Monday, August 18, 2008

The Usefulness of Truth

Guest-post today from C.Ewing:

From "Come Down" the song by Toad the Wet Sprocket:

"And despite my every hope there is no truth
Behind my best intentioned oath"
The real issue here is the one of truth, and what that entails. If an oath is intended in the "best" way, then it seems one has every intention of keeping it. But is an honest oath a true one? Well, obviously we need to get at what we mean by "true" here. There seem to be two distinctly different sorts of truth here. One is the mere honesty of the statement. An oath given with all intention of its being fulfilled is "truly" an oath, whereas whether or not it is held up in the end can be entirely beyond the control of the speaker, and even if the speaker goes back on the oath at a later date, this is no way entails that it was initially a lie, false or "untrue" in some way. People do, after all, change their minds.

This, naturally, got me thinking about justified beliefs, and justified "true" beliefs. The distinction seems to be one lying beyond our keen. I can know if my belief is later falsified, and thus obviously not true. If something goes up and does not come down for instance, this would counter my previous assumption that "everything that goes up must come down". Obviously, must is simply not the case. I can never, however, know if a belief is in fact "true". I can only know that it has held up thus far, and perhaps we can grant (for sake or argument in this case at least) that I am now justified. But how can I jump to "true" at that point?

In the case of the oath, even falsifying the holding of the oath later (it was not held) seems to grant no insight as to the original giving of the oath and whether or not the statement was a true one. I can't know if the speaker was lying or if he changed his mind nor if circumstances came up, which simply prevented him from keeping the oath. We'd obviously need more data on the specifics there. But the same seems true in other cases as well. I can't know if what was held, was actually true at the time (and so it only changed later) nor if things which seem constantly upheld are true, or if it's just that I haven't come across an exceptional case. The point being: is truth really so important then? If the best I can really, honestly, claim to hold are justified beliefs, but not justified "true" beliefs, then precisely what good is truth? Well, it can still make bad commercials, but that seems beside the point.