One of the problems with the Epistemic Split that I mentioned earlier is that (at least to the philosophically inclined) there is an even deeper underlying problem. Ever since Plato, and likely before, western civilization has been concerned with finding Truth, with a capital “T,” in much the way Plato sought after it. The Platonic assumption about the nature of reality dived all the world into A and ~A (or not A for the ~ philosophers) and created a binary world. It also assumed that the truth or rather capitol “T” truth is something universal. Something we can find, and set upon a pedestal, and always know and prove to be true. Perfect, and unchanging.
There are any number of universal truths in the Platonic world, truths that can be discovered, expounded upon, and demonstrated. Plato’s world of the forms gives western civilization a constant, universal, unchanging realm of truth that we should all aspire to learn and know. This vision passed down to christian thinkers like Augustine and slowly morphed into heaven. And the vision of that heaven sits heavy on the background assumptions of all the western mind. It is what we aspire for. Perfect knowledge of unchanging truth.
There hides the underlying problem. Western civilization walks the world assuming that there is such a notion as universal truth.
This isn’t just an assumption for religion, but for science as well. When I say “western civilization” that is exactly what I mean. Science, as much as religion, assumes that there is a truth with a capitol “T” that can be discovered. Somewhere, behind the farthest star or inside the smallest particle, there will be found a universal truth. That is the claim since Plato, and it remains the operational objective for most people even today. Science assumes that there is a universal truth, and that as theories are refined, and data made clearer, it comes closer and closer to our grasp. Religion assumes that there is a final truth in gods words, some proclamation that is “final infallible and forever” that has been given to the few, and that they are keepers of the faith and truth and everyone who disagrees will be proven wrong.
The real dividing line between science and religion, seen this way, is that religion already claims to have what science claims it will one day have. The Answers. The underlying assumption is that there is a universal truth. And the proof is… well, non-existent.
For well over 2500 years we have been looking for universal truths. They are the goal of science, and have been since pre-Aristotle, and the claim of religion, since the first god. To date the endeavor has been amazingly barren of results. No universal ethical principle, no unwavering scientific proof that illumines the universe, no observed fact of unerring perfection to guide us. No religious claim has ever stood up to even the briefest of moments in time from the point of view of those long years, and science, while it claims to at least be improving, has yet to do better from the standard of universal truths. There is, simply put, not a single reason to be found in thousands of years of searching to suspect that there is anything universal at all. There is nothing intrinsic, nothing eternal, and nothing permanent.
This is about the point that rightwing ideologues and nervous parents start to mumble about “relativism” in the sort of hushed tones normally reserved for someone who has committed a horrible sexual crime. They might even consider branding someone with a scarlet “R” or something. It all gets very exciting.
The problem is that what is meant by “relativism” in one camp is not what is meant in the other. Relativism means exactly what I have been saying here, that there are not absolute values, or universal principles, but rather that truth, morality and knowledge exist in a historical and cultural context. What nervous parents and WSJ columnists seem to mean by the term however is that anything goes. There is no difference between good and evil. After all, that is how we got Hitler…
Except relativism doesn’t actually say or mean that “anything goes” but rather that “what is acceptable or correct is contingent.” These are not the same things at all. One is a claim that we are unable to judge between good and evil (which all good home schoolers know is what liberal philosophy professors teach you) and the other is a claim that we must judge between what is better and what is worse based on what is available to us as humans. One is in terms of absolutes, good and evil, and the other in terms of degree, better and worse.
The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty puts it somewhat differently, and much more usefully. The point of considering a justificatory claim is not to find a universal truth, but rather to understand ideas in a Darwinian way. “The right Question to ask is: ‘For what purposes would it be useful to hold this belief?”
The Platonic view is that to say that a thing is true is to say that what you are defining has perfect correspondence to the ultimate universal reality. The pragmatic view is to say that when we call a thing true, we say that we are aware of no better way of acting than to act as if it were the case.
This claim, that universal truths and the epistemic split are illusionary, comes from a number of places. The idea crops up over the last hundred or so years in places as disparate as existentialism and circuit design, or biology and camera lens manufacturing. Bart Kosko, mathematician and fuzzy theorist uses the rejection of the Platonic Universal (though he more often attributes the idea to Aristotle, perhaps because of the link through Augustine) to explain the inspiration for his designs of fuzzy or relativistic circuitry that greatly enhances machine intelligence. The philosophical side of the story is rather a lot simpler than the math, and can be explained with far less effort.
