Thursday, July 30, 2009

Truth

I've been thinking the last couple of weeks about why I quit blogging. Ironically enough, the closing of this blog has been noted as much (with barely concealed glee) in the religious blogosphere as in the atheist.

Let me clear something up: I'm not a nihilist, and I'm not in any kind of serious despair. I have a happy and fulfilling life outside the blogosphere, with only the ordinary problems everyone has. But I am, or was, very pissed off at the academic and amateur humanities intelligentsia, especially the left-wing and atheist intelligentsia.

Now it may be true that I'm either an incompetent hack or in some way delusional. I think I'm not, but I would think that, wouldn't I? If I am, one more piece of bullshit won't really matter. But assuming I do have something useful and real to say, I'll go ahead and say it.

The underlying problem as I see it is that the humanities (i.e. non-scientific, especially philosophical and political) intelligentsia lacks a serious ethical commitment to the ordinary, prosaic, factual truth. Ophelia Benson notes an instance of this lack of commitment. I have little doubt that were Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum professional scientists writing about a scientific subject, they would have been drummed out of the profession in a heartbeat. But the problem is not really with Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum as individuals: why should they voluntarily hold themselves to an ethical standard that's not just unenforced but barely comprehended in their profession?

A lot of people blame postmodernism, or some subset of the postmodernists, for undermining the commitment to truth in the humanities. I disagree: I do not believe that the humanities has lost or abandoned a serious ethical commitment to the truth; I think they have never really had one. The humanities' outright hostility to the truth goes back far before postmodernism's emergence in the 1960's. George Orwell notes this hostility in Notes on Nationalism:
By ‘nationalism’ I mean... he habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. ...

Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.

Now that I have given this lengthy definition, I think it will be admitted that the habit of mind I am talking about is widespread among the English intelligentsia, and more widespread there than among the mass of the people.
(It's also the case that many postmodernists have worked to counteract the deception and self-deception of traditionalism; the postmodernists are at least not wholly hostile to the truth.) No, the problem is deeper and goes back farther than the 60's.

The humanities have looked down their noses at the scientists for more than two millennia, going back to ancient Greece. It was the scientists who adopted a commitment to the factual truth by desperate practical necessity: you just can't do science at all unless you're confident in your colleagues' data.

Once you have a commitment to the factual truth, you undermine not only outright lies but also bullshit, i.e. assertions of truth with no factual basis. And without bullshit metaphysical, mystical and political, 95% of the professional humanities intelligentsia would be working at McDonalds. Contrawise, if you deprecate the need for factual truth to permit bullshit, it becomes just a solecism to lie about the facts. The facts are, after all, mostly irrelevant: the real meat is in the apparent profundity of the bullshit.

It seems clear that the right-wing "intelligentsia" (well, they can at least write with correct grammar and spelling) is immeasurably deeper in lies and bullshit than the left-wing intelligentsia. But just as the moderate religious discard their best argument against the zealots, extremists and fundamentalists, so too does the left-wing intelligentsia discard their best weapon against the conservatives and reactionaries by failing to hold themselves to as high an ethical standard of factual truth as do scientists.

I first noticed this lack of ethical commitment to the truth about seven or eight years ago on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (now the Freethought and Rationalism Discussion Board). It was astonishing and infuriating to me that we couldn't explicitly call creationists liars, even when they manifestly lied about facts trivially available to the general public. We could not — according to the policy — be absolutely certain they were knowingly or intentionally misrepresenting the facts. But that policy is nonsense: we cannot ever be absolutely certain about much of anything, and after a certain point negligence is just as ethically objectionable as malice.

I've noticed, at IIDB, other discussion boards and on this blog, that controversy arose only when I contradicted some reader's personal dogma. And when that happened, they used every rhetorical trick to protect their dogma: open derision, uncharitable interpretation, equivocation and excluded-middle fallacies, and sometimes outright misquotation. Every trick but a rational examination of the factual truth.

(Scientists are not saints though. I was once bullied off a discussion board for asking a question about statistical mechanics and thermodynamics; amusingly enough, almost the same question was discussed a month or two later in Scientific American as serious and perspicacious. And while scientists do typically care seriously about the ethical value of factual truth, they often restrict this standard to their own specialty. Worse, they often allow humanistic concerns to take a back seat to their sincere pursuit of truth. I imagine there are no small few scientists would would quit in disgust if they were required to falsify data but who would at best feel a vague sense of discomfort designing weapons intended to kill millions of people.)

The humanities' lack of serious, thorough commitment to the factual truth as a matter of principle has pissed me off time and again for the last nine or ten years. But it shouldn't, and it doesn't anymore. On the one hand, I think I understand why the humanities lack this commitment; on the other hand, I don't know what I can do about it. It's not just that most humanities academics would be out of a job if bullshit weren't highly tolerated. Ethical principles emerge from material, economic factors: the commitment to factual truth in the sciences arose from the economic value of technology. You can't get the machine to work if the other guy doesn't get his facts right.

There's just no underlying economic reason for the humanities as an institution to so strongly embrace the truth. A person in the humanities intelligentsia will (if he's greedy) embrace and justify the ruling class, or at least refrain from criticizing them sharply (remember Ward Churchill). But above all, he'll endorse the shibboleths of his in-group, regardless of the facts.

It's just as impotent and ridiculous to get mad at the lack of a standard that has no economic support as it is to despise Honda for not making flying cars. The humanities intelligentsia is what it is and has the standards it does have because of the economic circumstances; my personal feelings about it are irrelevant.

But I personally do care passionately about the truth, and I can't stop caring about it. Why should I contribute to a field where this commitment is not just without value but exposes me to the ridicule and hostility of those I consider my friends and allies? I'm not all that smart: All I have going for me is that curious and, above all, I consider myself honest. But very few people really care about honesty, not against the rock of dogma. And why should they? It's pointless to get mad at the world merely because it does not conform to my preferences.

Like I said, I still have my ordinary life, my work, my family, which are very fulfilling. The intelligentsia doesn't want me, they've made that abundantly clear, and it's unseemly to try to force myself into it. They have just as much a right to their rules as I have to mine, and they were there first. I've written enough to figure things out for myself, and the archives are there if you want to see what I had to say, but I don't have anything more to contribute.

The fight is not to find the truth, but to make people care about the truth more than their pet dogmas. Finding the truth isn't so hard: you don't have to be all that smart, just curious and completely honest. But I don't have the faintest clue how to even begin to persuade people to care about the truth, especially without any compelling economic reason to do so. And it's a fight I just don't have the stomach for.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.