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October 10, 2017

I was watching a podcast from some while ago between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, in which they got stuck on a disagreement about truth, which basically meant they could not get round to discussing anything else. This is how important the concept of truth is. If we don’t have some agreement on what it is, then we have no ground for a reasonable and fairly conducted discussion or debate. But how much can we actually agree about regarding this concept?

The post modernists tried to undermine the basis for this concept with their notion of cultural relativism and social constructionism of all values. This was to include the value of truth, which was to be subsumed under power relations of who controls the dialogue. It was to be reduced to a completely illegitimate notion of forcing ones view on others. And the game was simply for us to expose the way in which notions had been illegitimately forced upon us. Unfortunately they didn’t think about what we would do to replace the values once we had deconstructed them all. And so, rather than some standards of debate being agreed upon, when we have an intellectual disagreement with someone now, we assume our only recourse is to resort to the use of force in some way.

This is how bad things have got for the concept of truth. This is how dangerous it is when we lose orientation relative to some mutually agreed upon notion of truth.

So what is there we can do about this? Is there anything we can agree upon about the notion of truth? It is not enough to just appeal to the authority of experts, or to appeal to the authority of statistics, or bare facts, as if these things ever speak for themselves, when in reality there is always a large aspect of interpretation involved that undermines their claim to a clear and simple objectivity and neutrality. So where is truth to be found, a legitimate philosophical truth?

I think it can only be found by acknowledging the process of reasoning always relies on premises, including some basic premises that we cannot prove, but must assume to be correct. So many bad claims to truth come from people who try to pretend their basic assumptions are not assumptions at all. They try to cover up their basic principles and not leave them open to debate and discussion. This is a problem. It gives a sense of logical certainty where all there is is a psychological conviction held for one reason or another. If we don’t acknowledge this basis, we deny our own convictions, if we deny our own convictions how can we possibly engage in a reasonable debate about them?

We need to stop trying to “cheat” the reasoning process by thinking we somehow with our truths/beliefs can bypass this process, due to the special status of our claims. There is no special status or authority for our claims, there is only some basic principles we adhere to and that we find other people to adhere to. It might appear this reduces truth to a matter of consensus, but this ignores the fact that the way we come to form our basic principles is far from arbitrary. It does not happen in a vacuum, but is largely informed by a reality surrounding us that we share. This combination of truth informed by a surrounding reality we are receptive to, and by some common principles we come to adhere to is for me the only basis for stable and reasonable discussion that can progress in a fair and critical way.

From → Philosophy

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