Can Values be “True?”

Can Values be “True?”

Despite my disagreements with Dr. Peterson, I am in many ways glad that he came into the public scene.

First, he introduced people to Joseph Campbell, Nietzsche, Jung, and other psychologists and philosophers. Second, he did a pretty good job of articulating the importance of controlling your environment towards the end of controlling yourself (this is the foundation of “clean your room,” an easily-mocked and, perhaps consequently, highly underrated piece of wisdom). His conclusion on this — focus on your own stuff forever before you dare turn your attention to the rest of the world — was obviously wrong. But the foundation was good.

But finally, and maybe most interestingly, he introduced large numbers of the broader public to alternative theories of truth.

Now ordinarily, most of the public operates on what me might call an authority theory of truth. What is true is what people in authority say. This may sound a little condescending, but in reality, virtually everyone operates on this model on matters outside of their direct experience. For example, even intelligent people of a skeptical nature will usually accept the truth of Black Holes, for example. How? They have not experienced this. But perhaps they trust the relevant experts who have spent decades studying space and theorizing about how things are up there. It is not a very reliable model of “truth,” since even experts can be wrong — or more frequently, experts can be misquoted or cynically misrepresented. But it is a decent heuristic.

This segues into the second theory of truth, the one which Jordan Peterson championed. That is called the pragmatic theory of truth. Under pragmatism, a statement is “true” if it is useful. The belief that “all guns are always loaded,” for example, is a pragmatic truth. This theory has some interesting merits to it, especially when dealing with incomplete information, i.e., understanding that something is true without being able to see why it is true), but becomes philosophically troublesome when one considers the variety of aims towards which different interpretations might be “useful.” Is this interpretation useful for survival? For happiness? What if survival and happiness provide contradictory interpretations? What if there are other more important aims? This theory also contradicts visible reality in many cases. Sometimes, publicity isn’t good publicity. Sometimes, a gun truly is actually unloaded — in fact, most guns are unloaded. Thus truly living as a pragmatist requires some degree of suspension of disbelief, which is contrary to our ordinary associations with a concept like “truth.”

Ultimately, I think pragmatism doesn’t add anything by redefining “useful” as “true,” except confusion. If you want to be a pragmatist, you would be better off following Scott Adams’ lead, simply saying “I like to interpret X in this manner because it makes me happy,” without any illusions that our decision has something to do with “truth.”

Our third and fourth theories are the primary two schools of thought in epistemology – or the study of knowing. These are the correspondence theory of truth, and the coherence theory of truth.

The correspondence theory of truth holds that a statement is true if it accurately describes the world. This is the tacit theory of truth behind most scientific research, where the aim is to most accurately and precisely describe the relationship between different variables. A scientist might say, for example, that there is a 0.4 correlation between getting 6 or fewer hours of sleep and 10% or greater increase in overall irritability… but they are also likely to say that due to the sample size, philosophical problems with measuring irritability, and academic disagreement about the variability of sleep quality on the data, further research is required to derive any firm conclusions.

Correspondence theory truth is what most people mean when they talk about truth. But there are some interesting criticisms of correspondence theory. Among the more eccentric philosophical criticisms is the claim that the real world might not exist, and so statements which correspond with “reality” cannot actually exist. A slightly more sane variation of this holds that while the “real world” (probably) exists, it is nevertheless inaccessible to us: we always perceive it through the barrier of our conscious experience of it. We see interpretations, projections of reality on our mind, but not “reality” itself. Thus, all descriptions of reality are suspect, potentially deceptive, even if they are generally accurate.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, correspondence theory can sometimes be difficult to act on. Especially as people become more precise, and hedge harder (as the scientist above does regarding the difficulties in achieving certainty in the relationship between sleep and irritability), the correspondence theory can sometimes be difficult to act on. This actionability is largely what makes pragmatism and authority so attractive, rather than precise insistence on truth, because as our descriptions become more accurate, we become more aware of the gaps in our knowledge.

