A Perspective From Which To View Questions of Truth
Prefatory Note: The following essay is an off-the-cuff summary of some thoughts I have had about the "truth question". I have written it to serve as a point of reference in what I hope will be an intensive and systematic study of epistemology over the next several years. A couple of years ago I wrote a sort of bibliographical history of my dabbling (casual reading) on these issues, in my letter to Richard Rorty. Now that I’m retired, I finally have the time and energy to settle down to a more systematic study. I will try to get a grasp of at least the following: [Fat Chance!!] Classical epistemology (in Plato, Aristotle, Liebnitz, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Vico, Hume, Kant, Berkeley, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dilthey, etc.); Romanticism, seen as a revolt against the Enlightenment (Hamann, Lessing, Schlegel, Herder, Fichte, Schelling, Schiller, etc.); Classical and contemporary pragmatism (Pierce, James, Dewey, Mead, Quine, Davidson, Rorty, Putnam, etc.); Poststructuralism (Foucault, Derrida); Postmodernism (Laclau, Jameson); plus Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Feyerabend, and many others. And so forth. [Fat Chance!!]
The thoughts that follow are amateurish, in that I never had professional philosophical training (although of course I read some philosophy on my own); they do not really stem from professional philosophical debates. It is my hope, in my projected studies, that I will be able to link these musings of mine to such debates. I will also need to go back over the essay to enhance it with better examples and more historical detail for the examples I do give, if it ever comes to the point of my wanting to publish and circulate it more widely. The essay is a follow-up on a series of essays I wrote in the 1970s on these issues.
The main reason I’ve hung onto these strange thoughts through the past thirty years, undeveloped though they are, is because I first had them during the heydays of the revolutionary upsurge in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a brief period, an opened window, in which it was possible to break out of established thought patterns, lift veils, burn away smoke-screens, and see through ideologies. There is hardly a dimension of life that didn’t come under the critical scrutiny of the New Left. Because of the social explosion that we were immersed in we were able to see things from new perspectives and new angles. It seems reasonable to think that we should pay attention to thoughts we had during such episodes of upheaval. Only further study will enable me to decide whether or not there is any value to them.
When considering questions of truth, my point of view will be that of a member of an assembly of deliberative decision-makers. Debates take place, at least formally, within the meeting hall, and votes are taken in those cases which require collective policy. On issues where no common action is required, people will continue to believe whatever they want to, without the necessity of having to reach agreements with other members of the assembly, either through compromise, consensus, or agreeing to go along with some decision-making device, like majority rule. Whether or not an issue requires collective action is of course a decision that also must be taken by the assembly as a whole.
For the purposes of discussion, let’s assume that there are one thousand members in this neighborhood, and that they all are members of the assembly (children and seniors may be not active members, but are included conceptually anyway as members; if their voices were to be counted it would be in the assembly). So we see then that everyone is inside the decision-making unit. There is no outside position.
Once this picture is firmly in mind, it’s not difficult to extrapolate it to all of humanity. We could assume, for example, that every neighborhood, village, or community, was similarly organized. We could even assume that we had the technological ability to have worldwide votes on questions to be decided, in with every person’s voice was counted. In this way we establish that all debates take place within humanity, and that no one is outside humanity. For any human being to be outside the community of human beings is of course logically and physically impossible. Just as it is impossible for any one of us to get out of our own skins and look back on ourselves as an outside observer, so also is it impossible for any one of us to achieve a perspective outside humanity as a whole.
We are each of us of course outside other persons, or so it seems. Actually, we are linked to that other person or those other persons in numerous ways, through biological, linguistic, and cultural ties, such that we are not totally and completely outside them, and thus can never have an outside stance with regard to them, that is, an ‘objective’ stance, where ‘objective’ is taken to mean totally independent from, not influenced by, unrelated to. A person can also be outside a particular tribe, community, or nation, in the sense of not being a member of that unit, but a human person cannot be outside humanity.
In some cases this may be hard to perceive. Assume for example that an anthropologist stumbles upon an isolated tribe somewhere which has never ever seen another human being outside their own tribe, as actually happened a few years back in the Philippines. Isn’t the anthropologist totally independent from, unrelated to, and uninfluenced by those tribesmen and tribeswomen? Well, no. He is a human being after all, just like them, and shares conceptual, perceptual, and sensory capabilities with them, as well as an entire biological nature. So even if the anthropologist never makes contact, but merely observes the tribe from a distance, unseen by anyone, he cannot be considered to be outside the ‘humanity’ of the tribe. (I will consider below the cases of an entomologist observing an ant colony or a physicist observing quarks, and the question of whether or not these observers are "outside’ and hence ‘objective’.)
Alien beings, if they ever come to earth, or if we ever encounter them elsewhere, would be outside humanity, but if they are intelligent, and if an occasion ever arose whereby joint actions were needed involving us and them, then immediately the question of the unit of decision-making would emerge. That is, ‘humanity’ might have to be abandoned as a unit, with the unit now being described as ‘all intelligent beings’. Contemporary science fiction is loaded with stories about how our identity must no longer be restricted to that of ‘human being’ but must be expanded to include intelligent alien creatures as well.
