Getting to the Truth: Philosophy and Vaccines

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What is the truth? What are different kinds of truth? What is philosophy? What is useful about philosophy? What are some logical fallacies?

Getting to the Truth: Philosophy and Vaccines

We don’t often talk about philosophy in everyday life. Maybe that’s because philosophy seems like high-level thinking that doesn’t connect with our day-to-day experience. According to its definition, philosophy is “the study of the nature and meaning of the universe and of human life.” (1) The “nature and meaning of the universe?” It sounds a little out there. But the fact is, we’re always engaging in some kind of philosophy because we’re always making assumptions about what is true.
Now, you might be thinking, knowing what’s “true’ isn’t that hard. Even the dictionary simply defines truth as “true facts about something” rather than “things that have been invented or guessed.” (2) Easy, right? Yet, it’s not always so clear when something is true and when our minds are only convincing us that it’s true.
Imagine this situation: when you think you see something move in the dark, you might tell yourself there’s something there. If it turns out to be just a shadow, you’ve fooled yourself into believing something that isn’t true. That means that sometimes we can’t even believe our own eyes. It’s the same with our other senses – hearing, smell, touch, taste. Have you ever touched the water in the bathtub and thought it was super-hot? And then, after a while, your body gets used to the temperature? So was your body wrong? Was it super-hot or was your sense of touch lying to you? It’s hard to say. That’s why we need other ways of testing what is true.

To think more about this idea of “truth,” let’s use the example of vaccines. We’ll review what vaccines are, we’ll discuss what people say about them, and we’ll see how philosophy can help us get to the truth about vaccines.
You’ve probably heard a lot about vaccines lately. Maybe you heard your family or friends talk about COVID-19 vaccines. There’s been a lot on the news about vaccine shortages and vaccine rollouts. You may already know that vaccines are a type of medical technology that uses the natural power of your body’s immune system. (3) Your immune system is designed to fight dangerous bacteria and viruses that might make you sick. When a new virus comes along, your body might not have the right tool to fight it – the right antibodies. By the time your body makes the right tool, the virus has spread in your body, and you could be very, very sick. (4) A vaccine is a way of teaching your body about the new virus and teaching it to create those antibodies before the virus makes you sick. It’s like your body creates a wanted poster for the disease. The next time that disease gets into your body, your immune system knows to attack it, and has the right antibodies to fight it.
Vaccines have been around for over two centuries. (5) They’re safe and effective. In fact, they’ve changed the world for the better like no other medical breakthrough has in the last two-hundred years. (6) That’s impressive!
On the other hand, you might have heard some not-so-good stuff about vaccines. Maybe someone you know doesn’t think the vaccine is a good idea. That person might even say that they are not going to get the vaccine. You might have heard of the “anti-vaxxers” who think vaccines are harmful. It leads to a good question: if the best experts agree that vaccines are safe and effective, then why do so many people believe that’s not true?

When it comes to “believing,” we humans are hardwired to make a lot of mistakes. The human brain is designed to take a lot of shortcuts. (7) It’s kind of lazy. Our brains want to believe in the option that’s the easiest. Or, our brains might choose the option that is closest to what we want to believe or already believe.(8) Our brain likes it when there is an easy pattern to follow or there’s a simple way to explain why something is happening. (9) We prefer to think in terms of stories and anecdotes rather than facts and data. We are also influenced by the people around us and what they expect us to believe. (11) Because of all these reasons, even very smart people are good at making arguments from non-smart reasons. (12) That’s why it’s important to be very careful about what we believe to be “truth.”
Here’s where philosophy comes in. Philosophy tells us to look for truth through reason – through our brain’s ability to think and ask questions, debate and have conversations. There are many types of philosophy. Some types will ask questions like, “what is real?” Other types are concerned with questions like, “what is good or bad?” or “what is beautiful?” The type of philosophy that’s important for our discussion is called “epistemology,” which is just a fancy word for “the study of knowledge.” Epistemology asks: How do we know things? What is knowledge? (13) Remember the example of touching the hot bath water? Well, epistemology asks us to question why our senses fooled us. What does that mean, and what can we learn about our bodies and minds from that experience of “knowledge”?
That brings us back to vaccines. Epistemology asks, “how do we know what we know about vaccines?” The short answer is: science. Science isn’t just a set of facts or knowledge; “it is a way of thinking.” (14) Science thinks about the world through the scientific method, which is a way of testing what is true by using techniques that make sure your thinking is fair, accurate, and free of those shortcuts our brain tends to make. It’s a way of studying the natural and physical world based on facts that you can prove, which is why experiments are so important. (15) Science is a way of acquiring knowledge that entails observation, trial, and results that can be repeated over and over.

