• Joe

Truth as an epistemic goal of science

The main goal of inquiry seems to be truth. Though, this has recently been challenged by those working in areas that cut across cultural divides. It seems that science's aim in these cultures isn't truth but something akin to understanding. Even when we look at the history of science in western Europe, we notice that it is not necessarily the case that science has truth as its chief aim.

Karl Popper seems to have gotten something right about the nature of scientific investigation. It is not that we are justified in believing the well-confirmed hypotheses of our best scientific theories are true; rather we should believe that they are the best we have now. But that these theories, and their component parts, could turn out to be entirely false. The hypotheses could turn out to be false, e.g. Einstein's theory of special relativity could be overturned by some other theory. So, it seems safe to say that the goal of scientific inquiry is not truth.

Is truth an ephemeral epistemic ideal not reachable by ordinary means? If so, then we can easily make the case for abandoning it in all of our scientific endeavours. We would abandon it because it is an unattainable goal. Since doing something that has an unattainable goal is fruitless and not worthwhile, attending to truth should not be an epistemic goal of science.

Maybe instead science aims to avoid falsity. For a long time, epistemologists - maybe less broadly speaking truth theorists - have given arguments saying that truth is important and that truth is what we all seek. But if science does not seek truth and if science is applied epistemology (unless you're a naturalized epistemologist of course), then it follows that truth is not something we have to seek. In fact, the contrary might be true. It's just that we want to avoid error!

Some good resources on the matter come from Bill Alston's A Realistic Conception of Truth, ch. 8: "Doing without Truth" (1993), bits of Michael Lynch's True to Life (2004), and Marion David's article "Truth as an Epistemic Goal," in Knowledge, Truth, and Duty (2000).

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