Okay, so truth matters (but what is it?)

by Dave Maier

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks we heard a great deal about the end of moral relativism, the point being that from now on we would all agree that some things are Just Wrong (and since to say so is Just True to boot, this means the end of irony, skepticism, and so forth as well). At the time conservatives were the ones to expound this point most enthusiastically, claiming that the events themselves refuted trendy liberal doctrines of multiculturalism and pluralistic tolerance of difference. Instead, they said, we must simply acknowledge what we all know to be true, such as [… well, actually, for some reason it remains unclear what should go in here, and this is our subject today].

Of course it was not only the political right who was pouring scorn on facile cultural relativism back then. Alan Sokal, of Sokal Hoax fame, had made much the same argument several years earlier. His target too was the political left, but as he reminded us repeatedly, he was himself a proud leftist, having taught mathematics for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. What provoked his stunt, he told us, was that he was upset that what he had taken to be the left's characteristic commitment to, as they like to say, speaking truth to power, was dissolving into a puddle of wishy-washy jargon-ridden postmodern relatvism which scorned the very ideas of truth and rationality as imperialist dogma.

Benson This was all confusing enough as it was. A new wrinkle was added a few years later, when the events leading up to and during the 2003 Iraq war suggested to some that the right wing had its own problem with postmodernism in the ranks, or something at least very similar in its cavalier attitude toward truth and reality. Progressives pounced; and much real and virtual ink was spilled anointing the left as “the reality-based community,” as opposed to the “right-wing postmodernism” in the White House, as well as to creationism, climate change denial, religion itself, and whatever else seemed to fit the bill. Philosophers have not missed this opportunity to prove their relevance to contemporary debate by writing books with the word “truth” (or “true” or “knowledge”) in their titles, and in today's column I will discuss a few of the problems we run into when trying to make sense of these things, especially (paradoxically) when the target is such seemingly low-hanging fruit as postmodern gibberish.

In general I find myself ambivalent about these efforts. I do agree that (for example) most versions of creationism, such as “flood geology,” are so very insane as to justify our rejection of it as due to our own relatively firm basis in reality, and it is difficult to make sense of the idea that we need not be concerned about whether what we believe is in fact the case. However, that very difficulty infects as well our efforts to make sense of the apparently opposite view. The philosophical controversy about the nature of truth may lurk behind these political and cultural controversies, but they are not the same. While some misguided souls seem to be denying plain facts, it is not at all clear that they are denying the status, as “plain facts,” of those things they consider to be plain facts.

In other words, creationists and climate change deniers are not generally relativists or even skeptics. They're skeptical of particular scientific claims – that humans evolved from apelike ancestors, or that human activity has affected the climate – but that doesn't mean that they have abandoned the very idea of rational inquiry into the truth (however rong they may be doin it). They don't think that truth is relative, or even that we can't know the truth. Instead, they think that it is most scientists who are being irrational; that's why they use the terms “creation science” or “evolution skeptic” and “climate skeptic” rather than “denialist” (which after all no one self-ascribes). This means at the very least that we cannot point to the continued existence of such phenomena as showing the pernicious influence of relativistic philosophy.

Similarly, the Bush administration official (rumored to be Karl Rove) responsible for the term “reality-based community” does not seem to me to be defending a relativistic conception of inquiry, but rather using a poor choice of words to emphasize the relative importance of decisive action under uncertain conditions, on the one hand, over inaction due to the suspension of judgment provoked by such uncertainty, on the other. One might very well argue with this view; but to pick one side of that classic trade-off in a particular situation is not at all to abandon the very idea of objective inquiry into how things are. (I know this quotation acts as a proof-text for accusations of right-wing postmodernism, and that my relatively charitable reading is a minority view, but take another look and try it out.)

