Truth or Utility
What should we take as an end in itself, the acquisition of true beliefs or the acquisition of useful beliefs? Should we pursue truth, perhaps sometimes at the expense of utility? Or should we purse utility, perhaps sometimes at the expense of truth?
As we saw, this question divided Descartes and Locke. Descartes valued truth (and in fact, definite truth) whereas Locke was prepared to accept the evidence of his senses primarily because this evidence was a useful guide to the avoidance of pain and acquisition of pleasure.
In our study of the philosophy of religion, we’ve seen this question at play again. An advocate of the Cosmological Argument and advocate of the Problem of Evil, however much they differ with regard to religious belief, both agree that beliefs about God should be guided by the pursuit of truth. If we believe that God exists on the basis of the Cosmological Argument, we believe in him because we think that we have good evidence for the truth of his existence. If we believe that God does not exist on the basis of the Problem of Evil, we disbelieve in him because we think that we have good evidence for the truth of his nonexistence.
Pascal, however, departs from this approach. Maintaining that we will never have good evidence for the existence of God, Pascal nonetheless argues that we should believe in God on the grounds this belief has a higher expected utility than the alternatives of atheism and agnosticism.
In advancing this position, Pascal, unlike Locke, grants utility immediate influence over belief. Whereas Locke would advise us to believe that we have bodies because our senses tell us so, and advise us to trust our senses because their evidence tends to be useful, Pascal would have us believe in God directly because this belief will serve us well. Nonetheless, this difference aside, Pascal and Locke share a certain affinity for utility which sets them apart from philosophers like Aquinas and Descartes. And reflection upon Pascal’s Wager can help us to appreciate another distinction which will clarify our understanding of the difference between the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of utility.
Universal vs. Particular Application
If Pascal were here, I’d ask him if he thinks that considerations of utility should impact all of our beliefs, thereby granting utility what we might call “universal application,” or if he thinks that considerations of utility should affect only some of our beliefs, thereby granting utility particular application. In other words, does he think that we should acquire all of our beliefs, including our beliefs about tables, books, and atoms, on the basis of their expected utility, or does he think that only beliefs about God, or some other subset of our beliefs, should be responsive to utility in this way?
Questions for Consideration
· Is it possible to take utility as the end itself for a certain category of our beliefs, and to take truth as the end in itself for the rest of our beliefs? If so, would you advocate this heterogeneous approach? Why or why not?
· Which do you think should govern belief in God – concern with the truth, or concern with utility?