Farewell to Truth
Written over 2 days, with my new Beats headphones blasting Brittany Spears. Finished at Orchard Valley Coffee house in Campbell, CA.
Uselessness of Truth
Truth is an unnecessary abstract concept. Truth is simply a semantic notion used as a linguistic placeholder for expressing ‘what is’. All that we know about truth is how to justify beliefs and that the adjective ‘true’ is the word we apply to beliefs we’ve justified. Furthermore, we know a belief can be true without being justified and that’s about all we know about truth. Nietzsche takes us a little deeper by calling truth “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations that have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, translated, and embellished, and that after long use strike people as fixed, canonical, and binding: truths are illusions, metaphors that have become worn-out and deprived of their sensuous force, coins that have lost their imprint and are now no longer seen as coins but as metal.”
Truth is a human construction infused with a meaning because it works. Like Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’, words are part of a language-game that serve as the building blocks for communication. There are many ‘language games’, different activities that we perform using words. There is no ‘essence’ of language, no single common feature that explains the whole range of its uses. For example, from the 1300s-1600s, the word “nice” meant silly, foolish, or ignorant. If you had called a woman “nice” in the 1500s, you might have been slapped. Now, however, people readily accept the compliment “nice”. What is my point? Humans are the arbiters of the ‘use’ of words and the ‘descriptions’ they point to.
Words are human constructions devoid of ultimate definition residing ‘out there’ that mirrors reality. After all, when I say “snow is white” I cannot point to some Platonic Form in the heavens that gives me the ultimate picture of ‘white-ness’. All that I have are the descriptors and images of ‘white-ness’ such that I can differentiate white from, say, black and orange. Even the letters that make up the word w-h-i-t-e are constructions that could have easily been any number of letter variations to describe the idea of white. ‘White’ could have been just as easily been ‘Dobblewobble’.
Given the abstract linguistic phenomena of ‘truth’, my contention is that we can do without the useless concept of truth. Recall when Pontius Pilate asked the famous abstract question “What is truth”? I would have asked Pontius Pilate, “What is it that you’re interested in? If Pontius Pilate gives me the assumed answer, “I’m interested whether Jesus is guilty,” well then, he’s got an inquiry to conduct. And we know what you can do to conduct an inquiry (i.e. use reason, senses, conduct a trial, etc.). I’m interested in bringing the useless abstractions of truth and reality to local sphere of inquiry. There is no need of ‘truth’. To say “it’s true that this man is guilty” is the same as “this man is guilty.” Thus, Pontius Pilate’s question should have been, “Is Jesus guilty?”, and that’s a question that doesn’t involve any notion of truth.
The Futility of Objectivity
There is no objective truth. Truth is not ‘out there’ such that we can transcend language to a thing-in-itself. Because of this, we have no responsibility to truth or any of its surrogates (i.e. reality). Lacking responsibility to ‘truth’ doesn’t entail that we are forever deluded and lost; to the contrary, liberal values such as justice, freedom and cooperation still exist to be forever chiseled and molded to the benefit of society. Furthermore, we will continue to research, collect data, and conduct inquiries in order to make progress. ‘Progress’, however, is not an ultimate conception that points to ‘reality’, rather it’s a generalization that captures the picture of the flourishing of society.
We can look back to the Enlightenment and see an applicable analogy. When Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers detached moral obligations from divine commands, they did not think that they were revising our moral concepts but that they were describing them more clearly. They were helping us clarify our conception of morality. Morality was never ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. When thinkers of the Enlightenment dissociated moral deliberation from divine commands, their writings did not provoke any notable increase in the amount of immorality. I do not see why the separation of the notion of ‘truth’ from that of ‘reality in itself’ should produce either increased insincerity or a willingness to be deluded.
