Philosophy Religion

The Value of Truth

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A post of genuine interest (rather than just stimulating of the desire to bash my head against my computer screen) on the Adam Smith Institute blog today. Sara Williams, who normally specialises in extraordinarily one-eyed monetary/macro commentaries, has drawn our attention to a paper by Peter Leeson of George Mason University in Virginia in which he explains the value to the Gypsy community of some very strange superstitions.

Assuming that these superstitions are in fact not true – this raises the general question of the potential value of held beliefs that may or may not be true. In other words their value to the community and/or individual may have nothing to do with their truth value.

I wrote an essay on this particular topic a few years ago. The essay was in response to a competition run by a philosophy magazine – with the stimulus being the choice offered to the character Neo in the film ‘The Matrix’. This choice consisted of two pills, red and blue; one of which would return him to the illusory world with which he was familiar, and the other which would lead him to enter a strange and frightening but real world. I reproduce the essay below. (It didn’t win…too analytic, going by the one that did win!)

The Matrix — Which Pill?

Diarmid J G Weir

Shorn of its cinematic context, the decision facing Neo in ‘The Matrix’ is a choice of futures; return to a familiar illusion with the blue pill or entry to what Morpheus describes as a ‘desert of the real’ irrevocably revealed by the red pill. The relative comfort of the illusion might seem the obvious choice but Neo chooses to know the truth, and takes the red. Is this just foolish bravado or is his decision the right one? Two conditions might make him right. Either Morpheus’ claims for the blue pill are not sustainable, or truth has some intrinsic merit for human beings.

There is more than a dry philosophical debating issue here; the relative merits of truth and illusion have practical relevance. A common dilemma in our lives is to decide how much truth we release to those for whose well-being we are in some way responsible. Health professionals frequently have to consider whether telling someone the full extent of a malignant illness will shorten or make less happy the little time their patient may have left. Parents of adopted children face the decision of when to tell them that they are not after all of their own flesh and blood.

The nature of truth and its value to human beings is a longstanding philosophical problem. There are three main theories of truth, none of which seems entirely satisfactory. The theory of truth most commonly held, by philosophers and non-philosophers alike, is that of correspondence; simply that propositions or beliefs are true because the facts they express or represent are true. But what are facts? If they are no more than ‘true’ statements or propositions then the notion seems a circular one. And if facts are something other than these linguistic constructs, then what are they?

To try to get round these problems the coherence theory was suggested. A proposition is true in so far as it fits in with our other beliefs and does not contradict them. ‘Truths’ exhibit mutual dependence. But when statements contradict each other which is the true one, or are neither true? Do we not need some other criteria of truth?

Pragmatism is the idea that a true belief or proposition is the one that is most useful for us to hold. The truth is ‘what works’. But different beliefs may work for different people. Are all such beliefs equally ‘true’ or do we need some other way of distinguishing between them?

Considering Neo’s dilemma, and ours, in the light of these theories not only helps with the decision but can clarify the value of the theories themselves. The coherence theory seems at first sight the least helpful. If it is true that the blue pill can eliminate any knowledge of the choice after it is made, then presumably the illusory world must appear to be coherent. If this is all there is to truth there seems no advantage over illusion. And if the experience of the illusion is more pleasant there seems no reason not to go for the blue pill. But can an illusion really be coherent?

The pragmatic theory suggests that the truth is what is most useful to us; in effect the belief that will make us happy. Perhaps then the more pleasant world of illusion is really the true one. This idea seems to underlie Cypher’s decision to betray his friends to Agent Smith. ‘Ignorance is bliss’, as he puts it. After all the electrochemical signals reaching our brains are what create our experiences, irrespective of how they got there. Doesn’t blue win again?

Since the common feature of both the coherence and pragmatic theories of truth is that they only relate truth to the individual who perceives it, we should not be surprised at these outcomes. An answer to Neo’s problem requires direct comparison of experiences. Yet if he opts to stay with the illusion Neo will never know the truth; and if he opts to know the truth he can never go back to being held by the illusion. We have to move beyond the individual perspective and consider the relationship between belief and reality rather than that between belief and believer. For this only the correspondence theory seems to fit the bill.

This returns us to the problem we hit before. What is the reality to which the beliefs created by experience correspond to? In the film it is assumed that the beliefs and experience created by the computer-generated world of the Matrix are less real than those which occur once disconnected from it. But how real is the non-Matrix created world? Isn’t the ‘real’ world that we see, feel and hear only a representation of the deeper reality of fundamental particles and electromagnetic forces? Isn’t what we regard as reality already an illusion of sorts? There always seems to be a gap between what we observe and what deeper examination might reveal. So how can we actually distinguish between the ‘real’ 22nd century world and the ‘illusory’ 20th century one of the Matrix?

