Monday, 13 November 2017
My Opinion Is As Good As Your Truth
"There is nothing so ridiculous that has not at some time been said by some philosopher." - Oliver Goldsmith
At our November 8th meeting where we discussed "Post-truth," the OED's 2016 "Word of the Year," we were instructed by some of our friends that truth doesn't exist. More precisely, the claim was that objective truth does not exist. What we call 'truth' is really just subjective opinion, or "truth as seen by you." "There are no facts; only interpretations." What you believe is true for you, and what I believe is true for me. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and one opinion is as good as another. What people call news is just "fake news," if I don't like it. Everyone is biased. There is no way to decide who is telling the truth about anything. For every fact, there is an "alternative fact." That's just how it is. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote? - that's just your opinion. Maybe so, maybe not. Trump claims he won it, and who are we to say he is wrong? The earth is flat? If you say so; why not?
This sophomoric point of view is called epistemological or cognitive subjectivism (close cousin to epistemological relativism). It's a 'theory' that has gained a strong following in the last 50 years or so in western culture, thanks to postmodern philosophy and social media, producing as their final triumph the election of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States. Thanks to the arch-subjectivist Trump, we are now officially living in a "post-truth" age. Radical postmodern epistemology is moribund now in the halls of academia, but its popular version lives on in the thinking of millions of our fellow citizens, especially in social media where mere opinion seems to be all that matters. Try to argue for something you think is true in 140 characters.
Opinion: a belief or judgment about something, not necessarily based on fact.
There is, of course, a subjective aspect to any thought we may entertain, because thinking is is carried out by conscious persons or subjects. If I think sharks are endangered worldwide, that opinion subjective because it's mine. I'm the one who believes it. Every opinion takes place first in somebody's mental world. That's the realm of subjectivity: our thoughts, imaginings, feelings, dreams, sensations. In that respect, subjectivists are right to claim that all beliefs or statements about the world are subjective opinions. Thing is, some of them are also true. Sharks are endangered worldwide and I can produce the facts to support my opinion. It's not a mere opinion Opinions that are true have an objective aspect as well as a subjective. Of course, if I do not know the facts about sharks, in that case I can offer only a subjective opinion.
Now subjectivists may not roll over before this commonsensical objection. They may claim that the so-called 'facts' are also nothing more than opinions, so we will need to come up with a stronger, more philosophical critique.
Our search will not be in vain. Subjectivism and other radical relativisms collapse under careful scrutiny. First up is a practical problem, We can be quite confident that subjectivists do not act on their own theory in the real world. When checking out at the grocery counter, they don't want to hear from the clerk that in her opinion the amount owed is x number of dollars. They will insist on the actual total, demanding a digital recalculation, if necessary. If diagnosed with a serious illness, they will seek a second opinion in an attempt to get a better handle on the truth about their condition.Secondly, subjectivism is pseudo-philosophy, passing itself off as the real thing. Philosophy has always been understood as the love or pursuit of wisdom but is more precisely defined as reflective "inquiry into knowledge, truth, reality, reason, meaning, and value" (A.C. Grayling, Ideas That Matter). Since there can be no wisdom and no rational inquiry without truth, subjectivism is not really a philosophical theory at all, but rather a kind of anti-philosophy, a negation of the philosophical project altogether and, by the way, of science as well.
However, the main philosophical problem with subjectivism is that it is self-defeating. The subjectivist wants us to believe that there is no truth, only opinion, but he does not offer his view as a mere opinion. No indeed. He wants us to accept it as a truth, an objectively true generalization about all knowledge claims made by anyone anywhere. Subjectivism, he insists, is the one true or correct way to think about beliefs. But his theory says there is no truth, no true beliefs about the world, only opinions. This is incoherent. The subjectivist is caught in a performative contradiction, a trap of his own making. If he believes his theory, he can't teach it, and if he teaches it, he can't believe it.
