24 Truth or consequences

Posted on July 27, 2011 by

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At a recent dinner among friends, a French “family lawyer” argued vigorously in favour of “telling the truth”. She was drawing, primarily, from her field of expertise. Behind her argument I could sense the principled belief: “the truth shall set you free”. In diplomacy, she would have been a “realist”.

I could have argued from complexity: if greatest events originate from small causes (the butterfly that triggers a hurricane in distant New York) it follows that we’ll never be able to distinguish, among the infinite small causes (and butterflies), which did the deed. Though cause and effect are connected, we are rarely in a position unambiguously to trace the causal chain. Mostly, it is convention – like identifying this or that mountain rivulet as “the source of the mighty river” below.

I could have argued from fractal geometry that truth is “scale dependent”. The length of the coast of Great Britain can vary from finite to infinite, depending on the chosen scale.

I could have argued from physics, with Niels Bohr, that “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth”.

I could have argued from cognitive science that what little we know of our complex brain gives us any certitude that it has been designed for “truth”. Rather it has simply managed to survive – so far.

Or from philosophy I could have drawn out the hint that certain truths must remain undecided. Look, Dr. Gödel is having one of his rare moments of despondent satisfaction! And Dr. Wittgenstein is muttering: “The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of “philosophical propositions”, but to make propositions clear. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.”.

Finally, I could have argued from social sciences that there is no truth, just interests. Interests can be both opposite and justified. There is no way to decide, but by brute force.

I could… yet I would have remained prisoner of my friend’s conceptual framework – that in the end truth matters; that beholding the truth is the prize worth aspiring to. For 2,500 years the West has chased “truth” under infinite guises. I longed to break out of this framework, yet I did not know how exactly to go about it, and the evening was too merry to push for a change in paradigm. The reason for my unease lay with a confrontational paradigm which pits truth against untruth. In this logic there is one winner, and many losers – and ensuing resentment. The search for “truth” is inherently divisive, and Socrates paid for it with his life.

The solution came to me in the next morning – reading some a Buddhist text. At the centre of Buddhism is the law of consequences. Action, even more inaction, has to be judged by its consequences – mostly the effects are negative, hence the skepticism with which Buddhism approaches all human action.

Arguing about consequences is inclusive, not confrontational. Anyone can contribute, for the goal, how best to proceed, can by shared all round by identifying the many consequences. More profoundly, rather than from an abstraction, which excludes reality as “contingent and inconsequential”, or a distraction, judging actions by their likely consequences starts from reality, and tries to build on it.

To my friend I could then argue: “It all depends”, and she would agree.  I would continue: “To a strong person like you, “truth” is essential. (I put “truth” in inverted commas to signal that what you call “truth” is simply restoring to you the degrees of freedom you need to move forward.) Others may be afraid by your search for choice, and may recoil. You’ll have to judge your actions by your context, rather than follow a distant star and trample over bodies.”

Consequentialism is a branch a philosophy, but distinctly a poor relation. A distasteful odor of pragmatism, opportunism, even cynicism, attaches to it. Pragmatism is the refuge of the unprincipled, we are told disparagingly. I beg to differ. In a world of limited, and mostly local, knowledge, where risk and uncertainty reign, pragmatism, based on our best understanding of local conditions, may be the best we can achieve. It may not bring about utopia, but wipe a tear from a face, or brighten it in a smile. Is this not good enough?