What is truth – and does it matter?

On my web site is a short essay that has stimulated some thought and discussion by visitors to my site. The essay is entitled “The Reason For Truth” and you can read it here.
The fullest response has come from my former colleague and good friend Derek Bright. I’ve appended it below together with my reaction.
A challenging way to start a new week ….
Feel free to add your thoughts.

Derek’s response to my essay on “Why Truth Matters”
Why the truth deludes us
“Truth is a delusion that attempts to alleviate the discomfort
of our existence through a belief in order”
The above statement can be explored by deconstructing the sentence:
[Fact or belief that is accepted as (true) in keeping with fact and reality] is a [belief or impression that is not real] that attempts to alleviate the ‘[anxiety] of our [state of existing] through a [firmly held opinion] in [a state in which everything is in its correct place].
Despite arguing that truth is a delusion that alleviates the anxiety of our existence through the creation of temporary belief in an order, this does not preclude truth from serving as a useful or even necessary tool that helps humankind interpret the state of existence in which we find ourselves. However what is important is that while we use truth as a useful tool to convey concepts about our state of existence at a particular point in time – it is important to recognise that our belief in what is true will ultimately be proved incorrect by others using a belief or impression that too is not real. So on and so forth.
Neither should we suppose, as each truth is disproved by another set of beliefs or impressions, that the result is a linear path towards ever increasing progress and knowledge. Huge changes in the social order throughout history, such as the end of a civilisation results in new interpretations of the world arising from the new hegemonic order. Furthermore a view of a linear path towards constant progress is in danger of cultural and ethnic arrogance.
Accepted truths are not arrived at in scientific vacuums in spite of the fact that many intellectuals purport to be ethically independent. For example, the Judiciary proudly proclaims its independence from the State and the medical profession swears a Hippocratic Oath and makes much of its independence from the pharmaceutical industry. The Guildford Four or the victims of thalidomide may hold a belief that intellectual independence is more illusionary. The great and good who searched for the truth during the first bloody Sunday enquiry surprisingly found a different truth at a alter date when the hegemonic order was well on the road to implementing a Northern Ireland peace settlement.
The division of 412 to 149 MPs in favour of the Government’s motion to support war in Iraq for many demonstrates just how easily it is to get a large group of well intentioned and influential people to support a truth based on scientific evidence that most barrack room lawyers in public bars up and down the country knew to be shot full of holes. Despite this a belief remains amongst many of this group of MPs that if only they’d been given access to the real truth then everything might have been different rather than accepting that they shared in a delusion that provided convenient order and alleviated their anxiety.
If only Tony had read the letter I sent him at the time history may well have been different. However that was a cheap shot – let’s return to the matter at hand.
Sixteen hundred years ago a man sat in a field near Faversham and looked out to sea. Based on empirical evidence he knew that the earth was flat and the sun rose in the east and set in the west. However his belief that was accepted as truth was in fact a delusion.
Four hundred years ago a man sat in a field near Faversham and watched a fishing boat sail out of harbour. He marvelled at how the world was round and that his world was at the centre the all the stars he saw each night in the sky. As farmer he was reassured that the sun went round the world and came round from the east each morning to help the crops he tended grow. He was reminded each day of the importance of his faith in God as he uncovered the Devils Thunderbolts in the earth when he tilled the soil. However his belief that was accepted as truth was in fact a delusion.
Last year a man sat in a field near Faversham and marvelled at the fact that there might be more than one dimension as the laws of Newtonian physics were now shown to be flawed. Quantum physicists were exploring the theoretical ideas of multi-dimensions, which were necessary to maintain mathematical consistency in the existing view of the world he lived in. He looked at the Belemnite he had found in the field and was fascinated by this pre-historic fossilised sea creature. He wished more fossilised missing links had been found as he still felt there was something in Darwinism. The truth allowed him to make sense of the world he lived in but all that dark matter, which scientists were now claiming made up two thirds of the universe left him somewhat anxious.
An alternative path to truth may be found in the mystic and artistic traditions. We can still use delusional truth based upon science as a useful interpretative tool to help us temporarily conceptualise our state of existence and help change it for the better and actually function within it.
Musicians like mystics describe a continued search for truth. Both aim for and experience an ethereal connection and on such occasions profess to experience feelings of oneness or wholeness. Throughout the history of humankind we know people have used drugs, music and mystical religion to gain this sense of completeness and alleviate the discomfort of their existence.
A man in Faversham spent so long pondering over the truth that his electric kettle ran dry and as a consequence his house burnt down. He sat in a field and played his guitar until his wife came home. She was so annoyed that she hit him on the head with his guitar, collected the children and walked out on him. He neither cared if this was all the truth or a just a delusion but desperately needed a means to alleviate his anxiety.
My reaction to Derek’s response
Hi, Derek.
I’m sorry that I haven’t responded sooner to your piece on “Why the
truth deludes us”. It wasn’t neglect on my part. The piece genuinely
made me think and I needed to read it again and clarify my thoughts.
On reflection, I think that out positions are not that far apart. We
agree that truth serves a useful tool or even necessary tool. I agree
that much of what we believe will probably be proved to be incorrect or
– as I would prefer to put it – incomplete. Also I agree that the
pursuit of knowledge is not always linear and that paradigm shifts can
result in us looking at previous improvements in knowledge or truth very
I really like the parable of the man in the field near Faversham.
However, I struck by the basis on which the views of the man changed. In
each case, the view was changed by what you rightly call “empirical
Where I start to lose you is with the statement: “An alternative path to
truth may be found in the mystic and artistic traditions.” You seem to
be counter-positioning this ‘path’ in contradiction to the “delusional
truth based upon science”. I am unclear whether you regard the
“alternative path to truth” as just as “delusional” as that offered by
science or as just as valid as science or as a superior or preferable
approach to truth. What is your position on this?
In conclusion, I would clarify the views in my web site essay as
tempered by your own essay as follows:
1) In a strict sense, all truth is provisional and stands open to
challenge on the basis of a new interpretation of the available evidence
or the provision of new evidence. The key point here is that it is
evidence – old or new – that is at the heart of the determination.
2) In the meanwhile, the most truthful statements explain and are
consistent with all the currently available evidence.
3 ) On the basis of consistency and utility, the most truthful
statements are likely to be consistent with the current paradigm until
persuasive evidence challenges that paradigm.
4) The most useful truths are those that do simply explain past
phenomena but enable consistently accurate statements about the future.
On the basis of these four points, I support science in preference to
the mystic or spiritual traditions. Do you disagree?