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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Close to You; Or, Truth-Talk Among the Philosophers

I don't usually think of truth as something that gets us "closer to" the world or that can somehow drive or derange us into "distance from" the world. Even though this is a commonplace formulation from philosophical truth-talk, I find it less and less intelligible the longer I look at it.

Definitely I don't think of old beliefs I used to hold but have now discarded for better ones as beliefs that were "out of touch" with the world somehow.

As descriptions I held and used, they arose in the world and have exactly the same "proximity" to the environment as the better beliefs I went on to replace them with (that is to say, they're soaking in it).

It's just that they came to seem less felicitous to me than some alternative on offer in light of ends that mattered to me: prediction and control of the vicissitudes of my environment, maintaining membership in communities of interpretation or affinity crucial to my identity, assimilating unexpected existential materials in my ongoing project of narrative self-creation, soliciting universal legibility as a judging subject and citizen, reconciling diverse aspirations among peers in as fair and nonviolent a way as possible, and so on.

I guess I'm still a good enough red-white-and-blue pragmatist that I still think of a truth as something that is good in the way of belief, as William James put the point.

From an instrumental- scientific- prudential point of view, descriptions that are good in the way of belief will be those on offer which we come to accept for now (through the application of shared but contingent standards and practices) as providing the greatest powers of prediction and control. Meanwhile, the social protocols yielding the goods in the way of belief will differ quite a bit when the good is more a matter of, say, facilitating moral identification/ disidentification, or a matter of facilitating the ongoing political reconciliation of diverse human aspirations among a plurality of peers who share a world, and so on.

Now, I think that when we are casting about for a metaphor that would capture what it is about some descriptions that makes them better or more warranted as candidates for belief in these various modes, usually it is far more trouble than it is worth to speak of proximity, closeness, likeness, and so on. These metaphors of "faithfulness" tend to mobilize and empower unappealing authoritarian models of belief-ascription, where it looks to me like what is wanted, rather, are more experimentalist and democratic ones. And so, I tend to turn to metaphors that stress conversation, improvisation, and performance instead of mirrors, approaches, finalities.

In common or garden variety parlance, there are plenty of times when the most urgent quandary is to determine whether or not somebody on whom you depend is telling the truth or lying to you. There, I recommend a focus on what conduct tells you over what words do. But this isn't really what philosophers are worried about when they turn to truth-talk.

For me, it should only be when some actual instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, or political problem confronts us that we should struggle to solve or resolve or dissolve it, to "break the crust of convention" or weave some new convention to ease, overcome, or circumvent our difficulty. There is nothing inherently more desirable about the demolition or maintenance of conventions as such, only their facilitation or inhibition of our ends.

That is to say, when philosophers in particular turn to truth-talk, well, I think then we are all better off when we make every effort to ensure that their and our focus remains on actually solving problems and never on some abstract "devotion" to Truth, however irresistible the temptation to transcendental over pragmatic considerations may seem.

The latter focus feeds and releases, it seems to me, the murderous Priests in our hearts and in the world. Every time.

The Priests believe that the world has preferences in the matter of the way it is described, and they tend to believe that they speak the language in which these preferences are expressed (or at any rate they fancy they are "closer" to or less "biased" from that Holy language).

But I would like to think that we can put away such childish and bloody-minded things.

We need not crave, after all, the Priestly assurances that our variously warranted beliefs are not just good in the way of belief in light of our various ends, but also put us "in touch" with the voices in a Priestly head that he ascribes to the world, or the world's God.

Even when I am wrong I am already as "in touch" with the world as I will ever be. Indeed, I cannot make much sense of that notion so beloved of the Radical Skeptic (the Priest's kissing cousin) that there could be such a thing as a practice of description or belief-ascription that could "separate" me from my environment somehow.

Sure, there are foolish beliefs I can ascribe to that will trip me up, threaten my social standing, confound my sense of self, render me unfit for the scene of consent, muck up negotiations, and so on. But the problem with these bad beliefs isn't that they fail to reproduce the sound and shape of the words with which the world would speak itself, and have us speak it, as the Priests would have it. My bad beliefs are quite as worldly as my better beliefs are.


Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

While your bad beliefs may be as worldly as your better ones, is it possible that your bad beliefs are more likely a result of self-deception? In other words, does your conception of truth leave open the possibility that truer ideas are less "biased" than falser ones, or do you discard the metaphor of bias, as it were, along with the metaphor of proximity? How does your pragmatism deal with the notion of bias? (You hinted at a rejection of this notion, as I read you.)

Dale Carrico said...

Certainly sometimes we hold beliefs that we may come later to discard as bad ones because we determine that we have been mistaken or mislead.

We can also discover special susceptibilities to error and self-deception inhering in, for example, our perceptual apparatuses (sticks bent in water, two faces or a vase, etc.), our cognitive architecture (the way the intuitive force of affirming the consequent or denying the antecedent is, to the untutored, as compelling as modus ponens or modus tollens), our psychic mechanisms in the face of deep self-constitutive conflicts (projection, displacement, tranference, and so on), our social dynamics (confirmation bias, peer pressure, appeal to authority), and so on.

I wouldn't want to seem to imply that the learned canons of conduct through which reasonableness and warrant are contingently secured for the various modes of belief-ascription are wrongheaded just because the metaphor of bias -- like so many epistemological notions -- is problematic in some of its entailments.

What I would want to jettison are especially those kinds of bias-discourse that function in the service of reductionist repudiations of every mode of reasonable warrantable belief except the instrumental/scientific mode -- declaring, for example, moral, ethical, esthetic, and political modes of belief either meaningless or translatable within the terms of instrumental belief. These eliminativist projects tend in my view to connect with worrying faith-based scientistic cultural projects that seek, in the name of enlightenment, to impoverish the space of freedom reasonably available to us -- usually in the service of incumbent or desired privileges or of orderliness in the face of a perceived threat of dangerous disorder, social, psychic, or cosmic.