That is why during the discussion we heard no argument in support of subjectivism, only a loud insistence that "There is no objective truth; only subjective opinions!" There can be no supporting argument, of course, for that would require reasons leading logically to the subjectivist's conclusion, reasons which would have to be true in order to be supportive of the theory. Moreover, all logical reasoning presupposes certain a priori truths, such as the rule 'Modus Ponens': If a statement P implies Q, and P is true, then it follows necessarily that Q is true.* But the theory says there is no truth, so there can be no logic, no true reasons, and the whole project collapses into nonsense.
It may often be a difficult needle to find in the global haystack of opinions, but …
from X-FILES (of course)
Postmodern subjectivism/relativism seems to be fading from the academic world these days (See, e.g.,The Passing of Postmodernism here), so most discussions of relativism these days are focused on moral relativism. For my treatment of that topic, see the next post on this site.
Critique of Ethical Relativism
Ethical relativism is the philosophical theory that there is no such thing as objective moral truth. All judgments about right and wrong, good and evil, are relative to cultural traditions. The version of ER discussed last night (PC meeting, December 2013) is based on a generalization I call Descriptive Relativism 1: different cultures hold conflicting beliefs about right and wrong. That is a well-known fact which does not provide a basis for any interesting ethical conclusions. Different cultures hold different beliefs about all sorts of things: origin of the world; causes of diseases; the best form of government, etc. So what?
A more sophisticated premise would be this one, call it Descriptive Relativism 2: different cultures hold conflicting fundamental beliefs about right and wrong. The distinction is important because many apparent moral differences among cultures disappear when they are traced back to their deeper ethical assumptions. For example, the Aztecs believed human sacrifice was justified, because they thought it was necessary to ensure the sun would rise each day. We agree with that value judgment but disagree about the human sacrifice, because we know sunrises are governed by physical laws and are entirely unaffected by anything humans might do here on earth, even dramatic rituals like human sacrifice. Both Aztecs and we moderns agree that policies which benefit our societies in important ways are good. That's a shared fundamental value. So the dispute is about factual assumptions about how the universe works, not about fundamental values.
For a contrasting example, consider the Navajo game called Chicken Polo. They bury a chicken in the ground up to its neck and then compete on horseback to see who can knock the chicken’s head off. They freely admit that chickens feel pain but see nothing wrong in the game nonetheless. Our culture, of course, regards such activities as morally wrong, because we hold as a fundamental principle that it is wrong to cause pain to sentient creatures for trivial reasons. The Navajos do not hold that principle, so the cultural difference in this case is fundamental.
A proper discussion of ethical relativism must focus on Descriptive Relativism 2. The question then becomes: if different cultures hold differing fundamental beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, does this fact entail ethical relativism?
Descriptive relativism in either version is an empirical generalization, not an ethical theory. Ethical relativism is a theory about moral truth. Some versions of it use descriptive relativism as a basis for ethical relativism.
Using DR2 as the main premise, here is how the argument for ethical relativism goes:
Different cultures hold conflicting fundamental beliefs about right and wrong (DR2).
Therefore, all moral values are relative.
The conclusion can be stated in several ways:
a. Therefore, actions believed to be right in a given culture really are right, and those same acts, if thought to be wrong in another culture, really are wrong.
b. There are no grounds for choosing between conflicting moral beliefs.
c. There are no universal ethical principles, no ethical truths, no ethical knowledge.
d. It is wrong to judge another culture’s morals by our own standards.
Here is an interesting, although inconclusive, observation: most relativists do not really believe their own theory. Ask a relativist if she is really willing to accept that, if some culture believes that torturing children is morally permissible, then torturing children really is ok in that culture. The response to my asking this question is usually dead silence.
Here are the more philosophical objections to ethical relativism (ER):
1. ER can’t account for the fact that we reason and argue with one another about value issues. If there is not at least one ethical constant, we could not reason about values at all.
2. ER can’t explain the many fundamental ethical similarities among various cultures, e.g. the universal prohibition against murder.
3. There is a lot of agreement among cultures about basic norms. If the Basic Argument were valid, we would expect far more basic disagreements than exist in fact in order to justify the conclusion “All values are relative.”
