Truth Comes in Degrees, Research Time, 28/02/2014

It’s very common in philosophical writing to discuss the nature of an epoch, which is usually framed in terms of what kinds of thoughts were possible. Heidegger continually refers to the modern era as incapable of understanding existence as anything but a resource. Hegel, in his writings on history, described Indians and Africans as having no history because they had no institutions or style of discourse like the Western history book. 

Yesterday’s post ended with Bruno Latour caught in the same situation. He wrote in 1991 that Modernity was dead, a framework of understanding the world whose premises had been shattered. Then in 1992, a book drops from another leading French intellectual with nerdly glasses and wavy black hair defending humanist Modernity in its purest form, and denouncing all critics as anti-democratic fascists, communists, and religious fundamentalists. This situation shows how plural humanity really is. We’re so accustomed, especially in philosophy, to demarcating what was conceptually possible for a culture according to the chronology of its great philosophical works. But the presence of these works doesn’t simply cause a blanket social change even within the discipline of philosophy, let alone the wider culture.

Likewise, the entire fourth chapter of We Have Never Been Modern is all about dealing with accusations of relativism that would fly against Latour’s central thesis that social and political factors always play a role in the construction of scientific institutions, investigations, and discoveries. Despite the presence of books like Latour’s, and others from sectors of philosophy of science like Science and Technology Studies or the affiliated and slightly diverging acronyms, I haven’t seen an introductory philosophy class where introducing ideas like Latour’s don’t result in accusations of relativism from the audience.

In other words, Latour can write all he wants about how sensible it is for us to drop our cultural presumptions that contingency results in pure relativism, and that involvement in human processes for its generation results in pure relativism. I can too, because I haven’t believed in this facile separation of necessary, certain knowledge from contingent, relative opinion in nearly a decade. I can be criticized for making the separation in such blunt terms. But my point is that most people still believe this way.

A frequent reason given for why atheists are mistrusted in wider society (aside from the shrill anger of Dawkins and Hitchens, and Sam Harris’ denunciations of Muslims in Britain that border on outright racism), is that they’re held to be moral relativists. Many people still genuinely believe that you can’t be a good person without having a religion: without having a set of moral rules in whose correctness you believe absolutely, and without believing that a god will punish you for your sins. The discussion of scientific enterprises in these contingent terms often results in the same dichotomy. If you don’t believe in the certainty of scientific knowledge, then you permit the validity of beliefs we now know to be hogwash: racialized eugenics, phrenology, phlogistonic chemistry, Galenic medicine. If there is no God, everything is permitted. If there is no Science, everything is true.

However many times we defend ourselves, I think atheists
like me will always face pressure from people who believe
that you need to believe in a God delivering you
absolute truths to understand moral right and wrong.
The problem with these statements is that people’s moral systems converge, but differ, and if you consider the history of science, there is no straight progress of enlightenment over time. Good projects may flounder, worse ideas may come to prominence: enlightenment is no more inevitable than decay. Latour offers a much more sensible and politically productive way of dealing with this impasse. After all, decay is no more inevitable than enlightenment.

One conservative (and frequently still popular) idea about science is that what we call science is wholly right and true, and what we call pseudo-science, or what gets relegated to the dustbin of science’s history, is wholly wrong. All my intellectual colleagues will describe how crude and over-simplified this idea is. They all hear it from their first-year students — it’s still widely believed. It’s the kind of faith in science that New Atheists have been peddling for decades.

It’s far more accurate, when talking about the history of science, to treat some models of thought as being more true or more false than others. In other words, with complex systems of numbers, truth comes in degrees. Here’s an example. If you think about the history of evolution, the standard hardline evolutionist line is that Charles Darwin was right and more creationist perspectives wrong. But now contrast Darwin with other evolutionists. Denis Diderot postulated an evolutionary account of how life arose (according to some definitions, so did Aristotle). But because they had no empirical research backing up their claims, Darwin was more right than they were. But you can’t throw Diderot on the trash-heap of history, because at least he got it basically correct that life developed through evolutionary processes.

For example, Led Zeppelin's early
records synthesized musical influences
that had never come together before,
but their modern albums sound retro
because— Sorry, wrong Robert.
Now contrast Darwin with empirically-minded theorists of evolution who postulated methods other than natural selection, like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His vision of the inheritance of acquired traits turned out to be untrue, but he no creationist, and certainly not of the idiotic Biblical literalist stripe with the highest influence today, which even frustrate theologians. But Darwin also wasn’t right either.

Darwin never had a solid idea about the mechanism of carrying the inherited traits. Gregor Mendel’s experiments that systematized how inheritance worked were popularized only after Darwin’s death. The discovery of DNA as the cellular carrier of traits made Darwin’s theory obsolete. Nonetheless, we don’t denounce Darwin as wrong. He was just less right than evolutionary theory that was able to account for inheritance through DNA. And the first theorists of DNA were less right than most evolutionary biologists today. DNA was first conceived as carrying traits simply: that there would be ‘a gene’ ‘for’ big ears, eye colour, or proclivity to heart disease. We have since discovered that our genetic code operates in a complex relationship with protein folding in developmental processes that unfold in terms of contingencies and tendencies. Nonetheless, Watson and Crick’s generation of biologists isn’t wrong; they just held hypotheses that never worked out, because the world turned out to be more complicated.

When it comes to science, the law of the excluded middle doesn’t hold. This is true for morality, history, and all of existence. Either/or is so outdated. I like to keep my logic fuzzy.

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