Monday, January 04, 2016

Simple truths


In The Myth of Simple Truths, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse claim a rather annoying sort of false equivalence between conservatives and liberals. According to the authors, both liberals and conservatives have reduced big complex questions to "simple truths" that are obviously right; those who deny these simple truths are not merely mistaken but stupid. But Aikin and Talisse themselves are mistaken on a couple of grounds. First, they create their own "simple truth," that questions are big and complex, and label those who deny this simple truth as foolish. Second, the authors don't give us any examples of big questions that one side or another has unjustifiably reduced to simple truths. They simply assert their position, but perhaps there really are simple truths. As Rob Corddry notes, the facts have a liberal bias. Some truths are simple, and some people can simply disregard them.

More importantly, Aikin and Talisse miss the point that conversation in a democracy is rarely if ever about the truth itself; the conversation is about the good. Facts and truth (or lies and bullshit) might be used to support one notion of good or another, but the conversation is not about what is true; it's about what is good. And if the good really is good, and if one view of the truth, however farfetched, supports that good, then why not use it? And if indeed the important questions really are complex, with defensible positions on both sides, a person will very naturally pick the side that supports his view of the good. It's the good that is important, not one version of the truth or another.

From my experience in academia, there are two categories of "big questions," which academics address: questions with simple truths that are hard to find and questions with no real underlying truth, questions that have a lot of defensible positions, but no way of consistently distinguishing between those defensible positions. The physical and biological sciences are of the first kind, the humanities are of the second; the social sciences (including economics) are kind of in-between, but lean more toward the humanities.

Neither of these categories really help Aikin and Talisse. First, the "truths" of science really are simple truths, and one either accepts them or is mistaken. The force of gravity* is proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance. This is as simple a truth as it gets; hard to get at, but now that we have it, it's just true. There's no nuance, there are no alternative defensible positions, at least none that matter to democracy. If you build your building without accurately taking into account the simple truth of gravity (and the simple truths of structural engineering), your building will fall down and people will die.

*Absent relativistic corrections that are small under ordinary circumstances, and more importantly don't fundamentally change the underlying relationship between gravity, mass, and distance.

On the other hand, the big questions of the humanities do not have any underlying truth. This position is not "relativism" strictly speaking, at least not truth relativism (which I assert is a contradiction in terms: by definition, "truth" is that which is not relative). Indeed it is a category error to even look for truth in the humanities. I don't mean by this position to at all deprecate the humanities; the humanities are not about trying to find the truth, they are about exploring what it means to be human, and the only truth about humanity is that we seem almost infinitely plastic. I think it is very important to talk about what it means to be human, but there's not truth about what it "really is" to be human.

The authors are trying, I think, to find a methodological explanation for the apparent polarization of the modern "democratic" republic. I think there is a methodological explanation, but theirs is indefensible (and if they

The real problem is, I think, that we are too focused the search for truth. The truth is important, but it's not everything. Most importantly, we mistake the conversation about the good for the search for the truth. These are two different, and equally important projects, but they are indeed different.

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