Truth vs. Context

Posted: December 14, 2004 at 10:52 pm in people

Beemer had an interesting response to my last post, which he called Truth vs. Context, and I’m going to steal that for the title of this post. As a warning, I have a ton of ground to cover, and this entry is probably going to span at least four posts, if not more. Just the notes I scribbled out and emailed to myself were over a page. God help us all.

I agree with Beemer that there is an objective physical reality. I mean, I was trained in physics: how could I disagree with that statement? After all, somebody once quipped “Reality is that which, when you push against it, it pushes back.” (if anybody knows who said that, please let me know – I am clearly paraphrasing it because I couldn’t find it on Google) However, I don’t think that helps us in this case. In fact, modern physics actually demonstrates the importance of context. Not only that, but scientific philosophers such as Kuhn and Latour have demonstrated that even “objective” science has a large degree of subjectivity in it when it comes to the existence of paradigms and black boxes that nobody questions.

But objective physical reality only goes so far. When I drop an object, it falls to the ground. I can repeat that experiment over and over again and be assured of getting the same result. However, the same is decidedly not true of social interactions. For instance, if I asked somebody “Do you want $2 or $0?”, you would think the answer would always be “$2″ (I just heard an echo of “I want my $2″ in my head). But it’s not. It depends on the context.

In fact, history demonstrates that there are virtually no impossibilities when it comes to social interactions. We’ve tried it all. Dictatorships, democracies, anarchies. Cannibalism. Matriarchies, patriarchies, hierarchies. Any rule that we think we can put our finger on and claim is universal, there has probably been a society somewhere in history that did the opposite. Anywhere I go on this planet, I’m pretty well assured that if I hold a book three feet off the floor and let go, it’s going to drop to the floor. I have no such assurance about language. Or customs (is it polite to belch?). Or hand gestures (do you know the equivalent of the middle finger in Korea?). In all of these things, context matters.

Given the fundamental relativity of such things, there looms a larger question: given two competing social contexts, how does one decide which one is “better”? In an Enlightenment universe, reason would determine everything, but I think that reason is fundamentally limited here because reason is a tool; it can not determine overall goals. To give credit where it’s due, many of these thoughts were instigated by the discussion over at Dave Policar’s journal, particularly his comment trying to reconcile opposing concepts of how things should work. This whole post is essentially an attempt to examine some different ways of reconciling such opposing concepts, in part by evaluating the contexts in which they make sense. In light of the specific point I was making, the separation between goals and execution was also articulated in that discussion. I believe that reason is a good tool with which to evaluate alternative execution strategies. However, it’s unclear to me that it can be similarly used to evaluate social goals.

This also explains the schism I mentioned in my last post between the Postmodernist Left and the Enlightenment Left. They are covering two separate areas. The Enlightenment Left covers the physical world. The Postmodernist Left covers the social world. And the tools appropriate for one world do not transfer easily to the other. It’s “Truth vs. Context”, the title of this post.

So, given two competing social systems, two opposing contexts, how do we choose one? For instance, how can we decide between the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models of Lakoff’s Moral Politics? Lakoff takes a stab at resolving that at the end of the book, but he essentially just puts down his opinions to decide in favor of his progressive politics.

I’m not sure there is a way. Any metric we choose to decide between them can be dismissed as biased because everything in the social universe is biased by definition by the chosen context. I’ve struggled with this question before. The conclusion I came to that time (also with Beemer’s help) was that perhaps it could be demonstrated that “Good” systems reinforce themselves, whereas “Evil” systems eventually annihilate themselves. In other words, “Good” systems are infinitely sustainable and create a virtuous circle. How one goes about showing that is a really good question.

I was going to go on and start trying to apply some of these ideas to ethical systems, but I’ve been writing here for about two hours, so I think I’m done for the evening. I’ll try to get back to it tomorrow. The number of branches of investigation available along these lines is dizzying; hence the four or five emails I sent to myself today with different paths to explore. Or I may get bored with it and go explore something else entirely.

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