The term “postmodernism” seems in any case not to fit the conservative worldview. Conservatives are often sharply critical of what they see as the cultural decline of the “modern” world; but surely “pre-modern” is a better term for attacks on modernity from that direction. In the case of creationism, for example, one suspects that behind the skepticism of evolutionary theory lies religious dogma, and this aspect of our problem complicates matters considerably. On the one hand, as the word “dogma” suggests, religious doctrine is generally held by its adherents to be both true and known to be true, and is thus not the place to look for relativism and skepticism. On the other hand, the kind of access we have to religious truth (if such there be) is not what typical “reality-based” inquirers have in mind as “rational,” and indeed there are a number of (in)famous denunciations of human reason in religious literature (e.g. Luther).

Bg_branding This latter aspect of religious doctrine is the sort of thing that really bothers the authors of one of these recent books. Ophelia Benson is the doughty proprietress of the website Butterflies and Wheels (or at least the Notes and Comments blog thereon, here), and with her co-author, philosopher Jeremy Stangroom, she wishes us to know Why Truth Matters. Postmodernism, relativism, and the rest are considered here as challenges to the intellectual tradition of (characteristically) Enlightenment rationality, and while the authors do not discuss religion in detail, this may be because they feel that it is too obvious a case of irrationality to deserve a chapter of its own. The introductory chapter tells us that “the crux of the dispute” concerns how to decide what to believe: should we follow “rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference” or instead “our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions”? We are to see the sad result of the latter most obviously in “religion and related modes of thinking such as New Age, Wicca, paganism [and] the vaguely named 'spirituality'”; and when people defend such beliefs by reference to the happiness they bring, it seems that they do so “without apparently stopping to notice that there may be reasons to prefer true beliefs to false ones.”

The bulk of the book comprises detailed examinations of particular cases. These are not chosen for their silliness, so that we may laugh. In each case the target is serious scholarship, or is at least taken seriously: “science studies,” literary theory, multicultural anthropology, and “difference feminism” get lengthy treatments. The authors are for the most part scrupulously fair, and their critiques are generally convincing; although it remains unclear to this amateur how typical the cases are, such that we may condemn intellectual movements and even entire academic disciplines as infected by the virus of wishful thinking on the basis of these particular cases.

In fact it this very scrupulousness which, paradoxically perhaps, gives me pause. Part of the story on offer is the intellectual sources of, or (if contemporary) intellectual cover provided by, certain writers' resistance to the authors' preferred conception of inquiry into the world. To this end they introduce the ideas of a number of philosophers, past and present. The point is not to refute these thinkers, whose work is conceded to be serious philosophy, but instead to show where the otherwise inexplicably insane doctrines of postmodernist relativism came from – that is, of which ideas the authors' actual target is a possibly very distant and muddled echo. This is a wise decision, as a careful analysis of any of these philosophers' views would take a series of books by itself, and we would never get to talk about homeopathy.

In any case it's not their job to decide the deeper philosophical issues, but instead to see plain nonsense as the nonsense it is. As they put it after a brief overview of one philosopher (I have redacted the name to emphasize, as they do, the point's generality):

For thinkers inclined toward relativism, this kind of stuff is a gift. ________ seems to be suggesting that […] the notion of truth only makes sense in [a] restricted sense; there is no view from nowhere which will give us access to an objective reality that in some way exists outside our attempts to grasp it in language. However, this is philosophy, so no doubt _______ scholars all around the world flinch whenever they hear this kind of thing. But, in quite a strong sense, their flinching is beside the point. It is their job to worry about the nuances of ________'s account. But other people have other agendas, and it is just the case, rightly or wrongly, that ________ has been taken to be a relativist; that he has inspired other self-consciously relativist accounts; and that he provides aid and comfort to those who employ relativist arguments, even if these arguments are not explicitly _______an in form.

