“‘Is it true?’ — wrong question. Instead, ‘Does it work?’”

Epicureans — the philosophical school, rather than the folks who like overpriced and overwrought food — had the right idea about epistemology: knowledge is what appears to our senses. The Abhidharma Buddhists have similar ideas about knowledge, although their models of sense perception are detailed beyond the necessity of this essay. The senses are an intuitive epistemic foundation, rather than an abstract logical standard, such as truth. And while there are certainly objections to sense perception as the currency of knowledge — such as where the mind and cognition fits into sense perception — it avoids the translation of sense perception and cognition into abstract logical values, e.g. true, false, unknown. In fact, sense perception, and epistemology built upon it functions as if truth values are unknown because truth values are secondary to perceptions.

An example, an Epicurean sitting down to a chili dinner doesn’t verify the truth of her perceptions. At most, she tests whether she can work with those perceptions to do something useful with them, i.e. feed herself. The same holds true if she has to perform some work, like typing an email or mowing the lawn. I submit that truth values enter into her awareness only as secondary values that aid in doing something: she might ask herself, “Is it true that the lawn mower has gasoline?” which is tantamount to asking, “Does the mower have gas?” Or, “Can I start the lawn mower?” Except for an abstract discussion, like those you’ll find between the later Stoics and Skeptics,  Buddhists and Vedantins, Christians and Muslims, Pragmatists and Rationalists, or Republicans and Democrats, truth is not the point of our motivations in the world.

You might want to except religion from that last sentence, but if you do, I think you miss the point. Most religions of which I’m aware seek to promote virtuous actions from their followers, and again, truth (or Truth) plays second fiddle to virtuous actions, e.g. tithing, missionary work, volunteering, doing unto your neighbor, and all that. Regardless of your creed, life is about what we do towards one another, and towards ourselves, rather than the truth-value of our thoughts. Does it even make sense to talk about an action being true?

Since we’re discussing religion, N. N. Taleb has an interesting quip about the function religion on his Twitter feed, “The purpose of Abrahamic religion is not to teach man about God, but to remind him that he is not God.” In one of his books, Antifragile, Taleb proposes the idea that religion is a set of heuristics that has helped people survive many centuries. Bypassing the truth value of any particular religion — Taleb was apparently raised in the Abrahamic tradition of Syria and the Middle East generally — he suggests that religions could be better used as sources of pragmatic tips and tricks to live more fulfilling lives, rather than loci of critique and analysis for logical faults or flaws. In this view, the truth value of a religion’s tenets are secondary to the question, “Does it build a better community?” In fact, this seems to be the question most anti-religious critics want to discuss when the topic of religion is raised — e.g. religious conflicts, religious bigotry impeding education initiatives, religious doctrine impeding health care initiatives, etc. And these are pertinent questions we ought to discuss — who cares whether the religion is “true” (disregarding the debate regarding standards of truth!). Let’s talk about what works: what makes our lives better? What makes them worth living?


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