# 1.1: Valuing Truth

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To say that democracy is a space of reasons is to say that the practice of democratic politics requires the giving and acting for reasons. That is, in a democratic state, disagreements between citizens ought to be handled in the arena of reason alone, and arguments legitimizing the uses of state power must be backed by reasons. And crucially, the “reasons” spoke of are reasons for believing what is true, as opposed to reasons for what will win us the election, make us rich, or damn our enemies. In short, to think of democracy as a space of reasons is to see the ideals of democratic politics as requiring a commitment to the rational pursuit of truth.

—MICHAEL LYNCH1

## A Lofty Goal and a Practical Goal

This book has two major goals. One is to invite you—no, really to implore you—to enter what Michael Lynch calls the “arena of reason.” Lynch’s quote may suggest that politics is where reason and truth are most important. I completely agree with him that democratic politics is one area of our lives that requires attention to the ideals of truth and good reason. But I think he would agree with me that lots of other intellectual affairs—the pursuits of science and medicine, the demands of a profession, and the immensely complicated problems of a meaningful personal life, to name just a few—are equally dependent on the standards of the arena of reason.

The other goal is to give you a tool for navigating within the arena of reason. I wish I could give you a magic bullet for discovering the truth, but I think we all know that’s only a fairy tale. What I do believe, however, is that there are some very useful techniques for approaching, if not discovering, the truth. This book will emphasize one of these methods. It has the technical name inference to the best explanation, but more on that later. Right now, I’ll simply describe it as a procedure for distinguishing good evidence from poor, weak, or even nonexistent evidence.

There is something almost paradoxical about both my goals. I’m going to spend the next couple of hundred pages laying out this approach to evidence and truth and hopefully luring you into the arena of reason by showing you that it’s fun, interesting, and valuable. The potential paradox lies in my absolute conviction that you are already firmly ensconced in the arena of reason—that you already value truth and that you are already an accomplished evaluator of evidence.

So why bother writing my book? Consider an analogy. You are skilled at something—playing the piano or playing golf. But you are also frustrated. You are not as good at it as you’d like to be. You decide to go to a music teacher or golf pro to improve your playing. If you are lucky enough, you’ll find someone who can take that skill you already have and hone it, help you break some bad habits, show you some new tricks, encourage you to practice, and voilà, significantly improve your game. I’d be a joke as a golf instructor, and I don’t play music at all, but I guess I’m arrogant enough to think I might be a pretty good critical thinking coach.

## The Skills and Values You Already Have

Consider the case of poor Connie. She thinks her boyfriend is—in the kind of innocent sense of 1950s high school—cheating on her. He claims he’s innocent. She cares a heck of a lot whether her theory is true. But her suspicions are not simple paranoia; she believes she has some good evidence and is so sure she’s right that she is going to break up with him. She lays out her case in a poem (well, really a corny pop song).

Here’s her story in a nutshell. She and her boyfriend had gone to a record hop. He excused himself, saying he wanted to get a soda. But he was gone for a half hour. When he returned, Connie spotted a lipstick stain on his shirt collar. He told her that it was her lipstick. She thought about this but realized that her lipstick was baby pink, while the stain on his shirt was bright red. Just as she was figuring this all out, her best friend, Mary Jane, walked in, and Connie saw that Mary Jane’s lipstick was all messed up. Connie concludes that her boyfriend and Mary Jane had been making out—smooching—during the half-hour absence.

Connie’s no lawyer, no rocket scientist, nor even a college student yet, but she’s no fool either. She’s smart enough to read the signs, diagnose what’s going on, and lay out a persuasive case. Connie’s skills are precisely the skills that all intelligent human beings possess, and these are the skills we will be building on in this book.

## Truth and the Contemporary Academic Culture

The scholarly community sends us lots of signals that we don’t value truth or at least that we should not value it. A lot of serious scholarship in philosophy, the history of science, sociology, literary criticism, and more tells academics like me that all truth and knowledge is relative to who we are—our race, sex, age, ethnicity, and historical circumstances—and that there’s no such thing as the “absolute” (real?) truth. Consider the thoughts of Richard Rorty:

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world in its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot . . .

The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak.2

I believe that Rorty is on to something very important here but that his insight is seriously mischaracterized—that he is, if you will, saying something that is both true and false at the same time.

Connie is a human being with a brain, central nervous system, and sense organs. She sees things—the lipstick stain, its color, and the color of her own lipstick. She hears things—her boyfriend’s lame excuse. And she forms a theory about what’s been going on. Her theory is, to use some loaded language, “in her head,” and the facts that make her theory true or false “are out there.” How do we link up the theory (what Rorty calls the “mental states,” “sentences,” or “descriptions of the world”) with the facts? Things would be bad enough if all we had to do is propose an account of how brains and sense organs can allow us to see and hear things. Philosophers have been working on these problems for 2,500 years, and I have to report to you that there’s still a lot of work to do.

