The Truth? You Can't Handle the Truth!

The hurried patron spying Why Truth Matters (Continuum) on the new arrivals shelf of a library may assume that it is yet another denunciation of the Republicans. New books defending the “reality-based community” are already thick on the ground – and the publishers' fall catalogs swarm with fresh contributions to the cause.

June 7, 2006

The hurried patron spying Why Truth Matters (Continuum) on the new arrivals shelf of a library may assume that it is yet another denunciation of the Republicans. New books defending the “reality-based community” are already thick on the ground – and the publishers' fall catalogs swarm with fresh contributions to the cause. Last month, at BookExpo America ( the annual trade show for the publishing industry), I saw an especially economical new contribution to the genre: a volume attributed to G.W. Bush under the title Whoops, I Was Wrong. The pages were completely blank.

Such books change nobody’s mind, of course. The market for them is purely a function of how much enthusiasm the choir feels for the sermon being addressed to it. As it turns out, Why Truth Matters has nothing to do with the G.O.P., and everything to do with what is sometimes called the postmodern academic left -– home to cross dressing Nietzschean dupes to the Sokal hoax.

Or so one gathers from the muttering of various shell-shocked Culture Warriors. Like screeds against the neocons, the diatribes contra pomo now tend to be light on data, and heavy on the indignation. (The choir does love indignation.)

Fortunately, Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, is something different. As polemics go, it is short and adequately pugnacious. Yet the authors do not paint their target with too broad a brush. At heart, they are old-fashioned logical empiricists -– or, perhaps, followers of Samuel Johnson, who, upon hearing of Bishop Berkeley’s contention that the objective world does not exist, refuted the argument by kicking a rock. Still, Benson and Stangroom do recognize that there are numerous varieties of contemporary suspicion regarding the concept of truth.

They bend over backwards in search of every plausible good intention behind postmodern epistemic skepticism. And then they kick the rock.

The authors run a Web site of news and commentary, Butterflies and Wheels. And both are editors of The Philosophers’ Magazine, a quarterly journal. In the spirit of full disclosure, it bears mentioning that I write a column for the latter publication.

A fact in no way disposing me, however, to overlook a striking gap in the book’s otherwise excellent index: The lack of any entry for “truth, definition of.” Contacting Ophelia Benson recently for an e-mail interview, that seemed like the place to start.

Q: What is truth? Is there more than one kind? If not, why not?

A: I'll just refer you to jesting Pilate, and let it go at that!

Q: Well, the gripe about jesting Pilate is that "he would not stay for the answer." Whereas I am actually going to stick around and press the point. Your book pays tribute to the human capacity for finding truth, and warns against cultural forces tending to undermine or destroy it. So what's the bottom-line criterion you have in mind for defining truth?  

A: It all depends, as pedants always say, on what you mean by "truth." Sure, in a sense, there is more than one kind. There is emotional truth, for instance, which is ungainsayable and rather pointless to dispute. It is also possible and not necessarily silly to talk about somewhat fuzzy-bordered kinds such as literary truth, aesthetic truth, the truth of experience, and the like.

The kind of truth we are concerned with in the book is the fairly workaday, empirical variety that is (or should be) the goal of academic disciplines such as history and the sciences. We are concerned with pretty routine sorts of factual claim that can be either supported or rejected on the basis of evidence, and with arguments that cast doubt on that very way of proceeding.

Q: Is anybody really making a serious dent in this notion of truth? You hear all the time that the universities are full of postmodernists who think that scientific knowledge is just a Eurocentric fad, and therefore people could flap their wings and fly to the moon if they wanted. And yet you never actually see anyone doing that. At least I haven't, and I go to MLA every year.

A: Of course, there is no shortage of wild claims about what people get up to in universities. Such things make good column fodder, good talk show fodder, good gossip fodder, not to mention another round of the ever-popular game of "Who's Most Anti-Intellectual?" But there are people making some serious dents in this notion of truth and of scientific knowledge, yes. That's essentially the subject matter of Why Truth Matters: the specifics of what claims are being made, in what disciplines, using what arguments.
There are people who argue seriously that, as Sandra Harding puts it, the idea that scientific "knowers" are in principle interchangeable means that "white, Western, economically privileged, heterosexual men can produce knowledge at least as good as anyone else can" and that this appears to be an antidemocratic consequence. Harding's books are still, despite much criticism, widely assigned. There are social constructionists in sociology and philosophy of science who view social context as fully explanatory of the formation of scientific belief and knowledge, while excluding the role of evidence.