Much of human history in fact has exhibited a process similar to this, wherein isolated tribes, whose members regarded beings from other tribes as barbarians, savages, foreigners, aliens -- that is, "not one of us" (as defined by the tribe) -- came to realize that these foreign ‘savages’ were beings just like themselves. Thus a more inclusive category, ‘human’, came to take the place of more restricted categories like the Uzbeks, Apaches, Franks, Romans.
A similar process has been happening for some time around issues of race. The struggle for the abolition of modern slavery (of Africans mostly) was based in part on the claim, advanced by the slaves themselves as well as abolitionists from other races, that persons with black skin were not inferior beings, but ordinary humans no different than their enslavers, and were therefore deserving of being treated like humans and not like property.
The civil rights struggle in the United States has been in part a demand by African-Americans to be included, as full-fledged citizens, in the nation, rather than being excluded as inferior beings. The indigenous peoples of Mexico are currently engaged in a struggle for recognition. They demand that their culture and customs, their language, their dress, their justice system, their music and dance, their way of life, be recognized as legitimate, and not be marginalized, criminalized, or punished.
Animal rights advocates have for several decades been arguing that the category of ‘human being’ is too restrictive, too narrow, and that the category that we ought to be using as an identity is ‘sentient being’, which would include all living creatures with a nervous system advanced enough to feel pain. They argue that these creatures do have ‘voices’, in that they have needs, desires, and preferences which they make known in various ways. Animal rights advocates argue that the ‘voices’ of all ‘sentient beings’ must be included in our deliberations, not excluded.
In this case, though, since these ‘sentient beings’ do not speak languages like we do, and can never sit in our deliberative assemblies and speak for themselves, someone among us has to speak for them. And then of course disagreements emerge about whether the spokesperson for such beings is interpreting their needs correctly.
This is not an uncommon situation even within the human community. Children for example, especially very young children, cannot sit in our deliberative assemblies and speak for themselves. They will always need advocates therefore -- adult humans who will speak for them and defend, protect, and advance their rights. Actually, it was adult human beings who invented the concept of ‘children’s rights’ in the first place, and started fighting for them. (Some adults of course reject such a notion.) The same considerations apply to the ‘rights’ of the mentally impaired, or to the ‘rights’ of future generations. In each of these cases, it is some able-minded person in the here and now who is defining and defending these rights. In contemporary debates, persons have emerged who are against abortion, who defend the ‘rights’ of fetuses, of the unborn. So this is argued out. Is a fetus actually an independent being who can possess ‘rights’, as an individual, separate from those of the mother? Does personhood begin with conception or with birth? And so forth.
Would a so-called wolf child be outside humanity? Well, no, because the child was born of human parents, even if it became separated from them thereafter. Those rare cases of a child surviving without contact with other humans can be studied for the effect this isolation had on the social, cultural, linguistic, or intellectual development of the child, and so forth, but the child cannot be considered to be outside humanity.
All this may seem obvious and trivial. Unfortunately, there has been a marked tendency among humans to take this ‘outside stance’. It has in fact been the predominant orientation, at least in Western civilization, until quite recently, when a minority has broken free from it. Until quite recently western peoples did not even consider themselves to be a part of nature. They thought they were something separate from it. They thought they stood outside and above nature, and even that their task was to subdue it (in the Christian tradition). Even now the majority does not consider human beings to be a part of the animal world, since humans are not animals in their view, but a different, special, creature. This is probably less true of many archaic societies, like isolated tribal groups, who tend to view themselves as an integral part of nature, like many Indian tribes in North America did. Even before this, in the dim distant past, when animism was current (the belief that inanimate objects have spirits), humans saw themselves as integrated with the world even more strongly. But that is long gone.
Let me take this chance though to introduce our problem, which we’ll be coming back to again and again in the pages that follow. Consider the position of a member of an isolated tribe (a tribe that believes in animism), who claims that rocks, water, and fire do not have spirits. This heretic claims that these things are not living creatures like we are. He or she may even go so far as to claim that trees, flowers, and birds, even though they are living creatures, do not have spirits like we do. Only humans have spirits, the heretic claims.
So this is our situation. On the one hand, we have the heretic or heretics. On the other, majoritarian beliefs. What we have is ‘agreement and disagreement’. We have heretics who believe they are right and the majority which believes it is right. We have the beliefs of the minority and majority, with each side claiming that it is right. And remember, we can extrapolate this situation to humanity as a whole. Remember too, that there is no one outside to whom we can turn to resolve the dispute.
Of course, many people (even most people) believe that there is an outside. Christians, for example, think they can turn to God for the answer, a being they believe is outside nature and humanity, and who knows objective truth, and can thus resolve any dispute. Inconveniently (for Christians), Christians argue among themselves about what God has said, each sect claiming to have the ‘true word’, which obviously diminishes (but not in their own eyes) their claim to have access to an outside (more on this later). Many scientists also believe that they can be observers outside of their chosen object of study, and therefore that they have access to ‘objective truth’. So the argument about whether there is an outside or not is like any other argument or dispute, and involves us in ‘agreement and disagreement’. (I will come back to the inside/outside distinction later and try to show that it best be dropped altogether, that is, the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘subjective’ are just as flawed as the concepts of ‘outside’ and ‘objective’ are.)
