Rational Credence and the Value of Truth

Abstract

Belief aims at truth—or so it is said, and there must be something right in the saying. Belief, though, can’t aim literally; it’s we who aim. We aim, moreover, in acting—when we shoot an arrow, say, or more broadly, whenever we act to try to bring something about. Believing isn’t an action; we can’t believe at will. In some extended, metaphorical sense, perhaps, belief does aim at truth. Understanding this sense might even offer a philosopical key to belief. It might in particular tell us something important about rationality in belief. To employ the key, though, we’ll have to understand what literally might underwrite this obscure dictum that belief aims at truth. True belief is useful, we all know: armed with true beliefs, we can most effectively pursue our goals. A youth stands facing two doors; behind one, he has learned, is a lady to marry, and behind the other a ravenous tiger. If he knows the truth as to which door conceals the tiger, he can keep from being its prey. Otherwise, he takes his chances. True belief, then, has value as a guide to action, in pursuit of survival, wedlock, and a host of other goals that a person might have. Sheer usefulness for such ulterior purposes, though, is not the only way that truth in belief can matter. We seek the truth, sometimes, purely to know it. Science at its purest is a search for important truths just to discover and have them. Indeed it’s this disinterested search for truth, perhaps, that underlies rationality in belief of a special kind, a rationality that is not pragmatic but purely epistemic. I share this last intuition, but I cannot make it work. There is such a thing as purely epistemic rationality, I accept, and it may sometimes contrast with pragmatic desirability in belief, with what it’s rational to want to believe. (The man with indications that his wife is having an affair is a stock example; it may be epistemically rational for him to believe that she is, but rational for him to want not to believe it.) And epistemic rationality does

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