By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
The idea that truth is that which works is the philosophical position known as pragmatism. Briefly summarized, a pragmatist holds the view that “a statement is known to be true if it produces the right results”. This view is typically attributed to William James and his intellectual disciples. It is also often associated with those who pride themselves in the legitimacy of the scientific method. (I agree that the scientific method is legitimate). If the scientific method applied to some hypothesis produces the right and/or predicted result, and can be repeated etc. then it has successfully produced truth as pragmatically defined.
Those who hold to pragmatism may believe in theory, that there is an objective truth out there, yet given human limitations and finitude, there is no way of attaining objective truth, and therefore, pragmatic truth is all we’ve got.
So, is the philosophy of pragmatism a good philosophical outlook to hold? Well, at first it seems plausible because it is true in one sense that we cannot have exhaustive and absolute knowledge about everything, and so, a sort of practical knowledge may be useful. However, just because we cannot have certain knowledge about everything does not mean that we cannot have certain knowledge about some things. And if the foundation of one’s philosophy of knowledge resorts to denying the possibility of certain objective knowledge, such an idea runs into some problems. Let us consider some of the problematic issues of holding to a pragmatic form of truth.
Just because something works does not mean that its true. Truth is that which corresponds to reality and so what is true is not true in virtue of what works, but rather, what is actually the case. One can use all sorts methods to reach some conclusion which for them “works”, but that does not entail that such methods along with the conclusion actually reflects what is the case.
When suggesting that pragmatic truth is all that is available to us finite beings, such an idea evinces all sorts of philosophical problems. To suggest that it is “impossible” to get at objective truth because of human finitude is to say something quite profound about the nature of reality; something of which must be either itself objectively true (not just pragmatically true), which is self defeating to the pragmatic position or, it is to say something about the limits of knowledge that is itself not necessarily objectively true, in which case, we are free to reject it.
In realty, it is objectively true that pragmatism is an inadequate theory of truth and is at base self refuting, especially if it takes the position that objective knowledge is impossible and therefore, pragmatic truth is all that we can hope for. One could always ask the question: Is it objectively true that we cannot obtain objective truth? Or, is it objectively true that we can only have pragmatic truth? Regardless the response, the pragmatist runs up against an inherent contradiction within his own perspective.
Truth exists! The opposite of true is false. Objective truth cannot be denied without affirming it and objective truth about some things can be known. To say there is no truth is itself either true or false. To say that we cannot know truth is itself a truth statement. Is it true that there is no truth? If the person says yes then they have refuted themselves. If the person says no, then one can ask: Is it true that we cannot know truth? The problem becomes evident very quickly.
While pragmatism can be useful in some cases (i.e. science)1 it is a poor theory of knowledge when applied as an all encompassing philosophical theory of knowledge in which objective truth cannot be known, and so man is relegated to pragmatic truth only.
1. Science is a pragmatic discipline. It does not provide certain absolute truths, but rather, it provides theories that work.