Respect for truth in science and the humanities

by Dave Maier

As you all know, not that long ago Steven Pinker wrote a piece defending “scientism” as a general approach to intellectual matters, including those usually thought to be beyond the scope of science (e.g. the humanities). Leon Wieseltier responded, restating the standard view that the humanities are indeed beyond the scope of science, except around the edges, so to speak, and reaffirming the common use of “scientism” as a term of abuse, referring for example to a tendency to regard the method of the natural sciences as setting the standard for human inquiry generally, a view Wieseltier considers arrogant.

I'm going to try not to get into the back and forth of this today, as my interest is in Daniel Dennett's brief, testy defense of Pinker against Wieseltier in HuffPo a few weeks ago (and besides, I'm still reading the same book of Dennett's I wrote about last time). Dennett is usually secure enough in his views to avoid the scorched-earth rhetoric of (for example) the other “new atheists”, but Wieseltier seems to have gotten his goat this time. I myself didn't see that much wrong with Wieseltier's essay. Most of the sentences were true, for example, but on the other hand a bunch of true sentences need not a good essay make. After all, there were a lot of true sentences in Pinker's essay too.

Dennett takes offense at what he sees as Wieseltier's blunt, ignorant rejection of Pinker's sincere offer of a friendly hand across the disciplinary divide. Thus he tells us that “Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide.” Indeed, in Intuition Pumps Dennett lists and endorses (psychologist Anatol) Rapoport's Rules of successful criticism. I really like Dennett's version:

1) You should attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says “Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way”.

2) You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3) You should mention anything you learned from your target.

4) Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Dennett admits to some difficulty in following these rules himself, even as in his piece he scolds Wieseltier for his lamentable lack of charity. Nor will I follow them here, as I wouldn't be able to finish (2) or (3), let alone (1) in this short space. But I certainly was struck by Dennett's claim, a mere seven sentences after the bit about “name-calling,” that

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.

Yikes! So much for charity!
But wait, here comes the reply (in my head). Dennett's not sifting the good from the bad here, because the sifting has already occurred. He's talking about the bad only – the careless, then-trendy-now-farcical nihilism that rejects the very idea of truth in favor of a bunch of neverending, jargon-ridden blather. It's that stuff, not anything defensible at all (i.e. as required by Rapoport's (1)), which he thinks has derailed the humanties for years, making humanists like Wieseltier defensive and suspicious of outside influence or attack. While “Wieseltier wants no part of this [pomo nonsense],” says Dennett, “his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism.”

I think this is waaay too strong, but my point here is more specific and a bit off to the side. Dr. Dan's remedy for these germs, as indicated by the title of his piece, is a newfound “respect for truth”, which will allow us to see the value in scientific approaches to what we used to think were the exclusive property of the humanities. I'm actually fine with the idea of humanists borrowing from the sciences if that helps (e.g. in philosophy, where Dennett's own discussion of things like blindsight are really helpful). But this bit about “respect for truth,” especially when tied to the sort of thing that science in particular is good at, sounds awfully similar to a lot of very bad philosophy, and even if Dennett himself is not confused about this (which I'm actually not sure about …), most readers of his piece are likely to be less careful.

The word “postmodernism” became meaningless before I came along. That's too bad, as I would have liked to use it myself – and for a position for which Dennett should not only have some actual sympathy, but may even provide a better platform for his project (and may even be “truer”) than his own stated naturalism. Briefly, if “modernism” means a specifically Cartesian construal of the separation between object and subject – one intended to make sense of, as well as contribute to, the explosion of the natural sciences in the “Modern” period – then “post-modernism” can be a rejection of that specifically Cartesian idea. Dennett is a primary exponent of that rejection in the context of the philosophy of mind, where he subjects the idea of an inner “Cartesian theater” to devastating criticism, quite independently of the idea of an immaterial soul. But in stating that rejection in consistently naturalistic terms, he seems to me to risk unwittingly endorsing it in another sense. Again briefly. if the problem with the Cartesian vision is a dualism between subject and object, then when we see the “Cartesian inner” as an illusion, so should we reject what we might call the “Cartesian outer”: the idea of an “objective” world, “independent” of ourselves in an analogously problematic sense. If we can make sense of the latter rejection as well as the former, without falling into trendy nihilism or whatever, then maybe “postmoderns” is what we should indeed call ourselves.