Fortunately there does seem to be a crucial difference between the relationships of human reality and the reality of fundamental particles on the one hand, and that between human reality and the illusion of the Matrix on the other. The reality of fundamental particles, although not immediately visible to us, is at least continuous across all our experience. In the Matrix, however, the reality of physical human existence – including the brain and its network of communication with others – remains outside the illusion, deliberately separated from it by the machines. The purpose of the Matrix is to deceive; ‘to keep us under control and change us into this’, says Morpheus, as he holds up a battery. The purpose of fundamental reality, as far as it has any, is simply to exist. The physical human brain straddles this discontinuity of intention and so has the opportunity to develop awareness of the Matrix program and eventually to manipulate it. As Morpheus tells Neo, the freed human mind is stronger than intelligence governed by ‘rules and controls, borders and boundaries’. Within the virtual 20th century world this gives Trinity and Morpheus the ability to run superhumanly fast, leap extraordinary distances and move in ways that humans fully under the illusion cannot hope to withstand. Neo himself develops an even greater ability to control his virtual environment. He starts off by dodging bullets and defying gravity and ends up with complete control over the Matrix program itself. In the film this seems symbolised by the way in which Trinity’s love for Neo – existing outside the Matrix – overcomes his death within it. This makes for a good story, and the reasoning has plausibility.

Fatally for Morpheus’ guarantee of ignorance should Neo take the blue pill, the clues to the discontinuity between reality and the Matrix could occur from experiences arising wholly from within the Matrix program. This might occur in at least two ways. The illusory world is contained within the real world; therefore it can encompass fewer possible events than the real world. Eventually two or more different outputs from the human brain will be returned with exactly the same input, despite detailed understanding down to the most basic physical processes. We would ‘know’ that we had done two different things, in contradiction to our senses. Perhaps this is the cause of Neo’s feeling that there is something wrong with the world; the feeling that Morpheus likens to ‘a splinter in the mind’. Another time a point of no further progress across the universe might appear despite an absence of physical limits. A spacecraft will perhaps come to a halt, disappear or reverse direction without any physical explanation, having exceeded the bounds of the Matrix software. The intention to deceive will have been revealed by the existence of this fundamental discontinuity. We will have discovered for ourselves, without seeking it, that we are living an illusion.

Of course if the illusion is a very sophisticated one, it may take a very, very long time to discover. And so, in deciding what to believe now, time becomes a crucial factor. For truth is not a static, once and for all phenomenon. Some truths are true for all time, but many are not. What is true in 1899 may not be true in 1999 or 2199. The conditions that exist at the time of Neo’s choice may change.

Even if the real world outside the Matrix remains an unpleasant and dangerous place the machines or their computers may not continue indefinitely to make the illusory world a better place. They may develop an alternative source of energy and cease to have any further use for human beings, or find they get more energy from us if they make our lives unpleasant. If we lack awareness of reality outwith the Matrix we are deprived of any chance of improving or escaping our situation. With no knowledge of reality, of the motivations of the machines, how these might change and how soon, we would have no warning and no ability to protect ourselves. We may need to know now if we are to survive.

In summary, Neo can take the blue pill; with one claim for it, that of never knowing the truth rejected, impossible to guarantee over time; and the other, that of a relatively comfortable existence, utterly uncertain. Or he can take the red pill which carries no guarantees, but can potentially give him the chance to understand reality and influence it for the better. The more time passes the more likely this potential is to be fulfilled as human brains process and use the information. We know of no limit to time, and so no limit to this potential. The choice must now be made – the red pill it is.

I suggested that this was more than a philosophical exercise. The insights gained here are generalisable, since they show us an essential connection between truth and time. We can use this to begin to reconcile the three theories of truth. As time progresses different levels of truth, for example that of direct human experience and that of particle physics, will correspond to each other more closely as the connections between them are better understood. With the passage of time, through greater understanding and incremental improvement, knowing what is true seems increasingly certain to lead to what it is preferable to experience. Over unlimited time coherence also becomes a necessary condition for truth, since lack of it shows logical discontinuity. Thus as time tends toward infinity, truth can be identified as the point upon which the correspondence, pragmatic and coherence theories are all converging.

What can this tell us about practical dilemmas that oppose truth and illusion? Over unlimited time we will come to find the truth and also find that we must know it to suit the world to our purposes. Is this rendered irrelevant by the fact that most human problems involve limited time? I don’t believe so, because while time defines change it is in turn defined by it. In which case the faster we can process information, the more effective time we have. Since time is indivisible, we need accept no upper limit to the speed at which we close on the truth and at which we increase the value to us of that truth.

How then do we decide whether to tell someone that they have a terminal illness? The problem is this. If well-being is impaired then time is effectively reduced. Without truth the ability to respond effectively to the situation is reduced. What we can do, although we can’t directly make time infinite, is effectively extend it by making our communication more efficient and more responsive. The more detailed attention we pay to how we transfer information, and to understanding the responses we receive, the more we can obtain of the power held by truth in even the most unpromising reality, whether this be that of our own lives or of Neo’s fictional one in ‘The Matrix.’

Schmitt, Frederick F.(1995), Truth: A Primer, Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado and Oxford.
Hospers, John (1997), An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 4th edition, Routledge: London, pp 41-47.

© Diarmid J G Weir 2010

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