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True to Life – by Michael P. Lynch

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Truth is objective. It is good to believe what is true. Truth is a worthy goal of inquiry. Truth is worth caring about for its own sake.

These are simple statements but they don’t express the principles that most of us follow in our private lives. They aren’t followed in culture and politics, and have been unpopular in the history of philosophy. Few people are constantly, absolutely, painfully truthful. Many people are careless with the truth in many of their words and deeds. Most people don’t trust politicians, advertisers, friends, and lovers to be truthful all the time. There are several lines of philosophical theory that have been skeptical of the possibility of knowing the truth, or cynical about the value of knowing the truth. These academic notions have penetrated popular culture and affect the way people act and talk. Many of the people who have had the benefit of a modern education have adopted post-modern theories that postulate that truth is simply an aspect of a story or theory (a narrative or meta-narrative), and that truth only exists if you choose to live within such a story.

Michael P. Lynch teaches philosophy at the University of Connecticut. “True to Life, Why Truth Matters” is informed by his work as an academic philosopher, but it is short (at 181 pages before endnotes) and clear. Lynch, like the popular Simon Blackburn, is a capable writer who can translate the densities of original work into accessible language without watering down the essence of an argument. I don’t claim to know enough to evaluate the originality of his work, but he seems to deal with his subject in a way that addresses current streams of thought.

He organizes this presentation around the four key points which I listed at the top. He responds to theories that suggest that truth is not objective, or that true beliefs are not important etc. In doing this, he touches on the role of truth in various major bodies of theory in the history of philosophy but he does it cleanly and without digressions.

His arguments are nuanced. He writes clearly but he deals with large topics, and his arguments need to be savoured and re-read. While he dismisses relativism, he also dismisses the religious and secular sanctimony of popular writers like William P. Bennett. He does not think that truth is necessarily self-evident, and he does think that people understand the truth differently, based on their perceptive powers, knowledge and culture. He takes a pluralist approach to political theory.

His discussions of why truth is important for its own sake is very good. He bases his argument on ideas of how people cooperate and live together. In discussing lies, he looks at how people identify and tolerate mild falsehoods and entertaining fictions – literature, gossip and bullshit. He looks at how a lie works, and how it exploits the fact that people trust other people to tell the truth in a direct and simple communication. Lies exploit our basic trust in other people. He also looks at the fact that people, no matter what their religious and political system, and regardless of repression, are alienated by falsehood. He ties this in to the question of whether truth can be defined by a powerful government (using the example of Orwell’s 1984) or a social consensus – challenging much of the post-modern canon. He makes a powerful argument for the idea that truth is an important social value and that people value it in spite of the conventional wisdom and in spite of propaganda.

I found this book to be interesting and readable on its own, and a useful resource in thinking about ethical, political and religious questions.

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About Brave Kelso

  • Tony Dalmyn

    Lynch mentions Hitchens’s “Why Orwell Matters” in one note and draws on it. It seems they agree with each other.

  • Nick Jones

    Oddly enough, I am currently reading Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, which covers some of the same ground.

  • James Carville once said, “There’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Which one do you want?”