Battle of the Arguments: Mercier and Sperber VS Loewer on the Value of truth

The following essay evaluates the arguments of the following two texts.

Loewer, B., 1993. The value of truth. Philosophical Issues, 4, pp.265-280.

Mercier, H. and Sperber, D., 2011. Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and brain sciences, 34(02), pp.57-74.

On Truth

Mercier & Sperber and Loewer make two different claims to the value of truth. The first party states that truth only has instrumental value to us. The second party states that truth has not only instrumental value but also intrinsic value. Here, I will be looking at the arguments given by each party and explaining why I believe that Mercier and Sperber have it more right than Loewer.

Mercier and Sperber are writing about reason. Why do humans reason? It’s actually a very good question, but not one which we want to concern ourselves with right now. Their paper has implications for truth. The main implication is that it is not necessary. We do not need truth in order to live a good life. Truth is largely without value to us. They say that humans reason in order to devise and evaluate convincing arguments. Seeing as a convincing argument need only make us want to believe it, convincing arguments have no need for truth. Some may argue that there is nothing more convincing than the truth, so what would make an argument better than wanting one with truth? Well, I sit in the camp of Nihilism yet, although I consider this theory to be true, I really don’t want it to be. I would love to be able to attribute a meaningful existence to my life and say that it is my life’s mission to do such and such. I can’t and I know that there are many arguments out there that are far more convincing is we go by the sheer mass of people that place their face in the prettier factions.

Mercier and Sperber (M&S from now on) also show that by the fact that we are good at making arguments that work for us and arguments that work against those that undermine us, we have a tendency to abstract truth from scenarios. The same is true of decision making. At best, M&S claim decision making to be a collective process. A collaborative discussion in which we all undermine each other’s beliefs in the hopes that we will end up with something that we can all call a good idea. Now we can see why it is dangerous. If the aim of the group in question is to send aid to a disaster struck village, but they wish to gain as much as they can from this venture, then more money will be put into marketing their aid than the actual aid itself. The truth of the dire situation of those in need was abstracted from the decision-making process because we humans just do not reason in accordance with truth.

It is important at this point to just make sure we both are thinking of the same thing here. By truth I mean that the aspect in question (what we want to call truth) matches up to reality – whatever that may be. Also, I am only concerned with the implications on controversial truths in relation to the arguments of Mercier and Sperber and Loewer. Things like is there a God, more than one, or none? Are we living in a perceived reality or an actual reality? I am not concerned with the more vegetarian truths like the bus leaves at five or that you think you are reading this in English provided no translation was used.

M&S argue that truth has no value to us in terms of what we want to believe. Obviously, they acknowledge that factually true beliefs are important to preference-satisfaction and so there, they conclude that we may attribute instrumental value to truth.

Lower takes a different path. He claims that truth has both instrumental and intrinsic value and that it is always rational for us to seek true beliefs. He cleverly acknowledges that he cannot prove the intrinsic value of truth (which, like anything involving intrinsic value, is an assumption) and so he focusses his paper on the instrumental value of truth. He is arguing against Stich who claims that because we do not have an accurate understanding of truth, it can have no value to our lives at all, which just seems absurd.

Loewer’s main argument for the value of truth depends on preference-satisfaction. He claims that we always want to maximise our preference-satisfaction and that true beliefs help us do so. So seeking out a true belief is always the rational course of action. Now, Loewer speaks of many other things in his text and I’m not even sure I understand half of it, but the issue that shows where his argument fails is that truth is objective, whereas preference-satisfaction is subjective. This inconsistency proves to be a fatal flaw in his argument. If the truth is that there is one God, then I am wrong as are a multitude of others. Their preference-satisfaction would be maximised if there were multiple/no gods but seeing as that is not true their preference-satisfaction is not maximised by seeking out a true belief.

Now, because of the nature of truth itself, I cannot say that I know that Mercier and Sperber got it right. I certainly think that the truth is a little more forgiving than they make it out to be, but I think that they are more right. Their argument is more convincing as it is based off of factual truths. In terms of the more controversial truths, there is no value to truth itself.


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