But there are other serious problems as well. All Connie’s neural occurrences give rise to beliefs—“your stain is red, but my lipstick is baby pink.” Some of her beliefs are true, but others are false. Connie’s brain and sense organs seem to play a central role in helping her distinguish the true beliefs from those that are false. The story so far is one of nature. But Rorty’s central insight is that there is a whole other story to be told in terms of Connie’s nurture. All her attempts to discover the truth, to find evidence for what is true, are colored by who she is, and that is both a help and a hindrance. We don’t just see and hear the world; we learn to see and hear the world. We are endowed with a remarkably powerful central nervous system by natural selection (or perhaps as a gift from God). We all have this simply by virtue of being human beings. But we are also the product of our backgrounds, our learning, our experiences, and our prejudices. It’s a sad fact but still a fact, I think, that men and women, blacks and whites, and young and old are doomed to think in somewhat different ways. How can there be a truth about whether climate change is real or whether universal health care is a wise policy when you and I are fated to see things differently because of our differences in age, ethnicity, and gender—to say nothing of political affiliations and religious convictions?

Though once an enthusiastic proponent, I’ve come to reject this relativistic view for two reasons. Rorty tells his nurture story persuasively but sort of forgets about the nature story. Connie’s central nervous system isn’t just there; it’s there for a reason. Its whole purpose is to provide her with data about that world out there. And human central nervous systems seem to be doing their jobs pretty darn well. It’s not just that we have survived as a species but that we have survived so successfully that we have become the only species capable of altering the entire world. So, yes, we have a problem with cultural relativism, and it is a problem we will be forced to deal with for the remainder of this book. But we also have exquisitely designed physical apparatus that allow us to form pictures of the world out there (perhaps as it really is).

All the very abstract academic stuff also has a very unfortunate spillover. It is sometimes used as a discussion stopper, even among academics themselves. If the only people I can talk with, productively disagree with, and maybe even reason with to some shared view are exactly like me, the world is going to be a pretty lonely place. Connie is certainly a product of who she is. Her age, sex, race, and socioeconomic class inevitably influence what she sees and what she thinks about. I take that as a given. But what she’s thinking about is not just “in her head,” even if her sentences, beliefs, and theories are. You and I can think about her theory, make judgments about its cogency, and oftentimes come to agreement about all this, regardless of the countless differences in who we are, how and when we were born, and our unique social and educational backgrounds. Since there is a world “out there” with boyfriends, best friends, and osculation (even if those descriptions are the products of our shared culture), I think it makes perfectly good sense to ask what really happened when he was gone that half hour or more. And that’s really just another way of asking whether her theory is true.

## Truth and the Popular Culture: The Need to Respect Differences

You may well ask what all the abstract philosophy, social science, and evolutionary biology has to do with our concerns in this book. Well, I’ve already given you one reason for including it. The problem of cultural expectations and biases is real and infects evidence evaluation down to its core. Furthermore, a lot of your teachers and other intellectual authority figures are products of this academic culture, and I think you need to know where they’re coming from. Finally, these theoretical considerations have found their way into the popular epistemological culture.

A lot of my students are unapologetic relativists in two very different ways. One is quite laudable. Many of you embrace diversity. You admire the fact that we bring different perspectives to discussions and investigations. You are loath to disparage those who think differently about religion, politics, or other things that matter deeply to you and your peers. You recognize that lots of thoughtful and decent people see things very differently than you do when it comes to abortion rights, the death penalty, or even climate change. One very understandable reaction to this is to think everyone has a right to his or her own beliefs.

In the sense of a First Amendment right to freedom of thought and speech, I completely agree with this sentiment. It’s one thing, however, to have the right to think what you think or believe what you believe; it’s quite another to have the right to be correct about what you think and believe. My students sometimes say things that I find paradoxical. They tell me that their truth is simply different from mine. Sure, I believe that natural selection is spot-on, so it’s true for me. But they believe that it’s godless and silly to think that “man came from monkeys,” so evolution is false for them. That’s just another discussion stopper. It forecloses any real shared dialogue and investigation of which one of us is right. We won’t spend much time in this book (though in another book I hope to write, it will be central) on purely moral disputes such as the pro-life/pro-choice controversy or the case for and against animal rights. We will spend some time a little later on the constitutionality, if not the morality, of the death penalty. And we will spend a fair amount of time looking at the evidence for descent with modification by natural selection. Consider the disagreement about climate change. There’s a lot of passion on both sides. That’s obvious. People certainly have a right to not be persecuted because of their beliefs on questions such as these—not to be downgraded by their professors. But do these rights mean that there’s no correct answer to the ultimate question of whether human cultural and industrial practices are contributing to climate change? Or even whether climate change is really occurring? Being tolerant of other’s views is a good thing, but being unwilling to seek some common ground or even find a correct answer is either laziness or intellectual cowardice.

