Originally published at: In Defence of Absolute Truth – Quillette
We live in a time of great anxiety over the role of truth in public life. Media and popular culture are saturated with concerns over “fake news,” alternative facts and conspiracy theories. There is widespread concern over the breakdown of integrity and trust in public figures and experts, the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between true…
Originally published at: In Defence of Absolute Truth – Quillette
One of the great tragedies of standpoint epistemology is that it gives license for a form of superconfirmation bias. Those with whom we agree are eagerly encouraged to the point we reinforce our own bad reasoning, whilst those with whom we disagree are dismissed for no better reason than we doubt their motives and integrity.
Recently I’ve been watching Philly D.A. through BBC iPlayer. Although it’s impossible to disagree with at least some of his motives and observations, Larry Krasner’s inability to engage in either retail politics or good faith compromise with his former adversaries in the police is as infuriating as his deference to the ‘Science’ of handpicked experts on his staff.
A case in point is the claim that ‘Broken Windows’ or proactive was proved ineffective by Police Union industrial action in New York. This is wrong for two reasons. First, the industrial action mainly related to what would be better classified as a reduction in municipal rent-seeking and has almost nothing whatsoever to do with proactive policing. A lack of bench warrants issued as a result of a ‘failure to appear’ may look like a reduction in proactive activity, but was in reality the simple refusal of Police Officers in New York to work as glorified meter maids for greedy Democrat Politicians intent upon using fines issued against the most vulnerable and poor to fund their ill-advised White Elephants.
Second, the benefits from proactive policing are an accrual- it can take years for the effects to wear off, for the economic opportunities which more orderly communities provide to evaporate, and sometimes this will only be witnessed with a major economic shock.
Perhaps DA Krasner would be better off asking the question why, as proactive policing and COMPSTAT was rolled out throughout the advanced economies of West it produced the self-same miraculous reductions in violent crime without substantially increasing prison populations? Could it be because we adopted a more measured and humane approach to sentencing?
The liberal media at the time was suffering from both a ratings hungry ethos and a love affair with the Clintons which meant they were criminally negligent in performing their role of questioning power. An entire society bought into the lie of the super predator confusing criminally neglectful nurture for the innate nature of a relative few in so many instances. In what was doubtless a mockery of justice, grandstanding politicians used a tiny percentage of liberal judges at one end of the political spectrum disproportionately represented in the media to steal Judicial Discretion from the hands where Natural Justice demands it should reside and place it instead in the hands of politically ambitious prosecutors.
Still, Mr Krasner’s motives seem pure, even if his reasoning at times may appear faulty. Too long in the trenches I imagine- spent defending then hopeless causes. A better approach might be to consider Scotland as an example of how to tackle reform in the correct manner. Tens of thousands of wayward teenage boys were transformed into laudable hardworking blue collar men in a country with a population of only 5.4 million. The fallacy lies in imagining the Police simply abandoned proactive policing, when really it was more a matter of a change of approach once they had a wayward youth in custody and bang to rights.
And what does all this have to do with standpoint epistemology? Because it is as likely to produce changes for the better as a bridge built without the help of trained engineers is to be safe. Yet again, the media will highlight specific instances where the Criminal Justice system produces failures, this time highlighting failures in Public Safety, and yet again America will be no closer to producing a Judicial system which does a decent job of determining guilt or innocence, doesn’t systemically deprive poorer defendants of adequate counsel and is able to work in a relatively just manner without compromising public safety.
It’s a system guaranteed to produce official misconduct and travesties of justice for the simple reason it is chronically overworked. American Law Enforcement numbers may appear inflated, but they are roughly similar to any of the more comparable Western economies. The difference is they have to deal with five to seven times the level of violent crime. The US counts its homicides per 100,000, many countries count theirs by the million.
America is a country whose recent policies have been driven by terrible availability heuristics, and stupid narratives are just as harmful when they are aimed at young men and women in uniform as they were when they were aimed at Black and Brown teenage boys.
A couple of years ago, I watched a BBC documentary short which was never aired- or at least not in prime time. It featured the life of a Texas Death Row Corrections Officer and a young Black man under his charge, subsequently put to death. He was friends with the family, because he had been able to recognise that whilst this young man had done an awful thing, it was a stupid and tragic mistake made by a young man beset by anger and resentment. He was able to treat the young man with a degree of compassion in the months leading up to his death.
The BBC documentary maker decided it might be a good idea to visit the Prison cemetery to say goodbye. This seasoned prison officer had some kind words to offer the young man’s grave. The woman then asked whether he had any words to say to the man in the adjacent grave. “Roast in hell, motherfucker!” were his exact words. Sufficed to say her liberal sensibilities were somewhat taken aback.
