Does Truth Matter?
Theories of truth are very various, as if people can’t decide what kind of thing truth is. Is it just another name for consistency (coherence), an inter-propositional relation? Is it nothing at all, mere repetition of the proposition said to be true? Is it some sort of abstract correspondence between proposition and world, a picture or isomorphism of the facts? Or is it a way of talking about utility, benefit, what pays? You would think that truth is the opaquest of things, given the variety of theories of it. But people don’t tend to ask why truth matters, i.e., why we should care about it: whatever it is, why is it important? The pragmatist theory brings out the urgency of that question most clearly, because it aims to answer the question of mattering: truth is utility, and utility matters. We want to know what is useful, what works, and truth does that, since truth simply is the attribute of being conducive to success or well-being. Beliefs that are true are precisely beliefs that are good for us—prudentially valuable—and that is why truth matters. The other theories leave us hanging, because they don’t offer an answer to why we should care about truth: why should we care that our beliefs form a coherent whole, or that they stand in a relation of correspondence to the world, or that the word “true” allows for the re-assertion of the proposition that is true? We think truth is valuable, a good thing, and pragmatism gives a clear answer to why—because to be true is to be useful. Falsity is useless, counter-productive, harmful—so we avoid it. The value of truth thus receives a solid grounding, an explanation; and it’s not clear that any other theory does this. The trouble is that pragmatism is a false theory: it is neither necessary nor sufficient for truth that a proposition be useful. This is an old story that I won’t repeat (useless true beliefs, useful false beliefs); the point for present purposes is that without pragmatism truth comes to seem pointless, expendable, of no account. It is true that truth and utility are correlated to some degree, which is why the pragmatist theory looks promising at first: generally speaking, what is true is useful and what is useful is true (and what is false is harmful and what is harmful is false). But we can’t identify the two properties; the connection is contingent not constitutive. This leaves us with the question of why we should care about truth—what has it done for us lately? Let me set out the question as starkly as possible. Suppose that truth is some kind of correspondence (the most popular conception of truth)—a mapping between proposition and fact. And suppose we consider an astronomical belief about a remote galaxy that happens to be true but is not useful in any way. The truth of this belief confers no benefit on its holder or on anyone else; it has zero utility. Then why should anyone care about it? Why should anyone strive to ensure that the belief is true or worry that it might not be? It is a fact about the belief in question that has no conceivable utility for anyone. Consider another type of correspondence relation that might obtain between the individual and the galaxy, say that it has as many stars as the individual has hairs on his head—there is a mapping, an isomorphism, between the two. Who cares? What difference does it make? It’s just a quirky fact, an adventitious correspondence with no relevance to anything someone might care about. It doesn’t matter. Likewise, the truth type of correspondence doesn’t matter, because it bears no relation to what does matter, prudentially or morally. Of course, some true beliefs matter because they feed into action and action matters to well-being, but this is what matters not truth as such. As soon as the belief is detached from action, its truth ceases to matter; it is the property of being useful that matters, whether truth is implicated or not. Truth only matters because it is instrumental in providing utility—its mattering is entirely extrinsic to its nature. The truth relation itself has no intrinsic value; only the relation between the belief and the action matters. So, we are under the illusion that truth matters, because it is correlated with successful action; its not mattering becomes evident when we detach truth from useful action, as in the astronomical example. That is, a belief’s being true is not a property of the belief that has intrinsic value, because truth itself is utility-independent. If pragmatism were true, we could say that truth is inherently valuable because it is identical with utility; but it isn’t true, so truth is left hanging, a kind of pointless add-on. If all our beliefs were suddenly rendered false, while retaining their utility, we would not be a shade worse off, simply because correspondence with the world is not an inherently beneficial relation (consider the Matrix). To put it differently, truth doesn’t care if it matters to us; it cares only that it stands in the right correspondence relation with the universe, no matter how distant or irrelevant to our