Our heretic who rejects animism undoubtedly does so for reasons, and will produce arguments and evidence to persuade others. This is the situation I want to examine. How do we get from a condition where most people believe that rocks and trees have spirits, to a condition where they don’t, and whether, and if so how, it makes any sense to say that one view is ‘true’ and the other is not? We can certainly easily see how a heretic or a majority believes something to be true. Such and such persons can believe something to be true, while others do not. We can easily understand this disagreement, this clash of judgements, this conflict of interpretations. Is it possible ever to have anything more than this? Is there a way to get outside this disagreement, and to have something more than differing judgements or interpretations? If not, why not, and if so, how? Need we remind ourselves that the majority of people in the world today still believe, if not that rocks have spirits, that humans have souls; or that in recent decades there has been a revival in some circles of the belief that plants have feelings, and perhaps even consciousness.
Let me now consider some examples of disputes, the first two illustrations of which I’ll simply pull from an earlier essay:
"Consider a society of masters and slaves but one in which the masters and slaves do not think of themselves as masters and slaves, if you know what I mean. In other words, those people whom some of us would now define as slaves do not so regard themselves. They are of course aware that they are bought and sold but they do not see anything wrong with this. For them it is completely unexceptional, a part of the natural order of things. In other words, they do not define slavery (being bought and sold, owned and ordered) as unjust. Slavery for them is not perceived as a condition of unfreedom.
"We sometimes overlook the fact that we often impose our own definitions on other people and then take as the reality our own perceptions of the situation based on those definitions, when in fact the other people involved reject, or would reject if asked, our interpretations. This is particularly treacherous when the people with such conflicting opinions are separated by time, space, or context. It becomes very easy, across these gaps, to forget that what is at work here is a disagreement among real live people. A twentieth century person with a view of slavery as injustice and unfreedom, introduced into our hypothetical society of masters and slaves, would be just a common heretic, as would be any indigenous member of that society who began to agitate for the freedom of slaves. If no other slaves (or masters) adopted this perception of the situation, that slavery equals unfreedom, as their own, our agitator would remain a heretic. On the other hand, the idea of slavery as unfreedom might gain ground and become first a minority viewpoint and then perhaps a majority viewpoint or even an overwhelming consensus."
"Consider now a society of anthropologists and natives. The anthropologists ask the natives who they are, what they are doing, and what it all means. and the natives tell them who they are, what they are doing, and what it all means, but the anthropologists do not believe the natives. Instead, they claim that the beliefs of the natives are myths, and they assert their own theories about who the natives are, what they are doing, and what it all means, which is their right of course since there is no necessary need to accept the opinions other people have of themselves. As it happens however the anthropologists are backed by powerful rulers in the capitalist countries, and they have the ears of these rulers, whereas the natives are excluded. The views of the anthropologists are thus eventually translated into policy and are then imposed on the natives. In justification of this power play it is argued that the interpretations of the anthropologists are objective and based on fact, while the views of the natives are mere myth.
If however the anthropologists and the natives had been sitting on the same council where every person had one vote and where the anthropologists were in the minority, then the self-conceptions, definitions, and perceptions of the natives would have been turned into policy to shape the social and physical reality, rather than the views of the anthropologists. The question of whose beliefs are myths (ideology) is exposed as nonsensical as soon as everyone is included in the decision-making, since it is then one judgement against another, the views of the natives against those of the anthropologists. When everyone is voting together to establish policy there is precious little to be gained by explaining the origins of your opponents’ views. Rather the whole focus shifts to trying to persuade them to change their minds, that is, to the arguments, to reason." (Both quotes from my essay, The Merits and Limitations of Sartre’s ‘Materialism and Revolution’, July, 1974)
Let me continue with other examples of disputes:
Until the Copernican revolution, most people believed that the earth was flat, and that the heavens were a dome covering it. However, even in ancient times there existed small circles of persons, mainly the ancient mariners, or the Ancient Sea Kings as they are called, who believed ("knew"? -- more on this shortly) that the earth was round. But this was atypical. Now however, at least among educated persons, hardly anyone believes that the earth is flat. Many of us watched on television as the rocket lifted off that carried Armstrong, XXX, and XXX to the moon. And then we saw the Lunar Module land, and Neil Armstrong step out onto the moon for the first time. And we saw the pictures of the earth that were sent back to us from space.
Nevertheless, I happened to see a reference not long ago to the Flat Earth Society of America. For all I know, there may still be pockets (or even thousands, or millions) of people all over the world who believe that the earth is flat. So even on this issue, even if it’s just the one tiny group in this country, there is still majority opinion (which approaches unanimity among educated people in this case) and minority opinion. I mention this not to defend the belief that the earth is flat, or to argue that no one can really know, or to say that whether the earth is flat or round is a relative matter and that it’s okay for the flat earthers to believe the earth is flat, because "it’s true for them", but to point up the social struggle that is involved in questions of truth. Giordano Bruno was burned to death as a heretic in 1600 by the Catholic Church in Rome for defending Copernicus (among other heresies).
