Truthfulness/usefulness and the falsity of their non-usefulness

By Willard Hume

There is an important difference between accepting a theory at a theoretical level and accepting a theory at a practical level which is often not appreciated. The difference has to do with two distinct criteria for evaluating theories; truthfulness and usefulness. To evaluate a theory for truthfulness is to evaluate the theory on how successfully its contents, and the propositions entailed by its contents, capture truth. When we are evaluating for truthfulness, the best theories are those which make only true claims. To evaluate a theory for usefulness is to evaluate a theory in terms of how useful it is in helping us achieve some desired end. When we are evaluating for usefulness the best theories are the theories which are of greatest use.

Often, truthfulness and usefulness go hand in hand. That is, a truthful theory is often a useful theory (and vice versa). An example of this is scientific theories. When a scientific theory is better than its rivals at accounting for empirical evidence and making accurate predictions we usually judge it to be true (or at least we judge it to be the best approximation of the truth). But scientific theories which are true, or approximate the truth, also tend to be more useful because their predictive accuracy gives us a greater ability to anticipate nature.

Sometimes truthfulness and usefulness do not equate. In some cases a theory is useful but not truthful. For example it may be useful for somebody with low self-esteem to believe they are liked by their peers, even though this is false, because it will give them greater confidence. In other cases a theory is truthful but not useful. For example, it may be true that there are 7463 grains of rice in a rice bag and yet this may be of no use to anybody.

The distinction between truthfulness and usefulness in the evaluation of theories may seem fairly straight forward and of little philosophical significance. However, many plausible positions in a range of philosophical debates are overlooked because of a failure to take account of this distinction.  For example, if you met someone who claimed to be a utilitarian and yet you observed them exclusively employing deontological principles in their moral decision making, you might conclude that they were inconsistent. But the distinction between truthfulness and usefulness shows us that this conclusion may not be right. For someone who accepts the truth of utilitarianism may also hold that following deontological moral principles is the most useful way to achieve the utilitarian end of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In this respect they evaluate utilitarianism as the best theory in terms of truthfulness, and thus adopt the greatest happiness for the greatest number as their ultimate end, and yet also judge that following deontological principles is the best way to achieve this end and thus adopt deontology in their moral practice. Subsequently, their belief in utilitarianism at the theoretical level is entirely consistent with their adoption of deontology at the practical level.

This is just one example of how the distinction between truthfulness and usefulness can have philosophical traction. But there are many other philosophical topics where novel positions are available once this distinction is recognized.

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9 responses to “Truthfulness/usefulness and the falsity of their non-usefulness

  1. Firstly, great essay, you make a great point.
    But, I don’t entirely agree that something that is truthful may have no use.
    I would think that something that is truth will ALWAYS have a use, be it for better or for worse, simply because it is a truth and can therefore be used for obtaining conclusions.
    You used the example of a bag of rice containing a specific number of grains being a piece of useless information, but surely someone somewhere could use this fact (or truth, if they can be used synonymously) for something.
    For example, knowing how many grains of rice there are and also the weight of all the grains allows you to conclude what the average weight of a grain of rice is. Therefore, the truth about the number of grains has a use.
    Perhaps you mean to say that some truths have very little use, or at least very little perceivable use compared to others, but this is a matter of circumstance; what is useful to whom? And, who decides?

  2. Ok, good. Your objection is directed at the following claim I made:

    (1) There are some cases where a theory is truthful but not useful.

    For this claim to be true all we need is one case of a truthful theory which is not useful. Even if cases of truthful theories that are not useful are rare (and perhaps they are), as long as there is at least one such case, (1) is true. So is there such a case?

    Well first we should be clear about what is meant by usefulness. In the first paragraph I say that a useful theory is a theory that helps us achieve some desired end. (What ‘us’ refers to here is unspecified, but for now let’s ignores this issue and interpret ‘us’ whatever way we will.)

