Truth as a human value

There are some people who insist that the truth of values must be demonstrated in someway. Here I have a created a dialog between one such person and a critical rationalist.

Can you guess which is which?

A: Demonstrate the truth of your value statement.
B: Why?
A: In order for values to be held they must be demonstrated true, or why else hold them?
B: So, you hold that “Values must be demonstrated true.”
A: Yes.
B: But, “values must be demonstrated true” is a value. Can you demonstrate why it is true?
A: No.
B: But you hold it to be true?
A: Yes.
B: So you have values that you can’t demonstrate to be true.
A: Yes. Well, no. That is, I believe demonstration of truth is possible, I just haven’t figured out the fine details yet.
B: Well, I have many values I hold to be true. Fortunately I don’t require demonstration of them. I merely try to put them in an objective form (that is to express them as clearly as possible) so that if someone has criticism or alternatives we can discuss them. Don’t you think this is superior to trying to demonstrate the truth of some value once and for all?
A: No, that’s all wrong. If you can’t demonstrate the truth of your values, then they are completely worthless. We could all do just whatever we want.
B: Can you demonstrate the truth of what you just said?
A: What do you mean?
B: Well, you seem to think that we will all do whatever we want, but what does it mean to say, “whatever we want”? Moreover, can you demonstrate the truth of “we will all do whatever we want if we can’t demonstrate the truth of our values”?
A: Well, as to your first question, I just mean people could behave immorally and they would be on par with moral people, after all no one could demonstrate the truth of their statements, so it would be merely a matter of arbitrary decision. That is to say, there would be no distinction between moral and immoral.
B: Do you think your own decisions are arbitrary, then?
A: Well, no, I think truth must be demonstrable, I just haven’t got it straight in my head how to do it, at least not as far as values. I’m sure, however, that *my* morals are the correct ones, so it’s only a matter of time before I can find a way to demonstrate them true.
B: Well, I for one don’t think values can be demonstrated as true. Is not that hypocritical? *If* you accept that humans have values, then it’s *their* values. They are not dependent on demonstration, otherwise, why would we consider them *our* values?
A: Aren’t you just making some kind of circular argument here or perhaps arguing from definition?
B: No. What I am saying is that the two ideas are logically incompatible. “Truth is demonstrable” logically entails that “truth is not determined by humans”. If you hold that “humans decide about the truth” then you can’t hold that “truth is demonstrable.” These are mutually contradictory ways of viewing the world. To make it clearer we could instead say, “truth is determined by human judgment” or “truth is determined unequivocally by demonstration.” Not only are these two ideas incompatible, as truth is a value we as humans place on certain ideas or viewpoints, it makes no sense to say it can be determined by demonstration. It is determined by humans.
A: What rubbish. You’re simply confusing words here. If the truth is determined by humans, then all we need do is present how it was determined. What was the basis or criteria or standard that was used to determine the truth?
B: It certainly might be helpful to discuss how we made a particular value judgement. We might discuss certain consequences of holding or not holding the value. However as it is a value, it is determined by human judgement, not any particular demonstration. So there can be no basis or criteria or standard. Otherwise that would be to remove the human element from this. Truth is determined by humans, not criteria or standards or bases. Moreover, a criteria cannot be its own criteria. Again, it is an issue of responsibility. Even assuming you have a criteria you think is adequate, how did you determine that? Are you responsible for that judgement, or is the criteria responsible? Merely claiming a standard or a criteria or a basis does not help one to demonstrate the truth of values. Instead, it creates a certain amount of hypocrisy. If we claim a basis gives us truth, we then are making the implicit claim that truth requires bases. But then it is plainly obvious our own basis lacks a basis, as it cannot be its own basis. By claiming truth must be demonstrated by bases we undermine our own moral integrity. A similar case might be made for the Christian who says that miracles support his faith in God. Is that not hypocritical? After all, faith is faith. It does not require proof. Similarly, from a Christian perspective, if a person is “good” because he wants to go to heaven, is he not being “bad” as he is pursuing selfish ends. While I think that one can be willing to question “humans have values”, and therefore hold the position non-dogmatically, I don’t think that the notion that “humans have values” is logically compatible with “values are determined by demonstrations.”
A: But some demonstrations are undeniable.
B: Hardly. I know of no demonstration that is undeniable. Moreover that misses my point. Truth is a value. It is not the content of the assertion or idea. Therefore it is separate from the assertion or idea.
A: Well, I must disagree somewhat here. Some truths are undeniable. What we seek is a way to find truths that are undeniable.
B: You mean some kind of positive methodology.
A: If you want to call it that, fine.
B: Well, positive methodologies have about as much humanity as a software program. Positive methodologies are automatic. They tell people exactly how they must judge the truth, so that they need *not* judge the truth.
A: Who cares if it gets you the truth?
B: Well, in fact, I’ve never known a positive methodology that actually works. What I have known are several people who are dogmatic and dictatorial because they think they have a positive methodology. Moreover, as I pointed out before, the positive methodology can’t demonstrate it’s own truth. It’s own standards can’t justify it’s own standards. So those with positive methodologies either have to resort to circular arguments or hypocrisy or both.