4. How to identify a culture? (pluralistic societies, subcultures, minorities?) How many members of a group are required to establish a cultural norm? Is a motorcycle gang a culture? Is the Muslim minority in Canada a culture? Is there an authentic Canadian culture at all? In a multicultural nation, whose culture gets to decide morality?
5. Why should culture be the arbiter of moral truth? Why not “All values are relative to the whims of the king?” or “All values are relative to the preferences of each individual (subjectivism)?” Standard ER is unable to answer this question.
6. The truly fatal flaw in ER is that the Basic Argument is invalid, a logical fallacy. The premise is an empirical generalization, a statement of fact, whereas conclusion (a) is a statement about values. It is a widely accepted axiom in philosophy that we cannot validly infer a conclusion about right and wrong from a premise that is merely factual. For example, the fact that stealing is common does not entail that stealing is morally right. Thus, the conclusion of the Basic Argument does not follow from DR2.
Conclusions (b) and (c) also are fallacious, because they are epistemological statements, which also cannot be inferred from an empirical premise. For example, in the case of (c), the argument is analogous to reasoning that because people at various times in history have held contrary beliefs about the shape of the earth, there is therefore no truth about the shape of the earth. Analogously, just because the Navajo and most Americans disagree about the morality of Chicken Polo does not imply there is no truth about Chicken Polo being right or wrong. Conclusion (d) is wrong for a different reason: it assumes some standard of right and wrong, thereby contradicting (b).
These arguments constitute a serious challenge to ethical relativism. But it gets worse, Consider the more radical attack by Julien Beillard in his essay “Moral Relativism is Unintelligible." He argues there that it makes no sense to say that "morality is relatively true.” Philosophy Now, July 15, 2013.
Beillard begins with the usual critique of cultural relativism based on DR 1. He then points out that mere disagreement of opinion - in any field at all - does not imply that there is no objective truth about the issues.
Then he makes the interesting argument that ethical relativism is self-defeating. For, if the position is based on the fact of deep and abiding differences of opinion, there arises the problem that ethical relativism itself is an object of considerable deep disagreement among philosophers. Does that mean that ethical relativism itself is not objectively true but only relatively true? Seems so.
However, JB's principal aim is to go beyond showing that ER is false, implausible, or self-defeating. He wants to show that it is unintelligible, i.e. that there is no concept of truth that can be used to frame the thesis that moral truth is relative to the standards or beliefs of a given society (or king or other individual). Check out the article for more on this interesting approach.
Whether a consensus will develop around this approach remains to be seen, but it looks like another serious blow against ethical relativism.
Tuesday, 7 November 2017
Heap or No Heap: A Possible Solution
Philosopher Timothy Williamson begins his essay on vagueness with the following thought-experiment:
"Imagine a heap of sand. You carefully remove one grain. Is there still a heap? The obvious answer is: yes. Removing one grain doesn’t turn a heap into no heap. That principle can be applied again as you remove another grain, and then another… After each removal, there’s still a heap, according to the principle. But there were only finitely many grains to start with, so eventually you get down to a heap with just three grains, then a heap with just two grains, a heap with just one grain, and finally a heap with no grains at all. But that’s ridiculous. There must be something wrong with the principle. Sometimes, removing one grain does turn a heap into no heap. But that seems ridiculous too. How can one grain make so much difference? That ancient puzzle is called the sorites paradox, from the Greek word for ‘heap’."
- Timothy Williamson, Aeon, "On vagueness, or when is a heap of sand not a heap of sand?" *
Williamson is right: there is something wrong with the principle "removing one grain does not turn a heap into no heap." One solution proposed by some contemporary philosophers is to replace traditional logic by something called 'fuzzy logic.' Curious readers can consult Google for more information about fuzzy logic, if they wish, but TW thinks that approach doesn't work, and besides, there is nothing broken here that needs fixing. He insists that traditional logic works just fine. The problem confronting us in the sorites paradox, he writes, is vagueness and ...