So you could say that during the past few centuries the truth won out. It seems natural to say this, to say, for example, that we know more now than we did then, or that knowledge has accumulated. I hesitate though, for present purposes, to use the term ‘knowledge’, because such a term already implies an outside stance. It conveys the impression that this ‘knowledge’ is outside us, independent of us, and is no longer a matter of our interpretation and judgement. It implies that we have escaped ourselves, our bodies, our minds, and ‘know’ (have objective knowledge of) what the world is ‘really like’. It seems natural to say that the flat earthers are simply wrong.
Nevertheless, to say this, I think, is misleading, muddies the picture, and is not a fruitful way of talking. We can understand this if we return to our image of deliberating assemblies (or we might simply think more colloquially in terms of ‘the court of public opinion’). Four hundred years ago, the majority believed that the earth was flat. Now the majority believes that it is round. But let’s say that some issue came up in our assemblies, over how to allocate some surplus resources, with some people wanting to build a rocket to go to the moon, but with the flat earthers among us arguing that that was impossible because the earth is flat. So in order to take this vote, the round earthers present their arguments and evidence, and the flat earthers do the same, and then the assembly decides. (Remember, everyone is included in the deliberations in our directly democratic world, including the members of the Flat Earth Society). So we can see that it remains a question of judgement and interpretation, of weighing evidence and evaluating theories. The majority won in this case (hypothetically speaking), and we went to the moon. A similar debate took place in 1600 in Rome at the trial of Giordano Bruno, but with the opposite result, and Bruno was burned at the stake.
It is my argument that at any given moment, all you can have is agreement and disagreement, a majority that believes it is right and a minority that believes it is right (to simplify matters somewhat, since there could be more than two positions, as well as some people who can’t decide). But because of the passage of time, an illusion is created that ‘the majority can be wrong’. How so? Well, what the majority once believed was right, has now been ‘proved’ to be wrong -- but this is in the opinion of the present majority. Over time, the judgement of the majority about a particular issue has shifted, for whatever reasons. In this case, since a considerable time span is involved, the majority is composed of different persons even, but this does not change anything. There are plenty of cases, of shifting majority judgements, which take place over short periods of time involving exactly the same persons. We used to believe something, now we don’t. We start getting into trouble when we call this ‘knowledge’. What the majority used to believe, but now rejects, is attributed to the accumulation or acquisition of ‘knowledge’. This hides the fact that it is still an interpretation, a judgment, taken in the present. Instead, it creates the illusion that this knowledge is outside us and objective, and unrelated to our present interpretations and judgments.
At the point of decision, in the present, when the vote is taken, it is nonsensical to say that ‘the majority can be wrong’. How could it be otherwise? All you have is a majority that judges the minority to be wrong, and a minority that judges the majority to be wrong? There is no outside judge to settle the issue. The is no ‘outside’ or ‘objective’ way that the wrongness or rightness of the issue can be established, since none of us can get outside our skins, and no one is outside society or history. There is only the disagreement among the present disputants, no matter how sophisticated their procedures are, or how thoroughly they have prepared their arguments and marshaled their evidence. There is only the vote, where necessary, to decide the issue, and establish communal policies.
An aside: It is not necessarily the case that most people now believe the earth is round because it is true that the earth is round. Most average persons have no direct evidence that the earth is round, any more than the average person had centuries ago. A lot of what average people now believe is actually based on faith, on our belief in science, and on the prestige we have granted it. We trust the procedures scientists use to arrive at the truth. Majoritarian beliefs can change though for any number of reasons not necessarily related to improved ‘knowledge’. I have been alarmed at the resurgence in recent years of right-wing christian fundamentalism. How can we account for this? It certainly has nothing to do with science, unless it is partly a negative reaction to a science gone awry, a science co-opted by corporations, a science run amok. There are angels, ghosts, and spirits now in every other movie. Life after death is taken as a given. Which highlights once again, from another angle, my contention that all we ever have is agreement and disagreement, human judgement, conflicting interpretations, and so forth, not ‘truth’. What if we had neighborhood assemblies right now, and everyone was in one, and secular and religious persons had to deal with each other, debate each other, on the issues? What if an issue came up that required a decision about whether humans have souls or not? How on earth (let alone heaven) could this ever be resolved? It can’t be, at least not in the short run, not in the present, maybe never (considering the staying power of christianity); that is, christians may never change their minds on this. Apparently, there is no argument, no evidence, that you can ever present that will persuade christians that there is no soul, no life after death. At least that is my impression. So public policy, so far as it relates to this belief, will be set by which ever side is in the majority, or otherwise has more power. We see this happening now in the United States in the new Bush administration (2001). Conservative christians, through their alliance with the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, have achieved power on the national level, defeating secularists, and are busy translating their beliefs into public policy, especially with regard to similarly unresolvable disagreements about abortion and homosexuality.
