Sunday, November 1, 2020

Truth, knowledge and self-deception


One of the fundamental, persistent, claims of wisdom traditions is that to be wise one must seek to not deceive oneself. That unsparing knowledge of oneself is a key element in wisdom.

We live in societies of ever-expanding evolutionary novelty. An expanding novelty that better understanding of our evolved selves is necessary to navigate, and increasingly so. Contagious self-deception is the opposite of what we need.

One of the adaptations from French theory that has feed into contemporary ideas about progress and social justice makes it much easier to deceive oneself. This is the characterisation of discourse as entirely self-referential; that text, language, discourse only refer to themselves. The consequence of this characterisation is that truth no longer operates as the marker of having apprehended reality. There is, in this construal of reality, no unified truth to act as a arbiter of reality.

The concept of truth is inherent in language. ‘Cat refers to a cat’ is a truth claim. What is the word for …? What is the name of …? What does that mean …? These all involve truth claims. Truth is odd, however, because it refers to a certain form of success in using words.

Words are generally defined by sorting definitions — the definition allows you to sort things into what is, or is not, referred to by the word. There may well be fuzzy cases, but even a fuzzy case is sorted into being a boundary case.

Typically, there is a set of characteristics such that if a thing has all of them, it is in the set; if it has none of them it is outside the set; and the fewer of the characteristics a thing has, the closer to being outside the set it is. With the boundary being set by the use of the word, as it evolves over time.

Truth does not work the same way as words normally do. First, it refers to a certain sort of successful use of statements and not individual words or things in the world. Second, precisely because truth refers to a certain sort of success in word use, no definition of truth will allow you to sort (merely by use of the definition) any statement into true or not true. Truth does not sort in the way words that are directly about things do.

The same also applies to knowledge, as it is about the successful apprehension of reality. No definition of knowledge will, by itself, tell you whether you have successfully apprehended reality. Whether what you have, in a particular case, is knowledge. Neither truth nor knowledge entail sorting definitions in the conventional sense.

This is not a problem of reference. Saying something is false does not mean it has failed to refer. On the contrary, it is because the reference is grasped that a judgement about a statement’s truth can be attempted. Saying a statement is nonsense often implies it has failed to refer (though it can also be used to say it has failed to refer to how the world is).

The denial that language has reference beyond itself is an adaption from Jacques Derrida. (A useful quick guide to Derrida on language is here.) As with the other French theorists, Derrida is a pre-Darwinian thinker. That is, he is post-Darwin-the-icon-of-science but not Darwinian in his thinking, he does not embrace the evolutionary lens. (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view of language, that language is defined by use, fits much more naturally with evolutionary thinking.)

Language is a technology; a technology that assists us to act in the world across a wide range of aims or goals. Words are tools for communication, but tools that work because they enable us to act in the world more effectively — otherwise the capacity for language could not have evolved. (One reason that Noam Chomsky does not have much regard for the French theorists intellectually is that he is very much a Darwinian thinker.)

Structuring truth

Humans have certain physical characteristics, nutritional needs, cognitive structures etc. The world has various structures that operate in various structured ways. So human languages tend to develop somewhat similar structures (to the extent there are patterns in, for example, vowel shifts over time) while still evidencing considerable linguistic variety.

The world is structured in such a way that evolving the capacity for language improved our capacity to act in the world. Language was a development of our capacity to apprehend reality, a capacity that existed before we invented language. Language does to some extent shape how we apprehend the world, though not nearly as much as is often claimed.

And, just to be clear, nothing I say here contradicts language being “a shambolically magnificent accretion of random habits”, in linguist John McWhorter’s words. Words may be tools, and language a technology, but both evolve through collective accretion that works against the sort of efficient patterning that we might more generally associate with technology. Accreted quirkiness generates much of the difficulty in learning another language.

Derrida inflates use of language with the mass of possible conceptual connections involved in any particular use of language, and calls the latter meaning. Those conceptual connections are also words, hence text only connects to other text. This enormous mass of multiplying connections mean, Derrida claims, that we can never reach the clarity which permits there to be a unified truth with the power to arbitrate.

From Nietzsche onwards, making a big deal of our economising incompleteness of apprehension has fuelled a great deal of modern scepticism about truth. But the incompleteness or unreliability of our apprehension of reality is an old concern in philosophy. See, for instance, the concept within Indian philosophy of us living in a world of maya, illusion.

As an aside, the nervousness I have about the correspondence theory of truth, is that the notion of correspondence can have an implication of completeness of coverage and perfection of alignment. If our apprehension of reality, and our terms of language, inevitably economise on information, as they do, requiring such completeness of alignment seems too strong a claim to substantiate a statement being true. I want a theory of truth to be comfortable with partially true, mostly true, approximately true and apparently true without entailing any claim that the world lacks structure or that we are radically incapable of apprehending, and successfully referring to, the structures of the world.