It is a truism of most Western prisons which house the most violent offenders divide into two main categories of prisoners, split roughly fifty-fifty. The first group comprises people who committed terrible and awful mistakes, mainly when they were young. The second category are those who deserve to never to be let out of prison, and if the afterlife exists might well burn for all eternity, if you happen to believe in a punitive God. Most Corrections Officers will admit this and it certainly tallies with the behavioural science which tells us that roughly 50% of all murders are committed by ‘psychopaths’.
We will know exactly when our Western cultures have grown up and matured. It will be the day when both Judges (in sentencing) and Parole Boards are equipped with the most advanced medical diagnostic science can offer, as well the best knowledge provided by clinicians in the psychiatric fields- because trying to polish a turd is always a foolish endeavour. Only then will we be able to walk the tightrope between endangering public safety on the one hand, and being cruel and inhumane, on the other.
As usual, my commentary and essays are available on substack, and free to view and comment.
I prefer to defend truth, rather than Absolute Truth. Like Foucault, I’m somewhat suspicious of the very notion of Absolute Truth. truth is just the pragmatic aspect of language: correspondence between claims and facts. We know truth is intrinsic to language because to consciously not be true, one must either babble, lie, or tell tales. In general when another asks us a question we can either tell them the truth, lie, admit we don’t know, or we can repeat hearsay. A guess, told to another in their good faith is essentially a lie; it’s an act of bad faith by us.
“objects don’t go into their concepts without leaving a remainder”
I’ll call Absolute Truth the myth that, yes indeed, objects fit their concepts perfectly.
Many people lying to us, in media, and politics, often do so because they believe they possess Absolute Truth. Although, today, it’s more likely to be called the ‘greater good’. They think that knowledge of the truth by mere plebs might invalidate their Absolute Truth, Greater Good, claims. They also think plebs are entranced in a network of lies which prevent us realizing this greater good; that mere truth, by itself, cannot smash the matrix to set us free.
It’s not Relativism when one admits one doesn’t know the truth of a matter. That’s uncertainty; nowt wrong with it. Relativism is when we refuse to admit any truth claims. Or, more likely today: when we admit the truth claims of those we agree with - while refusing the claims of those we disagree with. PS: by ‘truth claim’: I mean a legitimate claim. Relativism is what you call standpoint epistemology today.
I feel my core sentiments are with the OP, but his style of presentation grates me. For example I’m right by his side WRT Carr and Argument from Authority. The OP’s style elides a whole century of Philosophy. I’m not saying everything in that century was good. I’m saying some of it was.
WRT the great tragedy of standpoint epistemology; the tragedy is to believe we can build something good on a pyramid of lies. Standpoint epistemology is an oxymoron. If it’s epistemology, it’s not a standpoint.
There is widespread concern over the breakdown of integrity and trust in public figures and experts, the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between true and false claims,
Many media commentators no longer opine on the world as it actually is, but as they would wish it to be, or as they choose to see it - ignoring all contrary evidence.
So, what about the “experts”? - those who should be dispassionately looking at the data and facts to support a position? Why have we lost faith in them and in their prognostications?
Because many have been co-opted into partisan arguments and therefore find stats and data points that will support a pre-conceived conclusion. They are no longer neutral actors, but highly politicised.
Only a fool would ignore the opinions of experts when they’re opining on “What was” and “what is” in their specialised field of expertise. But when experts tell you they know “What will be” they’re wrong at least as often as they are right - and you can find 2 equally eminent experts who’ll give you forecasts 180 degrees out from each other.
I’m willing to bet (with all due respect to readers) that few of us are well versed enough to argue the minutiae against genuine subject matter experts- to rebut their assertions line by line.
So both sides of any argument are left with a game of “Expert Top Trumps” where, in debate, we try and out-do eachother on the credentials of the experts whose opinion most closely matches our own.
Everyday, across the media, and across comments pages such as these, people cling to whichever expert’s forecast matches what they ‘feel’ will be the outcome - call it a FACT - and then dismiss any other opinion or data as wrong (Actually it’s worse than that - they quite often call it stupid, racist and/or evil).
And expert forecasts are usually wrong - indeed the more certain they are that they’re right, the more often they are proved wrong.