These criticisms of correspondence theory gave rise to the coherence theory of truth. The coherence theory was born out of philosophical idealism (the rejection of the real world), and holds that a statement cannot be “true” solely based on the accuracy of its description of reality, because we cannot know reality — assuming reality even exists! Rather, the coherence theory asserts that a statement can be true or false on the basis of its internal consistency with certain given premises.

For example, in Euclidean geometry, it is true that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Many people are so used to the rules of Euclidean geometry that they accept it as a universal fact: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But this is not always true. In a non-Euclidean plane (a sphere, for instance), the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a curve.

The correspondence theorist may conclude that we therefore cannot make any generalized rule about the shortest distance between points. But for the coherence theorist, that generalized rule would have been impossible anyway. It is enough to know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line in Euclidean geometry, because that over-arching set of premises is necessary for truth to be possible in the first place.

I am running through this crash-course in epistemology because of a potential confusion that seems to cut through a lot of moral philosophy. That is the conflation between values and beliefs in the way that we evaluate the “truth” of each.

Throughout history, it seems as if philosophers have tended to use the same epistemological approach for dealing with values as they have with facts of nature, perhaps treating values as facts of nature. Aquinas, called by some more Aristotelian than Aristotle (translated: a very strong preference for correspondence theory) spent his entire life carefully describing what could be known about God and the Church, and from this, describing an ideal Christian ethic. On the other side, we have a philosopher like Kant, who almost never at any point in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals comes in danger of touching on reality. The system arrived at is philosophically perfect, within the over-arching presumptions of its frame. This is an extension of his approach to perception and philosophy of mind; he is a coherence theorist on beliefs as well as with values, just as Aquinas subscribes to the correspondence position on beliefs as well as values.

These are two of the most demonstrative — and therefore, exaggerated — examples, but I think the pattern extends far beyond these two.

But what if the appropriate theories for “facts” and “values” were different?

Personally, I am not particularly convinced by the criticisms of correspondence theory, as it relates to fact. The success of the scientific method is an overwhelming testament not only to its “truth,” but also to its usefulness. When it comes to understanding our world, authority, pragmatism, and coherence all seem to fall short of correspondence.

But what about values?

Values don’t seem to exist in the same way that material things do. What would it mean to say that “courage” is true? We could say that such-and-such person is courageous, courage in that case describing a certain set of observable behaviors and attributes. But is it “true” that courage is good? Valuation judgments like “good” and “bad” do not even exist in the way that a virtue like “courage” could, as behavioral patterns. “Good” and “bad” exist purely in our head. A statement like “courage is good” seems to lie outside the parameters of what correspondence theory can do for us.

But I don’t think this means that morality doesn’t exist. Just because we cannot establish the “truth” of certain values using correspondence theory clearly does not mean that values don’t exist, and we must become nihilists. Some philosophers take this route, but I think that to act in this fashion is to commit a category error, treating facts and values as epistemologically equivalent.

Here, I think, is where the coherence theory really shines. Values, being somewhat subjective, may defy easy correspondence. But it becomes epistemologically meaningful to say that certain values are “right” or “wrong” (“true” and “false” we can reserve for facts) within the overarching framework of a coherence paradigm.

Conveniently, there already exists a name for an over-arching moral coherence framework. It is called an “ethos.”

I understand that facts and values interact with each other, making it difficult to completely disentangle the two. This, I suspect, may be why people approached them the same way in the first place. But the particular challenges that may arise from evaluating facts and values on different frameworks seem petty in comparison with the problems with trying to evaluate facts through coherence, or values through correspondence.

In short, though the “truth” facts and values can both be evaluated through established epistemological standards, facts and values are not the same kinds of thing, and should not be treated the same. A worldview that evaluates facts through the correspondence theory while evaluating values through the cohesion theory seems like it would make more sense of the world and provide actionable interpretations without departing from reality entirely.

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