Here is a contemporary dispute in which an overwhelming consensus has been reached over the past ten or fifteen years among the world’s scientists both as to the existence of global warming and to the fact that this warming can be attributed to human activity. All indications are that this judgement is based on solid, sound science. There is a tiny minority of scientists however who disagree. Their critics point out that these few scientists are funded to a considerable extent by fossil fuel corporations or are otherwise beholden to that industry.
This introduces a new element into our deliberations about ‘truth’. So far we have been assuming, that as we deliberate issues, all sides are ‘honestly seeking the truth’. This need not be the case however. There can be cases of outright fraud, as well as cases of ‘vested interests’. In the latter though, deliberate lying need not be present. These scientists may sincerely believe what they are saying, even though others may think that vested interests have clouded their judgements. (Increasingly however, in present times, science is not an honest quest for truth, but is being used by moneyed interests merely to persuade, for the purposes of profit-making.) So this then becomes a dispute like any other, regardless of the presence or absence of honesty or vested interests. It becomes a struggle for whose views will prevail, who will win in the ‘court of world opinion’. It is a political question, as are all questions of ‘truth’.
As it happens, we now have an administration in the United States (Bush, Inc., of 2001), which sides with the tiny minority, and claims that the science about global warming is not sound. This administration is therefore busy deregulating in favor of the fossil fuel industries. The issue is also being argued out, as far as legislative policy goes (as opposed to mere administrative fiat), in the Congress, which is a deliberative assembly, although an extremely limited one. But we can still see the deliberative process at work in it, the judging and evaluating, the arguments, the majority/minority dynamic.
For the purposes of the present discussion, perhaps we should take note at this point of the very obvious fact that so far in history we humans have not had direct democracy in which the entire population is organized into deliberative assemblies with decision-making powers. But we can imagine that we could be, and that debates which are now conducted in the public arena through mass media, and then resolved (i.e., turned into policy) in the parliaments and congresses of the ruling class, could be debated and resolved in our popular assemblies. Each of us would then be personally faced with the dispute, and with the need to resolve it. Does global warming exist, and are humans causing it, as most scientists say, or is this not the case, as a few scientists claim? We would have to examine the arguments and evidence presented, taking into account any extraneous factors that might be relevant, such as vested interests, and make up our minds, and vote. This would be just an extension of the vote already taken in the scientific community. I’m assuming that our popular assemblies will have the ultimate say on the matter, so the disputants in the scientific community will have to come to us and argue their cases. In this way, our own vested interests could come into play, our desires to save the planet, for example, and to live in a healthy environment, as opposed say to the desires of capitalists and their corporations to make profit.
The Causes of AIDS.
Here is another contemporary dispute in which there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists, namely that the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). However, a tiny minority of scientists deny that HIV causes AIDS. They claim that there is no solid science supporting this hypothesis, and they present mountains of evidence to the contrary. They furthermore argue that the prevailing consensus was engineered or manufactured by powerful bureaucratic and corporate interests, in order to advance careers and make profits from drugs. The dispute has been raging for years, but was highlighted, or aired once again, not long ago at an AIDS conference in South Africa. On this occasion the President of South Africa stated that he wanted to examine both sides of the dispute and make up his own mind. Thus he lent some legitimacy, however fleeting, to the dissidents. This action outraged the majority of AIDS activists, for whom the most urgent concern is to get the drugs to treat AIDS, drugs which are being monopolized by the pharmaceuticals in order to extort profits, no matter how many people die. For the majority of AIDS activists, the cause of AIDS is settled; it is taken as a given that HIV is the culprit. The dissidents claim that the drugs being used to treat AIDS further weaken the immune system, and thus do more harm than good. Some governments though, for example Brazil, have extensive treatment programs, using cheap generic versions of the drugs, and claim to have drastically reduced deaths due to AIDS. It would be hard to find a dispute where science and power are more intricately intertwined. The dispute illustrates clearly the ‘social struggle’ dimension of the ‘question of truth’. Such social struggle over disagreements would exist even in a directly democratic, egalitarian world, but there it would be normal and benign. In a world controlled by the rich, such social struggles are more often than not pernicious.
A few years ago a tiny group appeared on the scene which denied that the holocaust ever happened. Since a major resolve of Jewish survivors of the holocaust has been that "we will never forget", they were incensed. I was arguing the ‘there is no objective truth’ thesis once with an ‘objectivist’ friend and he cited this example as proof that my thesis was wrong. The ‘holocaust happened’ he claimed, whether I believed it or not. So I reminded him that no one was claiming that there was no world existing independently of humans, or that, even in human history, events didn’t happen or not happen, independently of presently living humans. The argument is over what our access is to this independent world and these historical human events.
I then continued reasoning as follows: Suppose that those who deny that the holocaust ever happened started persuading people, using all the means at their disposal, and started winning over more and more people to their claim. Suppose further that these holocaust deniers were fanatics and went about systematically destroying any books, documents, manuscripts, or physical artifacts which they thought prejudiced their case (just as the Bush administration recently erased from the Internet a study of the migratory patterns of arctic caribou because they thought it prejudiced their case for oil drilling on the northern slopes). Suppose that this continued until there was only one person left in the world who still believed that the holocaust was a real historical event. But the argument continued even so, between this one heretic and everyone else, with each side presenting its arguments and marshaling its evidence, as best it could.
