Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Evolutionary biology and truth?

redhurt asks:

"What does this do to the notion of truth? I've recently been thinking a lot more about how truth is important, and how Christianity is a religion of truth, and how that's one of its unique qualities. I'm in agreement with everything you've written here, but it seems it could quite easily fall into relativism to me. Any thoughts on that?"

I thought this would make a good post, and I'll address it by first continuing along the philosophical path I started below. One of the stark differences between William James and Richard Rorty is their conflicting notions of truth.

James wants to (1) hold on to a version of the good ol' correspondence theory, but he also (2) wants to update philosophy for the 20th century and tie it to science. That's why people who read a broad range of his works note the tension between his assertion of classic correspondence formulas in some places and his use of slogans ("the true is what is good for us to believe") in others. Rorty, in contrast, wants to EITHER (1) completely dismantle the notion of truth by convincing us that the correspondence notion is incoherent and unworkable, OR (2) accept the Platonic definition (true, justified belief), and then get us all to shut up about it and work on actual concrete problems like poverty, free speech, Howard Dean, etc.

What's most fascinating to me is that you can appropriate lots of Rorty's points without giving up any ground on the correspondence theory. While he treats beliefs solely as indexes (see previous post), we can treat beliefs both as assessments of factual statements about the world AND as indexes. Why be parsimonious about our appropriation of the insights of great philosophers?

With that in mind, I don't see any worry about evolutionary biology leading us into relativism. Just as our stomachs have evolved to digest food and our hands have evolved to grasp and make tools, so our minds have evolved to make, assess and revise accurate statements about the external world.

The books to read: Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, for his take on evolutionary biology's impact on truth; and Hilary Putnam's Realism with a Human Face, which reconciles regular old objective truth with some of the insights of the post-modern philosophers.

redhurt, if you'd care to elaborate on specific concerns I'd be happy to address this issue further.


At 2:32 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

I've got no beef with evolutionary biology. My specific concern centers on this: if I'm to understand language as only intended to describe how I'm likely to act, it's easy to divorce it from the assessment of absolute reality, or deny the existence of such outright. When you say "Christ's coming is the defining event of our faith", I hope it means something more than, "in the future you can expect me to act as if Christ's coming defined my faith."

It also seems a little impossible paradoxical to go using language to deconstruct language, but whatever. I personally still maintain that while Rorty is right to an extent, the cartesian theater is still the most pragmatic place to think simply from, and unless it's causing me to hate or ignore people, I'll probably keep using it.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

1. Where is Douglas Groothius' book Truth Decay on your list? Surely such a classic explaination of truth is essential reading?

2. I guess the question I have with 'evolving' beliefs is does that mean that 'truth' claims are different? So for example, most people up until the enlightenment held that Genesis 1 and 2 were 'historical' in a literal sense - that creation took six 24 hour days. But if we have 'evolved' in our beliefs, does that mean that those prior beliefs, as 'unevolved' were true? Is it now that they are false since 'evolution' of beliefs has occured and you can either accept it or not? Who governs and decides this 'evolution' of beliefs anyways? Who is to say what is 'evolved' and what has 'mutated' to use the analogy?

I guess I am just concerned with the pragmatic approach because it does not have a stable metaphysics behind it. Now if this 'evolution' of beliefs does not intend to answer those questions, fine. But something has to.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Is there such thing as "stable metaphysics"?

At 11:48 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Hans- I hate to just copy and paste from previous arguments here, but I think it's applicable.

"But if we have 'evolved' in our beliefs, does that mean that those prior beliefs, as 'unevolved' were true?"

I think J. Morgan did an excellent job not too far back pointing out that as humanity "evolves", who we are fundamentally changes. What appears to be correct, or "true", can often change in light of future knowledge/discovery/revelation.

Here is an analogy- if I asked a farmer three hundred years ago the best way to plow a field, his answer would most likely be a plow attached to some oxen. When considering historical context, his answer would be "true"- at the time, that was the best way. If I was to ask the same question now, the answer would be fundamentally different- not because of a truth change, but because the answer has to be reevaluated in light of human (technological) evolution.

Applying this to a literal creation- such a claim could not be evaluated as "false" then- because the tools we use to cast doubt on such a claim did not exist. Sure carbon dating makes it much more likely that some ocean sediment, etc... is forty million years old instead of five thousand, but that is irrelevant for a medieval person, who couldn't understand a number that large, or wrap his mind around a concept like radiological decay...

Am I on the right track here?

At 11:35 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

So, I really like this post. I do, however, have a question about this neo-pragmatist model of knowledge. In answering it, it might sort out some of the distinctions between it and other ways of thinking about knowledge and conflict. I think that could really be good for debate.

