Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Of Truth and Fish

Jeff Hodges kindly sent me this interesting piece. I have interspersed some comments in blue.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle Review

From the issue dated September 10, 2004

Who Cares About the Truth?


In early 2003 President Bush claimed that Iraq was attempting to purchase the materials necessary to build nuclear weapons. Although White House officials subsequently admitted they lacked adequate evidence to believe that was true, various members of the administration dismissed the issue, noting that the important thing was that the subsequent invasion of Iraq achieved stability of the region and the liberation of the country.

Many Americans apparently agreed. After all, there were other reasons to depose the Hussein regime. And the belief that Iraq was an imminent nuclear threat had rallied us together and provided an easy justification to doubters of the nobility of our cause. So what if it wasn't really true? To many, it seemed naïve to worry about something as abstract as the truth or falsity of our claims when we could concern ourselves with the things that really mattered -- such as protecting ourselves from terrorism and ensuring our access to oil. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the truth may be good, but why not sometimes take untruth if it gets you where you want to go?

These are important questions. At the end of the day, is it always better to believe and speak the truth? Does the truth itself really matter? While generalizing is always dangerous, the above responses to the Iraq affair indicate that many Americans would look at such questions with a jaundiced eye. We are rather cynical about the value of truth.

Politics isn't the only place that one finds this sort of skepticism. A similar attitude is commonplace among some of our most prominent intellectuals. Indeed, under the banner of postmodernism, cynicism about truth and related notions like objectivity and knowledge has become the semiofficial philosophical stance of many academic disciplines. Roughly speaking, the attitude is that objective truth is an illusion and what we call truth is just another name for power. Consequently, if truth is valuable at all, it is valuable -- as power is -- merely as means.

BV: Let's think about this. Since there is no such thing as subjective truth or relative truth, as I have argued elsewhere, objective truth = truth. Now, could truth be an illusion? This is an idea that refutes itself since if there is no truth, then there is no illusion either. Consider a perceptual illusion. It's getting dark, I'm tired, but I still have a mile to go before arriving at the trailhead. Rounding a switchback, I jump away from what I take to be a snake on the trail. But it turns out to be nothing but a snake-shaped stick. My perceptual experience, qua perceptual experience, is as real as anything can be; but it is not veridical. In plain English, the visual experience is untrue or illusory. But I am able to characterize it as such only because of the veridical (non-illusory) perceptions of the bent stick.

In short, if there is illusion, then there is truth. The claim that truth is an illusion is pure nonsense. One of my favorite German sayings is: Soviel Schein, soviel Sein. Literally, so much seeming, so much being.

Now consider the other claim, namely, that 'truth' is just another name for power. (I have cleaned up Lynch's sloppy formulation.) This amounts to the identity thesis, truth = power. This too is self-refuting. For if it is true that truth = power, then it is not the case that truth = power. Note also that if truth = power, and truth is an illusion, then does it not follow that power is an illusion? Do our dear deconstructionist boneheads wish to embrace this absurdity as well? By the way, I appreciate that Lynch is not endorsing the ideas that I have just refuted.

Stanley Fish, a prominent literary critic and former dean, cranked up the anti-truth rhetoric even further in an article last year, "Truth but No Consequences: Why Philosophy Doesn't Matter." Not only is objective truth an illusion, according to Fish, but even worrying about the nature of truth in the first place is a waste of time. Debating an abstract idea like truth is like debating whether Ted Williams was a better pure hitter than Hank Aaron: amusing, but irrelevant to today's game.

BV: One can see from this how deeply confused Fish is. Fish must be worrying about the nature of truth if he sees fit to assert that truth is an illusion. Also, how can one debate an abstract idea like truth? One debates a proposition, not a sub-propositional idea. One cannot debate truth; what one can debate is the proposition that truth is an illusion, or that it is relative to class-interests, etc.

Sure, we may say we want to believe the truth, but what we really desire is to believe what is useful. Good beliefs get us what we want, whether nicer suits, bigger tax cuts, or a steady source of oil for our SUV's. At the end of the day, the truth of what we believe and say is beside the point. What matters are the consequences.