Plato and Aristotle, as I already stated, held to the claim that all things were either A or not A. A binary world. But reality is nothing like this. Zeno, another ancient dead philosopher (the world is full of them) showed this with his sand pile thought experiment. Take a pile of sand. Is it a pile of sand? Yes, we just said that it was. Now remove a grain. Is it still a sand pile? Naturally. Repeat…
At no point was Zeno able to find the magic grain where sandpile became not sandpile, where A became ~A. The real world is fuzzy, and the sand pile overlaps the partial pile, which overlaps the half pile which overlaps a few grains, and overlaps nothing at all. The A and ~A universe is a myth. A myth begun by Plato, passed on through history, and infecting everything, from science to religion. Plato and A or ~A is not representative of the way reality appears to us. We would be better off with Buddha and A and ~A. A or ~A is a rarity, true only (if ever) at the most extreme end of the scale of the world. The rare 100% and 0% black and white edges that exist at the borders of an infinite scale of grey. the real world is fuzzy, relativistic, and in flux.
And once we accept this possibility, the signs are everywhere. Fuzzy logic systems make your camera autofocus work, and relativistic circuits make your cars cruise control work (remember when they worked like Plato? All or nothing? When cruise control meant the gas peddle jack rabbited back and forth each time a small grade of hill appeared on the horizon?) and bivalent fuzzy circuits make your thermostate better than grandmas was, and relativistic GPS lets us track our daily jog on our phone.
Science, for all it is intent on the pursuit of universal truths, is nothing more than a slow relativistic tuning of ideas. Einstein didn’t overthrow and replace Newton. Newtonian physics are still how we get to the moon and back, though we need Einstein for GPS here on earth. Einstein is only a fine tuning, in some circumstances. And some day someone else will make tuning adjustments to his work. Because the truth isn’t out there, what ever the TV show would have you believe.
The universal truth theory of the way the world works would have us believe that the reason we should prefer to think that the earth goes round the sun is because it is True. But the pragmatist says that doesn’t mean anything. The geocentric model worked for the church as they sat in judgement of Galileo, because it allowed them to hang on to a fundamentalist view of the bible. The reason to adopt a heliocentric view is because we believe that the benefits of modern astronomy, space travel, GPS, etc all outweigh the benefits of christian fundamentalism.
Which brings us back to the Raft. The Raft image of knowledge doesn’t have to be tied to universal truths. In fact it works better if it isn’t. The practical purpose of the Raft is to keep us afloat, to improve our lives. The only way we can argue that a concept is “right” is to argue that it helps us deal with the world in a better way than any other way we know. The only real argument to the Paul Mero’s and Gayle Ruzicka’s of the world is to meet them on the field with Rorty’s question: for what purposes is it useful to us to hold this belief? For the anti-gay mormon crowd in the Prop 8 film, the advantage of holding the belief that being gay is simply a choice, and an immoral choice at that, is that they, like the geocentricts before them, can hang on to their beliefs in a universal truth of a god that set down rules that last for all time. The advantage for believing that someone is born gay is that it dovetails with the rest of medical science, which in turn fits with biology, chemistry, physics, and on and on and on. The advantage, for each group, is that it supports their belief system. We are not arguing over single instances, but entire world views. The epistemic split is illusion because it assumes that the way to truth is different. It isn’t. The way to truth is contextual, it is the context that differes, the cultures, the views of the in group that matter.
The trouble is that we simply don’t force the entire world view at once. We can’t discard the entire raft and start over while already at sea. Disagreeing with medical science in one area doesn’t mean instantly dropping all of the scientific world view from our lives instantly. If it did, the prop 8 supporters would be refusing vaccines, and the climate change deniers would refuse to buy iPhones, and the trickle down economy thinkers would belong to monarchies. We replace the beliefs a plank at a time. And some planks are harder to give up than others.