    Given how I have defined ‘usefulness’, we can now say that (1) is true if there is at least one truthful theory which does not help us achieve a desired end. Are there any such theories? I think there are. Take for example, a true theory which says how many leaves were on a particular tree that existed 100 million years ago. Perhaps we can think of situations where this theory would help us achieve some desired end. But, in the actual world it is likely that none of these situations obtain and thus this theory does not actually help us achieve a desired end. In any case, when we think of the billions of theories about mundane facts it is seems extremely likely that at least one of these theories will not help us achieve any desired ends. Thus (1) seems to be true. (Although, if among our desired ends we include the desire to know every true theory, (1) could be incorrect)

    Now I want to say something about how ‘us’ can be interpreted in the definition I gave of ‘usefulness’. ‘Us’ has many plausible meanings. It could mean: ‘me’, ‘me and you’, ‘my community’, ‘my culture’, ‘all human beings’, ‘all sentient beings’ etc. Which meaning is best? I think this is the wrong question to ask. For ‘usefulness’, I think, is a relative term. Nothing is intrinsically useful. Instead things are only useful relative to some end or some agent who holds an end. Thus the theory of general relativity is not intrinsically useful, although it may be useful for particular things (eg. useful for society, useful for science, useful for calculating gravitational redshift, useful for intimidating others). So, theories aren’t useful simpliciter; theories are only useful for x, where x can be some end or some thing or collection of things which is cable of desiring ends.

    (Note: By ‘theory’ I mean a jointly held set of claims. If this use of ‘theory’ is confusing you can substitute the word ‘proposition’ for the word ‘theory’ in what I have said above.)

  3. In your post, you described a utilitarian who exclusively employs deontological principles. About this person, you wrote both of “adopting deontological principles” and adopting deontology. This is incorrect. Your man will adopt the principles as they are consequentially justified, but he is not adopting deontology. For him, it’s still all about the consequences, whatever appearances may suggest.

    You wrote that usefulness was a matter of ‘ends’: nothing is useful-in-itself, but only useful-in-achieving-some-consequences. This seems to be right. However, it then seems that your notion of ‘usefulness’ has just collapsed into consequentialism. To say a theory is useful is just to say it’s consequentially justified.

    However, forget all that. My main objection runs as follows:
    • You’re trying to do too much.

    You spend a lot of time fretting over the following:

    (1) There are some cases where a theory is truthful but not useful.

    and you try produce increasingly obscure examples, trying desperately to find a valid, unassailable candidate.

    If we accept as a definition of ‘truth’ something like ‘correspondence to the facts’ (a definition which suffers many famous problems, which we’ll casually gloss over here), it is evident that there should be a correlation between truth and usefulness. Any theory which ‘corresponds to the facts’ should help us operate within the world, within those ‘facts’. This correlation you recognise.

    The problem with your argument is that every true theory will be useful in some way. It may only be useful in some tiny, parochial corner of life but the truth is always useful because truth (as correspondence to the facts) necessarily has some application.

    A better argument was offered by Nietzsche, who observed that something’s being true doesn’t automatically make it the most useful candidate. Your case of it being “useful for somebody with low self-esteem to believe they are liked by their peers, even though this is false, because it will give them greater confidence” is a good example of this. Nietzsche questioned the value of truth. If a truth makes us unhappy, where an untruth would make us happy, why should we prefer the truth? What is the value of truth? Is usefulness more valuable than truth, thus should we only value truth when it is the most useful candidate?

    It seems your argument would work much better if you focused on the prejudice of valuing truth over usefulness instead of trying to divorce absolutely the two concepts.

  4. Andy, you make several points, I will respond to each in turn.

    “In your post, you described a utilitarian who exclusively employs deontological principles. About this person, you wrote both of “adopting deontological principles” and adopting deontology. This is incorrect. Your man will adopt the principles as they are consequentially justified, but he is not adopting deontology. For him, it’s still all about the consequences, whatever appearances may suggest.”

    The sentences where I mention adopting deontology were qualified with the phrases ‘in their moral practice’ and ‘at the practical level’. So my claim was not that the woman was adopting deontology simpliciter but only that she was adopting deontology in practice. This seems correct to me as her moral practice conforms to the principles of deontology. But I would be happy to use a different verb if others disagree, and if I did, the point I was making would still hold.

    “You wrote that usefulness was a matter of ‘ends’: nothing is useful-in-itself, but only useful-in-achieving-some-consequences. This seems to be right. However, it then seems that your notion of ‘usefulness’ has just collapsed into consequentialism. To say a theory is useful is just to say it’s consequentially justified.”

    You suggest that my notion of usefulness has collapsed into consequentialism. This is partly correct and partly incorrect. It is partly correct because when we evaluate for usefulness we are concerned with consequences – with the bringing about of certain ends. However, the ends that usefulness is relative to can include the end of cultivating certain virtues or the end of fulfilling certain duties. As such evaluating a theory for usefulness is compatible with both deontology and virtue ethics and does not assume a consequentialist account of morality. In fact, when I talk about usefulness I am not concerned with morality at all but merely with the more general notion of the fulfillment of desires and ends, what might be called practical reasoning.