Such rough-and-ready pragmatism taps into one of our deepest intellectual veins. It appeals to America's collective self-image as a square-jawed action hero. And it may partly explain why the outcry against the White House's deception over the war in Iraq was rather muted. It is not just that we believe that "united we stand," it is that, deep down, many Americans are prone to think that it is results, not principles, that matter. Like Fish and Bush, some of us find worrying over abstract principles like truth to be boring and irrelevant nitpicking, best left to
the nerds who watch C-Span and worry about whether the death penalty is "fair."

BV: It makes no clear sense to say or imply that truth is an "abstract principle." Truth is a property of (some) principles; but to say that truth itself is a principle borders on nonsense. A principle is a proposition such as Every event has a cause, or Pre-emptive strikes are sometimes justified. Truth, however, cannot be a principle since it is not a proposition. Truth is a property, a property of (some) propositions and such cognate items as sentences and beliefs.

Of course, many intellectuals are eager to defend the idea that truth matters. Unfortunately, however, some of the defenses just end up undermining the value of truth in a different way. There is a tendency for some to believe, for example, that caring about truth means caring about the absolutely certain truths of old.

BV: It is important not to confuse epistemological with ontological questions. Questions about certainty are epistemological, whereas questions about truth are ontological. (Yes, I know that there are epistemic theories of truth; I reject them, and to discuss them here would only muddy the waters.) If I am objectively certain that p, then p is true. But a proposition can be true without being certain. Indeed, a proposition can be true without being known at all, whether with certainty or without certainty. For example, I am certain that I seem to see a computer in front of me now, but it is not certain (in the very same Cartesian sense of 'certainty') that there is a computer in front of me now. Nevertheless, chances are excellent that it is true that there is a computer in front of me now.

Now if I care about truth, then of course I care about truths that are certain, whether old or new. But notice: strictly speaking, a truth cannot be old or new, only the discovery of a truth can be old or new. So what is Lynch getting at? Apparently, he thinks that someone, or perhaps a conservative, who defends the absoluteness of truth against an idiot like Fish must be a dogmatist who presumes to be in infallible possession of the "truths of old" -- whatever they are. If so, Lynch is just confused. One can be both an absolutist about truth and a fallibilist. It is consistent to hold a position such as the following: If one has truth, then one has something absolute; but whether or not one is in possession of a true belief in a given case is often difficult to ascertain. Take the belief that Saddam had WMDs prior to the invasion. Every liberal and leftist I am aware of is DOGMATICALLY CERTAIN that the belief in question is false. But one cannot be certain, since he may have moved them into Syria, or buried them, or ... or .... Here it is we conservatives who are the critical ones, the anti-dogmatists.

In other words, there is a 'fact of the matter' as to whether or not Saddam had WMDs prior to the beginning of the war -- there is no relativity to a conceptual framework or to any other parameter. But that is not to say that it is easy to determine what the truth is. Once one clearly distinguishes the epistemological from the ontological questions, one sees that absolutism about truth is compatible with fallibilism about the knowledge of truth.

That has always been a familiar tune on the right, whistled with fervor by writers like Allan Bloom and Robert H. Bork, but its volume has appeared to increase since September 11, 2001. Americans have lost their "moral compass" and need to sharpen their vision with "moral clarity," we are told. Liberal-inspired relativism is weakening American resolve; in order to prevail (against terrorism, the assault on family values, and the like) we must rediscover our God-given access to the truth. And that truth, it seems, is that we are right, and everyone else is wrong.

BV: The confusion spreads. Notice how Lynch has illicitly slid from a discussion of alethic or cognitive relativism to a discussion of moral relativism. These are distinct inasmuch as one can be an absolutist about truth while being a moral relativist.

It is also a cheapshot, bordering on slander, to suggest that people like Bennett and Bork think that "we are right, and everyone else is wrong." People who hold that there is a real world independent of our beliefs and desires and conceptual frameworks, that we can know about some of it, and that certain actions are absolutely wrong -- e.g., the murdering of children and other noncombatants to achieve political ends -- is not someone who believes that "we are right, and everyone else is wrong."

