Lost in relativist jungle
" We sit here stranded, but we all do our best do deny it" (Bob Dylan)
You and I tend to disagree all the time and we are constantly arguing it seems. In this scenario, it becomes relevant to talk about truth - here we might have something to agree on, some kind of universality, yes? Because if we do not have a common understanding and base for what is truth, then how should we be able to understand and reasonably respond to the other's claims and arguments? And in today's rushing information society, with cascades of information from myriads of sources and streams, where everyone is expected to discern and sieve true from false, and meaningful from meaningless, it becomes even more important with some kind of foundation - a constitution perhaps?. But where to find such a structure in this fragmented jumble, and within duration.
Pondering and thinking. I dive into texts and videos. What is Truth? There are different theories for starters and one speaks also of different domains of truth; objective, social and personal and human.
The correspondence theory seems, at first glance, most sensible; a statement(or assertion) is true if it corresponds to something real in the world. So the statement 'The car is red' is true if it corresponds to a red car in reality. A perfect match between statement and fact apparently. It gets tricky though when concepts like perception and reality enters the discussion here; I experience this red car from my perspective (or from within it) and what can I know about the red car as it is, really, in reality outside myself? After all, I can't get out of my head (although it would have been preferable from time to time) to really see the car as it is. And then we have the correspondence itself, what does this flow consist of? And what is lost and distorted along the way?
And what about language then, this envoy of meaning and supposed truth, is it too poor to fully reproduce the experience? does it lack adequate bandwidth and luminosity? Tomas Tranströmer wrote;
"The language marches in step with the executioners
Therefore we must get a new language"
In conjunction with Tranströmer's Nobel Prize, the Nobel Committee wrote that Tranströmer's poems gives us "fresh access to reality". A bold statement to say the least but I can still agree on its accuracy.
Allen Ginsberg said of poetry that it is words that are so subjective that they are believed to represent an objective reality. The poets actually work for the dictionary one could say, few know about it, and they can take a "bewildered look at the familiar". But that raises the question what kind of truth do you encounter in a work of art? Can you palpate it beyond the language? Rather, what invites us into a work of art is its ability to open up a new horizon, it can for example illuminate a new perspective on ethics and so on. But does that make it true? Impossible for me to answer. But what if one can discern, through the artwork, traces of an independent truth outside of consciousness. The artist is, so to speak, via back roads almost, hot on the heels of an objective truth, and they have reached there via intuition and accidents.
Back to the language. According to Joseph Brodsky, language can be said to be a diluted aspect of matter. Or like this; language is the non-living's first line of information about itself secreted to the living.
And for Brodsky, the poet is someone who "negotiates" himself into real matter or real time (pure matter ... pure time). This seems a little bit too esoteric for me. I have to return the "car is red" statement and the correspondence theory.
As an analogy to the correspondence theory's correspondence between reality and assertion, one can see a translator's job of translating a poem from one language to another; again it is down to the question of what is being lost on the way? And what will be added and/or distorted? If we translate the following fragments from W.H Auden to Swedish, what will we get?;
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Every time I try I fall flat. I do not get to the same epic verve in Swedish as in the original language. Of course it can be because of my lack of talent as a translator in combination with inherent prosodic and melodic differences between english and swedish. In any case, one could still argue that some crucial experential data goes missing in the translation, in the correspondence.
Nothing is as I imagined. Theories that are more perspective-based are, for example, coherence theory and pragmatism. In the coherence theory one assertion is true if it is coherent and consistent with a system of sentences that are mutually coherent, like in a puzzle almost. It is akin to idealism and was like an old-fashioned response to correspondence theory. The idealists seems to tell me that "there is no real world just our inner system of representations", yes, but what is true then ?? Idealism here contrasts with realism. From my horizon, the coherence theory seems a bit inward and relativistic, but then again I am just a layman scrolling through wikipedia. Who are the authorities of truth? The Dogmatists think they are the ones. But are the coherence theorists way off? The questions pile up like the boats outside the resort in the summer. The coherence theorists mean, as mentioned, that we can only base one notion of belief with another; as an example, my belief that Olof Palme was murdered on February 28, 1986 must be based also on the belief that Wikipedia reproduces information correctly and do not present falsehoods.