Of course the world is structured, otherwise we would not exist. The variance in the structures of languages tells us that there is no automatic correspondence between structure in the world and the structure of language. Given that the consideration of possibilities is one of the great strengths of language, this is not surprising. A notion of truth, of successful reference to what is, requiring one-to-one correspondence between the structure of a language and structures in the world seems too strong a claim.

Claiming that propositions are self-referential, that language or discourse only ever refers to itself — one of the key adaptations of critical social theory and its associated constellation of ideas from the post-Heidegger French theorists — has the effect of eliminating truth as a marker of having apprehended reality, there being no unified truth able to act as an arbiter. As I have pointed out previously, it decapitates one’s epistemology, one’s understanding of what it is to know. But it does not thereby eliminate truth talk, as that is inherent in language.

Moreover, one still acts in the world, perceives the world, experiences the world. We still have procedural knowledge, perspectival knowledge and participatory knowledge. It is just that truth in the sense of propositional knowledge, knowledge that, is eliminated (or at least hugely downgraded) as a mechanism for interrogating action, perspective and experience. Hence the talk about the “truth of your experience” and “your truth”.

Society thereby becomes relations of power and speech become acts of power. Standpoint epistemology, giving priority to “lived experience”, is what you are left with when discourse is declared to be entirely self-referential and truth is stripped of arbitrating capacity.

The decapitated epistemology of purely self-referential discourse is wonderful for the hermeneutics of suspicion. Texts cannot just be themselves, still less can they reveal the truth of things. No, they must be manipulative or self-deluding acts of power.

More than politics can bear

As conventional religious belief have retreated, many people have taken to getting a sense of meaning and purpose, even a sense of salvation, from political action and political belief. This is deeply dangerous, as it puts a burden onto politics that it cannot productively bear. In particular, it elevates political disagreements, the elementary stuff of politics, especially democratic politics, into dramas of social and personal salvation.

Europe was only able to bring an end to the bloodletting of the wars of religion by granting politics a realm independent of the grand cosmic significance of sin and salvation. Pouring that grand cosmic significance of sin and salvation back into politics is a recipe for death and disaster. As the history of totalitarian regimes, with their mountains of corpses, demonstrate so grimly.

That the internet is shaking up communications and social order in a remarkably similar way that printing did in the lead up to the Reformation is not encouraging.

One of the costs of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, is that they separated religion and philosophy from any connection to wisdom traditions. The Reformation did so by its emphasis on faith and grace. The Enlightenment by putting so much emphasis on propositions and propositional knowledge, on knowledge that. In an era where the successes of science were so dramatic, it was perhaps an understandable error, but still an error.

Rene Descartes proclaiming that a proposition — cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) — was the irreducible core of knowledge was classic Enlightenment thinking. Heidegger complained that Descartes then failed to inquire into the nature of being, into the sum. (Enquiring into the nature of being, of being-in-the-world, was a concern of Indian, Buddhist and Daoist philosophy for about two-and-a-half millennia: perhaps Heidegger might have read on some their efforts, rather than inflicting masses of turgid German onto us.) We could also complain that Descartes was invoking the experience of thinking, cogito, without noticing much that experience is not a proposition, but is part of our knowledge, of our apprehension of reality.

Post-Enlightenment thinking, especially in the responses to Heidegger (and the French theorists are all responding to Heidegger), has moved even further away from wisdom traditions. There is no hope for avoiding self-deception if we cannot interrogate our actions, our perspective, our experience by some test of reality that is not plastic to our self-deceptions. Assuredly not in terms of some grand social sense of sin and salvation, for that is far too coarse, far too grand (and grandiose) a framework to investigate the crooked timber of our individual humanity. What is needed is a much quieter, open, fine-grained, sceptical investigation of how we are, how the world is.

Instead, we get self-important social action that is the opposite of wisdom and full of self-deception. We get people so convinced that they see oppression everywhere in the least oppressive societies in human history. People who then grade their fellow citizens with incredible harshness on the basis of inflated characterisations of oppression. Who take molehills of truth about inequalities and injustices and inflate them into mountains of bullshit about systematic oppression. And bullshit themselves about their perceptive worthiness on the way through.

This is great for status strategies based on prestige opinions (shared opinions that proclaim the worthiness of those professing them, and the moral and cognitive unworthiness of those who disagree) used to establish social dominance by stigmatising, and otherwise sanctioning, those who dissent. It is terribly convenient to hold that there is no truth that people can invoke against prestige opinions, that there is only convergence (or not) with the opinions that mark worthiness.

But there is no wisdom in this. There is no self-reflecting understanding. And mobilised social action without wisdom is not remotely a reliable way to build a better society. Quite the opposite outcome is much more likely, as the grim history of grand, social-transformation politics proclaims oh-so-clearly. For those with eyes to see, who are not lost in self-deception.

Cross-posted from Medium. Like all my Medium pieces, this is a work in progress and subject to ongoing fiddling.

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