About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Truth: a Guide
Blackburn is as fair minded (especially about postmodernism) as one can possible be, which makes this book all the more relevant to the ongoing cultural wars. On p. 113, the author provides a useful little summary of the major philosophical positions about truth, in the form of a table with four corners.
The upper left corner is occupied by “eliminativism,” the rather radical idea that one simply shouldn't think in terms of truth at all, because the concept is meaningless. Blackburn makes the parallel with astrology: we are wasting time if we debate about how to best divine the stars' influence on human life, because there is no such thing as a constellation (they are optical illusions). Similarly, an eliminativist about truth thinks the whole idea is misguided and cuts off the discussion before it gets started. And, as Blackburn notes, eliminativism isn't the same thing as skepticism (the idea that there is truth out there, but we simply can't reach it), because the eliminativist doesn't regret that we can't have truth, just like the astronomer doesn't feel bad about telling people that constellations are figments of their imagination. But somehow eliminativism feels more like a cop out than a serious philosophical position, as we give up much too much if we think of truth the same way as we think of constellations.
The upper right corner of Blackburn's classificatory scheme of theories of truth is occupied by realism, the position that yes, indeed, there is such thing as truth, and yes, we can say something, in fact, a lot, about it. Typically, scientists tend to be realists, and realists are generally optimistic about science. The problem with at least some naïve versions of realism (so-called “real realism”) is that there is no coherent account of it. For example, a typical realist account of truth is the above-mentioned “correspondence theory,” whereby something is true if it in fact corresponds to the way things really are. But the objection is that we can't say in which way things “really” are because anything we say about the universe is bound to be affected (and distorted) by our own point of view, and the correspondence theory seems to require a “god's eye view” of things in which, clearly, we do not partake. (This is why Kant, for example, concluded that we have no access to “the thing in itself,” but only to the world of sensation, and even that is biased by our innate “categories” of space, time, causality, etc.)
The lower right corner of Blackburn's table (btw, I believe the positions of the various schools of thought within the table are arbitrary) is “quietism.” Here lies deconstructionism, whose fundamental tenet is that nobody can provide a theory of truth, because there is no neutral viewpoint one can adopt to stand outside personal or local truths (the above-mentioned lethal objection to real realism). This, however, quickly leads to what Blackburn labels “soggy pluralism,” or, as he puts it: “some [philosophical] problems are disquieting enough to prompt the thought that you can ignore them [as the quietist would want us to do] only by feigning general paralysis of the brain.” Funny, that's often how I feel about deconstructionists and postmodernists.
Finally, we get to the lower left corner, what Blackburn labels “constructivism.” The idea is in between realism and quietism: constructivists would disagree that “truth” means the objective representation of an independent reality, but also disagree with quietists because for a constructivist there are worthwhile theories of truth, and they do some kind of work, for example they might give us models that serve as useful fictions to navigate the world (pragmatists, for instance, are included by Blackburn under the umbrella of constructivism).
In the end, Blackburn finds something interesting everywhere he looks, but also a lot to be discarded in the various philosophical theories of truth. While he leans toward some sort of realism, he is not a hard core “real realist” because he appreciates the force of the basic deconstructionist critique, the fact that human beings simply cannot avoid adopting a non-neutral point of view, and that this impinges on their view of the world, making it inevitably partial. But he also rejects much nonsense that one hears these days about alternative truths: “There may be rhetoric about the socially constructed nature of Western science, but whenever it matters, there is no alternative. There are no specifically Hindu or Taoist designs for mobile phones, faxes or television. There are no satellites based on feminist alternatives to quantum theory. Even the great public sceptic about the value of science, Prince Charles, never flies a helicopter burning homeopathically diluted petrol, that is, water with only a memory of benzine molecules, maintained by a schedule derived from reading tea leaves, and navigated by a crystal ball.”
Wow, talk about not pulling epistemological punches. And it's an excellent argument for getting rid of the monarchy too.