Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Works?

It is claimed it does not matter what is true, only what works. The problem with this is that to say something works is to say it is true that it works. The fact is that relative truth virtually always ends up sneaking truth back in by the back door. That is because, if truth is really relative, it is impossible to know anything. If truth is really relative, I would not be able to know if I am sitting in my living room in front of my computer typing this post or on Waikiki beach lounging in the sun or both at the same time.

Another question it raises is: works to do what? If I stand up and then jump up and down four times, it will work. But unless it has some end in view, it will not accomplish anything useful. And in order to do this, there must be some idea of a goal we are working toward. Otherwise, while we can eliminate things that will not work, there is no way to decide between things that technically work. Even the things that do not work are hard to identify without some end in view. That flapping my arms and jumping off a cliff will not work is based on the assumption that my falling to my death is an undesirable end.

Thomas Dewey answers this by saying we should work to produce progress. But then I must ask, "what is progress?" Now progress means change for the better, which implies some idea of what is better. Now someone could try to claim that whatever happens is progress. Leaving aside if this is really correct, there is still a problem in how to apply it. Either we conclude that anything we do will contribute to what will happen and so everything not strictly impossible works. Or we will need a crystal ball to predict the future so we can know what will happen and fit in with it. All this without having any help from knowing what is true.

What this really amounts to in practice is looking for what works to make me happy, which quickly degenerates into what works to give me pleasure. Now if there is no truth, it is difficult even to determine what brings pleasure, since that implies that it is true it brings pleasure. But we are still faced with the question of whether the only important goal in life is my selfish pleasure and how do I justify that. Also, while it seems easy in the beginning, figuring out what will give me the most pleasure can be tricky. For instance, I have the question of immediate versus long term pleasures, and what gives me pleasure may ultimately depend on my philosophy of life.

The bottom line is that while whether it will work may be one criterion for judging a course of action, as an ultimate principle for living life it simply will not work.

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