Then suppose that this one person died. What then? Where would that leave us? As far as every last person in the world is concerned the holocaust is just a myth. Then suppose further that even this myth starts to recede and be forgotten by more and more people, as the years go by, until finally, not a single person in the world even remembers the myth or is aware of any documents or archaeological evidence that pertains to the myth. In other words, the holocaust has completely disappeared from the living consciousness of the human race.
Now remember, no one is outside humanity, outside human consciousness. That is, no one can do as I am now doing, by pretending that I can look out on ‘everyone’ (but not including myself) and ‘see’ that the myth has disappeared from human consciousness. No, of course I would be inside human consciousness like everyone else, and the myth would be lost to me too. So it would be gone, from everyone. For all intents and purposes, as far as human affairs are concerned, whether or not the holocaust happened is completely irrelevant, since even the idea of a holocaust doesn’t exist.
Can there be any clearer illustration that we have no access to ‘what really exists’ independent from our judgements about what really exists? And that when it comes to judgements, there is always the possibility of disagreement among us? And of some judgements prevailing and thriving and other judgements not prevailing and vanishing? Can there ever be anything else other than these judgements and these disagreements?
Now suppose a thousand years go by, but that one day a scholar rummaging through some musty archives stumbles upon a book (one missed by the book burnings of a millennium past) which mentions a ‘holocaust’ and also mentions some locations where it took place, places that are no longer even on current maps, but which the scholar is eventually able to identify by digging out some old maps. So he puts together a team and they start an archaeological dig, and eventually uncover what looks to be a ‘gas chamber’. So here we start on the long process, familiar to all of us who practice or study history, of trying to reconstruct ‘what actually happened’. We develop theories, collect evidence, scrutinize sources, debate alternative hypotheses, try to get inside the mentalities and cultures of those long gone peoples, and so forth. Outside of this process, there is no way to access ‘what actually happened’. Nor can we ever ‘really know’. All we will ever have are our theories.
Maybe it’s time to reiterate once again why I feel that this is worth arguing about, why it is significant, and not just a trivial, obvious observation. It’s because all kinds of people constantly hide behind the claim of objectivity and base their policies and actions of that claim. Rulers and elites everywhere claim that their policies are based on the truth because they have access to all the facts whereas their subjects don’t. Religious fanatics claim that they have the truth because the Word of God has been revealed to them. Revolutionary vanguards claim that they know ‘the correct road to socialism’ because they understand the objective laws of history and can interpret the true interests of the working class. Many scientists claim to have the objective truth because their practices, methods, and procedures lead them to it. Parents claim to have the truth because they ‘know best’ what is good for their children. Many philosophers have worked out arguments claiming to demonstrate that truth and morality have objective foundations in the universe. The average person simply takes it as a given that the world is out there independent of us, and that we can learn about it, even though our ideas may have to be frequently revised as we learn more, but that we can nevertheless find objective truth because our ideas can correspond, better and better, to what really exists. Strange though that you almost never hear anyone say: "This is what I believe to be the truth, but I recognize that it’s only my judgement, the best one I can make based on the arguments and evidence available to me."
I was recently reading a chapter in Hilary Putnam ("Two Philosophical Perspectives", in his Reason, Truth, and History). He calls what I have been referring to as the ‘outside stance’, the ‘God’s Eye point of view’. He then goes on to describe how during the past couple of centuries this point of view has come unraveled, been rent asunder, and demolished. He claims that it was Kant "who first taught us that this desire [for a God’s Eye view] is unfulfillable." He writes: "What we have is the demise of a theory that lasted for over two thousand years. That it persisted so long and in so many forms in spite of the internal contradictions and obscurities which were present from the beginning testifies to the naturalness and the strength of the desire for a God’s Eye View." This statement calls to mind a similar one by Richard Rorty, who wrote: "About two hundred years ago, the idea that truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe." On the other hand, another book I’ve been looking at recently, Anti-foundationalism: Old and New (edited by Tom Rockmore and Beth Singer), claims that elements of anti-foundationalism have appeared sporadically throughout the history of western philosophy, beginning even in antiquity with Protagoras and Anaximander, although anti-foundationalism was never the dominant view.
Nevertheless, even though some recent philosophers may have demolished the ‘God’s Eye point of view’, it is my impression, based on the cursory reading I have done so far (and this is something I will be wanting to confirm or confute as I continue my studies), that they still don’t have a social understanding of this, but see it only as it pertains to individuals. Whereas for me, it is the social dimension, that is, disagreement, that has always been of most interest. For me, a God’s Eye view is completely incompatible with, and is annulled by, direct democracy.
Recent philosophers don’t yet see the significance that the new perspective has for democratic polities (some, like Rorty, even deny that it has any relevance at all), whereas for me that has always been its central significance. In fact, it was primarily by thinking about direct democracy that I came to reject the ‘outside stance’.
