Monday Musing: Richard Dawkins, Relativism and Truth

[Please see NOTE at end of this post.*]

Binoculars_3Richard Dawkins has been an intellectual hero of mine since college, where I first read The Selfish Gene. Though I thought I understood the theory of evolution before I read that book, reading it was such a revelation (not to mention sheer enjoyment) that afterward I marveled at the poverty of my own previous understanding. In that (his first) book, Dawkins’s main and brilliant innovation is to look at various biological phenomena from the perspective of a gene, rather than that of the individual who possesses that gene, or the species to which that individual belongs, or some other entity. This seemingly simple perspectival shift turns out to have extraordinary explanatory power, and actually solves many biological puzzles. The delightful pleasure of the book lies in Dawkins’s bringing together his confident command of evolutionary theory with concrete examples drawn from his astoundingly wide knowledge of zoology. Who doesn’t enjoy being told stories about animals? If you haven’t read The Selfish Gene, do yourself a favor: click here to buy it, and read it over the holidays.

I have read all his subsequent books, and Dawkins has only gotten better. Last year around this time, in a roundup of the best books of 2004 here at 3QD, I wrote this about The Ancestor’s Tale:

This is Dawkins’s best book in years, and he has never written less than a brilliant book. The literary conceit which lends the book its title is, of course, that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Dawkins’s tale is that of all of life. Starting in the present he travels back in time to meet the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, then further back to meet other ancestors connecting us to other life forms, and so on, until we are at the origin of life itself. At close to 700 dense pages, the book is filled with a massive amount of biological information. The sweep of Dawkins’s erudition is truly astounding, and if you find yourself getting exhausted at times by the relentless and seemingly endless litany of facts, keep going: at some point toward the end, I had the supremely ecstatic experience of being absolutely awed at the majestic grandeur, variety, and tenacity of the whole history of life, as well as at the prodigious effort that has gone into classifying and understanding it.

Professor Dawkins has also been kind to me personally. Upon hearing of my father’s death earlier this year, he sent a warm note of condolence along with a beautiful passage about death from one of his books, and he has been appreciative of our efforts at 3 Quarks Daily, as you may have noticed if you have ever clicked on our “About Us” page.

I have never had anything much of interest to say about Richard Dawkins’s writings because I agree with 99% of what he says. He has also inspired feelings of gratitude and loyalty in me, so I am loath to disagree with him. But (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?) there is that 1%, and the twin dictates of intellectual honesty and deep respect for Professor Dawkins compel me to say something about that today. I am only able to muster the requisite temerity because our small disagreement is about a subject which I probably have spent much more time studying than he: the philosophical matter of truth. Because I do not have space here to write a lengthy disquisition on truth, my treatment of it here will necessarily be somewhat cursory, but I am hoping that it will be enough to show that Dawkins’s concept of truth is overly simple.

In the past century, scientists seem to have become increasingly hostile to philosophy. Einstein was representative of a dying breed of physicist with a philosophical bent (see this). By the second half of the twentieth century scientists were frequently openly contemptuous toward philosophers. For example, in his popular books, the famous physicist Richard P. Feynman often expresses an impatient disdain for the whole subject: “Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong.” The highjacking of philosophy by literary theory that took place in the 1980s and 1990s in the American academy and its subsequent conflation with cultural studies, minority studies, and other disciplines, mostly indulged by English departments across the country, with all its attendant (and now notorious) obscurantism and lack of rigor, certainly did not help matters. It was only a matter of time before an Alan Sokal would appear to burst that bloated bubble, and he did. Meanwhile, philosophy departments continued their more sober reflections, but science’s attention had by now been focused on the regrettable abuses of science by a handful of postmodernist thinkers. (Where were these welcome objections to nonsense in the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis, by the way?) What has resulted is a widespread tendency on the parts of scientists to not only dismiss philosophy, but to do it in a facile manner, more often than not using the straw man of relativism. And Richard Dawkins has also fallen into this tempting trap.

The second piece in Dawkins’s collection of essays entitled A Devil’s Chaplain is “What is True?” and it begins this way:

A little learning is a dangerous thing. This has never struck me as a particularly profound or wise remark, but it comes into it’s own in the special case where the little learning is in philosophy (as it often is). A scientist who has the temerity to utter the t-word (‘true’) is likely to encounter a form of philosophical heckling which goes something like this:

There is no absolute truth. You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit’s entrails, or the ravings of a prophet up a pole. It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth.

The straw man is being set up here by Dawkins, so that it can be knocked down rather easily later. He cannot possibly expect us to believe that if he were to utter the words “It’s true that whales are mammals,” to his friend Daniel Dennett, say, that Dennett would then respond with the sort of reply that Dawkins has put into the mouth of his imaginary philosopher above. Nor would any other respectable philosopher. The words “true” and “truth” are used in many contexts in English, most of them ordinary everyday usages of the “Is it true that it’s raining outside?” variety, where no normal person will respond with “What is truth?” or some other bizarreness. It is only in highly technical and subtle issues which surround the philosophical notion of truth, such as attempts to pin down what entities the predicate “true” applies to (it doesn’t apply to words, but can apply to sentences, for example), and what it means for something to be “true” in a very general way which would cover all of its usages, etc., that the philosopher might object. Just as “energy” or “work” are technical words in physics, “true” is a technical word in philosophy (as well as in mathematical logic). And just as no normal physicist is going to heckle or object to someone saying, “I did a lot of work today carrying furniture down to the street from my fifth floor apartment,” (no work was done in technical physics terms by carrying things down) no philosopher will object to common uses of “true” or “truth”.

