This isn’t quite coming together yet, but I’m so happy to be done writing for class that I want to write a blog post this evening, so bear with me. One bit of preamble – for the sake of this discussion, when I talk about truth, I am not talking about logical consistency, e.g. proving geometric theorems after starting from Euclid’s axioms. I am talking about some sort of universal Truth that is objectively verifiable.
In my last post, I posit the absence of absolute Truth, because it seems like we gain more if we agree that truth is relative. This veers dangerously close to utilitarianism, so I think I want to explore this a bit more. My theory in that post is that the world would be a better place without Truth, and therefore we should act as if we live in such a world.
This is an odd argument when I think about it, and I don’t know if I can really justify it. For one thing, it’s only my judgment that the world would work better. For another, it totally goes against our Platonic instincts. We want to say “Yes, but we can’t just make assumptions – what about the way things really are?” I can’t just wave stuff out of existence because it’s convenient or because I think it will make things work better, can I?
But how do we determine the way things really are? We have no methods of discovering completely objective reality. Scientists use probes and interpret data, and Latour describes just how unobjective science really is. The idea of an Absolute Reality is a social construction. It’s attractive in a lot of ways – it’s simple, it’s easy to understand, and it’s what we’ve been taught. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.
And it causes a lot of problems. If I’m in an argument with somebody and we’re both appealing to the Truth, then only one of us can be right. But what if we’re both using completely factual verifiable statements? It’s our emphasis on different facts that separates us. We will both complain that the other’s use of facts is incomplete or distorted. A lot of political debate in this country is hamstrung by this right now.
If we get away from the idea of the Truth, then we start to get into the realm of diplomacy in the Latour-ian sense, where we realize that others’ patterns of ideas do not necessarily match our own. Then we can marshall our arguments but do so without irrelevant appeals to authority (which is what appeals to Truth are). Instead we could base arguments on objective verifiable results. This idea is mostly cribbed from Getting to Yes.
When we are evaluating patterns of ideas, I think it makes a lot of sense to evaluate them based on their functionality or usefulness. These patterns are just tools, and like tools, they are not good or bad in and of themselves. It’s what we can do with them that’s interesting. Useful tools extend our reach and our abilities, the same way that useful patterns of ideas expand our range of thinking. New idea patterns open us up to new ways of looking at the world. Are they true? Who cares? A good story may not be true, or even factual, but if it gives me a new viewpoint, it’s useful.
Where it starts to get ethically murky is when we deliberately use idea patterns to coerce or influence others into behaviors they would not otherwise consider. Republican framing. Islamic extremism leading to suicide bombing. Brainwashing and cults. Using such idea patterns is useful to us, so is it okay? Without an absolute standard such as Truth or Good to refer to, it becomes very difficult to figure out where to draw the line. And there may not even be a line.
I think I need to ruminate on this some more. Definitely still needs some seasoning. What do you think?
P.S. In a bizarre coincidence, the lecture in tonight’s class hit several of the same points that I was trying to make in my last post. It was from the perspective of management and leadership, but the professor was emphasizing the importance of getting away from certainty and absolutes, and moving towards a relativistic attitude, open to incorporating new ideas. It’s not quite the same, but they’re definitely related. At least in my head.