Another aspect of the social dimension of the truth question that is overlooked, along with disagreement, is the necessity humans face of making decisions. Many, perhaps even most, of these decisions, even if not formally directly democratic, are nevertheless social or collective, and pertain to things that humans do together as groups (families, tribes, communities, towns, nations). It is this inevitable feature of human life that lifts a perspective on truth which does not rely on an outside stance, a ‘God’s Eye View’, out of extreme relativism, where everything goes and everything is okay. The fact of the matter is, that humans must constantly decide, together, what they think is right, best, or good, what they should do, where they should go, what they should make, how they should act, etcetera, on a daily basis even, in order to go on living and navigate the stormy waters of their existence. (It is the rare case, a luxury -- and even this luxury must be socially created usually -- in which individuals can each go their own separate ways and in which it is feasible for you to do your thing while I’m doing mine.) This is what I have been referring to as ‘the social struggle for truth’. Decision-making, and the social struggle over truth, is largely missing from epistemology (in my present, admittedly inadequate, knowledge of it), and so the debate tends to swirl around only two poles -- the objectivists versus the relativists.
I want to explore now several of what I call ‘strategic sites’ which are particularly useful for gaining insight into a ‘nonobjectivist’ view of the truth question (perhaps I should call it a ‘democratic view of the truth question’). For now, I will examine twelve such sites, namely: (1) trial by jury, (2) legislatures, (3) debates over scientific paradigms, (4) arguments over the interpretations of texts, (5) libel and slander, (6) arguments over ‘rights’, (7) definitions of crime, (8) splits, (9) credibility, (10) provincialism, (11) errors, (12) seeing. On some of these I may simply just quote various passages from my essays in the 1970s.
(1) Trial by jury. eg o.j. simpson trial
(3) Debates over scientific paradigms.
(4) Arguments over the interpretation of texts.
(5) Libel and slander.
(6) Arguments over ‘rights’.
(7) Definitions of crime.
(8) Splits. -- is there a possibility of refusing to go along -- splitting
-- wouldn’t this have to be socially aided -- Splits in the neighborhood
mutant humans with different eyes
(?) Advertisement, Propaganda, Ideology. lying
(Now let’s return to our neighborhood assemblies, and assume that various groups at one time or another emerge within our midst and begin advancing certain arguments about various things.)
Enter anthropologists. -- studying ‘natives’, eg. sephardic jews in a corner of our neighborhood
Enter social scientists. -- start studying us, treating us as objects, trying to devise social laws
(maybe combine the above two categories)
Enter historians. -- studying our pasts -- across time hard to keep inside stance - philosophy of history
Enter philosophers. -- trying to convince us of how we think
say kant, hegel, spinoza, come to the assembly as try to convince us that such and such is true
Facts/Values -- facts: sun rises in the east sets in the west
Word/Objects, i.e., the problem of reference
better not to use terms objective or subjective -- instead, ‘standards of judgement’
does this mean that everything is subjective -- no the terms are meaningless -- explain why
Why not just define "Objective", make it simply mean a set of standard procedures
must drop the outside/inside distinction
‘subjective’ is just as bad as ‘objective’
Romantic rejection of enlightenment
just pick the philosophers I have already read -- might do a brief recap of this reading
Enter scientists. -- invented a ‘method’ or if not a ‘method’ then a practice to find truth
the scientific community
from newton to einstein -- not talking about this kind of shift
In a democracy, scientists would have to at least convince others so as to get funded
Entomologist observing ants; physicists observing quarks
We are not accustomed to thinking within the totality of humanity. So things seem separate and isolated. For example, science is often seen as something out there, separate from most of us, whereas actually it is just a practice pursued by some members of our community. This is only natural since we haven’t actually had a world wide community, in the sense of having everyone included in the decision making. So we tend to see ourselves as split up, into tribes, towns, nations, disciplines, etc. Scientists as a community excludes rest of humanity -- argue among themselves.
Enter post-structuralists. -- foucault, derrida (save derrida for later)
foucault (it’s all power, who wins)
Myth -- Levi-Strauss -- structuralists
Enter post-modernists. -- jameson, laclau (save jameson for later)
Enter christian fundamentalists and other religious fanatics
Religious fanatics -- sectarianism -- assume a supernatural being who is outside -- sending truth
Belief in souls or god affects peoples lives in many ways -- they see angels, go to church, pray
agreement and disagreement
outside stance -- objectivism
everything is a matter of interpretation, judgement
contemporary revelation in RLDS church
sociology of knowledge
sociology of science
studies of ideology
define ourselves as wage-slaves -- they see us as citizens
can call the people you disagree with anything -- irrational, wrong, deluded
Which issues are included within the assembly
Capitalists want to exclude most decisions from assembly, esp. matters of ‘production’, property
Expulsion from the community (?) eg. criminals -- no longer an option
Pollution of language. eg. ‘Reform’ as now used by the right
(others from seminar proposal: errors, heretics, provincialism (e.g., north carolina textbook controversy), definition of crime, nationalities question, parent-child relations, quotas and so-called affirmative action, majority-minority dynamics, splits, status, decision-making in dyads, credibility, closure (e.g., membership), etc. ) ---------- also identities, color-blindness,
Feb 5, 2004
What if only two persons witness an event? What if they discover, after talking about it, that they disagree about what happened? Is there a way for them, or anyone, to established "what really happened", that is, the "truth"?