Donald Davidson takes the word; "If coherence is a test of truth, then it is a direct link to epistemology, because we have reason to believe that many of our beliefs are coherent with others, and in that case we also have reason to assume that many of our beliefs are true ”(Davidson, 2000). A far-fetched analogy to Davidson's paragraph would be that one of those boats outside the resort town probably has truth on board.
Perhaps one should look through epistemology, the study of knowledge. I see epistemology and knowledge illustrated in a picture; two circles next to each other that partially overlap, truth is one circle and beliefs are the other and in the overlap area between the two there gleams "knowledge" in yellow. Idealistic almost. Beliefs are things that people have and they do not exist outside of consciousness, probably. Some philosophers believe that beliefs are like an outline, a psychological framework. That means that a person is inclined to behave in a way as if what they believe is true. A belief is a statement that a person accepts as a representation of what the world is like. Beliefs can be about false statements and thus be highly inaccurate since the person accepts them as being true. Critical distinction then; a statement can be true or false while beliefs can be about true and false statements even if the person always accepts them as true. Believe it or not but at random I look up a page in Comte-Sponville's "A small treatise on the Great Virtues" and read the underlining there; "knowledge, which applies to being, does not say anything about how one should be; knowledge does not judge, knowledge does not govern. The truth forces itself on everybody, of course, but it imposes nothing." (Translated from the Swedish version, so again some crucial nuance might be missing). Now I am a little confused and the only thing I come to think of is another Tranströmer quote: "There is rain above my ceilings and I'm a rain gutter for impressions." I wander backwards in Comte-Sponville's text and read the following on the same page (page 200); "For those who recognize that value and truth are two different orders (one related to knowledge, the other with desire), there is in this separation on the contrary an extra reason to be tolerant: even if we would have access to the absolute truth this would not actually force all people to respect the same values, and consequently it would not force them to live the same way ”.
Typical, too. I who thought I was on to something absolute. If anything could be easy. Again a Tranströmer quote is flickering past like a butterfly; "And the creature with glued eyes who wants to walk in the middle of the stream downstream throws himself straight ahead without trembling in a raging hunger for simplicity". This is starting to look like a collage of miscellaneous quotes. And poor Tranströmer, he is quoted ad nauseam by now. I have internalized his words and they often pop up for me in outings like these. Okay, here comes a promise; no more Tranströmer quotes in this wall of text.
Have we come closer to a common ground or have we distanced ourselves even more? Unknowingly I think of the motto or saying the more you learn the more you know that you don't know. Here we philosophize, which is to think without proof (otherwise it could not have been called philosophy), and see where we end up. So far, I could conclude that, after these investigations, I am a sensory agent who is trapped within my consciousness, and who cannot step outside of that consciousness and experience the world as it really is. But then I have not yet examined empiricism or rationalism or a plethora of other theories. This jungle seems immense and it keeps expanding.
Weary and giddy, I stop on the road with the Hedgehog and the Fox; Isaiah Berlin's famous essay ("The hedgehog and the Fox"). The point of departure in that text is a cryptic statement from the ancient greek poet Archilochos in which he states that "the hedgehog knows one big thing but the fox knows many small things". According to Berlin, the fox is one who is fascinated by the infinite variety of phenomena and things, the teeming individuality of objects, subjects and events... while those who relate everything to a central, all-encompassing system and boiling things down to a unifying whole are called hedgehogs. Rather schematic at first glance one could say. A coherent worldview is perhaps impossible for a fox; their experience is too kaleidoscopic and maybe even contradictory. They must align themselves with the boundaries. Isaiah Berlin tells us; “We are part of a larger whole than we can understand; we ourselves live in this whole and from it, and we are only wise to the extent that we make peace with it ”.
However, in this aspect, Berlin's hedgehog is more unforgiving and strives incessantly to give reality a unifying form, a universal explanatory principle. I come to think of Freud and Marx and Kant and their grand systems of thought. There's the one lense, roughly speaking, to filter everything through,"one ring to rule them all". I also ponder the fact that the world has been rather monoteistic and hence quite "hedgehoggy" for almost two-thousand years, most of the big religions have only one God (Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc) and is contrasting to the polytheistic worldview of Antiquity.
In his essay, Berlin mentions a lot of artists and philosophers who, in his estimation, are either foxes or hedgehogs, but he immerses himself in Leo Tolstoy because Berlin there finds a figure who initially evades categorization. Tolstoy was a deep sceptic of any theories that would try to explain the course and events of history and the social phenonema contained within it; he would ruthlessly debunk any synthesizing theory and explode doctrines contemptously and without difficulty. His "genius is devastatingly destructive". But at the same time he longed for that universal explanatory principle, "always hoping that the desperately-sought-for 'real' unity would presently emerge". So Berlin finds that Tolstoy was a fox who really wanted to be a hedgehog. Berlin argues that Tolstoy had "a bitter inner conflict....between the immediate data, which he was too honest and too intelligent to ignore, and the need for an interpretation of them which did not lead to the childish absurdities of all previous views". Tolstoy meant that history can't be explained through such entities as heroes, historic forces, moral forces, nationalism, reason.. and so on. There is something else at the core according to Tolstoy, some inexorable character - the march of events - and humans are basically to deeply ingrained in life to grasp it, the flow of life is too vast and cannot be sorted out because the proportion of "submerged" and uninspectable data is too high. Berlin points out that "a notion of inexorable laws which work themselves out whatever men may think of it is itself an oppressive myth". One could argue that Tolstoy, while debunking so many other theories and doctrines, himself, with his "inexorable laws" and so on, falls prey to irrationalism and obscurantism. He thinks of what occurs as a "thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links- and gaps and sudden discontinuities too". I imagine Tolstoy getting up in the morning and looking out the window and thinking "wow, the world is simply mindboggling" and to him the social-, political, moral and spiritual worlds, in which we function, seemed permanently out of reach of acute scientific inquiry.
I leave the Hedgehog and the Fox and walk on. It feels like a side track, but it was enjoyable.
The questions seem to have multiplied since the beginning of this writing. The constant questioning can be associated with what is called skepticism, it comes from the Greek word skeptikos and means seeker or questioner. It's like a rather annoying dinner guest who doesn't settle for simple answers or catch-phrase dogmatics. "Walk like a snifferdog where the truth trampled" (I broke my promise and quoted Tranströmer again).
They are two well-traveled roads by now, empiricism and rationalism. And how much of these ways of thinking has over the years been incorporated into, or excluded from, what people call "common sense"?
In empiricism, sensory experience is considered to be the most reliable source of knowledge. The thinker use induction which is to derive conclusions from the experience that then leads to knowledge of the world. Rationalism instead says that reason is the most dependable source of knowledge; this includes ideas, deductive truths and mathematical truths all of which are reached through the use of reason itself .; simply put, one can say that the thinker concludes from the inside and out as opposed to empiricism which then, so to speak, goes from the outside and in. The dividing line in the dispute between empiricism and rationalism is thus about how dependent we are on the sensory experience when we gain knowledge. Hard materialism and the dream of the watertight bulkhead. How much and how often are these roads intermingled ? Looking further back we can find a similar divide in the contrast between Plato and Aristotle where Plato was convinced that truth lay in the immaterial world of ideas while Aristotle could be considered more down to earth and "here and now"; Aristotle believed that all knowledge came from studies of the physical world, was he then the first empiricist? Be that as it may and regardless if you are inclined towards Aristotle's way or Plato's inner world of ideas, the problems of perception still remain.
What does empiricist John Locke say about this? He talks about primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities belong to the objects themselves and these are for example density, mass, weight, depth, figure, mobility and secondary qualities are color, taste, texture, sound, smell and political affiliation and so on. The distinction between primary and secondary qualities explains the disagreements we have regarding our perceptions of the outside world. Primary qualities are easy to agree on, but the squabble usually start with the secondary qualities. Or to quote Rene Gerard; taste is distaste for other people's taste.
But if we disagree on primary qualities then one of us must be wrong, because they are dealing with the object itself, it is not about you or me. Locke thinks that secondary qualities are not objectively real, they can only be experienced subjectively - here we open a box on the quiz walk that seem to pop up repeatedly and inside there is a note that says "the problem of perception".
George Berkeley objects that you cannot exclude one or the other; you can not only experience secondary qualities without primary included, and vice versa, so then Berkeley concludes that primary qualities are not real either, they are just what consciousness perceives. Berkeley even goes so far as to say that there is no matter, there are only perceptions. There are no objects just perceivers of objects. Oops. In Berkeley's world we seem to float around inside a huge tank of thoughts. Berkeley also believed in God, that is, he incorporated mysticism into his system of thought.
After many months of nothingness and not thinking about this subject I happen to bump into Hannah Arendt - the great distinction maker - and she differentiated between basically four kinds of truths: mathematical, scientific, philosophical and factual truths. A key claim is that truth is more or less durable depending on what kind of truth we are talking about: mathematical truth is, for example, being very durable (!), and factual truths are more vulnerable (in fact, Arendt claims that "Facts are fragile"). Arendt specifically made me pay attention to factual truths, truths that are concerned with human events, things that happen in the world, occurances. (Historical) "facts once lost or destroyed cannot be recovered" whereas mathematical truths are more or less always there, just waiting, so to speak, to be discovered.
She stops and points to the castles and the government buildings in the distance, where the kings and queens and the prime ministers are residing. "Remember, facts can be inconvenient to those in political power, and those in power often have a desire to conceal or destroy certain facts". This is dangerous terrain, many truth-seekers have had to pay dearly, sometimes with their lives. Hannah Arendt goes on to tell me that the real danger to facts aren't beliefs but rather organized lying, a coordinated and concerted effort to undermine the factual character of human events. Facts are like a check on the operations of power - steel bathing, invigorating and sometimes embarrassing and at times even destructive - but certain kinds of political power wants to push factuality out of existence.
Constant lying undermines the factual character of reality (and then we get 'Fake news'!). The goal of organized lying is to make the facts sound like opinions, and vice versa. It opens up a space for a slippery slope of relativism and then there is no factual account of reality, "nah, that is not a fact that's just like your opinion, man.". Reality becomes highly malleable and that plays into the hands of those politicians with a fascistic or otherwise despotic tendency: they want to shape the world, and the news, into whatever they want it to be. This is scary stuff because those kinds of governments treat facts as enemies and they can rewrite history and they become free to categorize specific groups of people - often minorities - as threats, and they do so without any shred of evidence.
Hannah Arendt lights another cigarette and concludes "And therefore, we have to speak up for the facts!".
When I am about to pay for my beer at the "Narrow mind" roadhouse I discover that my wallet is missing and on top of that I also get into an argument with the bartender. He accuse me of being a relativist. I answer that I think I am a fallibilist but that assumption is of course open to challenge, revision and even dismissal.
-I have a belief about my belief that it might be wrong
- that sounds like epistemological skepticism and them nutjobs claiming that we can’t access any ‘genuine’ knowledge
A stately guy at the bar who is sifting through his purse for some lost item begins to speak to us. Sermon-like. Eyeballs focused as if piercing through the purse.
- .. I say there is a difference between knowing things as they are, on the one hand, and claiming absolute certainty of knowing in any special case, on the other. We as a community of inquirers, at this fine establishment, can function more effectively if we regard inquiry as a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy... though(t) not all at once. That way we may encounter the real… you know that which sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of you and me…. even though the notion of reality involves the notion of a community…
The barman looks annoyed and a bit flabbergasted
- what do you mean, self-correcting?
- To say that inquiry is self-correcting is to say that a critical community of inquirers has the intellectual resources for self-correction…
Mister Purse finally picks up a worn-out coin from his purse. Holds it up for scrutiny. Dusting it off with a puff, and continues
- Maybe that wanderer isn’t a relativist after all, maybe he’s just a pragmatist… simply critical of the traditional quest for absolute certainty and of what Dewey called “the spectator theory of knowledge”… and more aiming for what is useful and practical in the community in which we are enmeshed... aiming for know-how and knowing-that s
- actually sir… I was just trying to pay for my beer
I say, interruptingly.
Mr Purse puts the coin on the bar counter and says
- Well, here you are then. It's on me
The barman examines the coin and then proclaims:
- your currency is of no use here !
I had no map, it disappeared with my wallet. I agreed on a future payment plan for the beer I bought at the Narrow Mind roadhouse and then I kept on walking. A comment from mr Purse kept echoing in my mind: "To make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious". I didn't know what to make of it.
The landscape looked barren and desolate. Eventually, after long time units of walking, I came to the edge of a forest. There was a man sitting at a table. He wiggled and twisted a bottle in all sorts of ways.
I asked him what he was doing and he replied flatly that he was trying to help the fly out of the bottle. I said okay. I asked the man with the bottle if he knew anything about the dark forest in front of us.
"it's the forest of pluralistic empiricism", said the man whose name was James Something. He continued
- it is a turbid, muddled, gothic, sort of affair, without a sweeping outline, and with little pictorial nobility...
James Something became more enthusiastic and told me that he actually had been involved in the planting of the forest back in the day, many years ago, before it took on "a life of its own". James claimed that the forest was his response to dogmatic monism. I was puzzled. He talked with more fervor now:
- philosophers often have a deep impulse, a desire that wants something more orderly, more clean-cut and more systematic... but I thought, what the heck, I might try to cure philosophers of the craving for definitive order...and this forest is what grew out of it
- ...and did you succeed ?
He smiled, almost mysteriously.
- well, hard to tell, I might have succeeded in making some people angry but that's not the point... my view is that there is an irreducible plurality of visions out there... and we finite incomplete human beings can never reach a "God's eye" point of view...and besides that there's no room in monism for genuine freedom, chance, love and poetry..bu
Then my field of vision turned pitch black and I passed out and I was unconscious for God knows how long.
It turned out that I had been knocked unconscious by the objectivists' security service- OBS. The objectivists had annexed the land where James Something and I were walking and talking. After waking up I was taken to a claustrophobic courtroom and the judge pointed out in his closing statement that "either there is a fixed point, a foundation for our knowledge, either there is or there isn't and then we cannot avoid the madness of relativism and the intellectual and moral chaos that follows. And you, as a proponent of this unscientific mess, has to be kept restrained and hidden from the public". In accordance with the laws of the objectivists, I was convicted of "illegal relativism" and my punishment was to stay one year at Hostel Nowhere.
To pass the time at Hostel Nowhere I watched endless reruns of the TV-show "The X-files". Richard Rorty was often there on the couch in the poorly lit TV-room. He would comment on things happening on the screen but sometimes the commentary was tangential or about the charge of relativism:
- the charge of relativism is insignificant... relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. So why are we here ?
"the truth is out there" I said jokingly, nodding to the TV-screen.
- truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own unaided by the describing activities of humans cannot...
There was a bit of awkward silence and then an unnamed third person responded dryly and parrot-like
- Ricky don't loose that number....
I had to step outside. Breathe some air on the prison yard. Blow off some steam. The prison guards had warned me about Rorty and said that he was the worst relativist of them all, and with "an engine of a brain".
During the break in the prison yard an angel of unidentifiable sex approached me and told me :" there is a way out....mr Purse's third way out". I was stunned and injected with hope. I didn't want to see any more x-files episodes, ever.
- there's a secret tunnel that avoids the extremes of intuitionism (the myth of the Given) and that of idealism (coherentism) ...it's a passage beyond the dichotomy of objectivism and relativism.
- I don't believe you, it seems too good to be true
The angel with the unidentifiable sex picked up a note from a pocket, unfolded the piece of paper and handed it to me. "Look". I immediately recognized mr Purse's handwriting. The note read:
"Experience is that determination of belief and cognition generally which the course of life has forced upon man. One may lie about it; but one cannot escape the fact that some things are forced upon his cognition. There's an element of brute force existing whether you opine it exists or not".
- yes, I recognize the brute force alright, the objectivists brought me here using brute force...
"I think" said the angel of unidentifiable sex, pausing to organize the thoughts:
- that what mr Purse is driving at is that the world does constrain our knowledge but this constraint is mediated through our perception and experiential judgments... we may be constrained to believe something but its epistemic authority may be challenged by further and prolonged inquiry
- That's a lot to take in, all at once
The face of the angel looked mild and professionally concerned. I wondered to myself if the angel was sent here by some opulent administrative deity.
- Yes, I know, but using these coordinates that are implicit and inherent in this document you should be able to find a way out of here... but ....there is a catch
- a catch ?
- yes, you have to take Richard Rorty with you through the tunnel. That's the deal.
One cold morning, after months of substantial preparation, Richard Rorty and I tried to sneak out of Hostel Nowhere using Mr Purse's secret tunnel. It was hard work waking Rorty up. He was sleeping in the bunk across the room and he was talking in his sleep:
- frameworks....zzz....vocabularies...paradigms....zzzz...contingency... irony..zzz....and solidarity
To be continued