What Happened to Truth

In the Fall of 1998, Free Inquiry printed a series of articles under the heading “What Happened to Truth? The Postmodernist Attack on Science, Morality, and Common Sense.” The articles claimed that rejecting the ideas of “objective truth” and “absolute standards” could lead us to “cultural disaster.” I disagree and will try, in the space available, to explain why.

During the last quarter century many people have noticed not just that beliefs vary around the world, but that beliefs continually change over time. If our beliefs within various disciplines (and the disciplines we engage in themselves) can differ so drastically from those of previous centuries, and they in turn from what preceded them, we can only expect that future moralists, artists, and scientists, will reject our beliefs. They will call this progress, though we might disapprove could we see what they will be doing.

The shifts in beliefs over the centuries do not resolve themselves into any consistent direction which would allow us to (somehow) predict future beliefs without actually holding them. And should we ever have the good luck to latch onto a belief that is “right” or “real” by some super-human standard, so that all “clear-thinking” scientists would hold onto it forever, we would have no way of knowing we had done so. No one has ever devised any method for recognizing “objective truth” should it ever be found.

Free Inquiry readers are in the habit of dropping from their vocabularies many things (such as “miracles”) that cannot be identified. They should do the same with “objective truth.” And once you have dropped a concept from your thinking, it is of course meaningless to assert relationships to it, to claim for example that Einstein got “closer” to “objective truth” than Newton did. You can no more get closer to “objective truth” than you can to “Heaven.”

Imagine wandering through ancient Athens or contemporary Arkansas and stumbling on a conversation over which of the four elements is most essential or whether Jews are sent to Hell. Most readers of Free Inquiry would be likely to reject the very terms of these discussions. You wouldn’t assert that there is something called Hell but that Jews don’t go there. Rather (much to your listeners’ bewilderment), you would say you have no use for the term “Hell,” that it doesn’t mean anything to you. Perhaps you would say that it “doesn’t exist.” But this is not quite right, is it? I, for one, have never been entirely clear on what it would mean for Hell or Heaven or God to exist. I cannot say, “I have a clear notion of what it would mean for God to exist and I have concluded he does not.” What is a “perfect” anthropomorphic being supposed to be like? How would the world differ if such a thing existed or didn’t exist? I haven’t the foggiest. So, I don’t use the word “God.” I am not an atheist. I am further away from theism than atheists are.

After noticing that what people call truth changes over the years, many have concluded that any claims to having found a final and universal truth (or even to having found a method for pursuing such a thing) are misguided. Final truth, we’ve decided, cannot be found in a book, a star chart, an anthropologist’s report, or a microbiology lab. Such truth cannot be found, period. And ordinary, everyday truth — the things we currently (and always tentatively) believe — cannot be found either. We have beliefs, of course. And we call the ones that we expect to hold for some time “true.” But we don’t acquire these beliefs by finding them outside ourselves.

Well, then where do our truths come from if we cannot find them? Do we invent them out of thin air and make them true by simple assertion? This is what numerous scientists and philosophers imagine to be the only other possibility. Infuriated by such silliness, they quickly ask us postmodernists to step out a tenth-story window and see whether or not we find the sidewalk.

Vern Bullough’s short article began thus: “Postmodernism, the radical philosophy that claims that truth is what one says it is, is a necessary corrective to some of the past excessive claims made in the name of science.” Postmodernism does not claim that, and claiming that is pointless. When we find ourselves correcting one mistake with another, it is time to step outside the framework common to both of them.

Postmodernism, of which my favorite sort is the Pragmatism promoted so well by Richard Rorty, does not reject realism in favor of idealism. It rejects them both in favor of something new. To me, a debate over whether the world is “really real” or “we just thought it up” is precisely as useful as a debate over which of the four elements is most essential.

Try to think of any belief you have which you entirely created on your own. You will, of course, have to invent your own language and concepts to express it, and these should have no similarity to any concepts I already know about. Now, try to think of any belief you have which you simply found in the “external world,” which you did not shape in your mind and which does not utilize any concepts created by any human being. Neither feat can be performed.

Everything involves both creation and discovery. But nothing involves only one. Or rather, the notions of discovery and creation, in this context, are not serving us well and should be abandoned in favor of new notions. The best attempt at setting forth a new way of thinking in this regard has been made by Martin Heidegger. Understanding that this is what he was attempting usually helps readers stop rejecting his neologisms as pointless “jargon.”

