By R.N. Carmona
Whether Correspondence Theory, Semantic Theory, Coherence theories, Foundationalist theories, Deflationary or Pragmatic theories, every account of truth is missing a factor that philosophers recognize. In fact, attentive, everyday individuals have recognized this factor. So many have captured this factor without confining it to its rightful bottle.
That factor is unpleasantness. A good indicator of truth is the level of unease or discomfort it makes one feel. Let us suppose you believe the complete opposite of a true conclusion, to find out that you’ve been wrong all along is in itself unpleasant. This is not what I’m suggesting. What I’m suggesting is that there’s an unease or discomfort that is inherent to the truth or fact in question, that arises quite often when the truth or fact is expressed.
Take as examples the wage gap in the Western world, evolution, and mortality. If someone were to state that women get paid less than men for doing the same job, an unease or discomfort immediately arises. For he that disagrees, it’s immediate because it’s contrary to what they believe is the case. For one who accepts the fact, the unease arises from the character of the statement itself. To them it is unconscionable that women should make less than men given that they work the same position and stay with the company for a greater or equal length of time. Yet this is the case.
For one who is religious, specifically one subscribing to one of the Abrahamic faiths, the truth that they recognize is the one that coincides with their holy text, be it the Bible, the Torah, or the Qur’an. Evolution, for many of these believers, challenges one of the statements they accept: the notion of special creation. For Christians, human beings were created in God’s triune image. We are distinct from nature in a certain way. Evolution disturbs that portrait and thus, leads to discomfort. But again, this is not the unease I speak of.
The unease I speak of stems from the character of a statement like: we share a common ancestor. If so, we are not distinct from sharks and ants in the way in which we thought. We come from the same source biologically and physics tells us we come from the same source chemically. I am not expressing this to cause debate, but before the beauty of such a picture can be appreciated, discomfort often arises. It was the same unpleasantness that resulted from learning that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system and universe.
In terms of mortality, all people commonly agree. We agree to the degree that we all confirm Terror Management Theory. To some minds, religion and mysticism are ways to cope with and respond to our shared fear of dying. Death is true. Death is inevitable and will happen at one point to me and everyone reading this. Aside from that, its unpredictability is also unsettling. We don’t know when it will happen and we don’t know how; all we know is that it will. Add to that the fact that we also know it’ll happen to those we love. So we are grief stricken long before it happens and once it does, a common stage of dealing with death is denial. The truth in this case is so discomforting that we do not immediately accept it.
On these grounds and others not mentioned, I think unpleasantness should be a pivotal factor in any account of truth. I am speaking here of concrete facts and hard truths, usually philosophical and scientific in nature. I’m not speaking of mundane truths like the location of your local grocery store or the names and ages of your parents.
This factor can be challenged and I’m aware of that. Someone may raise the point that falsehoods can be unpleasant. They will mention the oft stated belief that the more absurd a thing is, the likelier it’s true. A Christian might say that the fact that we’re sinners makes people uncomfortable. The nature of human psychology does make me uncomfortable; we agree in principle, but not on the source of such shortcomings. So this unpleasantness can cut both ways as it is indicator of what may be false as well.
We agree that human psychology isn’t perfect, but they go further and tell us that we can be made clean if we repent and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. There’s an inherent unease in the notion of any scapegoat, divine or otherwise. So while this falsehood is unpleasant if taken as truth, it’s curious that it must be believed as true in order for its unpleasantness to weigh on someone. Then there’s the fact that if it’s recognized as false, one is uneasy and has recognized that this is patently absurd and can’t be the case, especially in light of the fact that any successful system of morality accounts for personal responsibility. If I cast my burdens on Christ, I am no longer accountable for my own improvement; I have passed the buck. So this system can’t be right. A convincing falsehood does well to capture unpleasantness and feature it in its purported truth, so falsehoods confirm unpleasantness rather than challenge it.
So while such a challenge to unpleasantness is interesting and worth attention, it isn’t a decisive blow against this factor. The truth is often tough, if not, outright ugly and horrible. Hard truths and facts are cold, indifferent, and often leave one unsettled. To learn about the children who died in Iraq due to economic destabilization, caused entirely by the US meddling in their affairs, is unsettling for any American with a conscience, any human being who isn’t American, and to anyone who doesn’t have a political axe to grind. To learn that, moreover, the number of children who have died in Iraq is more than the children who died in Hiroshima is more unpleasant still. This is a cold, hard, unpleasant fact that one might deny at first glance. If you find a statement or set of statements that make you feel this way, it is likely you’ve discovered some truth or fact for yourself. As Carl Sagan once stated: “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”