Curiosity about trivial things might have evolved. Not because it’s likely to be adaptive, but maybe as a necessary by-product of a drive to understand the world, which is itself useful.
But even if the truth is valuable in itself, that doesn’t mean it’s always better to know. There might still be situations where we should choose ignorance. Indeed, it’s important to distinguish here between intrinsic value and overriding value. Saying that truth has intrinsic value means that something being true is a reason in favour of believing it, and that it might sometimes be good to pursue the truth even when it’s not useful for anything else. It doesn’t mean that the truth is so valuable as to override other things we might value: like pleasure and beauty, for example. So even if truth is intrinsically valuable, we still have to weigh up costs and benefits.
“Intrinsically valuable” means we don’t have to weigh up its costs and benefits. It is the difference between one’s 7 year-old child and one’s 7 year-old computer.
Where does all this leave us? Beyond its practical value, many people feel intuitively that truth might be worth pursuing as an end in itself. But even if truth does have some intrinsic value, there will still be cases where it’s outweighed by other, greater, intrinsic values: I might still be better off avoiding the truth if it would cause me a great deal of pain, for example. This doesn’t mean that truth might not still be worth pursuing in the absence of practical benefits – learning about even obscure topics can be very rewarding for many people.
If a person does not want to know the true state of affairs, apart from practical benefits, there is no point in having a discussion about such matters.
But even if the truth isn’t intrinsically valuable, it’s still possible that we might be best off acting as if it were. Why might seeking the truth as an end in itself be a good strategy? While we can hypothetically distinguish situations where we’re better off knowing from those in which we’d prefer ignorance, in real life, often it’s hard to tell in advance which case we’re in. If you’re worried about some symptoms and considering going to the doctor, you don’t know whether you’re going to end up in the case where a difficult diagnosis saves your life, or the case in which you learn you’ve got an untreatable disease. In reality, we often have to make decisions about whether to learn the truth or not when there’s uncertainty over what the truth will be.
This puts us at risk of making one of two kinds of error: seeking useless (and even harmful) truths, or failing to seek useful truths. Which of these has the bigger downside? If there’s always going to be some uncertainty, which direction should we try to lean in?More.
Having said all this and much more, the author, an Oxford “behavioural” scientist, concedes,
I struggle to think of any time in my life I’ve learned something and wished I’d remained ignorant
So she already knows a fact she does not wish to commend to others. Why not? Because it raises issues about the nature of the universe that she is obliged not to consider?
Unfortunately, this sort of thing, advanced in highbrow mags, usually “evolves” toward a state where big government and other power institutions lie to us “for our own good.” And suppress those who tell the truth.
After all, if truth does not matter, why not outsource creative lying to experts? Why not make listening compulsory (there will be a test later, right?).
Darwinblather: The author has no idea how or even whether curiosity about trivial things “evolved,” as a “by-product” or anything else. The effect of Darwinblather is to make explicit that metaphysical naturalism is the only truth. Popular science culture understands that process implicitly, of course, and readily obeys. We other readers ready ourselves for the next assault on reason.
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