I'll let the barb (“aid and comfort,” with its suggestion of treason) slide, as the stated intent here is to shift the brunt of the criticism away from such philosophers and onto those who exploit and (possibly) distort their philosophy for ideological ends. My worry is that the nature of this shift elides issues which may seem substantive only within philosophy, but are in fact crucial to our understanding of the wider phenomenon under discussion. What exactly is wrong with what _________ “seems to be suggesting”? Is what he actually said on the matter really “beside the point,” even if we allow that our real targets have misunderstood him and are simply using him for cover? After all, that's why philosophers think these issues worth discussing in the first place: they affect our understanding of what it is and is not rational to say in real life.

Specifically, my concern is that connecting a disagreement about seemingly commonsensical matters to one about philosophical conceptions of truth and objectivity in this way simply begs the question about the conflation of “common sense” with what are in fact tendentious philosophical doctrines; and indeed comes down on one side of philosophically substantive questions without admitting to so doing. Given the nature of their critique, our authors' point cannot be to bypass philosophy entirely, but instead to peel off from the serious philosophical discussion an uncontroversial philosophical doctrine which we rational people can agree on, and which is all we need to ground our criticism of what thus turns out to be mere irrationality. And what could be more uncontroversial than common sense? Surely we all agree that there's a real world out there! As our president has rightly declared (I forget when, but I'm sure I saw him on TV saying just this), “you can't just make stuff up.” Even most philosophical skeptics agree that it's rational to believe that this or that is true (their claim being best construed as that we have no real understanding of how this can be the case). So there should really be no problem in accepting what philosopher John Searle calls the “default position,” which he calls “external realism,” consisting of the truisms we have just stated: independent world, some (revisable) knowledge of same.

Unfortunately, things are not so simple. Consider how it is that philosophical controversy about truth and objectivity provides cover for ideologically motivated nonsense. We naturally say that our opponents equivocate, illegitimately sliding from a subtle, abstract philosophical distinction to a howler about real life. Accusations of equivocation by themselves, however, simply locate a disagreement; they do not resolve it. Instead, they are symmetrical: for if I seem to you to equivocate, you can seem to me to do the same in corresponding fashion. Here, some philosophers deny an objective world, but continue to speak of truth and falsity in an ordinary way. Are they equivocating? Or are we (as they claim) conflating uncontroversial talk of truth and falsity with a substantive philosophical thesis? Simply to describe the case is not to decide it. Or, rather, how one describes the case betrays the way one has already decided it. If I read that to deny an “independent” world (as philosophical idealists do, and they're not the only ones) is ipso facto to indulge in wishful thinking of the New Age, “you create your own reality, as quantum mechanics shows,” variety, then I suspect our author is taking for granted, as flatly obvious, a decidedly contestable philosophical doctrine of metaphysical realism.

To deny this is precisely to take back the proviso that defenses of _________'s philosophy as not relativistic are “beside the point,” as here the point just is whether what ________ said about our philosophical confusion about the concept of objectivity is in fact instructive, or instead to be dismissed with an offhand remark on the way to the real targets. In other words, if we say of our opponents that they are confusing philosophy with real life, they may reply that, in the (however well-motivated) absence of substantive philosophical argument to the contrary, we are confusing real life with philosophy (which itself concerns the relation of philosophy to real life). In other words, the construal of common-sense truths as uncontroversial philosophical doctrines is itself a controversial philosophical doctrine.

It's important to see where this leaves us (and we do indeed have to leave it here for now). The anti-relativist tried for a philosophical fait accompli, but seems to have taken some short cuts in so doing. This does not decide the case in favor of even respectable philosophical critics (such as ________, above) of Enlightenment rationality, let alone relativistic “science studies” or whatever else. Instead, it sends us back to the philosophical arena to figure out the hard way what we may say without offending common sense (or, if we do, whether we do so unnecessarily), or begging the question in favor of metaphysical realism (as we had before).

This may seem like a mere quibble, and I understand our authors' urge to ignore such niceties in their haste to beat back the forces of darkness. But I hope I can count on their agreement when I say that truth matters.