Similarly, I am not sure what Dawkins imagines a relativist to be, but according to his description above, if I say to the relativist, “Snow is green,” the relativist will be happy to accept my statement to be just as true as “Snow is white.” In fact, no normal English-speaking person will agree with me, or agree that my statement is true. To argue that philosophers are naive or wrong is one thing; to imagine that they are insane is quite another. What such a person would probably think and say is that perhaps I don’t know English well, and I am referring to something other than snow with the word “snow”, or that perhaps I don’t know what “green” really means, or even that perhaps I don’t know what “is” is.

There is an important principle in philosophy that any disagreement must take place against a background of much greater agreement. Before we can argue about whether “whales are mammals”, we must at least agree on what “whales” are and what “mammals” are. If I believe that mammals are animals with legs, that walk on land, and always must be so, then we are presumably not even arguing about the same thing.

This brings me to the gist of the matter. What Dawkins is really defending is a particular view of truth: what in philosophy is called the correspondence theory of truth. By contrast to his own fictional philosopher, he is saying that “there is an absolute truth”. In this view of truth, words refer to a reality external to the mind (for example, “hydrogen” refers to a substance consisting of atoms made up of one proton with one electron in orbit around it–ignoring the heavier isotopes of hydrogen), and sentences either capture that reality accurately (correspond to it), in which case they are true; or they don’t, in which case they are false. At first blush this may seem commonsensical and unproblematic, but this is not so. Let me attempt to give a flavor of the difficulties with a quick example: suppose that in the fifth century B.C., Socrates one day came home and said to his wife, “I saw a falling star on my way home,” and also suppose that I came home one night and said to my wife, “I saw a falling star on my way home.” Suppose Socrates and I mean the same thing by each of the words in the sentence. I think it is fairly clear that both our wives would instantly know what we were talking about, and perhaps visualize something similar in their minds’ eye to what we had just seen. But to Socrates, it was literally a falling star, while I know that stars don’t fall, and that it was most likely a meteor being incinerated in the atmosphere, and I was deliberately referring to a meteor as a “falling star.” Now according to me, Socrates’s sentence to his wife was a falsehood, while I told the truth. Both women understood the same thing. Both had no reason to suspect that their husband was telling a falsehood, yet from Dawkins’s point of view, what Socrates said was a falsehood (though he did not know it). And some future scientist may realize that meteors are actually something else, and on that day, suddenly, unbeknownst to me or my wife, my sentence will also become a falsehood. Is this not an odd notion of truth? There are many other problems with this sort of “absolute truth” view, but I must move on.

The other major theory of truth in philosophy is known as the coherence theory. This is a holistic view in which the meanings of words depend on the meanings of other words and so on. There is a “web” or “network” of interdependent meanings, with words at the periphery being pinned down by ostention. Words (or sounds) are initially associated with certain salient aspects of the environment by repetition. If every time we are in the presence of any rabbit, I say “rabbit”, you will eventually understand that the sound “rabbit” refers to a rabbit. I may, by pointing and so on, also define the word “ear”. Now if I say that a “tibbar” is a rabbit that does not have any ears, you will know what I mean. The meaning of “tibbar” then is given by the meanings of the words in terms of which you have understood it, not some external reality of tibbars. Truth in this view, is a predicate which applies to beliefs which cohere with other true beliefs. By this kind of holistic thinking, we get rid of the strangeness we encountered in the last paragraph where the same sentence is judged true when I speak it, but false when Socrates spoke it. Now, when Socrates says, “I saw a falling star on my way home,” all that is required to make this true is that it cohere with his other beliefs. This sort of view gets rid of many of the difficulties of a correspondence theory of truth, but sometimes at the cost of giving up on a certain notion of a fixed and absolute reality.

This may sound a bit odd at first, but is a defensible theory and many (possibly even most) respectable philosophers, including Daniel Dennett, now hold it. What I am trying to say is that it is not automatically wrong and silly to say that “there is no absolute truth.” There are reasonable ways of thinking in which truth is (in a very technical sense) not absolute, but dependent on our web of shared meanings, and our other beliefs. There is no need for these philosophical ideas to do violence to any of our common everyday usages of truth, such as “It is true that Plasmodium causes malaria,” any more than our understanding through atomic physics that solid matter is mostly empty space should prevent us from saying, “It is true that the box is completely filled with iron.”

There is, of course, a lot more than what I have hinted at to all this, but it strikes me as unfair of Dawkins to imply that all philosophers who do not believe in “absolute truth” are being ludicrous relativists. Dawkins has rightly and often urged us to give up on the comforting notions of religious superstition. Why then must we cling to the scientifically comforting notion that there is an absolute truth out there waiting for us to discover it, rather than the idea that truth (in the limited sense I have described above) has to do with who we are and what we make it? Many philosophers know a great deal of science and mathematics. My own advisor at Columbia, David Albert, has a Ph.D. in physics and publishes in quantum theory as well as philosophy. Hilary Putnam is a mathematician as well as a philosopher and holds joint appointments at Harvard. Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland know as much neuroscience as some neuroscientists. I could go on and on. But few scientists take more than a superficial interest in philosophy anymore, and it is their loss. Dawkins is right when he quotes Pope in the first line of “What is True?” above. I can only very respectfully recommend to him and to you to drink deep at the philosophical spring.

[*NOTE: It has become clear to me after looking at some of the responses to this column (here and at other sites) that I almost surely misinterpreted Richard Dawkins’s meaning in the passage that I quoted from his article “What is True?” While I had originally thought that he is attacking philosophers in general, it is now fairly clear to me that he was there only attacking lunatics of the sort that would object to the use of the word “true” in a statement such as “It is true that snow is white.” This does nothing to change my assertion that what Dawkins is really doing in his article is defending a correspondence theory of truth, nor does it in any other significant way change the main thrust of my essay.]

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Reexamining Religion
Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Regarding Regret
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President