To tell the Truth

Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006 From the archives of the New Humanist, Daniel Dennett:

Truth-telling is, and must be, the background of all genuine communication, including lying. After all, deception only works when the would-be deceiver has a reputation for telling the truth. Flattery would truly get you nowhere without the default presumption of truth-telling: cooing like a dove or grunting like a pig would be as apt to curry favour.

We alone among the animals appreciate truth “for its own sake.” And – thanks to the science we have created in the pursuit of truth – we alone can also see why it is that truth, without being appreciated or even conceived of, is an ideal that constrains the perceptual and communicative activities of all animals.

We human beings use our communicative skills not just for truth-telling, but also for promise making, threatening, bargaining, story-telling, entertaining, mystifying, inducing hypnotic trances, and just plain kidding around, but prince of these activities is truth-telling, and for this activity we have invented ever better tools. Alongside our tools for agriculture, building, warfare, and transportation, we have created a technology of truth: science. Scientists have faith in the truth, but it is not blind faith. It is not like the faith that parents may have in the honesty of their children, or that sports fans may have in the capacity of their heroes to make the winning plays. It is rather like the faith anybody can have in a result that has been independently arrived at by ten different teams.

The ultimate reflexive investigation of investigation occurs in that branch of philosophy known as epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Agreeing that truth is a very important concept, epistemologists have tried to say just what truth is – without going overboard. Just figuring out what is true about truth turns out to be a difficult task, however, a technically difficult task, in which definitions and theories that seem at first to be innocent lead to complications that soon entangle the theorist in dubious doctrines. Our esteemed and familiar friend, truth, tends to turn into Truth – with a capital T – an inflated concept of truth that cannot really be defended.