William J. Bennett, for example, in his book last year, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, laments the profusion of what he calls "an easygoing" relativism. Longing for the days when children were instructed to appreciate the "superior goodness of the American way of life," he writes: "If the message was sometimes overdone, or sometimes sugarcoated, it was a message backed by the record of history and by the evidence of even a child's senses." [Page reference?]

In the halcyon days of old, when the relativists had yet to scale the garden wall, the truth was so clear that it could be grasped by even a child. That is the sort of truth Bennett seems to think really matters. To care about objective truth is to care about what is simple and ideologically certain.

BV: This Lynch is a slovenly fellow. What does he mean by 'ideologically certain'? How did 'ideologically' get in there? What work is it doing? Does Lynch mean to suggest that objective truths cannot be simple? What does he mean by 'simple'? The opposite of 'complex'? Or perhaps the opposite of 'hard to grasp'?

As a defense of the value of truth, that is self-defeating. An unswerving allegiance to what you believe isn't a sign that you care about truth. It is a sign of dogmatism. Caring about truth does not mean never having to admit you are wrong. On the contrary, caring about truth means that you have to be open to the possibility that your own beliefs are mistaken. It is a consequence of the very idea of objective truth.

BV: Lynch is refusing to engage Bennett in any concrete way. He is attributing to Bennett notions that he surely does not hold. Of course Bennett would agree that a proposition is not true just because it is believed. Don't forget, Bennett has a Ph.D. in philosophy.

True beliefs are those that portray the world as it is and not as we hope, fear, or wish it to be. If truth is objective, believing doesn't make it so; and even our most deeply felt opinions could turn out to be wrong. That is something that Bennett -- and the current administration, for that matter -- would do well to remember. It is not a virtue to hold fast to one's views in face of the facts.

BV: Who does this Lynch think he is? This Quatschkopf thinks he is going to give philosophy lessons to men of the stature of Bennett and Bork?

Thus some writers, like Fish, say that since faith in the absolute certainties of old is naïve, truth is without value. Others, like Bennett, argue that since truth has value, we had better get busy rememorizing its ancient dogmas. But the implicit assumption of both views is that the only truth worth valuing is Absolute Certain Truth. That is a mistake. We needn't dress truth up with capital letters to make it worth wanting; plain unadorned truth is valuable enough.

BV: Try to back up this bullshit with some citations from Bennett. And try writing clearly. That would help you think more clearly. "Truth's ancient dogmas"? People hold dogmas; it is nonsense to suggest that truth holds dogmas. Name one of the dogmas that Bennett would have us "rememorize." And then show that it is either false or unsupported.

Like most left-leaning intellectuals who attended graduate school in the '90s, I have certainly had my own fling with cynicism about truth. I've played the postmodern; I've sympathized -- at length in my previous work -- with relativism. Disgusted by the right's lust for absolutes, many of us retreated from talk of objective truth and embraced the philosopher Richard Rorty's call for an "ironic" stance toward our own liberal sympathies. We stopped caring about whether we were "right" and thought more about what makes the world go round. That made us feel at once more hip and less naïve.

The events of the last three years have put the lie to that strategy. The fact that our government has deceived us, misled the nation into war, and passed legislation that threatens to infringe upon our basic human rights doesn't call for ironic detachment. It calls for outrage. But it is hard to justify outrage if your basic intellectual commitments suggest that everything is "just text" -- merely a story that could be retold in myriad ways. It is hard to stand up and fight for a political position that refuses to see itself as any better than any other.

BV: I'm glad to see that Lynch has learned something about truth even if his politics are wrong.
So Stanley Fish couldn't be more wrong. Cynicism about truth is confused. And philosophical debates over truth matter because truth and its pursuit are politically important.

BV: Now you've said something intelligent. Bravo!

