"An Honest and Pure Drive for Truth"

"Deception, flattering, lying, deluding, talking behind the back, putting up a false front, living in borrowed splendor, wearing a mask, hiding behind convention, playing a role for others and for oneself — in short, a continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity — is so much the rule and the law among men that there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and pure drive for truth could have arisen among them." -- Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.
I have mentioned previously on this blog the interesting theory of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that reasoning evolved -- not to nobly discern truths -- but to persuade our fellow apes to cooperate with us. Thus Mercier and Sperber argue:
"The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things."
In other words, those of us who wish in at least some cases to arrive at rational beliefs and rational decisions are somewhat in the position of a person who must drive screws with a hammer -- the tool we have available to us (reason) did not evolve for the purpose to which we wish to employ it, and only by taking the greatest care can we arrive safely at our goal.

I do not think Mercier and Sperber quite address Nietzsche's question of how any of us could actually have "an honest and pure drive for truth".  Moreover, I'm not sure Nietzsche in his later writings maintained that any of us had such a drive.  But I'm curious what you think: Do any of us -- even the rarest of us -- have what Nietzsche called "an honest and pure drive for truth", or do we always have one or another ulterior motive on those occasions when we actually seek the truth (as oppose to a mere justification for our beliefs or actions)?  


  1. I contend (with many Buddhists) that there is not "me" looking for truth. Instead, we are a fluctuating many selves (my image) which are amalgamations of different, often contrary calculators.

    So, in one sense: No, we can not be rationally motivated because the motivation itself is essentially tied with desires/objectives other than logic or reason.

  2. Again I am going to prove the validity of the proposition: you don't need expertise to spout off about something. Here goes.

    I am simply not able to buy the notion (not a scientific theory, which needs tons of rigorous support) that reason evolved to help us persuade others. I think that their thinking so is poor reasoning on their parts.

    Reasoning is involved when a chimp figures out how to get termites to eat by inserting a stick in the mound, or how to get at the meat of a nut by using one stone as an anvil and another as a hammer. Instances could be multiplied of animals figuring things out. Before we could gather in tribes and develop language (necessary for persuading others with argumentation), we had to develop through primitive stages of tool usage, building primitive weapons and traps, etc.

    Only later could artifice and sophistication employ reason to persuade others to support an indolent priestly or kingly retinue.

    Generally, we are imperfect and reason imperfectly in spite of the virtue of reason. Emotions and bias cause us to reason imperfectly. That is why so many independent investigations and cross checks are required before a notion is accepted as factual by scientists. Then many facts may support a law. Finally, many countlessly verified laws converge and are explained by a theory.

    Theories are the most certain knowledge science has. That is why gravity and evolution are called theories. The notion that evolution developed to make us persuasive arguers is only a notion, and a speculative and unsupported one at that.

    See, knowledge not required to spout off!

    Oh, about the question at the end. I think people differ greatly and that there are excellent people as devoted to pursuing the truth as is humanly possible. And of course there are those who are sure they already know the truth that is important to them and are not able to honestly examine what seems obvious to them. And some who don't care. Humanity is a mixed bag.

    My rough rule is, the more heated the communication, the less the communicator is able to reason honestly.

  3. Sabio Lantz-- You wrote "there is not "me" looking for truth. Instead, we are a fluctuating many selves." I find this consoling. I had to decide many years ago not to beat myself with the lash of consistency. When is consistency a lash? When it bends us out of our natural shapes, instead of serving a centralizing function around which our natural shapes grow. At its best, consistency can be a matrix nourishing the rest of the organism. What you wrote helped me understand why it often the enemy of truth and true development instead. Thank you.

  4. The longer I live the less I believe that man is a rational animal.

    In the film, "Men in Black", Tommy Lee Jones said "People are panicky, dumb, dangerous animals." and despite the film being a comedy (and a weird one at that), I think that there's some truth in it and every day I see a lot less logic and sanity in the world -- especially among the the young people.

  5. I think I agree with Exrelayman, that reasoning is more likely to have evolved in order for chimps to figure out how to get juicy edible bugs out of the ground with a stick. I'd guess that reasoning didn't evolve to get others to cooperate with us (primates), but language might have evolved in part for that kind of reason (i.e., to get other chimps to help me get the juicy bugs out of the ground).