As you say, this allows us to “let biology be biology and faith be faith,” but what else does it do? How else does this help us get a handle on knowledge over and against other models of knowledge. I ask because it seems to me that other models do a lot of work, admittedly with conflict between types of knowing as a perferral consequence. If this model, however, only relieves conflict, then it seems to me weak. If, however, it does other work and also relieves conflict, then you are really onto something here. Let me outline what I see as the competition:

Positivist. Generally, this model of knowledge stresses the method/logic of inquiry. There are two versions: a strong postivism, which legitimates knowledge only insofar as the means by which it was produced are “scientific” (Comte’s Possitive Philosophy would be a great example of this); and a week positivism, which legitimates knowledge only insofar as the principles underlying the means by which it was produced are “universal” (Bertrand Russell maybe). The former seems not to hold much sway in philosophy proper these days, but is quite influential in lay understandings of knowledge production, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. The latter is still basically the model of analytical philosophy today. Certainly, strong positivism and with all likelyhood, weak positivism would reject the neo-pragmatic model presented here. They would almost to a man insist that these terms are untenable and would further insist that there is a necessary conflict between types of knowledge.

Fedaist. You did a good job of outlining that position here and I think most of us are familiar with it. They would also reject your model I think. Truth, in this model, is gradient, such that trancendent Truth is not only infallible, but all-encompassing. In this model, there are no limits to the reach of transcendant Truth claims. “Discovered” truth (as opposed to revealed truth) is only valid insofar as it verifies revealed Truth. It is not a problematic realm of claim making, but one of a lower order subject to verification.

Constructionist. Generally, this model of knowledge stresses the discourse of knowledge creation over the content of that knowledge. In so doing, claims are not subject to verification, but to deconstruction. Claims are not true because of their content, but because of the hegemony that the discourse that supports and is those claims has obtain through power struggles conducted in the realm of culture/language. This would be associated with critical theorists, structuralists, post-structuralists, post-Contental-radical-de-ontologicalists, etc. Constructionist would generally accept your model, although would provide a different rationale and would expect, if not insist upon conflict as a definitive feature of knowledge production.

Now, it seems to me that these all do a great deal of explanatory work. They give striking and convincing accounts of how and what we know and the relations between types of knowing. Conflict between types of knowing is at least assumed in all these models and at most encouraged. So, to reiterate, what work does the neo-pragmatic model do besides conflict avoidance? What work does the neo-pragmatic model do that other models do not besides conflict avoidance? Why is the neo-pragmatic model as if not more convincing than the other options I outlined above?

At 2:43 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Your analysis of pragmaticism was perhaps even more charitable than it needed to be. Rorty and others sometimes seem to say that epistemology should be purely therapeutic--but that leads to tough questions, such as the therapeutic, coping value of x minus 7 being 2 when x is 9; the atomic weight of oxygen being 16; or the fact that Columbus sailed in 1492.

Despite these weaknesses, I think pragmatism's best work IS therapeutic. If we're on the neo-realist side of neo-pragmatism, which is Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, Kripke, Sellars, Quine, and Rorty at his least deconstructing, we accept the Platonic/Russellian/everyman definition of truth. THEN, however, we make a number of important, powerful points.

(1) We ask the pragmatic question, what difference does it make in my life if this option or that be true? As long as we remember that consequences aren't totally up for grabs, I think it is important that beliefs make a different in at least one context. Berkeley's attack on matter is a paradigm case of a belief that makes no difference. As Hume said, it admits of no refutation but produces no conviction. "The ultimate essence of reality is spiritual, not material"--what practical consequences does that have? Pragmatism also allows for beliefs to help shape the realities they describe--to cite a cliched example, believing you will succeed helps you succeed.

(2) We see beliefs as tools, as habits of action, AND as assenting to statements. See my explanation of indexing in the original post.

(3) The trail of the human serpent is over everything--or nearly everything; it doesn't seem to be behind the periodic table. But Starbucks, cell phones, poverty, defense contractors, house cats; humans and their beliefs and their goals played a role.

Pragmatism is more flexible than an absolute correspondence, but it doesn't need to destroy beliefs the way that strong positivism does. I think Bertrand Russell was largely right about truth; I think Rorty, Peirce and James then made some great additions.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Doesn't all of this, though, hinge on this distinction being roughly accurate?

"The trail of the human serpent is over everything--or nearly everything; it doesn't seem to be behind the periodic table."

How is the periodic table a different sort of knowledge than cell phones?

At 2:56 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

I wouldn't try to distinguish "cell phones" from "periodic tables" as kinds of knowledge; rather, they're different kinds of objects.

Elements would have atomic weights whether or not people were around; cell phones would not exist if there were no people. Even Rorty accepts this distinction; he just thinks it's one that's still contingent. His example in Philosophy and Social Hope is a giraffe vs. a bank account.


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