“Postmodernism” in the dismissive sense Dennett uses is usually considered a Continental thing: Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard; and what supposedly entitles us to dismiss these people is 1) that they are merely self-promoting charlatans, laying down a thick layer of fog to keep everyone from seeing that they've got nothing to say; and 2) that they are relativists who don't believe in truth, but instead in power, or games, or power games. (That (1) and (2) are contradictory is irrelevant, because (1), and if that doesn't satisfy you, (2).) “Respect for truth”, it seems, counters both fog and relativism at once.

But as Dennett well knows, the status of the concept of truth has been hotly debated in Anglo-American philosophy as well, and this is what I worry that Dennett's audience may miss. In this context the issue is not a skeptical rejection of science or anything else. In fact it's the exact opposite: an attack on skepticism, or at least the overtly Cartesian sort advanced by philosophers like Barry Stroud and Peter Unger. Skeptics like this point out that no matter how much evidence you have for something, if that evidence falls short of logically entailing the conclusion (as it inevitably will unless we're talking about math or logic), then it is possible that we are deceived. And if we can't rule out that possibility, then we can't claim to know, or even to be justified in believing.

This position is surprisingly easy to defend, once certain innocent-looking assumptions about the objectivity of knowledge and truth are conceded to the skeptic. In fact those assumptions were (and remain, their skeptical consequences notwithstanding) widely shared, so this was a real problem. But after a lot of ink was spilled to no effect – anti-skeptics brought lame counter-arguments (leaving the fatal assumptions untouched), and skeptics swatted them away – people lost interest and moved on. After all, that sort of skepticism isn't really a workable position. What are scientists, or anyone, supposed to make of it? How are we supposed to figure anything out if we can't know anything, or even have a rational right to believe?

Here's one way to look at it. Rather than starting with some a priori requirements about truth and knowledge, let's start with actual scientific practice. After all, science (and everyday inquiry too) sseems to be working rather well. We “find out” things all the time, and are surprised by our interactions with reality a lot less often than we would if we really had no clue what was going on (again, in science as well as in our lives generally). We're still aiming at truth, but given the radical independence of the objective world, we may never know if we get there. We can refute falsehoods when we discover them, but all we can do to theories which work is to “corroborate” them.

This result is called”fallibilism,” as made famous by Karl Popper. But epistemologically speaking, fallibilism in this sense just is skepticism (that is, the kind we rejected as unworkable) with a respectable haircut. We've basically agreed we can't ever say that we know anything to be true, and yet here we are striving after truth all the same. A natural succeeding thought could then be this: forget truth – that's something that we don't have any control over. We do our best and the world decides to cooperate or it doesn't. If that latter, either we'll notice (say when the rocket blows up) or we won't (it gets to the moon fine anyway). If we do notice, we'll know that we were mistaken, and we'll try again. If we don't notice, then the difference between reality and our beliefs about it didn't come up; and if it doesn't even come up, how important can it be? All we empirical scientists want is a good workable theory with reliable, observable consequences. So what if philosophers balk at calling it “true”?

If “truth” is an airy abstraction best left to metaphysicians, though, what do scientists (and ordinary citizens) have in its place? Well, we've got the practical, empirical justification we started with (sometimes called “warranted assertibility”). But as it happens this move doesn't work any more than fallibilism did. The problem is not with knowledge – that is, with whether we know that something is the case or only believe it – but instead with the content of what is believed. [I'm collapsing the story a bit here, as it was already with explicit reference to the question of meaning that some philosophers (e.g. Michael Dummett) had advanced the idea of “warranted assertibility” in the first place; but since I don't agree that it works there either, I'm skipping this part.) Briefly: to believe that something is the case is to believe that “_____ is the case” is true whether or not we believe it (and even if we don't formulate our belief in words: the world is that way). Warranted assertibility isn't enough; we need truth after all.