There are three simple reasons to think that truth is politically valuable. The first concerns the very point of even having the concept. At root, we distinguish truth from falsity because we need a way of distinguishing right answers from wrong ones. In particular, and as the debacle over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq clearly illustrates, we need a way of distinguishing between beliefs for which we have some partial evidence, or that are widely accepted by
the community, or that fit our political ambitions, and those that actually end up being right.

It is not that we can't evaluate beliefs in all those other ways -- of course we can. But the other sorts of evaluation depend for their force on the distinction between truth and falsity. We think it is good to have some evidence for our views because we think that beliefs that are based on evidence are more likely to be true. We criticize people who engage in wishful thinking because wishful thinking often leads to believing falsehoods. In short, the primary point of
having a concept of truth is that we need a basic norm for appraising and evaluating our beliefs and claims about the world. We need a way of sorting beliefs and assertions into those that are correct (or at least heading in that direction) and those that are incorrect.

Now imagine a society in which everyone believes that what makes an opinion true is whether it is held by those in power. So if the authorities say that black people are inferior to white people, or love is hate, or war is peace, then the citizens sincerely believe that is true. Such a society lacks something, to say the least. In particular, its people misunderstand truth, and the nature of their misunderstanding undermines the very point of even having the concept.
Social criticism often involves expressing disagreement with those in power -- saying that their
views on some matter are mistaken.

BV: This is right. But note that social criticism also involves expressing disagreement with those who are not in power, but are trying to gain power. It is a mistake to think that those who have power cannot also be in possession of truth, or that those who are out of power must be in possession of truth.

Leftists love the phrase, 'Speak truth to power,' as if those with the power cannot possibly have truth on their side, and those out of power are in possession of truth. But I would argue that in many cases, the dissidents are without truth and merely lust for power, while those in power actually are in possession of the truth, or at least more truth than those who want to replace them.

But a member of our little society doesn't believe that the authorities can be mistaken. In order to believe that, they would have to be able to think that what the authorities say is incorrect. But their understanding of what correctness is rules out such a possibility. So criticism -- disagreement with those in power -- is, practically speaking, impossible.

BV: Here Lynch makes a very stupid mistake. He defines criticism as disagreement with those in power. This is obviously false since it implies that one cannot criticize those that are out of power. But surely I can criticize Kerry and his views even though he is not in power.

Recently there has been a revival of interest in George Orwell's 1984. But discussions of the book often miss the point. The most terrifying aspect of Orwell's Ministry of Truth isn't its ability to get people to keep people from speaking their minds, or even to believe lies; it is its success at getting them to give up on the idea of truth altogether. When, at the end of the novel, O'Brien, the sinister representative of Big Brother, tortures the hapless Winston into believing that two and two make five, his point, as he makes brutally clear, is that Winston must "relearn" that whatever the party says is the truth. O'Brien doesn't really care about Winston's
views on addition. What he cares about is getting rid of Winston's idea of truth. He is well aware of the point I've just been making. Eliminate the very idea of right and wrong independent of what the government says, and you eliminate not just dissent -- you
eliminate the very possibility of dissent.

That is the first reason truth has political value. Just having the concept of objective truth opens up a certain possibility: It allows us to think that something might be correct even if those in power disagree. Without it, we wouldn't be able to distinguish between what those in power say is the case and what is the case.

BV: Lynch is half-right. What he fails to see (or does not mention) is that the standard of objective truth applies both to those in power and those not in power. Those out of power are not eo ipso in possession of truth, any more than those in power are eo ipso in possession of it.

Why is it so hard for lefties to play fair?

The second reason truth is politically important is that one of our society's most basic political
concepts -- that of a fundamental right -- presupposes the idea of objective truth. A fundamental right is different from a right that is granted merely as a matter of social policy. Policy rights -- such as the right of a police officer to carry a concealed weapon -- are justified because they are means to a worthwhile social goal, like public safety. Fundamental rights, on the other hand, are a matter of principle, as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin has famously put it in a book by that title. They aren't justified because they are a means to valuable social
goals; fundamental rights are justified because they are a necessary component of basic respect due to all people. Fundamental rights, therefore, override other political concerns. You can't justifiably lose your right to privacy, for example, just because the attorney general suddenly decides we would all be less vulnerable to terrorism if the government knew what everyone was reading, buying, and saying. The whole point of having a fundamental or, as it is often put, "human right," is that it can't justifiably be taken away just because a government suddenly decides it would be in our interest to do so.

