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On Objective Truth and Culture Wars
A reply to Néstor de Buen
In a recent Arc Digital article entitled “Absolute Truth Corrupts Absolutely,” Néstor de Buen argues that proponents of the concept of absolute
truth often focus on refuting the most radical counterclaims—for instance, that “truth is dependent on power”—and overlook the more defensible ones. I would like to offer some further thoughts on the matter, disagreeing with some of de Buen’s claims.
De Buen starts by asking, “What is the ‘culture war’ really about?” He observes, correctly, that this question has many dimensions.
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.
De Buen is right, up to a point—but I recoil when in the next paragraph he starts talking about the “left,” “anti-left,” and “right” sides of this debate. Is it clear anymore what is “left” and what is “right”? Not to me, alas. I have always considered myself a leftist, but I disagree strongly with the illiberal positions that are today commonly classified as leftist. I don’t think it is particularly helpful to designate complex constellations of political ideas with simplistic labels.
I also don’t think, as de Buen’s comment seems to imply, that there is any necessary connection between political positions and philosophical positions. Quite the contrary: one sees a wide variety of philosophical positions in all political camps, and a wide variety of political ideas in every philosophical camp. For instance, notions of radical social constructivism, which starting in the 1980s became the unexamined conventional wisdom in some sectors of the cultural left—“there is no objective, neutral reality,” according to Robin DiAngelo—have been taken up more recently by the Trumpist right, who revel in their own “alternative facts.”
That said, I do agree that epistemology plays an important role in political debate—I have written about it myself—so I would like to address here some of de Buen's contentions.
Let me start by limiting my scope to allegedly “factual” statements about the world. Statements of ethics, aesthetics, personal taste, etc., raise very different philosophical issues, and are not my subject here.
So what can we say about allegedly factual statements? To start with, it seems to me that de Buen’s term “absolute truth” is potentially confusing: it conjures up images of the purported absolute truths of religions. I would prefer to use the term “objective truth”; or, since we are dealing with allegedly factual statements about the world, simply “truth.”
According to the common-sense view of truth—which is roughly what philosophers call the “correspondence theory”—an allegedly factual statement about the world is true if, and only if, it accurately reflects the way the world really is.
Consider, for instance, the statement: “Approximately 12.5 million Africans were enslaved by Europeans in the period 1500-1900.” Before evaluating this statement, some clarifications might be necessary. For instance, we need to define precisely who are “Africans,” who are “Europeans,” what is meant by “enslavement,” and what “approximately 12.5 million” means (one might agree, for example, that it means “somewhere between 12 million and 13 million”). But once these preliminary clarifications have been made, the statement is true or false according to whether it does or does not accurately reflect historical reality. (The current consensus of historians of the transatlantic slave trade, based on extensive analysis of documents, is that this statement is true.)
Or consider an example used by de Buen: the parabolic path traced by an object moving in the Earth’s gravitational field. One has to clarify that this law applies only to objects moving in a vacuum (because it ignores air resistance) and only in the absence of non-gravitational forces (for instance, it doesn't apply to electrically charged particles, which are affected by the Earth's magnetic field). One also has to stress that this simple law is only an approximation, which applies to trajectories that cover a very small fraction of the Earth’s radius (for instance, to baseballs but not to intercontinental
ballistic missiles). But once we have made all these clarifications, the statement is true or false according to whether it accurately describes the motion of objects moving in the Earth’s gravitational field. (It does.)
De Buen does not explicitly dispute the correspondence theory of truth, but he argues that some things depend on conventions. Unfortunately, some of his examples are misleading. For instance, he purports to draw a contrast between Newton’s laws of motion and “Lagrangian mechanics.” But the two formulations are mathematically equivalent: each one logically implies the other. (If you know some calculus and want the details, see the wonderful Feynman lecture that de Buen cites, or the lecture notes for my own course at University College London.)
De Buen asserts that “there is 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.” Maybe so, but I'm not sure whether this purported alternative is even meaningful. What does it mean to say, of two logically equivalent propositions, that one is “more real in a metaphysical sense”? If I have two coins in my pocket, which expression is “more real in a metaphysical sense”: (a) “I have 1 + 1 coins”, or (b) “I have 2 coins”?
Likewise, de Buen states that “all scientific truths are probabilistic” (maybe “many” would be more accurate than “all”); and he observes, correctly, that philosophers and scientists have employed a variety of different interpretations of the meaning of probability. But this doesn’t mean that truth is “dependent upon convention”; it means only that, before evaluating whether a probabilistic statement is true, one must first clarify which interpretation of probability is being used. This proviso is not substantially different from the preliminary clarifications that need to be made before evaluating statements about the slave trade or the motion of falling objects.
All these philosophical issues are interesting—at least to philosophers, and to philosophically-inclined scientists like myself—but I fear they may not illuminate much about the multifaceted “culture wars”—ostensibly the topic of de Buen’s article. More relevant, I think, are debates about:
Objectivity, relativism, and social construction. Does it make sense to speak of objective truths, or is truth always relative to an individual or a social group? In what sense, if any, is knowledge a social construction?
Language, power, and knowledge. Is it true, as Sapir and Whorf contended, that our language radically conditions our ways of thinking?
And is it true, as Foucault and his followers have contended, that society is structured by systems of power and hierarchy that unconsciously organize everyone’s ways of thinking so as to reproduce this same system of domination? These ideas about language and power underlie much “woke” thinking about social issues, and it is important that they be rigorously examined.
Epistemic principles and notions of evidence. Can people with radically different worldviews—for instance, atheists and fundamentalist Christians—engage in rational dialogue? Both sides want to invoke evidence; but what if they have different ideas about what counts as evidence?
The value of free and open debate. A century and a half ago, John Stuart Mill famously argued that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Was Mill right? And are there any circumstances in which debate ought to be curtailed? This issue is a key dividing line between philosophical liberals of all political persuasions and contemporary illiberals on both “left” and “right.”
The relative importance of different moral principles. According to the Moral Foundations Theory, developed by a group of social psychologists, each person’s intuitive sense of ethics blends six main themes—care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression—but different cultures and social groups blend them in different ways. To what extent is political polarization caused by differing moral priorities?
It goes without saying that all this is a tall order. I hope that contributors to Arc Digital will address some of these issues in the future.