But we live in a world where interconnectedness and speed of change means we don’t always have time to argue over individual planks, and people who choose the less useful belief system can survive the choice, but bring down others. The medical science denier who refuses vaccines is not risking their own life to a great extent. Even if they contract, say, bird flu (aside, I am told that almost all flus come from birds. Why is one strain “the bird flu”?) modern medicine likely means their individual survival. They are simply putting others at risk by allowing the virus the ability to spread. Similarly, failure to accept the science of global warming most likely doesn’t mean that individual denier will drown in rising seas, rather they have contributed in a small way to increased problems for the entire race. Evolution, in this case of ideas, is not impacting the individual idea holder as much as the entire species.
Imagine a gene that was only expressed by 10% of a population, yet the expression of the gene risked the entire species, whether they carry the gene or not. This is the world we face.
This anti-dualism of epistemology, as radical as it might sound, has been around for almost 3000 years, and has been preached by figures like Lao-tzu, Zeno, The Buddha, Alfred Whitehead, Sartre, Rorty, Hegel, Chuang-tzu, James, Dewey and more. The selling points are easy. It is contextual, flexible, and means we don’t have to worry about some of the sillier philosophical conundrums, such as Descartes skepticism. But the cost is that we have to give up hope of ever having Truth, capitol “T”, on our side in a discussion. It means acknowledging that many of the people we disagree with will not be able to change their minds, however we state our case, because they are clinging to a belief that they have a universal truth, and only by showing them an opposite universal truth will they change their minds. A truth which simply doesn’t exist.
For such people, cognitive dissonance combined with a failed system of beliefs about the world means that they will infect the conversations of the world with the talking points of their unsuccessful ideas until they die, and are replaced with those who are able to give up on a few of the planks that they couldn’t. This makes change slow. Painfully slow.
But the lack of universal truth means more than that. It means that what we have to do is give up faith for hope.
Faith is trust. It is confidence. It is knowing that you will prevail, whatever happens. Faith is what we have had in god, in progress, and in the idea that the human race will march on into the future.
Hope is a desire that we have whether we have reasons to think it will happen or not. And hope is what this anti-dualist stance leads us to. To quote Rorty again,
“This is why we pragmatists see the charge of relativism as simply the charge the we see luck where our critics insist on seeing destiny. We think that the utopian world community envisaged by the Charter of the United Nations and the Helsinki Declaration of Human Rights is no more the destiny of humanity than is atomic holocaust or the replacement of democratic governments by feuding warlords.”
The faith that we will keep progressing, that humanity is on a path to constantly improve, is a soft siren song that lulls the progressive to sleep. The armies of faith based conservative backwards thinking see a war, where progressives see the “arc of history.” The right mobilizes to fight for god and belief system, because they are ordered to. They have faith that they will win, but they need to kill a few progressives off in the meantime. The progressive by contrast has faith as well, in that arc of history, but no cry to battle that corresponds to the rights battle cry. The average progressive is too often content to let history find its way to the better happier life on its own slow pace. But that faith is misplaced.
The things that have happened to improve the lot of mankind have not happened because we are on an unavoidable path to a date with destiny, but because people had hope. And then they stood up and did something about it. Slavery wasn’t abolished because people sat back and said that “one day the Truth will be seen and our children’s children will be free.” It was abolished because people looked at the world, as it was at that time, and decided that the plank in the raft that was slavery was not one that could be allowed to keep dragging the human race downward for a single moment longer. They had hope that they could make a difference, not faith that it would be made for them.
And the gay bashing and climate denial and mindless parents who stop getting vaccinations for their kids won’t stop because “one day the Truth shall be known.” It will only stop if we teach the next generation better than we have taught their parents. It will only stop when we make it better, and make our hope theirs.
The anti-dualist picture paints human beings as children of their time and place, necessarily thrown into the world, with no significant limits on our plasticity. It means that our morals are a matter of learning, conditioning, not special insight into some secret of the universe or words from an overbearing sky-father. Those of us who believe in liberal egalitarian views are not more insightful, more knowledgeable, or more learned. We simply have the luck of having learned the most useful version of the raft to fit our time, a version that benefits everyone, rather than the few.
To call this “relativism” is to misunderstand the term. The charge is that any moral view is as good as every other. Yet the liberal anti-dualist world view espoused is saying nothing of the sort. Rather it claims that it is not only the best of competing views, but is in fact much better than all others.
It simply doesn’t claim to be perfect, or unchanging. And it requires teaching.