BV: I wonder what Lynch would say about the right to private property and eminent domain laws.

It follows that a necessary condition for fundamental rights is a distinction between what the government -- in the wide sense of the term -- says is so and what is true. That is, in order for me to understand that I have fundamental rights, it must be possible for me to have the following thought: that even though everyone else in my community thinks that, for example,
same-sex marriages should be outlawed, people of the same sex still have a right to be married. But I couldn't have that thought unless I was able to entertain the idea that believing doesn't make things so, that there is something that my thoughts can respond to other than the views of my fellow citizens, powerful or not. The very concept of a fundamental right presupposes the concept of truth. Take-home lesson: If you care about your rights, you had better care about truth.

The conceptual connection between truth and rights reveals the third and most obvious reason truth has political value. It is vital that a government tell its citizens the truth -- whether it be about Iraq's capacities for producing weapons of mass destruction or high-ranking officials' ties to corporate interests. That is because governmental transparency and freedom of information are the first defenses against tyranny. The less a government feels the need to be truthful, the more prone it is to try and get away with doing what wouldn't be approved by its citizens in the light of day, whether that means breaking into the Watergate Hotel, bombing Cambodia, or authorizing the use of torture on prisoners. Even when they don't affect us directly, secret actions like those indirectly damage the integrity of our democracy. What you don't know can hurt you.

The late British philosopher Bernard Williams thought that point was too obvious to be of much use: "Tyrants will not be impressed by the argument and their victims do not need to be impressed," he wrote in 2002. But whether or not every Oxford don knows why governmental transparency is important, not everyone in Tupelo, Miss., or Greenwich, Conn., has heard the
news. By only supplying two possible choices, tyrants and their victims, Williams artificially limited the options. For while the anti-tyranny argument may not be important for everyone -- no argument ever is -- it is important for anyone worried about the integrity of liberal democracy.

In particular, it is important for anyone who is looking for a rational platform on which to criticize a democratic government's lack of truthfulness on a particular issue. As Williams pointed out, such a rational platform won't be of interest to tyrants. And those already suffering under tyranny need more than rational platforms. But the anti-tyranny argument will
be of interest to those whose government is not yet tyrannical, but who fear it is heading in that direction. In brief, the anti-tyranny argument is precisely the sort of argument that is of interest to concerned citizens of a liberal democracy like our own. Unless the government strives to tell the truth, liberal democracies are no longer liberal or democratic.

Perhaps that is a truism. But not all truisms are mere words mouthed in empty ritual. In the political arena, it is all too easy to choose expediency over principle. Thus sometimes truisms, while acting as rational platforms on which to criticize our government, also act as reminders. They warn us of what we have to lose. As the philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault aptly noted in an interview in 1984, unless it would impose "the silence of slavery,"
no government can afford to ignore its obligation to the truth.

Neither can intellectuals. By abandoning notions like truth and objectivity, many of us in the academy have forgotten the political value of those concepts. In part, that is because we've fallen into the simple-minded confusions I've discussed here. It is ironic that, in capitulating to many of the assumptions and labels of our conservative critics, we have conflated the pursuit of truth with the pursuit of dogma, pluralism with nihilism, openness to new ideas with detachment toward our own. We need to think our own way past such confusions and shed the cynicism about truth to which they give rise. If we don't, we risk imposing enslaving silence on ourselves. We risk losing our ability to speak truth to power.

BV: I'm glad to see that Lynch has made philosophical progress: he has seen through the pernicious deconstructionist bullshit of boneheads like Fish. Now he has to learn how to play fair with his conservative opponents.

Michael P. Lynch is an associate professor of
philosophy at the University of Connecticut. This
essay is adapted from his book True to Life: Why Truth
Matters, to be published next month by the MIT Press.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 3, Page B6