    In a book I recently read on the history of philosopher, the author (Julian Marias) argues that the drive for truth really originated with the Greeks (pre-Socratic guys like Heraclitus), and that this was a real innovation. He argues that prior to that, men typically wondered how the things around him (e.g., sticks) could be of use (e.g., to get bugs out of the ground); but the ancient Greeks were the first that we know of to wonder what the things 'are' apart from their usefulness. I don't know if this is true - but an interesting thought.

  6. I can't remember who said that rationality is not merely a logical matter it is also a normative one.
    I agree.

  7. Several months ago I was going to do a post on Mercier's work. Confirmation Bias(CB) drove me -- I have long known that rationality is overplayed and here I have support.

    But on reading about, I found he had many critics -- and as I read the critics (the poison of CB), I lost my desire to do a post.

    As my original comment aludes, I do not think "reason" is one thing. Our brains have thousands of functions (modules) that served our propogation for different benefits (some gone, some just barely-good-enough). Many modules are offer contrary output.

    Finally, there is no "Me" (no self) which coordinates all that. [This is the Buddhist insight] There is no coherent, consistent homunculus with unified traits all of its own (and certainly not "REASON") there to counter the evil idealized thing call EMOTIONS.

    Emotion and thoughts always (always!) occur together.

    So the common press takeawy notion of Mercier's papers are probably mistaken on several levels even if he did get stuff right. I am convince that modules of deception (both self deception and other deception) did evolve and they are used in conversation. See Metzinger's excellent book: The Ego Tunnel.

    (sorry, this was long)

  8. Curiosity is the driving force behind an honest and pure drive for truth.

  9. I long ago gave up my ferverent desire to find Truth when I realized where modern philosophy was going.

    But like many of your readers, it seems, I have turned to Buddhism to seek a different kind of "truth," one that can never be adequately conveyed by words.

    Even if we did find our own Truth, I doubt we could ever convey it to another person.

  10. From my point of view, it seems I am using reason to elucidate a perfectly valid conclusion based on consideration of a variety of evidence. It seems everyone else is imitating reasonable discourse and arriving at conclusions based on logical fallacies. I suppose this is what the world would look like if Sperber is right.

    More seriously, let's not fall into an either/or situation here. Saying that reason evolved as a result of certain factors does not mean that reason cannot be used rationally. Part of our brain is still much like the monkey's, but we have higher functions that allow us to use those tools, not be used by them.

  11. Quote Sabio Lantz: "So, in one sense: No, we can not be rationally motivated because the motivation itself is essentially tied with desires/objectives other than logic or reason."

    I think that's a brilliant point! In the opening of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche remarks that when we ask, "What is true", we should first begin by asking "Who is it that is asking the question" -- which will or drive in us wants to know.

  12. @ Exrelayman: Your point strikes me as brilliant! Surely, we evolved reasoning prior to language! And if that's so, then how can reason have evolved solely to win arguments?

    Thanks for pointing that out!

  13. @ Kay: I agree with you. I used to begin with assumption that people were reasonable and base my expectations of them on that. Now, I begin with the assumption they are only marginally reasonable, if at all, and I base my expectations thus.

  14. @ Jon: I guess I agree with Exrelayman, too. Also, I find your point that language might have evolved -- at least in part -- to persuade others intriguing. On the face of it, it has a certain plausibility. A very creative idea!

    Marias raises an interesting question: When and where did pure speculation first appear? I've never before heard his answer -- that it arose with the Greeks. Offhand, I'm somewhat skeptical of that.

    I know several scholars, however, that believe the Greeks are the first people we have record of to ask for natural explanations. That is, to seek to explain things entirely in terms of natural causes, rather than to incorporate supernatural causes into an explanation.

  15. @ Stephen: If you ever remember who said that, please let me know. I would love to look up their thinking on that!

  16. @ Sabio Lantz: "Emotion and thoughts always (always!) occur together."

    That's something that continues to fascinate me. The Western tendency to perceive a division between thought and emotion had me fooled for several decades!

    "See Metzinger's excellent book: The Ego Tunnel."

    Thanks! I've made a note of it.