A: Assuming I agreed, what’s your suggestion.
B: Speaking in metaphysical terms, I guess you could say I believe in the rational unity of man, reason is the same for all of is. Although the burden of truth falls on each of our shoulders individually, we are all united in the sense we share the same world. Truth is the same for all of us. There is only one truth. We’re each approaching it from different directions and positions and situations. Comparing, contrasting and criticizing these positions helps all of us to weed out error and get nearer to the truth. At least those of us who have an interest in the truth. I believe that we must work to share our ideas and take part in critical discussions and that this is how we progress. I propose a negative methodology. We learn by imaginatively thinking up new idea, new values, new approaches, new positions, then once they are mature enough, subjecting them to criticism. As this is a negative methodology, it need not resort to circular arguments of justification and is therefore not hypocritical. Nor does it attempt the impossible task of taking the burden of judging the truth off our individual shoulders.
A: What do you mean by negative methodology?
B: I mean that we only shift ideas when criticism is brought to bear on them and better alternatives are presented. No idea is ever proved or justified.
A: But unless the criticism is *justified*, that is has a basis, it’s worthless. Therefore, you can’t get out of this merely by proposing a negative methodology. That’s plain silly.
B: No, it’s clear we favor some ideas over others without any appeal to bases. Clearly critical discussions cause shifts in our ideas, even without the presence of any bases.
A: But, what use is a critical discussion if there is no way to demonstrate the truth for sure of any statement. Literally any statement is as good as another.
B: But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Clearly to both you and me, some statements, or let’s say ideas or positions, are more valuable than others. If you believe in the truth, and I scarcely see how you could get by without it, then the question is *NOT* how to demonstrate it, but how to approach it. Clearly we learn. And clearly the way we do so is by replacing bad ideas with better ones. So what we need to do is look at what rules facilitate this. Our philosophy is thus concerned with these rules.
A: Rules like what?
B: Well, there are numerous examples I could give. One would be freedom of speech. People should be able to express their opinion so long as it doesn’t cause undue harm to someone. Another good example would be people should express themselves clearly, so that their opinion is easier to criticize. Another example might be a preference for keeping written documents of discussion as these can more easily be discussed. Perhaps institutions should be in place to protect new ideas in their infancy so they have a chance to mature. I imagine each one of these rules could be debated and perhaps improved, but merely to give you an idea of what I am talking about.
A: That’s all well and fine, but what is your basis for these?
B: If you mean by basis some way to prove them true or some criteria by which I can automatically judge them to be true, then in ultimate terms there simply is nothing like that. These are rules we’ve learned by trial and error that help us on our journey towards approaching the truth. Our approach is to work to find rules that aid us to find the truth, but not to propose criteria or standards. The only criteria or standards is human judgment. And we’ve got to recognize that while we can approach the truth, no one possess it. We are fallible.
A: But “approach the truth” requires a standard of some sort. How else would you know you had the truth? Why replace a bad idea with a good one *unless* you have some kind of standard? What is your standard? Clearly one is implied by everything you say.
B: But I’m not clear on why you think a standard is required to change an idea. In fact, I thought we’d just resolved this. Clearly we both value some ideas over others, even without any basis. We also both believe in the concept of truth. How exactly a human being arrives at judgments of the truth is an interesting question, but, as far as I know, it appears unanswerable. Why? Because every statement about how we judge the truth in any ultimate sense, would have to logically entail itself. But if it logically entailed itself, it could not judge itself.
A: But even if it couldn’t judge itself it could still be right, couldn’t it?
B: It would remove the need for truth and the value for truth altogether. I can’t fathom that as a logical possibility. We would say as we now know how human beings judge truth, in physical or psychological terms, we can now judge the truth without any human present. If a criteria is undeniable, human judgement may as well be automated. We can program a computer to do it. You know, there are so many possible criticism of this viewpoint it’s hard to know where to begin. For one, it would mean that truth was no longer a value, but a kind of fact. As such there would be no value of truth, as such there would be no truth. However, if there was no truth, then how did we determine how humans judged the truth in the first place?
A: But aren’t you just talking in circles?
B: No, what I am saying is that we have to accept that judgments of truth can only rest on human shoulders and can not ever be factually explained.
A: But any good scientist knows the world is determined. Determinism is a fundamental tenet of science! Are you against science, then? Are you one of those?
B: Why do you think that? I’m not at all sure every scientist would agree with you, by the way.
A: I knew it all along, you want to undermine science.
B: No, I admit that scientists search for regularities.
