Truth and Consequences

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. Why Truth Matters. Continuum, 2007.

A defence of enlightenment values against, well you’ve guessed it, the usual bugaboos: post-modernism, feminism, Afro-Centrism, environmentalists (in this case this refers to people who argue that human nature is largely conditioned by environment rather than heredity), the nasty old Marxists, Christian fundamentalists, Mormons and so on. So this is a processes of counting the motes in the other fellows’ eyes, and no doubt some of these are pretty big motes indeed, which at times can make for amusing reading.

The problem with all of this, is the assumption that the motes only exist in those other fellows’ eyes, that everything that is wrong with the world is the fault of those terrible others. Only they allow their perceptions of the world to be influenced by ideology, fashion or professional self advancement. We, on the other hand are pure hearted, rational searchers for the Truth.

This is, of, course, nonsense, as must be anything that assumes that everything that is wrong with the world is due to Them. The world view of the authors and those they favour will be as influenced by ideology and fashion to more or less the same degree as any one else. Subtle biases are evident everywhere in this book.

Take for example the so called Samoan affair. In 1925 the then young anthropologist, Margaret Mead conducted research into the lives of adolescent girls and young women in Samoa, and came to the conclusion that they were allowed to have pretty active sex lives until they settled down and married. In 1983, Derek Freeman, another anthropologist claimed that he had interviewed some of her informants and that they had confessed to hoaxing Mead.

Of course the “truth” of this matter is unlikely ever to be known, young people around the world have a tendency to boast about their sexual prowess and transgressional behaviour, and they may well have not wanted to appear prudes to their exotic new friend. Equally elderly people around the world have a tendency to gloss over their youthful transgressions, particularly respectable elderly ladies in what was or had become a deeply conservative Christian society. However Benson and Stangroom unequivocally take Freeman’s side, because he tends to back their ideological driven and fashionable hereditarianism.

Or take their quote from Steven Pinker to the effect “rates of homicide and death by warfare in (pre-state foraging societies) are by many orders of magnitude higher than in the modern west” This may or may not be factually correct, but my sceptical hackles rise here. How could he know that, who did the research, where and when, how were the actuarial tables compiled? The extent of violence in modern western societies with highly organised police forces, hospitals, and demographic institutions, is difficult to assess, how one does this in the absence of these is anyone’s guess. Again this is presented not as a possibility but as an uncontested fact.

The real problem that these authors have goes deeper, it is the confusion between ‘truth’ as a shorthand for something like “to the best of our current knowledge, abilities and techniques, a factual statement about or working model of the world” and Truth with the great big capital T, as an absolute metaphysical statement about the world. The latter is clearly a religious not a scientific or factual category. Therefore if people express doubts about the existence of the One True Truth, these authors and many like tend to think they are rejecting all sorts of small ‘truths’.

Of course there was a time, say in Newton’s time, when natural philosophers thought they were searching for the Truth. The world was young, about 6,000 years old and still relatively small, it had been created by the divine, rational mechanick, in such a way as to be able to demonstrated God’s truths to the enquiring mind.

In today’s secular age none of this applies, we should see science as trying to build better and better working models of reality, but see that this is a journey without a destination, sometimes the model will be just continually refined, sometimes something will come along and shake it to the core. There is unlikely to be a time when all scientific exploration will cease because there is a final, never to be superseded or improved upon by future research, True Theory of Everything.

In some sense the arrival of post modernism is a sign of a truly secular time. It is difficult to overestimate how much the Judaeo-Christian world view influences much of our apparently rational and secular thought. The idea of a direction to history, the very mythos of the enlightenment, the Exodus from the Egyptian bondage of ignorance and superstition, into the promised land of enlightenment, reason and Truth, the very notion of a polarised Truth and Error, of the war between the children of the light and truth (us, of course) and the children of darkness and error (them, of course). If that world view is now really fading, then much of its baggage, not all of it bad by any means, will go with it. -- Peter Rogerson

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