In the days and weeks following the UK crashing out of the ERM (1992) economic ‘experts’ were running about like a lot of wet hens convinced that the sky was falling on our heads. In fact leaving the ERM and the subsequent hit on the Pound directly set in train events that led to a period of sustained prosperity for this country - yet not one politician, economic expert or commentator - that I am aware of - predicted such an outcome at the time. (I’m ready to be corrected on that assertion)
When listening to all the many predictions of post Brexit apocalypse its worth remembering that many of these same “Experts” insisted that we would face ruin if we didn’t join the Eurozone. They sneered at anyone who didn’t agree with them and implied that any dissenters must be swivel-eyed economic illiterates.
They never couched their answers in caveats, they absolutely ‘knew’ they were right - 100% - and they had a hatful of incontrovertible data to prove it.
However, they were utterly wrong. Not that they’ve ever admitted as much, of course. But they were wrong. Totally and utterly wrong. If we’d followed their advice previously and joined the Euro we would have been completely bankrupted by the 2008/10 financial crisis.
Just because a prediction matches your world view does not add a single jot to its reliability. God, even the IMF eventually apologised for being ‘captured by group-think’ and bending every data-point and stat they could find to fit their preconceptions.
No one can predict the strong economic bounce-back - or decade-long depression - of the post-Covid world. No one can predict the outcome of Brexit, in the short, medium or long term - at least not with any degree of certainty - people are simply projecting their own prejudices and best guesses and trying to convince you they are facts.
Sometimes reading the anti-Brexit / anti-Boris / BLM / Extinction Rebellion catastrophism, so beloved of the BBC and left-liberal media, puts me in mind of the doom-mongering of the sandwich-board prophets one used to see at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park - Promising the book of Revelations was about to come true and that we should all “REPENT NOW” to save our souls from “ETERNAL AND CONSCIOUS TORMENT IN FIRE”
Their expert predictions were just as partisan and just as improbable but at least they had a good turn of phrase.
Perhaps it’s better to defend empirical truth over subjective truth. The postmodernists are right to point out that every scientific theory only lasts as long as it takes to come up with a better one- but what they neglect to mention is the theories almost always improve with each iteration, unless political ideologies rear their ugly heads (see Lysenko).
Anyway the observations which stand the test of time are invariably the better ones. Teach a kid to code and their programming language will be obsolete by the time they graduate high school, but teach a kid Archimedes Principle and it will be just as true in five thousand years as it was over two thousand ago.
Better yet, teach them Bernoulli’s principle as it might just net them a six figure income, if it sparks an interest.
Surely you mean the reverse?
‘Standpoint epistemology’, is not epistemology. Never was, never will be. It’s word salad. Epistemology is owned by philosophy, not by sociology, feminism, nor ‘critical theory’. Arguably: most critical theory is not part of philosophy either; yet some of it is.
I’m surprised that Kant didn’t get a mention. He’s the inventor of critical theory, as in Critique of Pure Reason. The point being that there may be Absolute Truth, but we can never know it. We cannot know “things-in-themselves,” but only appearances.
And the critical theorists are quite right: “knowledge became dependent on social or historical position, power, privilege, or the lack of it.” As in gubmint critical race theorists teaching little kiddies the ruling-class Absolute Truth on race, because White Fragility.
Look, everyone brings their understanding of the meaning of “life, the universe, and everything” to the public square. Some people want to talk it over in the shared “lifeworld;” others want to force the rest of the world to accept their Absolute Truth, or else.
I’m having a lot of trouble with the commonly perceived duality of relativism vs absolutism, i.e. it’s one or the other, and defined in particular ways. I went through the article without seeing how these are addressed, but may have missed the key point or points. I am hoping you could be so kind as to rip apart my objections to the following passages… What am I not getting here (other than ignoring the woke silliness)? Thanks
“You cannot truly know this because you have not lived it.” Others can accept or reject this truth but they cannot critically engage with it.
Those are not truths – those are perceptions. But that word “truth” is precisely where it seems to go completely off the rails. Obviously, everyone has perceptions. But, it seems to me, no one has truths. If one accepts this, the (woke) argument could instead be, “I have perceived this far more closely in context than you have, so therefore my perceptions are superior.” Then, it seems to me, we (all of us) could continue with give-and-take, battling greater or lesser evidence and logic. (I should add here that I believe in external “reality”, but it is a separate idea from “truth”, and is ultimately inaccessible.)
In an age of social division and insecurity, a certain relativism of perspective or value seems incontestable and essential for understanding others. However, it is not only contestable but a critical barrier to the understanding we seek.
I’m totally lost here, if the following is acceptable: The only relativism that matters is that since no one can own truth, therefore all (who behave by reasonable comunication rules, say) must be permitted to engage. This relativism comes completely before race, class, culture, and all the rest of those woke obsessions come into consideration. And that relativism is absolute, because all humans (and committees of humans) are necessarily limited creatures.