Science isn’t usually thought to be a type of “philosophy,” but when we consider what science is and what is does through the lens of epistemology, it proves to be a reliable way of obtaining knowledge.
When our knowledge comes from science, we can be confident that it’s gone through a series of steps to make sure it’s the best possible knowledge we have. (16) Science is far from perfect; but it is the best we have. That’s why we can trust knowledge that comes from science.
We can also look at the information about vaccines that doesn’t come from science. Our philosophical way of thinking makes us ask: Where do these sources get their knowledge? It’s interesting to see that they often use the five signs of non-scientific reasoning: “conspiracy; fake experts; selectivity; impossible expectations; and misrepresentation and false logic.” (17) Arguments that rely on these reasons easily fall apart when faced with logic. Whether they mean to or not, these ways of “knowing” will always let you down.

Let’s recap:

1) Philosophy asks us to think about what knowledge is, where it comes from, and whether it can be trusted.

2) Science is one of the most reliable methods that human beings have to know the truth about the world.

3) Philosophic reasoning suggests that we can trust what science says about vaccines and other COVID-19 information, especially compared to other sources.

Whether you’re thinking about vaccines or something else, make sure your brain is always turned on and not making shortcuts. Investigate claims. Think about what you read and hear. Debate. Ask questions. By borrowing ideas from philosophy, you’ll use your brain to get to the best version of the truth.


  • 5 Hsu, Jennifer L. “A Brief History of Vaccines: Smallpox to the Present,” South Dakota Medicine (2013), 33.
  • 6 Hsu, 37.
  • 7 Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013), 19-30.
  • 8 Kahneman, 19-30.
  • 9 Shermer, Michael, The Believing Brain (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 1-8.
  • 10 MacDonald, Noni E., “Vaccine Misinformation Found Online and What to Do About it.” CCDR 46 (November 2020), 11-12.
  • 11 MacDonald, 11-12.
  • 12 Shermer, Michael, The Believing Brain, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 35-36.
  • 13 Payne, Russ W. An Introduction to Philosophy (Bellevue: Bellevue College Press), 6.
  • 14 Sagan, Carol. Demon Haunted World (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 25.
  • 16 Sagan, Carol, Demon Haunted World (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 27.
  • 17 MacDonald, Noni E., “Vaccine Misinformation Found Online and What to Do About it.” CCDR 46 (November 2020).11-12.


  • Canadian Public Health Association. The Canadian Vaccination Evidence Resource and Exchange Centre. Ottawa (ON): CANVax. Accessed February 10, 2021.
  • Hsu, Jennifer L. “A Brief History of Vaccines: Smallpox to the Present.” South Dakota Medicine (2013): 33-37.
  • Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013.
  • MacDonald, Noni E. “Vaccine Misinformation Found Online and What to Do About it.” CCDR 46 (November 2020):11-12.
  • Payne, Russ W. An Introduction to Philosophy. Bellevue: Bellevue College Press, 2015.
  • Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
  • Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
  • Stern, Alexandra Minna and Howard Markel. “The History of Vaccines and Immunization: Familiar Patterns, New Challenges.” Health Affairs 24.3 (May/June 2005).