## Truth and the Popular Culture: “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts”

This leads to my students’ second reason for their relativism, if not outright skepticism. None of us are climate scientists, so we are reliant on outside sources for most of our information. But outside sources seem to tell us different things. The “liberal” press tells us one story about climate change, while “conservative” media tells a very different one. The president of the United States tells us that mainstream media are guilty of feeding us “fake news.” I believe he is very wrong about this. But whom should you believe—your philosophy professor or the president? My guess is that the way you answer this question has relatively little to do with who I am, my credentials, or even with the president and who he is. It’s more likely that your confidence in either of us is shaped by the media sources you listen to, who you voted for in the last election, and what your friends and family tell you. In a way, this is just the problem of cultural relativism all over again. But something seems to have changed just in the short time between my generation and yours.

I am really nervous about where this discussion must proceed. Every generation seems to look at the younger generation not just with puzzlement but with a funny kind of judgment. They’re going to hell in a hand basket! My parents couldn’t really understand the music I listened to or why I opposed the war in Vietnam. I’m still trying to get my head around hip-hop, and I’m baffled about why climate change is a real controversy. But the cultural change I’m focusing on now is not generational.

## A Plea for Critical Thinking

My entire professional life has been dominated by courses in critical thinking. When I began graduate school, I had the privilege of working with Professor Larry Wright as one of his teaching assistants in his course on critical thinking. This was truly a life-changing experience. It was in his course that I first learned of inference to the best explanation, and it is this method of evidence evaluation that informs much of my teaching and much of my professional research. I have re-created much of what I learned from Professor Wright in countless critical thinking courses that I have taught and in some cases created. All this forms the heart and soul of this book.

As I think about it, however, perhaps the most important lesson I learned was not the details of a particular approach to critical thinking but just the value of taking a little time out of a busy undergraduate career focused on the details of majors, minors, and career training and pausing to reflect on the more general questions of reason, truth, and logic. I take great gratification that some of my most satisfied critical thinking customers have been not marginal students who needed to be taught how to think correctly, whatever that’s supposed to mean, but truly excellent students who already possessed all the necessary skills and tools for academic success. To return to an earlier analogy, even great pianists and golfers benefit from devoted practice and a little coaching now and then.

So welcome to the arena of reason, which, of course, you’ve been in almost the entirety of your life. And welcome to critical thinking. If you give it half a chance, I can almost promise you that you will find the things we explore together in this book interesting and fun. I also remain confident that most of you will find the central approach to evidence and the discovery of truth that we will be developing personally, academically, and professionally useful.

EXERCISES

1. 1. Generally speaking, do you think Connie has good evidence for her theory that her boyfriend was smooching Mary Jane during his absence at the record hop? Why?
2. 2. What do you think is the strongest argument for the claim that truth is always relative to whom people are, their background, their experiences, their age, their sex, their race, and so on?
3. 3. What do you think is the strongest argument against this relativist view?

QUIZ ONE

Every other quiz in this course will focus on course content. The majority of the quiz grade will be determined by how successfully you demonstrate your mastery of the material presented in the readings and lectures. This first quiz, however, is a little different. Here, I am asking you to honestly reflect on yourself as a thinker. The grade on this quiz will be determined by how sincere and self-reflective your essay is.

I am asking for a short—no more than three double-spaced pages—essay that addresses the following three questions:

1. 1. How much of your thinking about important issues—political, moral, religious, and so on—do you believe is determined by your individual background? Your age, sex, race, family political leanings, and the like?
2. 2. To the degree that at least some of your thinking about these kinds of issues is partially determined by these cultural facts about yourself, do you believe that you can “transcend” them and reach a more “objective” evaluation of the way things “really are”? How might you do this?
3. 3. What are your major sources of information about politics, moral controversies, and these sorts of things?

I fully expect the grades on this first quiz to be quite high. All you need to do to receive full credit is to take just a little time to truly reflect on these questions.

## Notes

1. Michael P. Lynch, “Democracy as a Space of Reasons,” in Truth in Politics, ed. J. Elkins and A. Norris (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 158.

2. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 4–5, 6, 27, 51–52.

This page titled 1.1: Valuing Truth is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jeffery L. Johnson (Portland State University Library) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.