[Perceptions] are therefore relative to their context, which is variously conceived as language, cultural or conceptual systems, historical moments, or certain aspects of our identity, such as class, social position, race, sexuality, or gender.
FIFY. (Or rather, for them.) See how easy that was?
Such relativistic claims are based on a scepticism of human reason to determine ultimate truths.
You’re durn right there’s a scepticism! Ultimately, one cannot “know” anything except by being fully “one with” it. Please explain how a human (or human committee) can ever be one with any object studied? The only thing it is possible to actually know is one’s conscious thoughts.
Likewise, without some notion of absolute truth, we are unable to take authentic moral actions, to truly imagine and act towards a better world.
No. To the extent (all) humans are alike, that is the extent they can assume consistent moral values. Would you deny they are not universally alike (I assume, biologically) to allow this possibility? Because acceptance of human universal mind capability would completely cover your concern about “absolute standards of logic and argument”. There is no need to know mind-external realities about the world, although it does require common beliefs about those realities. To make the point vivid, witness the astounding levels of internal coherence, smooth operations, and just plain happiness in many of the (inter-group logically incompatible) religious communities.
One cannot consistently abhor injustices—whether slavery, genocide, or social inequality—unless one believes them to be absolutely, and not just relatively, wrong.
No. The beliefs about these things only need to be consistent across the relevant human population. So again, this has nothing to do with external reality – only internal (human) realities matter here – still a huge task, admittedly! But it is only a subsequent task to chucking “truth” and “knowledge” once and for all.
Relativism (of the scope I describe) is not only not false, but is absolutely required because humans are limited creatures. Reality is, ultimately, not fully accessible or understandable. Thus any “grand unified theory” is a pretentious illusion, never mind all the other incomplete theories we have about the nature of the external world, no matter how much any appears to “map” reality like nothing before. Since we can’t get around this limitation, we’ll never actually know anything (about the external world), so it’s high time to stop using “know” and “truth”. And in so doing, find more respect for each other.
If that were true there would be no bridges, no airplanes, no trains and no indoor plumbing. Try flushing your loo to see whether there is an objectively true reality. If it works there is, if it doesn’t you need a plumber mate.
A better way of putting it would be to state that whilst perceptions are valuable and can sometimes inform, whenever our perception don’t gel with the objectively observed empirical evidence, then it may well be that our interpretation of our perceptions is leading us to form an untrue version of reality.
Unfortunately your logic about “absolute truth” falls apart when you understand the cold hard facts about the biology of the human brain. Our neurons build a picture of the world that is unavoidably subjective. The words we attach to experiences are learned socially - they are not disconnected from mutually built meaning.
For instance your understanding of the word “truth” is likely somewhat different to mine, and it necessarily varies with context.
I would contend that if you believe you are anointed with “absolute truth” it is pernicious, to use one of your words, because it eliminates the need for you to enter into a dialog with others and you alone can “make informed decisions about justice and the good society.”
Please do NOT make decisions on my account!
If you want to learn about the cold hard science of how our brains work, please search #consilience. It does not mean agreement.
Slippery. But what you fail to take into account is that the disconfirmation of the scientific method lends itself by process towards the pursuit of objective reality through empirical observation. As individuals we are fallible, subject to the types of errors in classification which arise from the primitive brain function illustrated so ably by Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary, but acting as a distributed network pursuing the scientific method the objective is made manifest.
Simply put, it produces a form of Zeno’s Paradox in which the process almost invariably operates to eliminate the fallacies naturally produced by individual subjectivity- the arrow always points to the objective, which each subsequent theory which displaces another, a closer approximation of the truth.
There is, however, a problem. There is growing evidence to suggest that science functioned almost perfectly when groups of scientists operated in their own towers, disconnected, and somewhat barred from sharing too much information through the prohibitive cost of producing high quality information. In these circumstances, the method was generally only compromised by the intrusion of pathological political ideologies such as Socialism (Lysenko).
Unfortunately, hyperconnectivity does seem to produce a new form of challenge to the innate ability of the scientific method pursued as a distributed network to breach and overwhelm our individual subjective irrationality. It puts pressure on science to produce results too quickly. It spread low resolution information between scientific groups too readily, amplifying the possibility that bad ideas or poor assumptions might infect the foundational thinking which underpins a particular pursuit of objective truth.