    "(sorry, this was long)"

    You, Sir, never need apologize for being too long! I love your comments!

  17. @ Garnet: Bingo! That seems to me spot on!

  18. @ Loren: I completely agree -- the sort of truth one might find through Buddhism is -- as the Buddha himself said -- incommunicable. Only the way to it perhaps might be communicated. At least, that's my understanding it.

  19. @ Lausten North: I agree something that has evolved for one function might still be useful for another function. Good point!

  20. @ Paul Sunstone :
    Thank you for the compliment. You know, someday I will have to read Nietzche -- I am told often that I sound like him. If nothing else, because of the natural lure of Z.

    I must re-emphasize, that I think talking about "Reason" as if it is a unified, identifiable thing is a mistake we inherited from the Greeks. The Greeks also gave us the mistaken idea of the dichotomy between emotions and reason.

    The brain has thousands of calculators kin allegiance, stranger altruism, utilitarian, survival and others whose outputs often contradict each other. It is this mishmash of calculators people loosely call reason. But one of the huge advances of science is to develop checks on all these calculators since they are ALWAYS tied to the limbic system. And the most valuable check is review of others (intersubjective verifiability) in many different forms.

    So we can't say that "reason evolved prior to language" but we can say some calculators developed prior to language and certainly other developed after. There is no one thing called "Reason" -- it is a convenient, deceptive abstraction. Like all abstractions, it may be useful, but don't let it control us.

  21. Sabio,

    I am enjoying what you have to say on this topic, and I think if you carefully re read my first post you will see that I do not make a definition of reason and do not say 'reason evolved prior to language'.

    Whatever reason is, provided we could all agree upon a definition of it (and I cannot readily agree with yours), it seems to have had primitive origins because of its benefit to survival. Most likely it is continuing to develop as we continue to develop. The tool of language gave a great boost to our reasoning ability, no doubt.

    At any rate, your critique provided an opportunity for me to clarify an area which seemingly was not clear enough in my first comment. Thanks.

    I am probably to linear (western?) in my thinking to stretch very far toward the eastern way of thinking, but enjoy the exposure to it that you provide.

  22. @ Sabio: "The brain has thousands of calculators kin allegiance, stranger altruism, utilitarian, survival and others whose outputs often contradict each other. It is this mishmash of calculators people loosely call reason."

    Someone -- I forget who now -- once described the brain as a vast hodgepodge or mess of activities. Over that mess, consciousness somehow moves like a spotlight, first illuminating one activity, then another, and another. In doing so, it creates an illusion that what is going on is not a hodgepodge of often conflicting or contradictory activities, but something more unified and and even thematic. And thus we think of ourselves as a unified whole. I'd be interested to know what you make of their notion?

  23. @ Exrelayman
    Perhaps we agree on important things, but it seems to me you still think of "reason" as a real, concrete thing that is unified in someway and evolves in a coordinated way. My understanding is much more modular and uncoordinated.

    @ Paul Sunstone
    Yeah, that analogy is much closer. But I am not sure how to talk about "consciousness". We can, using your analogy for instance, still that spot light so it does not move so easily. If we still it, and "it" is "consciousness", what is doing the stilling? Likewise we can let it move and yet not let it stay too long in a spot. What is that? Both these processes are familiar ground for meditators.

    But I think your analogy allows good dialogue around this difficult subject.

  24. Sabio, I'm not entirely happy with the metaphor of consciousness as a spotlight either, but I agree it's one way to advance the discussion -- if only of momentary value.

    Who does the stilling of consciousness? Have you come across the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, Sabio? If not, I think you might be interested in his views on meditation.

    In a nutshell, he asserts that any attempt to bring meditation about by actively stilling consciousness leads only to a sort of faux meditation. He goes on from there to propose something radically different.

  25. By the way, Sabio, I learned a thing or two from your post on "deceptive abstractions". Thanks for the link!

  26. @ Paul Sunstone
    Way back in the day, I read some Krishnamurti. And concerning thought-stilling, I think it is a skill but not a goal, I think free-floating awareness more exciting. But I am no idealist of meditation. I believe lots of skills serve lots of purposes and they depend on the person. I like the freedom that skills offer.
    Glad you liked the link.


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