A: Yes, so there is the implicit assumption that the world is made up of regularities. In other words, scientists assume a deterministic universe. It’s implicit in what they do.
B: Hardly, scientists merely acknowledge that there are some regularities and propose to search for them. This doesn’t necessarily have to characterize their metaphysical conception of the world. Not at all.
A: How could it not!
B: Well, first of all, we can respect the rule, “search for regularities” without assuming that all the universe is nothing but regularities. Moreover, the world could in some sense be indetermined, an open universe in which we have a bit of say as to how it will turn out. These are metaphysical posits that can be argued for or against, and have nothing to do with the scientists’ rule, “search for regularities.” As an side some of my arguments for indeterminism might be like this: In a deterministic universe there would be no place for time, yet we experience time. In a deterministic universe there would be no change, yet change seems to be a fundamental part of our existence. Personally, I’d guess the only thing that is really determined is the logical content of our assertions. We sort of view the world through the deterministic glasses or our logic. Though, perhaps when we judge the truth we do so in way that is indetermined. Anyway, just some passing thoughts.
A: Look, cut out all the metaphysical nonsense, and let’s get back to reality. Ultimately, your assertions don’t amount to diddly squat unless you have some kind of basis to back them up, all right? Aside from some fanciful rhetoric, I don’t see how you’ve offered me anything here.
B: But again, your assertion is false by its own standards. Your own assertion can’t demonstrate itself true.
A: But this just comes back to doing whatever we want. Why not just believe anything?
B: Why don’t you try it for a day and see what happens? My guess is you won’t get far. We do judge the truth. Even without a scientific or factual explanation concerning why or how. Look, you make decisions about the truth everyday. Just like you decide something tastes good, or something is beautiful or something is interesting, you decide if something is truthful. It’s a value decision. What you really want is a way to reduce values to facts. You want to say, “we decide truth because of this undeniable criteria and no other decision is acceptable but this one. We now have an undeniable standard concerning the truth. You are no longer free to determine the truth, but must follow this standard as it is undeniable.” However, if there is no freedom to determine the truth for ourselves, then it is merely a done deal of sorts. An automatic process. It’s like having a trial by jury, but then telling each jurist exactly how he must decide. Or worse, it’s like having 12 personal computers for jury members instead of individual human beings. If there is an undeniable way to demonstrate the truth, then human valuing doesn’t even have a place in the process anymore. This is absurd. What can one make out of a total denial of the value we place on the truth? Do you or do you not value truth? If you value the truth, then how can you square that with a process that determines what we must value as true in advance so that we need no longer value it?
A: You’re not making sense. This most be some kind of deconstructive smoke and mirrors game.
B: Do you value truth?
A: Of course, I do. I value truth. But why should that mean that how men decide truth can’t be reduced to a demonstration.
B: I’m not saying demonstrations or what have you don’t have any role to play, I’m merely asserting that they don’t create a basis. We must each judge the truth for ourselves, and we do so fallibly.
A: That’s NOT enough! What if I decide to take a gun and go shoot someone, or what if I join the Islamic Jihad?
B: Why would you do those things?
A: Because I can, because you haven’t demonstrated the truth to me!
B: Well, while I can’t demonstrate the truth to you, I can certainly inform you that the consequences for those actions would be untold human suffering. Is that not sufficient?
A: In lieu of being able to demonstrate the truth that many people will suffer, why should I believe you?
B: Well, because it’s the truth. If necessary I am willing to discuss these ideas by considering alternative viewpoints. Do you really not understand the consequences of the actions you’ve proposed here?
A: But how do you know even those consequences are true?
B: Can you give me a reason to think otherwise?
A: Yes, in order for truth to be truth it must be demonstrable or it’s not truth. Damn it!
B: But that’s simply not the case. As most trial lawyers have learned, opinions that supposedly have proof can be false, and opinions without proof are often true. Ultimately, as these are issues of human value, it makes sense that when matters such as this are decided in court we use a jury of our peers as opposed to a person who has mastered how to demonstrate the truth. Again, if truth were demonstrable, a court would merely need some expert in the truth, not a jury.
A: To hell with you. You make no sense. You’ve convinced me of one thing here, it’s all a lot of crap. I’m just going to to do whatever I want, and you know what, it’s YOUR fault. Because while at least in the past, while I couldn’t demonstrate truth, I at least had faith that truth was demonstrable. Now I don’t even believe that. I’m just going to believe whatever I want from now on. Get the hell out of my way. [Gives B a good shove and walks away.]
B: Perhaps he thinks I’m a post-modernist. (sigh) Maybe I should have quoted Edmund Burke?

About Matt

My full name is Matt Dioguardi. I have been interested in critical rationalism for about 10 years. I am the administrator of this blog, if you have an questions or problems please let me know.
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1 Response to Truth as a human value

  1. nick says:

    Lost at 2nd line
    A: In order for values to be held they must be demonstrated true, or why else hold them?

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