthy of pursuit.

That true belief is a goal worthy of pursuit does not mean that we pursue this goal directly. The pursuit of truth is in fact always indirect. This is because belief isn't something we have direct control over. We can't believe on demand. If you doubt this, command yourself to believe right now that you have a blue flower growing out of your head. Of course, you can straighten up, deepen your voice, and chant the words "I've got a blue flower growing out of my head," but that alone won't get you to believe it, for the fact is (at least I hope it is a fact) that you don't have a blue flower growing out of your head.

Nonetheless, we certainly do have indirect control over what we believe, and this is control enough. I can affect what I believe by putting myself in certain situations and avoiding other situations. That is, I can control how I go about pursuing the truth, by paying careful attention to the evidence, giving and asking for reasons, doing adequate research, remaining open-minded, and so on. In short, in saying that truth is a worthy goal, we imply that you ought (other things being equal) to adopt policies, methods, and habits of inquiry that are reliable, or that are likely to result in true beliefs. We ordinarily think that it is good to give and ask for reasons, good to be open-minded, good to have empirical evidence for one's scientific conclusions, because these are methods of inquiry that lead us to the truth. If we didn't value true beliefs, we wouldn't value these sorts of activities; and we value these sorts of activities because we think they will, more often than not, lead us to believing truly rather than falsely.

So we pursue true belief via engaging in inquiry. I am using the word "inquiry" here in a very general sense. I mean by it not just the methods for acquiring true beliefs I just mentioned, but all the various processes, practices, and activities we engage in when both posing and answering questions that interest us.


Excerpted from True to Life by Michael Lynch Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2004

    Rehashed lectures do not a book make...and that's the truth

    Michael Lynch's book True to Life: Why Truth Matters, is a strange book that never fulfills its promise. Unfortunately, the book reads like classroom lectures that were reconfigured to fit a book format. One is never clear where Lynch is going with this volume other than to seemingly rebut those other philosophers he disagrees with or who disagree with him. While there is clearly common ground among the philosophical disciplines, Lynch gives short shrift to those who disagree with him and treats this book like a Manifesto. Most annoying for me in the book is his recitation of philosophical arguments that he then simplifies with such phrases such as 'that is to say'. If his writing were clearer and in more plain English or he trusted his readers more, he would not have to state and restate the same points in plain English. At times the academic-speak gets to be too much and one can only sigh with exasperation. In addition, it is not clear who Mr. Lynch is writing this book for or, at least, who the target audience is supposed to be, e.g. laymen and laywomen, politicians, or undergraduate philosophy students. Lynch is facile and certainly smart, but at times, smart to the point of smuggness. Later chapters in the book on truth and happiness and truth and liberal democracy fair better, and his basic premises regarding governmental transparency, while naive, has merit. John Tusa's book, Why Art Matters, though confined to the arts is a superior work in its straightforward analysis of the meaning and importance of art in culture. One would wish Mr. Lynch would have read it before publishing this slight volume. The truth is non-pragmatist or verificationist as argued by Mr. Lynch and in the best of all possible worlds he may be right, but I'm not too sure about that in this one. Sic transit gloria mundi with or without the truth. and poststructuralists will find much to argue with True to Life. That discssion and dialogue, of course, is valuable if not overly productive or enlightening. As Dr. Robert Pastor and Jorge Castenda did in there book, Limits of Friendship and really incorporating contrasting views intothe substance of this thematic material.

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