“Truth” v truth

Chris Dillow reviewed Why Truth Matters the other day. He said nice things about it, but he also made some claims that I respectfully disagree with – claims that are mostly about truth rather than about the book, so I hope my respectful disagreement doesn’t look too self-serving.

Many interesting “truths” might be merely fashionable beliefs; if the last 500 years are any guide, today’s “truth” is the next century’s nonsense.

Yes but the subject isn’t “truth” but truth. That is of course part of the point – that “truth” is one thing and truth is another, and that conflating the two is one way of claiming that truth doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist or is merely a rhetorical pat on the back. We’re not pretending to say why “truth” matters, but why truth matters. Truth is not mere belief, fashionable or otherwise.

One [problem] is their attempt to privilege truth because of its links with what makes humans unique.

We’re not attempting to privilege it, we’re attempting to explain why it matters, having already conceded that we don’t have a knock-down argument for that. We don’t really think there is such a knock-down argument; we say it comes down to preferences; then we try to explain possible reasons for the preferences.

Animals can grasp reality, in some senses, better than us: if you want to find the truth of where a mouse is, a cat is better than a human. Where humans are unique – insofar as we know – is in being able to problematize the truth, to tell stories, to mix myth with “reality.” It’s postmodernism that’s uniquely human, not the notion of an external truth.

Well, no. Reality isn’t the same thing as truth. Animals may well be able to grasp some particular bit of reality in a particular place at a particular instant better than any human could with the aid only of human senses – but that’s not the same thing as saying animals can ‘grasp’ or find or think about truth better than we can. Sure humans are unique in being able to tell stories, but they are also unique in being able to think and talk about truth. Both abilities depend on language (cognitive scientists think that animals can’t fantasize or imagine at all because that ability depends on concepts which depend on language). Both postmodernism and the notion of an external truth are uniquely human – along with a great many other things.

More seriously, Benson and Stangroom duck the real problem presented by relativism and scepticism. It’s trivial that “fire burns” is a universal truth. But what about “humans have rights”, or “democracy is the best government”? Are these universal truths? If so, how can we tell.

No. That’s the facts-values gap, the is-ought gap. The claim that humans have rights or that democracy is the best government are claims about values or oughts, not about facts; they’re ethical claims, not ontological claims. We don’t duck the problem, it’s just that it wasn’t the subject of this book.

Vast numbers of claims – “this £20 note is more valuable than a piece of paper”, “it’s 10 past 11”, “I have a right not to be tortured” – are “true” only because others agree that they are. Such “truths” are social constructs. Benson and Stangroom don’t adequately tackle the many problems this raises, not least for liberal interventionism.

Again – just a question of subject matter and space. Note (again) the scare-quotes on “true” – the subject of this book wasn’t “truth” but truth, so “truths” that are social constructs weren’t the subject matter of this book; the distinction between the two was part of the subject matter and it does get discussed, for instance in chapters 2 and 4.

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