"Vagueness isn’t a problem about logic; it’s a problem about knowledge. A statement can be true without your knowing that it is true. There really is a stage when you have a heap, you remove one grain, and you no longer have a heap. The trouble is that you have no way of recognising that stage when it arrives, so you don’t know at which point this happens."
I agree with TW that the common use of the word 'heap' is loose and vague, but he throws in the towel too soon. Isn't it part of the job of philosophers to try to clarify troublesome terms so that they might better serve us in answering tough questions? TW declines to do this and so leaves us with the puzzle unsolved on account of terminal vagueness. I will argue here that there is a way of recognizing the stage when no-heap arrives and that the solution requires no exotic logical moves, just one additional concept. Here we go.
As in many other discussions of a philosophical problem, it is legitimate here to ask for a definition of the term 'heap.' At the outset it is vague indeed, and leaving it vague practically guarantees that no logical solution will be found. But why should we accept the initial vagueness?
Before offering a definition of 'heap,' I want to contrast it with another, not-so-vague term: holon. A holon (the term was first coined by Arthur Koestler) is any entity that is a whole and also a part of a larger whole.
Holons have a number of characteristics, but the crucial one for this discussion is that every holon has internal structural integrity or agency, that is, an internal force or principle that enables the holon to resist dissolution into its component parts. When a holon becomes part of a higher holon, the principle of functional organization of the lower is conferred or imposed by the higher holon. For example, a protein molecule is a holon with its own agency, and it is also part of a higher holon, a cell, which organizes the activity of the protein for its own benefit. If the cell moves around, the protein molecules and all the rest of the cell's component parts move with it; none of them can stay behind or go off on their own. For another example, an atom is a holon within which the strong and weak forces keep the component parts - protons, neutrons, and electrons - together as a functioning unit. The higher-level holon imposes its own agency on the lower components. Thus, when the atom changes its location in space, the whole atom moves. None of the components are lost or left behind. (Nuclear fission is an exception.)
Now we can define 'heap' as any collection of holons whose agency is not superseded by the higher agency of the collection. Each member is a holon, but the collection is not a higher holon; it has no agency of its own and hence no power to organize the activities of its members; no power of self-preservation. So if a member holon disappears or moves to another location, the rest of the collection does not disappear or move with it. Any such collection we can call a 'heap.'
This definition provides the basis for a solution to our puzzle. Recall Williamson's principle: "Removing one grain doesn’t turn a heap into no heap." By defining 'heap,' we have removed the vagueness from the principle. Since the principle is no longer vague, there's a greater chance that it can be used to solve our puzzle. Let's take a look.
We begin with our pile of sand. It is obviously a heap, but now we understand precisely what that means: it is a collection of grains, each of which is a holon whose agency is not subordinated to the agency of a higher holon. Next we apply the principle: removing a single grain of sand doesn't turn the heap into no heap. The remainder is still a heap - a slightly smaller heap, but still a heap. Remove another one and the heap is still a heap, not a no-heap. Continue removing one grain at a time. The heap becomes smaller and smaller. At what point does it cease to be a heap? In the original puzzle, there seemed to be no clear answer to the question; hence the paradox. With our new definition of 'heap,' there is a precise answer: as grain after grain of sand is removed, we eventually arrive at just two grains. Is it still a heap? Yes! It is still a collection of holons whose agency is not taken over by a higher holon. It's a very small heap, but still a heap.
Now remove one more grain. Do we still have a heap? No, because there is no longer a collection. No collection, no heap. The remaining grain of sand is a holon, standing alone with its magnificent self-contained agency, no longer a member of a collection with which it was only loosely connected in the first place. So the answer I propose to our puzzle is that a heap ceases to be a heap when the number of member holons has been reduced to one. In other words, the boundary between heap and no-heap is the boundary between the last grain of sand and the second-to-last.
This solution seems sound, but it requires us to amend our guiding principle to read "removing one grain does not turn a heap into no heap unless there are only two grains in the heap.
* Click here to read T. Williamson's essay.