If we accept that thinking can change this radically, and recognize the extent to which it always has, we will no longer have a use for the idea of “common sense” as used in the title of the section of articles printed in 1998. So, it is perfectly true that postmodernism attacks common sense. It does not, however, attack morality or science. Many have rejected the idea of “objective truth” without beginning to eat live babies or try to fly or any similar horrors.

Free Inquiry readers are used to answering the question “How can you be moral without God?” The answer is, of course, “Why would I have to claim to believe in whatever God is in order to be kind? What is the connection?” When postmodernists are asked “How can you be moral without objective truth and absolute standards?” the response is: “Why would I need whatever those things are in order to be kind? What is the connection?”

For many centuries our culture was religious through and through. Friedrich Nietzsche said that even when we declared God “dead” we would still carry his “shadow” with us for a long time. The idea that there is an absolute reality is a vestige of the idea that there is a God’s point of view. It should be put behind us along with the idea that certain types of sex are “unnatural,” convicts and the poor get what they “deserve,” the “market” will take care of everything, Jesus is “the Savior,” and capitalism is “destined” to perish.

Matt Cherry’s brief introduction to the 1998 articles grudgingly gave postmodernism credit for pointing out the “fallibility of human thought.” As opposed to what kind of thought? Cherry was, I’m sure, not consciously comparing human thought to divine thought, but the habit of thinking of “human thought” as fallible presupposes some kind of thought that is infallible. This is not a coherent concept. Thinking is experimental and without end. There is no point in speaking of infallible thought, and therefore no point in speaking of fallible thought.

Cherry told us that “if even science cannot claim any cross-cultural truths, then moral concepts must also be completely relative — no more than a matter of taste or tradition.” The idea of science as humans’ primary endeavor, setting the standards for morality, is a pernicious invention of the last few centuries, though its roots can be traced to Plato. But the idea of truths that are true in every single culture belongs to religion and to discussions that have not yet rid themselves of religion. When Jean-Paul Sartre said there was no such thing as human nature, he did not mean that a biologist could never (for whatever purpose it might serve) find some trait shared by all humans. He meant that there is no single “correct” way to behave as a human that we can discover in either the “word of God” or some secular surrogate thereof — such as university philosophy departments.

Cherry objected to scare-quoting as some kind of pretentious game. Perhaps I have said enough to explain why postmodernists sometimes put words in quotes or, like Jacques Derrida, draw a line through them. I cannot write “Pat Robertson said homosexuality is ‘unnatural’,” without putting “unnatural” in quotes. This is because it is a word I am repeating without attributing any meaning to it. Were I to leave it out of quotes, that would be pretentious. I would be pretending to know what it meant.

Cherry next made the entirely baseless claim that “if taken seriously” postmodernist ideas about truth “would, for example, destroy support for science, social reform, and universal human rights.” He also included a quote from Adolf Hitler intended to depict him as a postmodernist. Hitler rejected democracy, openness, kindness, and respect for others. But he did not reject “objective truth.” He claimed to speak it and used this power as a religious authority to lead others to horrible acts of cruelty. The German traditions of Catholicism and Lutheranism had prepared people to obey such an authority who claimed to have “the truth.” Heidegger, to his enormous shame, followed Hitler’s cruel teachings. But this nasty behavior does not prevent us from taking what good we can out of Heidegger’s philosophy, much of which resonates closely with the work of John Dewey.

E.O. Wilson’s article provided an analysis of the Enlightenment that he could have well extended to postmodernism. “They tried to avoid metaphysics,” he wrote of Enlightenment authors, “even while the flaws and incompleteness of their explanations forced them to practice it.” Of course all beliefs are flawed in the opinion of those who do not share them, and no one has any idea what “complete” truth would be. But Wilson was right that Enlightenment thinkers were far from ridding themselves of religion. He rightly called them “defiantly secular in orientation while indebted and attentive to theology.”

Wilson went on to claim that “Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing.” Actually, postmodernists believe neither notion has any meaning. What would it be like to know everything or nothing? I cannot imagine such states. I do, however, believe that everything we know, we may later reject. So, we know nothing in the way of ultimate knowledge. But this should be good news for scientists. The alternative would be that science might come to an end and leave them out of work.

