Sunday, January 20, 2008

Societal usefulness of truth

Harry G. Frankfurt's much talked about On Truth purports that truth, i.e. the knowledge of true statements, is crucial to the development of advanced societies, and in defense of this view it summons the importance of acquiring true statements to the practice of engineering and medical science. In this section, Frankfurt makes in my opinion a bad exposition of the case because he implies that failure in a engineering or medical endeavour is always due to the acquisition of false statements (like results of field measures or medical tests), thus equating mispractice with falsehood.

Actually, the good practice of an empirical discipline depends on two sets of entities: field data and scientifical theories. A theory provides the justification for a given course of action based on the provided field data, but such theory is certainly not true (in the sense that it reflects a fact of the world or a Wittgensteinian "state of affairs") nor need it be. The quality of a scientifical theory is a delicate matter involving accuracy, causality, falsifiability and even politics, so it cannot be further from the layman concept of truth as a description of facts. So, from the two types of tools an empirical discpline resorts to, data and theories, only the first can be said to be dependent on truth.

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