Sunday, July 17, 2005

Red Pill: Truth and Certainty

[The following is a short article I wrote for Canta magazine's new philosophy column: "Take the Red Pill". The next edition comes out Wednesday.]

You might think that philosophy just involves arguing around in circles, never getting anywhere. You might think that all opinions are of equal merit. You'd be wrong.

Some positions are better justified than others: supported by stronger evidence or better reasons. Sad to say, we often believe things without good reason, having been misled by bad arguments or wishful thinking. Philosophy aims to expose such errors and help us to discover which positions are in fact supported by the best reasons, and so most likely to be true.

You might be suspicious of the notion of 'truth', supposing that it leads to dogmatism. There's no denying that the zealot who believes himself in possession of the "absolute Truth" can be a right pain in the ass. You might think it more humble or tolerant to believe instead that truth is "relative", that what is true for you might not be true for me. But again, you would be mistaken.

The problem with the zealot is not that he believes there is one right answer out there. Rather, the problem is that he mistakenly takes himself to know it. It's absolute certainty, not truth, which we should be wary of. A more rational person would recognize that, although there may be just one true answer, he can't be entirely sure of what it is. It's possible that he could be in error – that the truth of the matter wasn't as he believed it. That's not to say that truth is relative. Not at all. Rather, it is simply to recognize that we are all fallible. The truth is out there, but whether we've grasped it is another question entirely.

Indeed, absolute certainty is almost never justified. Think about it: can you be certain that you're not dreaming, hallucinating, or immersed in a Matrix-like world of deception? Can you prove that the world wasn't created just five minutes ago, complete with false memories and all? It seems not. In most cases, then, our knowledge is fallible. No matter how well-justified our beliefs, it's always possible - if unlikely - that the truth lies elsewhere.

Remarkably, such admissions of fallibility do not seem open to the relativist. If truth is whatever each individual believes, then he cannot be mistaken about what is "true for him". No matter the weight of evidence against him, the relativist can reply, "maybe that's true for you, but it isn't for me!" He can block his ears from the demands of reason and reality, and hold unwaveringly to his own dogma. So long as he continues to believe it, then that makes it "true for him", and to the relativist that's good enough.

Once we note the distinction between truth and certainty, it becomes clear that the latter merits more suspicion. Indeed, far from posing a threat to open-minded tolerance, the notion of objective truth might prove an essential weapon against irrational dogmatists.


  1. I am prima facie in agreement with everything you say here.

    But let me ask you a question. Think about what happens when you get into a philosophical argument about something that's really important to you. On an issue where you think you have some really important insight into the way things are. And suppose that your opponent presents prima facie cogent arguments against your position.

    What do you do? Do you renounce your own viewpoint entirely and accept your opponent's position? Or do you instead suspend judgment, declare a timeout and think some more about why you believe what you believe? And how often does that kind of reflection lead you to change your mind entirely, as opposed to merely revising your position and coming back into the fray with a more sophisticated position and better arguments for it?

    (Obviously, I think that in serious disputes you're much more likely to do the latter.)

    For those of us who are already committed to the philosophical enterprise, this is no problem; philosophy is the constant pursuit of the truth, even though we never get there; and this is how philosophical progress is made. But for a lot of people, this just looks like "going around in circles."

    (Apologies for the frequency of italics in this post. I am writing this at 3 A.M. my time.)

  2. Oh, yes, I agree that we shouldn't be immediately swayed by every plausible-looking argument that comes our way.

  3. Nicely argued.

  4. Shouldn't something be said for the differences between epistemological truth and moral truth? I understand relativism as pertaining to moral theory alone; in which case your argument is absolutely correct, one cannot hold that knowledge of the world between persons differs. But does this address the concern that one person understands the importance of an argument to differ between persons?

    Descartes might say that the way one weighs a truth can differ without changing the content of the truth; but Nietzsche, whom I read as generating the rift between epistemological truths and moral truths, would emphasize this point in terms of the actions permitted or restricted. It is in that sense the relativist says "this is true for you, but not for me." The relativist is referring to what he permits and values, and the word "truth" is really taken in a rhetorical sense.

    Now, I disagree that the same relativist can correctly disagree in historical or sociological contexts, saying, for instance, an event never happend "like that", citing relativity between differing factions. An example might be holocaust deniers who base their argument on an assumption that the powers-that-be have somehow rewritten history, or those who cite the Copernican revolution as an example of the interplay between scientific truth and dogma. This is the point I take you to be arguing against; but it leaves out the correct concerns of relativism pertaining to value theory.

    My argument here is very messy, but I hope you can get the gist of my concern.

  5. "in which case your argument is absolutely correct, one cannot hold that knowledge of the world between persons differs."

    That wasn't my argument. (I might independently agree with something along those lines, but it bears no relation to what I wrote in the post above!) My point is rather that fallibilist objectivism serves better than relativism as an antedote to dogmatism. This claim applies just as well to the moral realm as to the scientific one. (While moral objectivists must endeavour to justify their views, relativists can continue to block their ears and assert whatever unreasonable "values" or preferences they please.)

  6. But I'm still left somewhat confused after re-reading your post. You write: "Philosophy aims to expose such errors and help us to discover which positions are *in fact* supported by the best reasons, and so most likely to be *true.*" But this by itself sounds like a relativist statement--I might corrolate from this sentence that 'truth' is still left up to evaluation. What I can grasp is that the zealot and the 'relativist' (as in he who says, "whatever floats your boat...") do not bother to consider all the facts when evaluating thier position.

    At the same time, you leave it implicit that 'truth' has a final, so to speak, articulation: "we are all fallible. The truth is out there, but whether we've grasped it is another question entirely." That's where I break with you; the *world* is "out there" and knowledge of it can be shared more and more effectively as scientific studies increase, but the moral realm is not as clearly uniform, thus requires a different articulation.

    Therefore, a relativist would say, what is "true for him" in a moral sense is compelling as a motive for action. If I say it is morally obligated to tithe 30% of one's income and you say a different percentage is morally obligated, it is not clear that a weighing of evidence changes moral value of one position over the other. Thus the relativist might say, each of us ought to act as we believe is fit, eg. with me tithing 30% and you 25%. How we come to the conclusion that a percentage is more moral can be influenced by economics, politics, in other words facts that can be determined methodologically, but the final evaluation is wholly arbitrary to the individual.

    As for your final comment ("While moral objectivists must endeavour to justify their views, relativists can continue to block their ears and assert whatever unreasonable "values" or preferences they please"), the difference between an objective conception of morality (such as Kant) and a relativist conception of morality (such as Nietszche, to a limit) is that rationality and psychology compete for prime importance. Kant came close to relativistic ethics, but (this expression is weak) left the categorical imperative in place as the only intelligible way to discuss morality in all cases. I think this is more or less what you agree with.

    Summary: your claim cannot apply equally to the moral realm as to the scientific, and it is this asymetry that most people confuse when they discuss relativism in philosophy.

  7. So what is it that you have concluded here. There is a distinction between truth and certainity. Thank you, but I think we all knew that already. The truth you talk about seems to be something ungraspable out there. On this point I can agree with you, there might very well be a great ultimat truth out there. I call this truth nature.

    Take this example. You are holding a stone in your hand, and you try to describe it truthfully. Nomather how exact, how scientifically you mange to describe this stone you will never capture its 'true essence'. The only true way to describe thos stone is by "saying here is a stone", and yes, it sure is one. The problem with striving for the truth is that this cannot form any base for other truths. One cannot derive that God exists because I exist.

    What I am getting at here is that when we try to find truth we are aspiring for a perfect description of nature. We can never reach this.


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