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August 10, 2007



"Does the truth matter?". To whom?

Noosa Lee

Hi S&M

I think I'd rather read the book you should write about truth.

Nigel Sedgwick

You seem to be saying that, because some things are a matter of opinion (with which I and, I presume, Bensom and Stangroom agree), there are no absolute truths.

Chapter 1, page 1, paragraph 2: "There are true facts about, for instance, how many people were murdered in horrible terrifying degrading circumstances ..."

And paragraph 3: "It is no great wonder then that we do not always love and embrace the truth. We suspect that at least part of the truth (in some times and places, nearly the whole of it) is that we are a nasty, short, brutal species with a strong taste for torture and murder ..."

The latter part of the quotation from paragraph 3 is, of course, not a truth but an opinion.

This book is about truth, not "truth", and whether it matters. In my opinion, it teaches it is OK to have varying opinions as to the importance of some particular truth to the issue of the moment; it is not OK to deny the very existence of that particular truth (where, for example, its importance is undeniable to all but those on the side of the argument that is disadvantaged by its very existence).

Best regards


Where humans are unique - insofar as we know - is in being able to problematize the truth, to tell stories, to mix myth with "reality." It's postmodernism that's uniquely human, not the notion of an external truth.

I agree entirely about postmodernism being uniquely human. And recent, too.

But about animals not mixing myth with reality, I'm not so sure. When the cat decides where it's safe to sleep, this is based on past (true) experiences, filtered to find the pattern, to have good feelings about certain spots and bad about others. This is something surely very like myth, superstition.

A good book I'm in the process of reading on this issue is Simon Blackburn's Truth: A Guide . (I think. I liked his other writing. etc.)


Nigel - I'm not denying that there are absolute truths. There are many, but they are not interesting.
Even where there is a disputed truth, it's not necessarily important to establish it.
How many people, exactly, died in the holocaust? Only a monster would worry much about establishing the number precisely. "Millions" is the only answer we need. A truer answer than this is unimportant.

Bob B

Aren't we making heavy weather of this?

Did it really matter when Iraq turned out not to have those Weapons of Mass Destruction as Bush and Blair and political colleagues claimed to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003?

Did it really matter if - as happened to me once at the checkout of a well-known UK supermarket chain - you are charged for a non-existent item in your shopping basket which you had not bought and had no intention of buying?

Did it really matter if that same supermarket chain gratuitously added an extra £1 to the printed cover price of The Economist, not just once but for several weeks running? OK, I now get my Economist on subscription so the issue no longer arises but should I trust that same supermarket chain again - ever?


if you want to find the truth of where a mouse is, a cat is better than a human.

True only in a pretty limited set of circumstances, mostly relating to cats having a better sense of smell. To pick a scenario at random, cats don't do mirrors, so any situation in which data from a mirror is necessary to understand where the mouse is is a counter-example.

Geoff Coupe

To paraphrase Daniel Gilbert (from his book 'Stumbling on Happiness'): "The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. ... Until a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer holdiays, or turns down a toffee apple because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my [statement]. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does or ever has, and this simple ubiquitous, ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity."


Trouble is - when the truth smacks you on the nose and says here I am, people turn away becaue it's unfashionable to accept it and entails believing in the metaphysical.

Matt Munro

"The best ways of discovering truths about the external world are to have free speech, openness to new ideas and a willingness to challenge authority even to the point of toppling it - that is, to have an open, egalitarian society".

Violently disgree - there is no correlation between free speech and truth - truth can exist only as a product of empirical method - "Fire burns" is a far more important truth than "freedom of speech" which in and of itself is meaningless - what is "freedom", what is "speech" ? They are not universal truths, they are relativist constructs. Many would argue that the constructivist, po-mo world we have created is an enemy of reason and is causing a retreat into a form of "knowldge" that is mediated by social fashions and influential cliques. We are witnessing the product of this in, for example, the new age religion of environmentalism which is based on superstition, half truths and egocentric moralising rather than science.

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