To assume that objectivity points to a truth or an absolute truth simply makes one intellectually dishonest. Let’s assume I am asked: Did Shakespeare write Hamlet? You may respond, “Yes, all that I have read and that which was taught to me points to the affirmative.” This question, however, is as meaningless as: Are unicorns hollow inside? The question has no definitive and objective answer that we can know for certain. Perhaps now you challenge me and proclaim: “Well, Shakespeare either wrote Hamlet or he didn’t – either it’s true or false.” Wonderful, then which is it? And how will you transport yourself back in time to Shakespeare’s era to get at the objective answer whereby you utilize your senses to locate your definitive answer? You cannot. But you can take the data and inquiries and humbly say, “Based on my research, I have a high degree of certainty that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.” Using another example, I have a higher degree of certainty that Grover Cleveland was once President of the U.S. compared with a much lower degree of certainty that Alexander the Great once tutored Aristotle. I am very content in freeing myself from the myth of ‘absolute truth’ so that I can leave room for inquiry and search for clearer perspectives.
The distinction I am drawing with the Grover Cleveland example is between ‘truth’ and those ‘beliefs that appear justified’. This is analogous to the contrast between future audiences and present-day audiences. Future audiences, unlike present-day audiences, will presumably have at their disposal more data, or alternative explanations, or simply greater intellectual sophistication. Imagine being in the audience in the early 20th century listening to an academic talk on genetics. The apparent ‘truths’ and ‘reality’ proffered at the lecture are ludicrous in contrast to our present-day audience. Thus, we can talk about ‘beliefs that appear justified’ while leaving out ‘truth-talk’. No historical period has a privileged access to objective truth. Alas, future audiences will continue to evolve and morph ideas for practical purposes.
Science and Provisional Truths
Absolute or objective truths provide comfort and stability for people with insecure worldviews. The danger of absolute truths is that they can be easily weaponized so that one has a feeling of correctness, however delusional they may be. Absolute truths, in Christendom, is what convicted the progressive Galileo and justified the slaughter of thousands through the Crusades. Perhaps it’s time we put absolute and objective truths to rest and employ nonchalant language. As I previously mentioned, speaking in terms of “degrees of certainty” is a more appropriate way to address claims. But I should expound on this more. We have methods of discerning the veracity of claims, of which, science appears to be the most reliable method.
A reasonable definition of science is that it is a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies and behavior, the cosmos, and so on) actually works. In addition, Michael Shermer states science is a collection of methods that produce “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” The key word in both of these definitions is “method.” It is precisely this method that overturned the thought that the continents are static, when actually they move at the same rate that our fingernails grow. It is this method that helped Edwin Hubble show that the universe is expanding when it was previously believed to be static as well. It is also this method that helped Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA, when so many before thought that the genetic material was a protein. The examples are never-ending, from advancements in medicine, technology and architecture; science has been the most reliable method to help us get to the best way of knowing the facts.
Scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional: there is no bell that rings when you’re doing science to let you know that you’ve finally reached the absolute and unchangeable truth and need go no further. As the philosopher Walter Kauffman explained, “What distinguishes knowledge is not certainty but evidence.” Furthermore, Scientific truths are transitory, some (but not all) of what we find is eventually made obsolete, or even falsified, by new findings. That is not a weakness but strength, for our best understanding of phenomena will alter changes in our way of thinking, our tools for looking at nature, and what we find in nature itself. What moves science forward is ignorance. The danger of absolute truth is that is puts an end to further inquiry and questioning. Why? Because the “truth” has been found and there is further need for progress. Science on the other hand, looks at theories as provisional and keeps the quest for understanding alive.
Truthfulness is Not Extinct
Denying truth does not in any way prevent me from speaking to virtues like truthfulness, sincerity, exactness, and trust. We can deny truth and still have, for example, a judicial system that exacts justice with uses of reason, justification, and inquiry. Creating a climate of trust can be cultivated in any group or society where open dialogue is free to flourish. I agree with Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis when he said, “I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in terror.” This type of liberal ideal that Varoufakis captures elevates cooperation and a social dialogue which [can] propel societies toward progress. Justice, for example, doesn’t have a [T]ruth to it or an ultimate conception in the mind of God – nor does it need an ultimate foundation – yet we can still use reason, shared agreement and inquiry to establish a rule of law. Lastly, the denial of truth doesn’t take away meaning from expressions. Ideas like justice, fairness and integrity have meaning if you give it meaning. There is no current debate if honesty, for example, is amoral or not; to the contrary, it is held in high esteem because of a shared agreement.