Dennett has written some sensible things about the content of belief (see e.g. “Beyond Belief” as well as “Real Patterns”), but his focus has tended to be on the status of belief as a mental, content-bearing state, rather than on the idea of semantic content itself, as manifested not simply in belief but also in utterances (including but not limited to avowals). He has also engaged quite a bit with Richard Rorty, whom he describes somewhere (in the spirit of Rapoport's Rule 2?) as being absolutely right, if you just multiply by a factor of .741 or so (I forget the exact figure). Dennett consistently resists Rorty's pragmatist rejection of the Cartesian fantasy of “objective truth,” preferring to remain loyal to what he calls “Standard Scientific Epistemology and Metaphysics”.

As it happens I share Dennett's qualms about Rorty's version of pragmatism, which seems to me as well to recoil too strongly from the idea of objectivity, when (this is me now, not Dennett) all it needs is a contemporary (postmodern, in the sense of post-17th century?) reconstrual. But my Rorty-correlation factor (RCF) is about .741 as well. If we could figure out how to detach the rejection of the “Cartesian outer” from Rorty's contempt for “objective truth,” we might all be able to get what we want, and no-one would have to call anyone any nasty names.

DavidsonThis is why the specifically semantic aspect of the content of belief is so important here. For another philosopher with a comparable RCF to mine and Dennett's is Donald Davidson, who advanced a radically anti-Cartesian conception of objectivity in his reflections on meaning and truth. But here's the frustrating part. Rorty was one of the first (and still few) philosophers who saw the anti-Cartesian power of Davidson's views; but he never got past what he saw as Davidson's privileging of truth, which he himself made it a point to overcome. As a result, Rorty's own quasi-relativism poisons his use of Davidson, making the real power of the latter's view easy to miss (and thus to read him, as most commenters still do, as just another analytic philosopher of language, out of favor now that “theories of meaning” are outdated).

If we could just rescue Davidson from Rorty's idiosyncratic spin, we would retain the anti-Cartesianism Rorty likes, but shed any fraction of a hint of a suggestion that this view disrespects truth in any way. But now Dennett, hearing this, will probably say: see, you agree! Rorty took us away from truth – not as badly as the French did, but just as unsatisfactorily – and now, as you say, we find (with Davidson, if you like) that it is necessary after all. So, “respect for truth”, right?

Well, yes and no. I referred to Davidson's anti-Cartesianism as radical, as radical an attack on the “Cartesian outer” as Dennett's is on the “inner”, and thus possibly two sides of the same virtuous coin. (Yes, I'm just claiming this here. You can read my dissertation if you want; but I wouldn't recommend it.) But as Rorty seems to imply in his own less radical moments, once we tweak the notion of truth to detach it (and successful science) from the dualistic notion of objectivity, we are no longer in a position to see it as the sole preserve of the natural sciences, i.e., due to their rigorously objective method. We can perfectly well speak of truth as a goal of, or at least a constraint on, humanistic inquiry as well, their ineliminable subjectivity notwithstanding.

That's because it's not the “subjectivity” of bias, but merely the necessary involvement of the subject in creating meaning – and thus truth as well. This point is innocuous in one sense, but radical in another. So it doesn't fit well with Dennett's description of postmodern relativistic bafflegab; but neither does it belong on the side of rigorous scientific objectivity, as opposed to an unending conversation without any hope of progress. That is, without any suggestion that the sciences should change their practices, or that they don't give us knowledge (when they succeed), it reveals as nonsense the idea that the humanities need to adopt a scientific attitude in order to “respect truth”.