Wilson claimed to have found some bits of final truth. He described a situation and wrote: “[T]hat is the way the real world works.” The “real world” is not the world known to humans, but the world known to God. Wilson does not know, and it makes no sense for anyone to imagine knowing, anything about it. A pragmatist believes that there exists a world of stuff around and including humans. But this belief is as tentative as any other. And a pragmatist does not believe that some ultimate truth about the world can be developed, that we can say anything “objectively true” about it. I fail, in fact, to see an advantage in trying to group the objects of all my experiences together into one thing called a world. I find it more useful to, like Heidegger or Dewey, use more verbs than nouns, talk more of experience and experimentation than of approaches toward some object.

In “Consequences of Pragmatism” (1982) Richard Rorty wrote,

“For the pragmatist, the notion of ‘truth’ as something ‘objective’ is just a confusion between

“(I) Most of the world is as it is whatever we think about it (that is, our beliefs have very limited causal efficacy)

(II) There is something out there in addition to the world called ‘the truth about the world’ (what [William] James sarcastically called ‘this tertium quid intermediate between the facts per se, on the one hand, and all knowledge of them, actual or potential on the other’).

“The pragmatist wholeheartedly assents to (I) — not as an article of metaphysical faith but simply as a belief that we have never had any reason to doubt — and cannot make sense of (II). When the realist tries to explain (II) with

“(III) The truth about the world consists in a relation of ‘correspondence’ between certain sentences (many of which, no doubt, have yet to be formulated) and the world itself

“the pragmatist can only fall back on saying, once again, that many centuries of attempts to explain what ‘correspondence’ is have failed, especially when it comes to explaining how the final vocabulary of future physics will somehow be Nature’s Own — the one which, at long last, lets us formulate sentences which lock on to Nature’s own way of thinking of Herself.”

Much of the playfulness — the puns and metaphors — of postmodernist writing is meant to make fun of the idea of correspondence by showing that words cannot escape the medium of words. It is not surprising that this would be confusing for those who simply assume correspondence to be a possible and worthy goal.

However, many postmodernists do not write as clearly or for as general an audience as Rorty does. Jean Bricmont’s article denouncing postmodernists as frauds was probably not without some justification. Certainly Freudianism is fair game for ridicule. But many people accept the usefulness of Freudian theories in explaining the behavior of people in areas other than science. Why should applying these theories to science be so hilarious, unless we imagine that science is not the creation of humans, unless we divide the “human sciences” from the “natural sciences” as if humans (and their souls) are not natural and natural science is not human?

In addition to the Freudianism, some postmodernists can be sloppy or even pretentious. More frequently, I believe, they are misunderstood by scientists stepping out of their laboratories and their league. Scientists see attacks on realism as assertions that Copernicus altered the movement of planets by writing words on paper. Postmodernists, on the contrary, merely mean to point out that, for all we know, future thinking will reject the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun. Postmodernists do not believe that human speech can alter distant objects, but want to point out that whether a whale is a mammal or a fish is a matter of our ever-changing convenience. Pace Noam Chomsky, some of whose vestigial religion is critiqued in Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct,” we make the categories.

Many scientists have read the writings of T.S. Kuhn and agreed with them, but when they hear an assertion such as “There are no such things as facts,” they do not associate this claim with Kuhn’s examples of how preconceptions shape observations. Rather, they imagine postmodernists are claiming no one could have died from a disease before the disease was conceptualized and given a name. Many scientists recognize in the science of the 1700s the influences of religion, racism, classism, and sexism. Yet, they insist that there is some pure science on which these other things were having distorting effects. Even if today’s science is being distorted in other ways, they say, there is an ideal science which wouldn’t be. (Similarly, there are journalists who imagine there is such a thing as being “objective,” although they haven’t yet worked for just the right editor to achieve it – namely one who shared every one of their opinions.)

Rorty believes that scientists should do science and not be bothered with philosophy. I disagree. The remnants of religious thinking that haunt scientific thought damage it in countless ways. It would be best to remove them. Doing so would open scientists more to revolutionary thinking (in the sense in which Kuhn distinguished major breakthroughs from ordinary research). It would also lead scientists to waste less effort on misguided attempts to create a unified theory for everything. And it would lead us all to place less importance on the drive to know. We would begin to find the idea that morality is a secondary concern to the pursuit of knowledge laughable and reprehensible.

As a postmodernist view of science spreads through the public, and we come to be more aware of how theories evolve through the years, we will also be better able to reject Creationist attacks on Darwinism along the lines of “Well, if Darwinism is right, then why has it changed so much?” Theories — ALL theories — have holes in them. We do the best with what we have, and biological evolution currently has no serious rivals. It can only be rejected as a “mere” theory if we continue to imagine it could be anything else.