It also allows fringe academic fields to achieve a form of critical mass by infecting a sufficient base of acolytes with the memetic viruses of ideology which doesn’t qualify as theory, which in turn can assault the towers of scientific enquiry like a mob with pitchforks. It also creates a means to exert undo pressure upon politicians through the minute by minute social media universe, who in turn put pressure upon scientists to produce hasty results. It even allows for a form of intellectual shopping, where consumers pick a proponent of a particular theory on grounds other than merit.
In short, even in our recent past science was able to overcome the irrational subjectivity of the individual through clearly delineated structures and institutional partitions which protects group nodes from attack by the memetic virus of subjectivity, but this may no longer be the case. This phenomenon is made most manifest by the far greater likelihood that fields which deal with emotive subject matter are most likely to suffer from public opinion paralysis or even institutional subversion. The subjects of IQ and gender identity may be the early manifestations of an altogether more serious problem.
If we imagine science as a series of interconnected nodes in a network it may well be that the internet and social media, the free flow of information, might be likened to water flooding the system, causing short circuits.
You use a lot of words to communicate a worldview that is divorced from reality. To imagine that science is a coherent body of knowledge and the word can be defined unambiguously is not true. When was science functioning “almost perfectly”? The four humors? Phlogiston? Phrenology? Eugenics?
You write clearly and I am completely aligned. #consilience
No that’s your bag. If you had actually bothered to read my post properly you would have seen that I was making the point that most postmodernists leave out in their envy of a superior set of disciplines- science always improves- each new theory which displaces an obsolete one, is almost always a closer approximation of truth than the previous theory.
Not all postmodernism is horseshit- some of the structuralists had important contributions to make. But generally, language only constructs reality insofar as it influences culture- which is a weak force compared to both objective reality and the biologically essential. Most of our social instincts and the way we operate in society are at least prewired even if they aren’t necessarily hardwired.
But overall the observations that language constructs reality is that all truth is subjective are complete nonsenses. Postmodernism is founded upon an inherent solipsism. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of an ostrich burying it’s head in the sand, and denying the world around it.
Anyway, E. Wilson’s main point wasn’t that humanities and the social sciences had anything to teach science, but rather that it was catastrophic that thought leaders and policy makers were largely ignorant of the natural sciences. A prime example of this relates to the liberal’s wishful thinking that aggression stems from environment. This is simply not the case.
Although some females are not born with physical aggression most of humanity is. We are at our most aggressive between 18 months and two years- it is only our frail little arms which prevent us from doing catastrophic harm to each other. it is simply that most of learn self-control but some of us don’t (roughly 5% of the population). The research was performed by Richard Tremblay in Canada who actually started his career with the mistaken optimism of any fan of Rousseau. The mistake other researchers have made- and the reason why he was honoured with his fields equivalent of the Nobel- was they falsely conflated more general aggression with chronic psychical aggression, which was far too broad a category to learn anything interesting.
You’re conflating “knowledge” with “conformance of reality to perceptions + perceiver agreement”. Of course, the successful of us are good at discovering conformance of perceptions to reality. But it’s not “knowing reality” – and I think in our day and age, the importance has become crucial. Consider:
20th century physics revised Newtonian physics. Many, many other hard science theories have drastically evolved throughout the last several hundred years, upooting former theories. The social sicences, moreover, are absolutely notorious for coming up with completely brand new stories (and I consciously mean the word “story”) about all kinds of complex phemomena. And especially in the last 10-20 years, we’ve even been having a replicability crisis. But still you think “reality” is knowable?
Agreed. I think a good history (or philosophy) of science course helps clarify the issue here, although that’s not available (time/money/discipline) to most people. Would you know of a good recent book?
This is a far more salient observation. It amply describes why thorny problems are so intractable, and I largely agree with your comment on the social sciences. But consider this- there are scientific theories which have stood the test of time. A good example would be Archimedes Principle, but one might as easily look to Bernoulli.
I think things get trickier when we look at humans, because our primitive brains come preloaded with all sorts of faulty illusions about ourselves- it might well be that the observer effect (in an anthropological sense) becomes orders of magnitude worse. But generally speaking, language doesn’t construct reality- our sensory functions, along with the hypothesis and confirmation processes of our hemispheric brains is far more fundamental to the reality we perceive. It’s why most postmodernism is bollocks, with a few notable exceptions.
It’s fine that theories improve*, but that simply isn’t achieving truth. They never achieve truth, because they never can. Yeah, I’m going to keep beating that drum. Because I am very confident the concepts of “truth” and “knowledge” themselves are now ripping apart society, and so, quite a lot is at stake.
*Although sometimes they don’t, and you don’t discover that until later. Hmm… Wokeness anyone? that seems to be generating a pretty broad area of non-improvement, if I may be so bold.