Some people at this point might have assumed that philosophy is the quest for truth. This might be true, but philosophy requires nuance and we need to realize that philosophy might not always need to give us “the truth” to be important in our lives. Even if philosophy doesn’t give us “the truth,” it still gives us better and more justified beliefs, which are often more accurate than other beliefs that aren’t based on philosophical thought.
What is “truth?” Aristotle thought that statements are true when they correspond to reality. The statement “the cat is on the mat” is true if there is a real cat on a real mat. Aristotle’s understanding of truth might seem to work well in science. Scientists want to describe reality as it exists and they try to model reality. A model that corresponds to reality well could be said to be “true.” We think scientific theories can sometimes describe reality almost exactly as it actually exists, which helps us know how to make functional computers, safe cars, and effective medicine.
We usually use the word “true” to refer to something quite modest and there could be degrees of truth. Accurate beliefs correspond to reality well and inaccurate beliefs don’t. The belief that most people with eyes can see things seems accurate enough to be called “true.” However, the idea of “absolute truth” seems to require more than generalizations. Instead, something like theories that can model reality with absolute precision seems required. Philosophers would be thrilled to attain absolute truth, infallible certainty, and a complete understanding of reality because it would help them become more rational, ethical, and so on. However, this is probably too much to ask for and philosophy doesn’t guarantee that we will ever attain absolute truth, infallible certainty, or a complete understanding of reality. Instead, philosophy merely helps us be more reasonable and ethical because it helps us attain justified beliefs and justified beliefs are more likely to be accurate than unjustified ones.
Philosophy might be able to help give us many accurate beliefs, but there’s no guarantee that philosophy can help us model reality with absolute precision. Of course, the same thing is true of science—it attempts to model reality as well as possible, but it might never model reality with absolute precision. At the same time I want to say that science and philosophy are still important.
We can’t require that philosophy give us absolute truth or provide us with infallible methods of attaining knowledge just like we can’t require that of science. Even if science fails to provide us with infallible certainty or absolute truth, it is still accurate enough to make several successful predictions necessary to provide us with functional computers, safe cars, and effective medicine. Even if philosophy fails to provide us with infallible certainty or absolute truth, it is still effective enough to help us attain justified beliefs, avoid dogmatism, avoid fanaticism, and live better lives. It helps us become more rational, ethical, appropriately open-minded, and appropriately skeptical.
This was originally published in my ebook,”What is Philosophy?“
I have recently updated many of my free ebooks:
- What is Philosophy? (6/27/11)
- How to Become a Philosopher (6/26/11)
- Contemporary meta-ethics Part 1 (6/24/11)
- Free Introduction to Moral Philosophy (6/22/11)