But how, you may ask, do you persuade someone to change their mind if every belief is as good as every other and there is no standard by which we can measure them? Well, bear in mind that we have been doing so for millennia. I am not proposing anything new here — just an understanding of how we already behave. We adopt new beliefs when they are more useful to us than old ones, when — that is — they fit better with and add more to a greater number of our other beliefs than the old ones did. Often we persuade people to be kinder not through math-like arguments, but through stories, films, and photographs.

Xiaorong Li’s article on human rights in China was postmodernist without knowing it. She stated that China’s rulers’ moral values should be judged by our Western values. This is right. We cannot judge behavior by any other values than the ones we’ve got, and a failure to do so is moral surrender. But this solution would not satisfy most anti-postmodernist philosophers, who want to be able to appeal to some more divine or “universal” standard in order to prove that China is mistaken and we are correct. Anti-postmodernists think “human rights” are things all homo sapiens “have,” rather than being a grammatically awkward way of saying either how a government treats its citizens or how we would like it to do so.

Theodore Schick Jr.’s article illustrated how a lot of anti-postmodernists view morality, namely as something they can get “right” or “correct.” American philosophy professors do not think they are trying to get things right according to God, although theism is of course the origin of this way of thinking. Instead, they go so far as to try to invent criteria for success. Yet, they refer to these criteria as potentially being “right” or “wrong.” For utilitarians and pragmatists, on the other hand, ethics is often a question of better or worse, even of uncertain experimentation, rather than “right or wrong.” I remember that over a decade ago Free Inquiry promoted “situationist ethics,” meaning basing decisions on unique situations rather than following good rules even when harmful, much less bad rules. I learned from and still agree with this position, but it cannot be made to fit with “natural law” or “universal standards” or “objective truth.” A list of extra-humanly correct instructions for every possible situation can be no more than fantasized about. The most we can do with it is assert that it could exist, just as eternal life could exist.

Schick wrote that the fact that morals change (together with the predictable fact that we prefer the ones we’ve now got) means we’re moving toward some “fixed moral standards.” Even the most watered-down Freudian should be able to spot a longing for parental security in that sort of wishful thinking. Once again, since we have no way of identifying “fixed moral standards” should we see them, there is no point in talking about them and no way to measure our relative or absolute distance from them. And this is no loss, since we never had them to begin with.

Harvey Siegel’s article proposed that pragmatism, or what he called “relativism,” is self-contradictory because it asserts that it itself is absolutely true. It does not. Pragmatism includes the belief that we may someday abandon pragmatism. Nor does a pragmatist tell someone who disagrees “Your way is just as good.” Like Li in her article on human rights in China, a pragmatist says “I judge you by my standard, which may change, but I will continue to judge you by it.”

Siegel also attempted to explain his preference for Galileo over Aristotle from a “neutral position.” He did this by asserting that Galileo’s ideas can be explained to an Aristotelian. Well, cannot Aristotle be explained to a follower of Galileo? I prefer (parts of) Galileo because I have been educated to do so. But his theories cannot be sold to an astronomer in the year 2000 any more than Aristotle’s can. Are we to believe he could have convinced everyone in his time if he’d been allowed to explain himself? Scientific disputes sometimes go on for decades, with each side continuously “explaining” itself to the other. I don’t see what this has to do with a neutral position.

After rejecting so many things, let me stress that this is not a story of loss or disappointment. We need not rush out like Nietzsche, Dostoievsky, Kafka, or Camus and declare everything absurd. Without objective reality everything is permitted. Of course, and everything always was permitted, including the inventing of objective reality and the partial belief in that invention. Without life eternal, life remains what the vast majority of people have all the time known it was: something both horrible and joyful, as joyful as we make it. Without permanence, we are granted the dream of infinitely different futures, to which we selflessly contribute our bit, though it and our fame will eventually be lost in the ceaseless flow. Those of us who never believed in any of what is rejected, obviously lose nothing. What remains is not a permanent solution to human life, something to leave future generations out of work and bored to death. What remains are ethics, art, politics, science. That we cannot have a perfect art keeps art alive. That science is never finished is the salvation of future scientists. That there is no longer the question of whether the poor have a “right” to the help of the rich, allows us to ask more clearly: “Ought the rich to give a damn?” and to answer as we choose, and to lead by example.

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