The value of truth

Bill Vallicella describes himself as a “Maverick Philosopher” and a “recovering academician”. Perhaps if he sought to recover the rigor and discipline of academic philosophy we would be spared nonsense like his latest piece on Christopher Hitchens and death. Here’s his conclusion:

What would Hitch lose by believing? Of course, he can’t bring himself to believe, it is not a Jamesian live option, but suppose he could. Would he lose ‘the truth’? But nobody knows what the truth is about death and the hereafter. People only think they do. Well, suppose ‘the truth’ is that we are nothing but complex physical systems slated for annihilation. Why would knowing this ‘truth’ be a value? Even if one is facing reality by believing that death is the utter end of the self, what is the good of facing reality in a situation in which one is but a material system?
If materialism is true, then I think Nietzsche is right: truth is not a value; life-enhancing illusions are to be preferred. If truth is out of all relation to human flourishing, why should we value it?

The argument here seems to be, in matters that lie beyond our epistemic horizon, why should we not prefer “life-enhancing illusions” to “truth”? As a general rule, when a writer ends a piece with a question, and offers no answer to the question, you should be suspicious. In most cases, there are perfectly obvious answers to the question, but to actually trot them out would undermine the rhetorical flourish that the author is seeking. Or it’s a way of disguising an Argument From Personal Incredulity. Either way, it’s a cheap trick.
It is clear that we do – and should – value truth in matters of fact and evidence. (If Dr. Vallicella disagrees, I would like to see how he deals with everyday life.) We don’t need to invoke any heavy-duty metaphysical notion of Truth; ordinary, everyday, consensus-based, empirical testable varieties of truth are good enough. Evolution has endowed many lifeforms, including humans, with a variety of powerful tools for detecting truth and falsehood and for storing the outputs of these tools. At the same time, evolution has exploited these capabilities by enabling other lifeforms to trick and defeat these tools. We have plenty of examples, from flowers that mimic insects to pool sharks in Atlantic City.
Truth-detection, truth-deception: it’s an evolutionary arms race. And in humans this competition has spread from the purely biological to the cultural. We can see this in the value placed on skepticism about poorly-supported truth claims, and the adoption of various mechanisms – jury trials, double-blind tests, peer-reviewed papers – to try to minimize the likelihood of subjective bias and self-delusion. And societies that emphasize these values – in law, medicine, science, technology, commerce, and so forth – tend to flourish.
So the proposition that “truth is out of all relation to human flourishing” seems groundless. And when Dr. Vallicella asks, “what is the good of facing reality?”, the answer is pretty clear: because that’s what humans do. It’s not a question of “what good is it” – you might as well ask “what is the good of living?” It’s a brute fact. We face reality, and try to establish truths about it. Our ability to do so affects our success in surviving and passing on our genes (and culture) to the next generation. We each encounter different elements and aspects of reality, but we have no choice about facing the reality which we encounter.
Presumably the self-styled “maverick” (a word that has forever been tainted by McCain and Palin) is referring to hypotheses which lie beyond the epistemic horizon: matters about which, as he says, “nobody knows what the truth is”. If we don’t know what the truth is, what is the harm of adopting “life-enhancing illusions”? There are three obvious retorts.
The first is that, empirically, our truth-judgement capabilities aren’t wired to detect which questions fall into which category. We don’t simply turn those brain centers off when a transcendental topic pops up. This means that we cannot avoid bringing our usual arsenal of critical tools to these subjects. And, historically, we have done so, and it has kept armies of theologians and apologists in business.
Secondly, suspending notions of truth in these areas doesn’t really help, because there seems to be a vast range of alternative “life-enhancing illusions” on offer. Which should we choose? Perhaps Dr. Vallicella feels that it doesn’t matter: any comforting story is better than the stark reality of an indifferent universe. But these are not unencumbered choices: each is embedded in a rich network of cultural, social, and dogmatic propositions and norms, many of which definitely DON’T fall into the “nobody knows what the truth is” category. How does one choose? Are truth and reason irrelevant? Such considerations make a nonsense of the purported dichotomy of “life-enhancing illusions” vs. “truth”.
And finally, there is the inconvenient truth that the epistemic horizon keeps on moving. Five hundred years ago, witchcraft, fairies, ghosts and demonic possession were things that “everybody” knew to be true. Perhaps a Victorian ancestor of Dr. Vallicella would have described seances and spirit communications as “life-enhancing illusions”. Today, I assume that if Dr. Vallicella developed symptoms of “possession”, he would expect to be treated medically for schizophrenia.
We have always warped our everyday notions of truth and evidence to accommodate irrational “life-enhancing illusions”. As the epistemic horizon expands, it takes time and effort to roll back these distortions. Today we treat parents who rely on prayer to heal their sick children as criminals, rather than respecting their antiquated “life-enhancing illusions”. Yet many religious believers (Roman Catholics and Moslems) still hold that they should not be accountable to civil courts, and the evidentiary rules that have been adopted to make the search for truth more reliable. Such ideas are intrinsically divisive, and have no place in a heterogeneous society.
Dr. Vallicella’s “life-enhancing illusions” are not free. They have baggage. And they are incompatible with a commitment to reason. They do not “enhance” my life, nor that of countless others.