Truth and pragmatics

by Neil Rickert

We make decisions.  That’s a good part of what we do.  For example, I have just decided to compose a post about decision making.

But how do we make decisions?  How do we decide?

Generally speaking, we make some decisions on the basis of what is true.  And we make other decisions on the basis of what works best for us.  That latter kind of decision is usually said to be a pragmatic choice.


If I am solving a mathematical problem such as balancing my checkbook, then I am making decisions based on truth.  If I am working on a logic problem, again that is going to be making decisions based on truth.

I walk into a restaurant, look at the menu, and decide what to order.  That’s normally a pragmatic choice.  It need not be.  Perhaps I have created a rule for myself that if it is Sunday I should order the first item on the menu, if it is Monday I should order the second item, etc.  If I am exactly following those rules, then I am making a decision based on truth.  But that isn’t what we normally do when ordering a meal at a restaurant.

Suppose that I’m traveling. I am waiting to board my flight on United Airlines.  I have a boarding pass in hand, and it lists my seat number.  So it is a matter of truth, that I find the appropriate seat in that airplane.  Alternatively, I might have booked my seat on Southwest Airlines.  Their boarding pass does not assign a seat.  It only assigns a position in line waiting to board.  So when I get into the airplane, I have to look around and find a suitable seat that works for me, that has nearby luggage space, etc.  So that is normally a pragmatic decision.

It’s all truth

Some people take the view that all decisions are based on truth.  If I make a pragmatic decision, then I am deciding based on what works.  According to this “all truth” way of looking at things, I am making that decision because it is true that it works.  So it is really a decision based on truth.

If I use my modest theory of truth, as suggested in a previous post, then this argument doesn’t actually work.  According to that theory, we decide truth based on accepted standards.  But we do not have accepted standards for “what works”, as that varies from person to person.

It’s all pragmatics

An alternative view would be that it is all a matter of pragmatics.  There’s no doubt that solving a mathematical problem uses truth.  But we do mathematics and solve mathematical problems, because it us useful to do so.  The pragmatic choice here, was to solve a mathematical problem.  And truth was then used for following that pragmatic choice.

From this viewpoint, pragmatic decision making and truth based decision making are distinct, or can be distinct.  But our primary decision making is pragmatic, and our use of truth come from that pragmatism.

As a pragmatist, I’m inclined to agree with this viewpoint.  It seems to me that biology is pragmatic at its core.  What works is what survives and reproduces.  What works is what fills our biosphere.

Truth and rule following

Some of the examples that I have given connect truth with rule following.  And that seems to fit pretty well.

We follow rules, because it is often useful to do so.  When we first learn to do a task, we might experiment to find the best ways of carrying out that task.  But as we practice that task, we become more proficient.  And it looks increasingly as if we are following rules, even if we don’t know what those rules are.  Our brain seems to invent rules, as needed, to mechanize and simplify the tasks that we do.

Such rule following is likely throughout the biological world — or, at least, the world of more complex biological organisms.

If we are following rules and we know what those rules are, then we can describe that in terms of truth.  If we don’t know what the rules are, it is harder to describe.  Presumably we do not need an concept of “true” to aid us in following rules where we cannot even articulate the rules themselves.  So even if there is rule following throughout biological systems, it does not follow that non-human organisms conceptualize truth.

For humans, the real need for a concept of “true” comes from our following of rules that come from the society at large.  A concept of “true” allows us to talk about those rules and about following those rules.  And perhaps the rules of language are among the most important of those social/cultural rules.

Wittgenstein has an argument about the impossibility of following rules.  I’m inclined to agree with his argument.  At some future time I will probably post about how it is that we seem to follow rules anyway.

Where do rules come from?

Rules are made up.  Theists may see some rules (such as the ten commandments) as coming from God.  Non-theists will see all rules as coming from us.  Perhaps they are social rules, passed down through society and perhaps modified over time.  But they all seem to originate as human constructs.

As far as I can tell, there are no standards upon which we can base the rules that we make up.  Our only criteria for rules, is that they work.  And that makes rules pragmatic constructs.  Social rules — rules that are shared by a society — are rules that work for the society as a whole.  Sometimes they might not work very well, but keeping the current rules might still work better than changing them, because change is socially disruptive.

If you combine the pragmatic basis for rules with the use of truth for rule following, you begin to get a picture of human decision making.  It starts with pragmatism as the basis for rule formation.  And then the use of truth follows for monitoring compliance with those rules.

The constitution of the USA is an example of this.  The constitution itself seems to be a set of broad pragmatic principles that can be used as the basis for pragmatic judgments.  The legislative bodies enact laws, which are to become social rules that we are supposed to follow.  Those rules must meet the broad pragmatic principles spelled out in the constitution.


We are often said to be agents, or to be autonomous agents.  And “agency” refers to whatever it is that allows us to be agents.

If we are to be autonomous agents, then that requires that we be autonomous decision makers.  So we need a way of making decisions that allows for such autonomy.

The general view of truth, is that it is an external standard.  What is true for you should also be true for me.  But pragmatics is more of an internal requirement.  What works for you might not work for me.  If we are to be autonomous decision makers, then making pragmatic judgments needs to be an important part of our repertoire.

We see this when we look at computers.  The decision making within a computer is entirely a matter of truth and logic, as implemented by the logic gates that constitute much of the hardware.  It is said that computers can also make pragmatic decisions.  But that usually amounts to following rules of pragmatic decision making that were programmed into the computers.  So the actual computation is rule following and thus is truth-based.  It can be pragmatic only in name, but not in any autonomous sense of pragmatism.

The criticism we see of robots, is that they cannot be fully autonomous.  They can be said to make decisions, but those are usually seen to be the decisions dictated by their programming and data, so not truly autonomous.

I should perhaps add that some folk argue that humans are also not truly autonomous.  They argue for determinism — that everything that happens is determined by the laws of physics.  For myself, I have never looked at the laws of physics in that way.  I did consider that view while in high school, but the world does not seem to be as we would expect if there were such determinism.  So I looked for different ways of understanding t he laws of physics.

Theists presumably believe that agency comes to us as a gift from God.  And they also see truth as coming from God.  Presumably they do not see a contradiction in this.  But, for those of us who are not theists, the idea of agency seems to contradict the idea that all decisions are based on truth.  So we need to take pragmatism seriously.


I have discussed truth and pragmatics as ways of making decisions.  My overall view is that pragmatism is our primary decision making ability.  We use that to come up with good rules to follow.  And then we use truth to monitor how well we follow those rules.


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