Archive for the ‘truth’ Category

Leonard Pitts on “truthiness”

February 18, 2012

Almost sent one of my CoPhi classes to hear nationally-syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts the other day, at the first Seigenthaler lecture of the season on our campus. He talked about “Owning What You Know.”

But I didn’t, and we had a good class discussion on Nietzsche, Darwin, & Mill (et al). But I wish we coulda done both. Pitts delivered a timely reminder that “truthiness” (Stephen Colbert’s term for the dishonesty and disinterest in truth– what Harry Frankfurt calls “Bullshit“– that has taken over so much of our public discourse and philosophy) is simply unacceptable. Ahd yet it is one of the most “salient” features of our culture and our time. Pitts:

The issue is not simply that we do not have the facts, it is that we do not want the facts. It is that we refuse to engage them. It is that we actively reject anything that does not comport with what we have already chosen to believe… trying to turn lies into truth by sheer repetition, of hammering lies like nails… echoed and magnified by a network of bloggers, and radio talk show hosts and TV pundits… brazen falsehoods that fly in the face of science, and history, and facts, and decency.

It threatens grave and profound damage to the intellectual life of the nation, to our ability to simply be thinking and responsible members of the American electorate.

Where to, humanity?” Wherever we’re going as a species, it’ll be a bad trip if we’re not even trying to tell the truth about it.

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squiffy narrative

June 28, 2010

Ian McEwan’s unappealing but misunderstood narcissist/Nobel scientist/energy pioneer Michael Beard responds in Solar to someone’s stated “interest in the forms of narrative that climate science has generated”:

People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value.

He means the kind of people who also go on about “hegemonic” power structures and the social construction of reality to benefit a narrow (white male) elite, as well as the kind of people who prefer to de-construct reality and the very concept of same, who consider no textual narratives reliable enough to merit consistent action and belief, who prefer a stance of ironic detachment from the “so-called facts” etc. Postmodernist feminist relativist subjectivists. Neo-pragmatists.

Some of my best friends are those kinds of people, but I  have to side with Prof. Beard on this one.

The basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop [pumping excess amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere], or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Beard’s troubled personal reality, though, is that he has no grandchildren and does not care deeply enough about anyone else’s. He gives a nice (and oddly controversial) speech about sustaining civilization and ending poverty, but he lives for his own day-to-day gratification.

Fortunately for the rest of us, his self-gratification entails seeking professional success, and that drives him to seek the literal power of light. That means spinning and enacting a narrative about himself that impels work which, if successful, will help sustain civilization and end poverty.

Whatever works, we pragmatists say. Telling a good story and doing good work go together. Self-knowledge of the Socratic kind, though, might be more elusive.

100 monkeys

December 22, 2009

You know the ubiquitous legend (not sure it’s particularly urban) about the hundredth monkey who tips the critical mass and creates a shared attribute of consciousness for all monkeys ever-after? Or something like that. Weird, as I learned in logic class years ago.

The implication is that a collective consciousness can be created by a cadre of initiates who transform their myth into our reality simply by believing. Reality is just that up for grabs, supposedly, for all us primates. This is another of Carl Sagan’s “demons,” and an invitation to philosophical skepticism. Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping points” may be real enough, but they’re incrementally viral– not magical.

But beware, holiday revelers. You can get in big trouble for calling the emperor out and naming this as the nonsense that it is. Better to let people at Christmas parties have their tipping, typing, believing, reality-manifesting monkeys and save the critical thinking for class. Alas.

Will I ever learn? Probably not. But if I do, I want personal credit for my educability. I’m already catching the blame.

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.