concerns. It is sometimes said that truth is the property of standing for an existing state of affairs: but why should this abstract metaphysical property be of any concern to us? What would change if it ceased to obtain? Everything would go on as before. As long as beliefs retain their functional role, they serve to advance our needs and desires; whether they stand in this fancy relation to states of affairs is beside the point. Does animal belief stand in such a relation to the world, or is it rather a state with a certain function in the animal’s life? Does the animal care? Our brains exist on a planet at such and such a distance from some remote galaxy, but this fact is of no value to us, being irrelevant to what matters to us; similarly, our brains stand in truth-making correspondence relations to the same galaxy (assuming we have beliefs about it), but this fact too is of no value to us, being irrelevant to what matters to us. There is no benefit attached simply to being true, so it is not clear why it should matter (except instrumentally). Truth as such doesn’t matter. It is not a value. It has no value. True, truth doesn’t actively harm us (like being at a certain distance from a particular galaxy), but it is strictly irrelevant to what matters to us. It’s a don’t-care, a matter of indifference. If it turns out that my belief about that distant galaxy is false, my response ought to be “How interesting, but really I don’t give a damn”. Mere falsity is not a defect that ought to keep me awake at night. This ought to change our attitude to lying: it is not vicious to lie if the lie merely produces a false belief that has no untoward consequences for the well-being of the person lied to. I could lie about that galaxy and inflict no harm on my interlocutor. False beliefs can indeed sometimes confer benefits, and the mere fact of falsity is not in itself a harm. The truth is generally a good thing instrumentally, but this is not a rigid rule and anyway is not a fact about truth as such, as opposed to its usual correlates. By all means seek the truth, you will likely be better off that way, and so will other people, but don’t think that this shows that truth has intrinsic value. How could it, given its nature as an abstract mind-world correspondence? The correspondence theory, as opposed to the pragmatist theory, is really a recipe for truth demotion, if not truth demolition. Why should we even continue to talk this way, in view of its irrelevance to what matters? Instead of responding to defamation by saying “That’s false” we could say “That has the property of unfairly maligning someone”, since that is really what is wrong with defamation. Making false statements about someone is not wrong if it imputes good qualities to the person! Talk of truth and falsity here is just shorthand for such periphrases; it is never the real point at issue. It simply doesn’t matter whether a belief stands for an existing state of affairs or not (much the same has been said of scientific theories by those impressed by the difficulty of obtaining truth and its irrelevance to the primary aims of science). My own view is that truth exists and is a type of correspondence, but it is not intrinsically valuable (unlike goodness and beauty). It has no more value than lines of projection in geometry. What matters is utility, but truth is not utility. Pragmatism is false but eminently right-headed.
 There is a rough analogy between this position and Derek Parfit’s position on personal identity. We thought that identity through time is what matters to survival, but certain thought experiments undermine this view. What matters to survival is psychological continuity not identity, though the latter is generally correlated with the former. Similarly, what matters in belief is not truth but utility, which is generally correlated with truth. (I am not saying here that I agree with Parfit.)
 Let me report that the position advocated here came as a surprise to me. I had always assumed that truth has value, but I hadn’t reckoned with the implications of the failure of pragmatism as a theory of truth. The key move is to recognize that the value of truth is instrumental not intrinsic. Pragmatism is right about value; its mistake is to locate value in truth itself. The correct analysis of truth shows that it has no intrinsic value. You might suppose that truth has value for the intellectually curious—they care whether their beliefs are true. But what if you have no such curiosity, like animals and most of mankind? Then truth has no value for you: it doesn’t bear on your actual concerns. Surely, we don’t want to say that the value of truth resides in the eccentric interests of rare intellectuals with too much time on their hands. The pragmatist doesn’t claim that truth is utility for the intellectually curious but not for anyone else. Perhaps the reason most people don’t care about the truth is that there is nothing about truth to care about, not intrinsically anyway. (That was not an easy sentence to write.) Truth is good if and only if it leads to the good.