Absolute Truth Corrupts Absolutely

Skepticism of “absolute truth” is about much more than social construction and power structures

What is the “culture war” really about? This question can be answered on several levels. In one respect the culture war is a battle over what kinds of norms and moral principles ought to regulate society. But on a different level, it hinges on arguments (sometimes fairly technical ones) about epistemology.

Epistemological issues and whatever shadow they cast over the culture war are, at least in my experience, mainly a concern on the anti-left side of the discourse. I refer to it as “anti-left” rather than “right” because, while some on that side of the argument do identify as conservatives, many see themselves as centrists, exiled liberals, or some other similar designation. And while they may disagree on issues like abortion or government spending, they do agree on what they see as a fundamental epistemological position: that there are objective truths that are not socially constructed or determined by power structures.

This kind of argument has only increased in prominence with the newfound interest in Critical Race Theory (CRT). Indeed CRT is often described by its detractors as existing in opposition to science and objectivity. However, this is not exclusive to CRT. The same could be observed when postmodernism was the villain du jour. A good example of this anti-constructivist argument appeared in a recent essay by Alan S. Rome in Quillette entitled “In Defence of Absolute Truth,” but it is by no means the only recent one. The notion of truth is one of the main issues that Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s controversial Cynical Theories book deals with, and other articles such as Lucas Lynch’s “The Truth Doesn’t Depend on Power” have touched on it as well.

Here, my intention is not to argue either that there is an absolute truth or that truth is socially constructed and dependent on power structures—because that framing obscures the many positions that lie between those two. Instead, I want to raise a concern about the way those seeking to defend absolute or universal truth pursue this project. To put it succinctly, skepticism of absolute universal truth is about so much more than power structures and social construction. In that sense, a perfect and complete refutation (if that is even possible) of the idea that the truth is determined by power or other similar notions does very little to prove what defenders of absolute truth are presumably trying to do.

In his Quillette piece, Alan S. Rome writes the following:

Scholars deconstructed all human “structures,” including basic logical and methodological ones, and questioned the very existence of truth. If everything were discursive, then “truth” would merely be the product of whichever “discourse” we found ourselves in. Especially in those disciplines more radically skeptical of pretensions to universal truth—such as those aligned to Foucauldian poststructuralism, or post-colonial, feminist or critical race theorists—knowledge became dependent on social or historical position, power, privilege, or the lack of it.

Lucas Lynch expresses a similar sentiment: “Truth never did, and does not, depend on ‘power’—truth depends on evidence.”

But these two ideas suffer from a similar issue. In the first case, there are a lot of steps between questioning logical and methodological structures and concluding that therefore truth is dependent on power. In the second case, we find a false dichotomy; truth may not depend on power, but from that it doesn’t follow that truth depends on evidence alone. Even before getting to things like personal or cultural biases, it should be clear that truth—or whatever else we can get that is as close to truth as possible—depends on a lot more than evidence.

A good starting point is the idea of a convention. Introduced into the philosophy of mathematics by physicist and mathematician Henri Poincaré, conventionalism holds that truths always depend on some artificial framework of concepts and definitions. This idea was then extended to all of science by philosophers like Rudolf Carnap. In other words, in this critique, evidence alone is meaningless unless we have the right concepts that allow for their interpretation. In fact there are plenty of examples to support this in the natural sciences. For instance, certain observations of subatomic particles did not really make sense until the concept of quantum spin was theorized. This may seem a trivial example, but it is not, especially if what we’re concerned about is something like objective reality.

To borrow another example from physics, most of us are taught about Newton’s laws of motion in high school. We learn that a particle moving through a gravitational field will trace a parabolic path because it has a certain starting speed in one direction, but the force of gravity is acting on it, changing its direction from a straight line to a curve. But one can start from the same initial conditions using a completely different set of assumptions about the way moving objects’ paths are determined and arrive at the same conclusion. This is exactly what Lagrangian mechanics do, as the late Richard Feynman explicated in one of his lectures. Lagrangian mechanics derives the same laws of motion as Newton’s laws but starting from the assumption that the path traced by an object in motion is that which minimizes the total amount of kinetic and potential energy, also known as the principle of least action.

Of course on one level, both formulations give “true” results because both predict the path of a particle with the same degree of accuracy. But there really is no way to decide whether the Newtonian assumption of attractive forces or the Lagrangian principle of least action is more real in a metaphysical sense. Both of them are models that describe observations precisely, but they are just that: models. In that sense, evidence alone cannot tell us what is real beyond the path of the object. In other words, explaining the animating principle behind this set of observed facts depends upon a convention.

Of course, one might be tempted to argue that since we know that gravity is a force that acts on matter, so Newton’s formulation is truer. Yet Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity tells us that gravity is simply the shape of space, and particles move through the paths that the curvature of space sets out for them; if that is the case, the least action principle may be thought the closer description. In the end, however, they are all models.

There is also the fact that all scientific truths are probabilistic. Most people who want to defend some notion of objective or universal truth will readily accept this. But once again, scientific truths being probabilistic is just one level of epistemological complication, because the interpretation of probabilities is also dependent upon convention. There is no fixed way to interpret a statement like “this experimental result has been observed to be true with a 99 percent degree of confidence” because it all depends on what we understand a 99 percent probability to tell us. Some views hold that probabilities themselves are objective or fixed, but others see them as degrees of belief, subject to constant revision upon new evidence.

Note that all these things add a lot of layers to what the concept of truth can even mean in the first place, and none of the issues mentioned thus far are in any way contingent on social factors, much less power structures. Yet, we could even add some more complications, this time taking into account social and cultural aspects of knowledge and still not even go near either social constructivism or power relations.

Philosopher and logician Graham Priest works on areas of logic like the foundations of mathematics. Some of his research focuses on dialetheism, the idea that some propositions can be both true and false. This might sound like cheap mysticism, but it can be fully expressed in the language of formal logic, and it has real implications for the heart of mathematics. Priest argues that the reason why this idea—which could solve some foundational questions—is not widely accepted is in part because Western thought is at odds with these kinds of dualities, whereas Asian philosophy, for example, practically takes them for granted.

The point here is not whether Priest is right about the foundations of mathematics, but that his argument adds yet another layer to the notion of truth, this time an evidently social one, but still far removed from social constructionism and power.

All the examples used here come from either mathematics or the natural sciences, where we can get fairly close to certainty. But our concerns should be amplified regarding knowledge in the humanities or social sciences.

I am not arguing that no one is out there claiming that truth is ultimately a function of power. Nor am I saying that there are absolutely no “truths” and that there are only discourses that are convenient to whoever holds the most power. What I am saying is that skepticism about universal absolute truths is a vast and highly nuanced topic, which has been done little justice by its mainstream critics.

The idea that truth is determined by power relations is a real argument that some people will make, but it is a fraction of what is a much richer topic. It’s popular to criticize that idea because it is an extreme one that most people will find objectionable. Yes, those arguments do exist, but defending the notion of absolute truth by objecting solely to those arguments is to caricature those who object to absolute truth. It is, frankly, to opt for the low-hanging fruit.

A guest post by
Writer based in Mexico City. MA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago.