Wednesday, March 13, 2019

capital-T Truth

Peter writes:

"I was provoked into thinking about this by a dreadful book review in The Nation: David Bell on Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth.  I haven’t read Rosenfeld, and maybe she’s pretty good, but it’s clear Bell is confused about the very starting point for thinking about the problem.  He talks about “regimes of truth”, which he cribs from Foucault: there is no capital-T truth out there, just different views on it which possess more or less power/authority.  We happen to suffer from elites or at least some portion of them, writes Bell, who have particularly dismal standards regarding what should count as true.  The solution is to replace the bad authorities with good ones, more or less.

The error, which ought to be obvious, is that capital-T truth is irrelevant.  It’s the wrong reference point, and it doesn’t matter that no one really knows (for sure) what it is.  The real question is, what are the standards we hold ourselves to in learning about the world and minimizing error?  For instance, do we honestly engage with those who disagree with us?  Do we maintain a modicum of self-doubt and face up to the evidence that could show us we’re wrong about something?  Do we respect logical consistency?  These standards don’t guarantee we’ll arrive at the Truth, nor even that we’ll know it if we stumble on it by accident.  They do reduce the risk of error, and that’s about all we can ask.  By not centering the discussion on standards for argument and belief, Bell can’t even pose the relevant question."

Hi, Peter. I am not as sanguine as you are about dismissing the idea of capital-T Truth.  Here's why: the claim that we should abide by the standards you list in your second paragraph is a normative claim: "one ought to respect logical consistency. honestly engage etc. etc." It seems to me that these normative claims are capital-t True, and that they must be so to do what you want them to do. I think you need to embrace both ethical and scientific realism to really ward off this "regimes of truth" nonsense - which is fine with me, but seems like something you may not want to do. 




Peter Dorman said...

Hi Kevin. I guess this is an open letter, but since it's addressed to me.....

I'm implicitly adopting a falsifiability frame. I realize there are issues with it, but I think in practice it does pretty well, as long as one is not too dogmatic in applying it. I don't see a problem with retreating from verification (truth) as long as we can identify practices that systematically increase the likelihood we'll disconfirm if we're actually wrong.

The thing about skepticism, though, is that it doesn't come for free. It has to clear a bar set by the amount, quality and diversity of evidence for the propositions it's skeptical of. So even if you allow for the possibility of skepticism regarding all knowledge (and therefore retreat from the assertion of truth), in practice propositions can be so well supported that it is difficult or impossible to mount a legitimate skeptical attack. This is the position I've taken on climate science, for instance: why an endorsement of the view that no claim is impervious to skepticism does not authorize "denialism" -- which is simply skepticism that hasn't paid its price of admission.

A great discussion topic.

Peter Dorman said...

I should also add, specifically with respect to Foucault, that it seems to me his fundamental error is conflating two different questions, "What is true (or false)?" and "What do people believe and why?" His use of the term "knowledge" straddles that divide in a way that does a lot of damage. But unlike some of his critics, I think the second question is important and well worth asking in virtually every context.

Eubulides said...

Kevin & Peter:

Flirting with deflationist theories of truth is really good for the mind. Paul Horwich and the Burgess':

Calgacus said...

A favorite one liner on this, from Hegel:

Absolute Truth - As if there were any other kind!