The Practical Power of Created Truth
12 January 2024
Philosophers and scientists have pursued truth for at least millennia. Most seem to want something rigid that we might associate with “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” But I contend that pursuit of truth, depending on how we conceive it, may be and often is less important than the pursuit of what works and what creates, contextualized by our shared goals, ultimately informed by our harmonizing esthetics.
Truth, as commonly conceived, is that which corresponds to “reality” or something like an actual state of affairs beyond any appearance or supposition. And it’s something that we can only approach through discovery, if at all. But a pragmatist will point out that there’s an important kind of truth that is created rather than merely discovered. While a common conception of truth is merely static and would be objective through negation of the subjective, the pragmatic conception of truth is dynamic and creative and yet still objective through reconciliation of the subjective.
Trust or faith is necessary for any pursuit of created truth. The creations toward which we work, from personal aspirations to expansive communal projects, are founded in our belief that they are possible. If we suppose something to be impossible, we don’t strenuously pursue it, if we pursue it at all. But if we trust in possibility enough to act, we may gain the knowledge and power we need for realization.
This has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout history. Countless times, individuals and groups have changed the trajectory of civilization (not always for the better) when they dared to imagine and pursue that which others deemed impossible. This form of hope, perhaps ultimately nothing short Herculean in character, has a potent practical power. It’s the lever long enough to move the world.
Such audacity rightly provokes concern about epistemic balance between being less wrong versus more right. Conventional wisdom might wish to err on the side of caution, supposing less wrong to be the better course of action. But life, in all its contingency and complexity, always demands some risk - a perpetual embrace of, or at least allowance for, uncertainty with hope of becoming more right. Prioritizing less wrong over more right leads us to a practical dead end, stifling possibility, and even suffocating life itself.
Proper epistemic balance, balance that is true to life, necessitates a conception of truth that expands beyond that which can be discovered to include that which may depend on our creation. This is practical truth, the sort of truth that actually matters. A merely abstract truth, unchangeable and transcendent, does nothing for us unless someone uses it. Then, when someone finally uses it to create, it transforms us and our world.
We move forward not only by understanding what is, but more importantly by acting on what is. The difference between our civilization and that of our prehuman ancestors is the result of action, at least as much as understanding. An insistence on truth for truth’s sake, severed from the practical, the good, and the beautiful, is nothing more than inaction and stagnation at best.
A pragmatic conception of truth need not, and should not, discard or demean objective truth. For example, applied mathematics can provide awesome power that’s perfectly compatible with and complementary to heroic narratives. Complementarity is not negation, but rather syncretization, as true stories are not merely an accurate accounting of facts, but also a trustworthy empowerment of goals. And, perhaps even more poignantly for those with concerns for objectivity, any “truth” that fails to account for each nuance of subjectivity in the infinite worlds of experience is something less than fully objective.
Discovery of truth, in the pragmatic sense, can and should involve scientific and rational methods. But basic epistemics aren’t enough. We also need courage, compassion, and creation. We need active trust toward potential, and sure commitment toward reconciliation, in all that that is useful, good, and beautiful.
This is the crux of truth. The will to truth, so far as any of us really cares about it, is relentless striving not only to make sense of the world, but to achieve our goals – to create. And, hopefully, our goals include that of raising each other together. Hopefully we care about truth because we recognize that objective reality, our subjective realities, are intricately interwoven stories that we can perpetually recreate for mutual benefit.
By definition, nothing is more important than our goals. Pragmatic truth enables a cognitive flexibility that facilitates continued progress toward achieving our goals. Can we ever know the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the truth in itself? If that’s among our goals, and if it’s possible, we will achieve it only because we embraced the practical reality that at least some truth is created, is continually reshaped by intention and action, and indeed must be so shaped to achieve any of our goals.
Good scientists, we ought not merely uncover what is, but also strive toward what can be. Shed the fear of being more wrong. Dare to hope for being more right. Small certainties, even if possible, are hardly worthy of our aspiration to be knowers.
Good philosophers, let’s drive the perpetual creation of better truth. In the eternal dance between discovery and creation, we actualize ourselves. We do this not as passive observers, but as participants in the dance, as genuine lovers of that wisdom for which we have confessed our love.
The future is at once promising and uncertain. May we not merely be pulled toward it hesitantly, but rather venture into it boldly. May we imagine every good and beautiful truth, and strive unwaveringly toward creating them.
An important kind of truth is created. An important kind of created truth depends on our intention and action for its creation. The future of our civilization is undoubtedly such truth.