Well, they could each go out and collect all the evidence they can find, and hone the arguments for their versions of what happened. Let’s assume they did this, and they came back together to review in the incident further. Each presents the facts they have collected and goes through the arguments. But after this exercise, they discover that they still disagree about "what really happened".
Doesn’t this one simple thought experiment demonstrate conclusively that humans have no "direct" access, and hence no direct knowledge, of "what really exists". All our observations are filtered through our senses and our minds, which raises the possibility that various individuals will disagree. Disagreement is inherent in the human condition.
What if, instead of two persons, five persons witnessed the event? And what if four of them agree about what had happened, but one person disagrees and has another interpretation of what happened? Does this change the picture? No it doesn’t. It just means that there is a larger consensus about one version. But it doesn’t get around the fact that another version exists and is being argued for and defended. So once again we see that each of us is trapped inside our mind and there is no way to get outside it. It’s the same with everyone. Since there are several of us, we can compare notes, but this doesn’t change the fact that we are, all of us, trapped inside our perceptions and reasoning, with no way to get outside of them, and hence no direct access to or knowledge of "reality".
What if five persons witnessed an event and all five agree about what happened? Does this change the picture? No. It just makes the illusion that we can know "what really happened" harder to dispel. But it’s not all that difficult actually. Just imagine that there had been a sixth observer, and that that observer disagrees with the other five about what had happened. Thus we come back to the same position.
Let’s return for a moment to our original case, wherein two persons observe an event but disagree about what happened. What if one of them is a professional investigator, say a scientist or a detective skilled in investigating crimes? What if this professional investigator marshals "overwhelming evidence" and "irrefutable arguments" to back his case but is nevertheless unable to convince the other observer that what he thought had happened didn’t happen, but instead something else did? Are we able in this instance to conclude that we know what really happened?
No we aren’t. Isn’t this what actually happens in every trial? Don’t the lawyers and teams of investigators on each side collect and present the evidence and arguments for their side of the story, and leave it to the jury to decide? Juries sometimes agree on one version unanimously, and sometimes they split, which gets us back to our two examples, discussed above, of two observers who disagree and five observers who all agree.
Moreover, the same case can be brought before a different jury, which often happens, which can render a unanimous verdict on the other side, and reverse the verdict of the previous jury. Can you say that the first jury was wrong and the second jury was right. Of course not. All you can say is that the two juries disagreed, after reviewing all the evidence and arguments.
Can it be more obvious that humans have no way of knowing "what really exists"? We have only our judgments about what exists, and what happens. We can try to base these judgments on all the best evidence and reasons we can muster, but this evidence and these reasons can be, and often are, rebutted by others.
What we can have is a larger or smaller consensus on any given issue or dispute. In practice we tend to go with the larger consensus. It seems reasonable to assume that the more people believe that something exists, the more likely it is that it does exist. Yet, the majority of the Americans believe that God exists. Does that mean that God really does exist? A handful of scientists deny that humans are causing global warming, or even that global warming is happening. Does this mean that it’s not? (The fact that for the most part these few are financed by the oil and auto industries is actually irrelevant, because they could be sincere in their beliefs, which would make it a dispute between honest investigators. Real science (and corrupt science just introduces an extraneous factor) is chock full of such disagreements. This is what science is all about.)
In the light of these arguments, does it make any sense at all to speak of "objective truth"? Not if by objective we mean direct, irrefutable, unquestionable, certain knowledge of reality. If by objective all we mean is a certain procedure of investigation, which relies on careful tests and standards of the evidence and reasoning (e.g., the scientific method), and so forth, as opposed, say, to intuitive claims based on faith, hunches, second sight, and so forth, then I suppose the term "objective" has some meaning. But that doesn’t get us around the disagreement that exists between those claiming to have "scientific" proof, and others who reject these proofs, for whatever reason (maybe even rejecting the scientific method as such).
Is anything really to be gained by using the term "objective’ in this scientific sense of referring to a method or procedure for trying to establish what happened? I don’t think so. And a lot of confusion is introduced, because the use of the term "objective" implies that someone has direct knowledge of reality, rather than just their own judgment. We have seen that this cannot be. The claim some make to have "objective" knowledge detracts us from recognizing the existence of disagreement, from recognizing that all we have to go on are larger or smaller majorities among various observers, and from recognizing the insuperable barrier that separates us humans from certain knowledge of the world we live in.
Those of us who believe that we are in general better off using the so-called ""scientific method" to investigate reality, as opposed to relying on superstition, myth, intuition, faith (all of which are derogatory terms used by scientifically minded persons, characterizations that of course would be rejected by those to whom they are applied), can continue to fight to have our values prevail, but this does not enable us to escape the inherent possibility of disagreement. Enlightenment values have made enormous gains for the past several centuries. They are now taking a real beating however.