    “However, forget all that. My main objection runs as follows:
    • You’re trying to do too much.
    You spend a lot of time fretting over the following:
    (1) There are some cases where a theory is truthful but not useful.
    and you try produce increasingly obscure examples, trying desperately to find a valid, unassailable candidate.”

    First, I would prefer it if you could avoid ad hominems (such as describing me as ‘fretting’ and ‘trying desperately’) and stick to criticizing my actual argument.

    The claim made in (1) was only a small part of my original argument. Its purpose was to demonstrate the conceptual distinctness of truth and usefulness (i.e. demonstrate that truth and usefulness are different concepts and also demonstrate that usefulness is not a necessary condition for truth). Rosie raised an objection against (1) so my previous comment was focused on responding to Rosie’s objection.

    I argued that (1) is true, if and only if, there is at least one true theory (in the actual world) which does not help us achieve a desired end (in the actual world). From what you have said I take it that you accept that this biconditional is correct but reject the truth of the right hand side of the biconditional (if this is not the case then please say so). Assuming this is correct, what we disagree about is the following claim:

    (2) There is at least one true theory (in the actual world) which does not help us achieve a desired end (in the actual world).

    I think this claim is true, you think it is false.

    Why do I think this claim is true? Well I think it’s true because I think that the amount of truths there are in the actual world will outrun our desires. There are an enormous amount of truths and many of them are mundane or trivial (eg. My example of a truth about how many leaves were on a particular tree 100 million years ago) Among all these mundane and trivial truths I expect there will be at least one which does not help us achieve an end we desire in the actual world. (In fact, it has just occurred to me that I can construct a proof of (2), using mathematical truths as an example)

    However, this whole debate about whether (1) and (2) are true, is actually not that important. For the truth of (2) is not required for the main point I was making in my original post. As I said above, my reason for claiming (1) was to demonstrate that truth and usefulness are different concepts and also demonstrate that usefulness is not a necessary condition for truth. But this can be demonstrated by pointing out that there are possible worlds where at least one truth is not useful (such worlds are not very hard to envisage). Hence even if we continue to disagree about (1) and (2), it seems that there are still strong reasons for you to agree with me that truth and usefulness are different concepts and also that usefulness is not a necessary condition for truth.

  5. Willard, let me begin by apologizing for the perceived ad hominems. They weren’t supposed to be critical of you, but part of the style I was going for – informal, chatty, etc. Sorry that was unclear.

    Your presentation of the bi-conditional and our difference of opinion was very well-expressed.
    You believe the following is true, I think it false:

    (2) There is at least one true theory (in the actual world) which does not help us achieve a desired end (in the actual world).

    You wrote “There are an enormous amount of truths and many of them are mundane or trivial (eg. My example of a truth about how many leaves were on a particular tree 100 million years ago)” which I also agree with. But neither mundanity nor triviality renders something useless.

    At one point you argue well for a wider conception of ‘useful’ (“the ends that usefulness is relative to can include the end of cultivating certain virtues or the end of fulfilling certain duties”) but at another you narrow it so that usefulness becomes a matter of desire-satisfaction – to “help us achieve an end we desire in the actual world”. Usefulness is certainly wider than desire-satisfaction: something can be useful whether or not anyone has ever desired it.

    Following you in returning to the main thrust of your argument, I certainly agree with you that truth and usefulness are different concepts, but this is a very small claim. You proceeded to argue that something could be true but not useful. We disagree about this, for I believe that usefulness is a necessary condition for truth. I remain unclear about why you think the opposite. Something can be mundane, trivial and undesired but still be useful, in that it can still be put to some practical benefit, no matter how small.

    My suggestion was that your argument would get more mileage if instead you concentrated on something’s being useful but not true – arguing that truth is not a necessary condition for usefulness. This would then set up an interesting discussion on the relative values of truth and usefulness – should we prefer something to be true or to be useful? And I look forward to your response on this matter.

  6. William, you said in response to my earlier comment:
    “useful theory is a theory that helps us achieve some desired end.”.
    I agree with Andy when he suggest that use should be defined beyond the realms of desire.
    Perhaps you are limiting your definition of useful theory and not including, say, pure mathematical applications.
    And just by way of curiosity, does ‘useful’ have to be bounded by something being beneficial?
    I see something having use if it is at all possible to DO something with it; it has a use.
    Am I maybe applying ‘use’ in the wrong way here?

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