Whenever we speak of the truth, we tend to divide it along a certain objective-subjective dichotomy. But, the very idea that that there is such a thing as “subjective truth” hardly does justice to the concept of truth itself. The term “subjective truth” is largely an oxymoron and has given rise to common philosophical tendencies to conceive of the truth as entirely dependent on relative experiences, as constructed by the whims of contemporary thought and cultural norms. One of the common philosophical movements that is guilty of this is known as relativism. Relativists project alternative definitions of reality and assert that the truth is only relative in that any mental representations of it are steeped in a cultural relativity that we cannot break through. They hijack the meaning of truth, which by any standard definition that the word would make sense, is supposed to be unsullied by any influence and then insist that it does not exist or that it is only a contrived construct. Ironically, the only construct here is their contorted definition of what the truth is.
The view that the subjective expressions of our senses shape our objective understanding is another oxymoron. By definition, our objective understanding is one that is dispassionately adjusted to fit with empirical reality and not vice versa. The scientific method does not preform empirical reality to fit our prejudice but rather, alters our logic to fit the evidence of reality, independent of the social environment in which the process of inquiry itself takes place. Relativism asserts that all epistemic judgements, including scientific theories, are not mind-independent but are bracketed with relative frameworks that do not transcend each other but that are only sound by virtue of their own criteria.
However, the very notion of correctness or incorrectness depends on the assumption that frameworks do have epistemic authority. By asserting that relativism is true, relativists are refuting it. That is because asserting that relativism is true requires the acceptance that a neutral transcendent framework, from which the claim that relativism is true can be adjudicated, must exist. Their truth, essentially, becomes their falsity. The fact that relativism renounces the notion of epistemic correctness means that it could only be defended relativistically, which refutes it altogether.
If all truth claims are valid and do not transcend each other, the establishment of science simply would not exist. Relativism makes the assertion that knowledge claims are true relative to the linguistic modes of discourse and the conceptual schemes in which they appear. This is, however, not a supportable point since scientific findings can be communicated across the globe and are intuitively intelligible to everyone. An experiment conducted in the United States can be replicated with the same results in Japan. Science is, therefore, not trapped in or confined to any conceptual schemes. It allows us to break out of those so-called conceptual schemes to move us ever closer to the truth. Science weeds out anthropocentric abstractions and linguistic qualifications.
We have no means of making a distinction between what is true and what is false without recognising an absolutist epistemology. However, the notion of absolute truth is a notion that is alien to the scientific methodology. Scientific theories cannot be proven true. This notion is needed because science recognizes the potential for perpetual refinement. Science is about continually evaluating theories about the natural world, while acknowledging the possibility of dis-confirmation. This necessitates the recognition that acceptable theories are only temporarily not false. Recognizing that theories are absolutely true stunts their further revision, which is antithetical to scientific thought. Science only asymptotes to absolute truth and allows us to make accurate approximations of it. We can never truly obtain it. However, that does not mean that it does not exist. Absolute truth exists independently of our experience of it and is immune from our conceptual constructions.
One of the best examples of relativist philosophy intruding into science can be demonstrated by Thomas Kuhn’s false notion of paradigm shifts in that the criteria of accepting or rejecting scientific theories are relative to their respective paradigms and historical eras which are influenced by contemporary philosophical assumptions. Many people like to point out that science always changes and thus current established theories can be wrong. The logic then follows, “why should be we accept anything in science as fact when all of what we know now could turn to be entirely wrong?”. But, the problem with that sort of thinking is that it assumes science progresses by removing and erasing what has been done before. But, in fact, whatever agrees with experiment and satisfies continual testing will always survive. It is not scientific thought that is in a process of continual construction but rather the scientific models that get continually refined, as accretions of data and accumulations of knowledge are acquired. For instance, the Newtonian model was not wrong. It was only not final. The Einsteinian system itself treats Newton’s laws as a “special case” for when things move slowly. And, as time went on, eventually relativity and quantum mechanics later became extensions of these laws. It could even be said that Newton’s laws arise out of the laws of quantum mechanics. Thus, the discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics build on but do not replace the Newtonian world. Such an example demonstrates the follies of assuming that any scientific theories are ultimate. And, that is exactly what the scientific method is built to recognise.
4 thoughts on “The Assault on Truth”
I love this. I’m almost in tears reading this just from the way it resonates in my mind. Thank you for this!
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Well articulated piece here, especially the part about Kuhn. I prefer to think of his take meaning that facts don’t change, only the lens by which those facts are seen. I tend to balance between this perspective and Popper’s falsifiability criterion, for if people don’t have an appropriate paradigm within which to interpret new amd anomalous facts (which will always arise) they will be rejected. Once a new paradigm that can reconcile the new facts is available, old paradigms can be deemed falsified without rejecting accepted facts.
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For anyone interested in a much much deeper look into this stuff, here are the best resources I’ve found on the subject (Critical Rationalism / Fallibilism / Objectivism)
* Beginning of Infinity (2011) – David Deutsch (the best book on this topic, hands down): http://beginningofinfinity.com/
* Fabric of Reality (1997) – David Deutsch (prequel to BoI)
* Writing by Elliot Temple, such as the essays on fallibleideas.com (e.g. http://fallibleideas.com/objective-truth) and his blog (curi.us)
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Can anyone tell where to get this theme from?