Tuesday, 24 April 2018

A Skeptical Thought Experiment

Consider the following thought experiment:

An angel shows himself to you. In his hands he holds a book containing every true proposition. Nothing is left out, and nothing can ever be added to the set of propositions contained therein. The book is not to be had for free. In exchange, you must give up something dear. You may give up your ability to perceive beauty—for the rest of your life Beethoven will be indistinguishable from vicious animals growling at one another. You may give up the use of all four of your limbs. You may give up your emotional and sexual health, leaving you a sad, lonely person with unnatural and despicable urges. You may give up the ability to ever feel human love again.

Confronting you is the question of the value of truth. Traditionally, philosophers have claimed the highest value for truth, placing it above all else. But if you had to make the choice between truth and some other valuable thing in life, would you really choose truth? Not everyone would agree that truths can be found in propositions like this. For example, a pragmatist may say that truths are embodied in functional processes. A Platonist or Christian may assert that truth is something lived or conformed to through the virtues and the intellect. But surely, the ambiguous nature of truth cannot be used to argue in favor of its supreme value. Upon inspection it would seems that the propositionalist, the pragmatist, and the Platonist are actually talking about different things, despite all using the word 'truth'.

For modern man, however, truth is conceived primarily as proposition. A true proposition is one that accurately corresponds to reality, or accurately reflects reality. These are the sorts of propositions that are largely taught in schools. These are the sorts of propositions that scientists seek to lay down in systems called theories. These are the sorts of propositions that we call facts. How important are true propositions to you, and how do they compare to the other valuable things in your life?

For further reflections on this topic, see Nietzsche's On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, one of Nietzsche's pieces which inspired this thought experiment.

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