To be fair, my opponent might retort: But what if I deny truth and choose to live a life based on conniving and deceiving? Well, if you cannot be trusted then I would ask if you are you ready to accept the dire consequences of a conniving life? Consider the sleepless nights, fractured relationships, and the constant looking over your shoulder while always in the back of your head wondering when you’ll get found out. I have no doubts that the hedge fund managers who conned millions of dollars through Ponzi schemes had restless and angst-filled lives deep within them, even though they appeared confident. Society has mechanisms to expose these types of people. Every society that has ever existed has had to channel and subdue certain aspects of human nature – greed, territorial violence, avarice, deceit, laziness, cheating, etc. – through social mechanisms and institutions. Social mechanisms have uncovered that generalizations such as truthfulness, sincerity and exactness carry a high currency that is cached out in society for the purpose of increased flourishing.
With the conception of truth that I am defending, it is common to assume that I am advocating relativism. My aim, however, is to propose a view that takes an ethnocentric shape which seeks solidarity in a climate of ideas where “unforced agreement” thrives as opposed to “objectivity”. Before moving on, I will quickly unpack three current views commonly referred by the name relativism.
The first view says that every belief is as good as every other. The second view says that “true” is an equivocal term, having as many meanings as there are procedures of justification. The third view, which I subscribe to, is that there is nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from descriptions of the familiar procedures of justification which a given society – ours – uses in one or another area of inquiry. The pragmatist holds the ethnocentric third view.
In no way am I saying that what is true, what is good, and what is right is relative to some particular ethnos. It is not clear why “relativist” should be thought of as an appropriate term for the ethnocentric third view. For I am not holding a positive theory which says that something is relative to something else. Instead, I am making the purely negative point that we should drop the traditionally distinction between knowledge and opinion, construed as the distinction between truth as correspondence to reality and truth as a commendatory term for well-justified beliefs.
My primary suggestion is to propose solidarity through unforced agreement. We experience solidarity through acculturation and the exchanging of cultural features. Our acculturation is what makes certain options live, or momentous, while leaving others dead, or trivial, or optional. An example would be moral progress in America through the unforced legislation of laws that promote liberty and well-being. Whether it’s slavery or women’s rights, reason has propelled persuasive options to thrive in the marketplace of ideas. Persuasion across such fundamental differences is achieved, if at all, by concrete comparisons of particular alternatives, by elaborate description and redescription of the kinds of life to which different practices conduce.
To say that unforced agreement is enough raises the specter of relativism. For those who say that a pragmatic view of rationality is unwholesomely relativistic ask: “Unforced agreement among whom? Us? The Nazis? Any arbitrary culture or group? The answer, of course, is “us.” This necessarily ethnocentric answer simply says that we must work by our own lights. What we cannot do is to rise above all human communities, actual and possible. As Richard Rorty states, “We cannot find a skyhook which lifts us out of mere coherence – mere agreement – to something like “correspondence with reality as it is in itself.”
We can and should do away with the useless notions of truth. Speaking in provisional truths or degrees of certainty fosters both humility and open dialogue to understanding. We can still build upon trust and exactness without genuflecting before Truth. The processes and methods that science affords us has proven, thus far, to be the most reliable way for weeding out ridiculous ideas. Civilization has traversed from bronzed age thinking to Enlightenment reason through reason, inquiry, methods of science, and open discourse. Humanity has elevated the liberal ideals of liberty and justice through shared agreements and solidarity – and will continue to do so. Given our inability to transcend language, or have language mirror reality, we are left with the ultimate freedom to share ideas, learn from the past, and continue in conversation and dialogue.