There are Afrocentric historians who make factual claims that contradict existing historical evidence, such as the claim that Aristotle stole his philosophy from the library at Alexandria when, as Mary Lefkowitz points out, that library was not built until after Aristotle's death. Lefkowitz was shocked to get no support from her colleagues when she pointed out factual errors of this kind, and even more shocked when the dean of her college (Wellesley) told her that "each of us had a different but equally valid view of history." And so on (there's a lot of the "so on" in the book).
That sort of thing of course filters out into the rest of the world, not surprisingly: People go to university and emerge having picked up the kind of thought Lefkowitz's dean had picked up; such thoughts get into newspaper columns and magazine articles; and the rest of us munch them down with our cornflakes.

We don't quite think we could fly to the moon if we tried hard enough, but we may well think there's something a bit sinister and elitist about scientific knowledge, we may well think that oppressed and marginalized groups should be allowed their own "equally valid" view of history by way of compensation, we may well think "there's no such thing as truth, really."

Q: Your book describes and responds to a considerable range of forms of thought: old fashioned Pyrronic skepticism, "standpoint" epistemology, sociology of knowledge, neopragmatism, pomo, etc. Presumably not all questions about the possibility of a bedrock notion of truth are created equal. What kinds have a strong claim to serious consideration?

A: Actually, much of the range of thought we look at doesn't necessarily ask meta-questions about truth. A lot of it is more like second level or borrowed skepticism or relativism about truth, not argued so much as referenced, or simply assumed; waved at rather than defended. The truth relativism is not itself the point, it's rather a tool for the purpose of making truth-claims that are not supported by evidence or that contradict the evidence. Skepticism and relativism about truth in this context function as a kind of veil or smokescreen to obscure the way ideology shapes the truth-claims that are being made.

As a result much of the activity on the subject takes place on this more humdrum quotidian level, in between metaquestions and bedrock notions of truth, where one can ask if this map is accurate or not, if this bus schedule tells us where and when the bus really does go, if this history text contains falsifications or not, if the charges against this scholar or that tobacco company are based on sound evidence or not.

Meta-questions about truth of course do have a strong claim to serious consideration. Maybe we are brains in vats; maybe we all are, without realizing it, Keanu Reeves; there is no way to establish with certainty that we're not; thus questions on the subject do have a claim to consideration, however unresolvable they are. (At the same time, however unresolvable they are, it is noticeable that on the mundane level of this particular possible world, no one really does take them seriously; no one really does seriously doubt that fire burns or that axes chop.)

Intermediate level questions can also be serious, searching, and worth exploring. Standpoint epistemology is reasonable enough in fields where standpoints are part of the subject matter: histories of experience, of subjective views and mentalities, of oppression, for example, surely need at least to consider the subjective stance of the inquirer. Sociology of knowledge is an essential tool of inquiry into the way interests and institutions can shape research programs and findings, provided it doesn't, as a matter of principle, exclude the causative role of evidence. In short there are, to borrow a distinction of Susan Haack's, sober and inebriated versions of questions about the possibility of truth.

Q: Arguably even the most extremist forms of skepticism can have some beneficial effects -- if only indirectly, by raising the bar for what counts as a true or valid statement. (That's one thumbnail version of intellectual history, anyway: no Sextus Empiricus would mean no Descartes.) Is there any sense in which "epistemic relativism" might have some positive effect, after all?

A: Oh, sure. In fact I think it would be extremely hard to argue the opposite. And the ways in which it could have positive effects seem obvious enough. There's Mill's point about the need for contrary arguments in order to know the grounds of one's own views, for one. Our most warranted beliefs, as he says, have no safeguard to rest on other than a standing invitation to everyone to refute them.

If we know only our own side of the case, we don't know much. Matt Ridley made a related point in a comment on the Kitzmiller Intelligent Design trial for Butterflies and Wheels: "My concern ... is about scientific consensus. In this case I find it absolutely right that the overwhelming nature of the consensus should count against creationism. But there have been plenty of other times when I have been on the other side of the argument and seen what Madison called the despotism of the majority as a bad argument.... I agree with the scientific consensus sometimes but not always, but I do not do so because it is is a consensus. Science does not work that way or Newton, Harvey, Darwin and Wegener would all have been voted into oblivion."

Another way epistemic relativism may be of value is that it is one source (one of many) of insight into what it is that some people dislike and distrust about science and reason. In a way it's a silly argument to say that science is elitist or undemocratic, since it is of course the paradigmatic case of the career open to talent. But in another way it isn't silly at all, because as Michael Young pointed out in the '50s, meritocracy has some harsh side-effects, such as erosion of the sense of self-worth of the putative less talented. Epistemic relativism may function partly as a reminder of that.

The arguments of epistemic relativism may be unconvincing, but some of the unhappiness that prompts the arguments may be more worth taking seriously. However one then has to weigh those effects against the effects of pervasive suspicion of science and reason, and one grows pale with fear. At a time when there are so many theocrats and refugees from the reality-based community on the loose, epistemic relativism doesn't seem to need more encouragement than it already has.


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