Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Response

I received two very thoughtful and long comments in response to my post on user-generated truth from Landon and Dan. Since this weekend is fairly busy with Reed’s graduation, I will be replying to their comments for this week’s installment.

First, let me say that I tried my best to keep the “User-Generated Truth” focused on the question of what truth was for the “Google Generation.” Thus, as both Landon and Dan seem to have noticed, I skimped quite a bit on my explanation of truth and Truth. This subject is VERY complicated and I do not have a 100% clear idea of what I think. I tried to say enough so my ideas would be somewhat understandable. But I did want to focus on Keen and truth on the internet.

Response to Landon

Landon talks a lot about Wikipedia. I think its important to recognize that Wikipedia is not just a repository of community-generated truth. It is a community-generated encyclopedia, and it seems to me that the community strives to stick to this genre. Thus, I don’t think it is likely that Wikipedia “could come to say that the dominant theory of truth is that true statements are the ones found on Wikipedia.”

Encyclopedias are designed as compendia of information, of facts. In my experience, encyclopedias don’t say what theories the author(s) believe are correct, but what theories assert. Disagreements on Wikipedia tend to be about whether or not something can be considered a fact, and whether or not those facts are presented in the narrative in a way that expresses truth as generally recognized by the outside community. It is my understanding that a theory is a different beast than fact, not just because there might be outstanding disagreement, but because there is still a sense of communal doubt. Even if the communal doubt surrounding the philosophical theory of truth is not permanent, I believe it will be the non-Wikipedia community who declares a winner, not the Wikipedians.

I think your comments about community-based truth are very important, and I wish I had thought to mention this:

“In other words, truth varies from person to person and also varies for each person as they move from community to community (a sentence could be true for a deeply religious scientist when he is in church and false when he is talking to his colleagues — and this could be so without any self deception or contradiction on the part of the scientist; the sentence is true-in-community-x and not true-in-community-y, and these two facts are not contradictory any more that ‘it is hot here today’ being true at the equator in summer and false at the North pole in winter).”

On the other hand, there are some parts about your Wittgensteinean truth that I am unsure about. There are types of truth in some communities that don’t, at least within the community, require language. For example, in many of the so-called mystic traditions, the whole point is that truth cannot be described with words, because words distort the truth and therefore must be transcended. This isn't a subject I have thought a great deal about, but I remember that Dan was, at least at one point, a skeptic that all truth is language based. I’m having a hard time thinking about this right now – the true nature of truth is always difficult for me to think about and discuss.

As for my view of objectivity being Nietzschean, I must say that I think both of your readings are correct, and I do not see them as unrelated. Landon says, “I initially read you as saying that the finite time and finite experience of a human life means that we can only receive so many facts, only come to know a limited number of true things, which isn’t really very worrisome.” Landon then said,

“On further reflection, though, it seems that you are adopting a rather Nietzschean view of objectivity, where objective truth would be the view from everywhere... Thus true objectivity would be to view everything throughout time from every possible perspective, and on this view of objectivity the finiteness of a human life — in terms of time, location, the way our eyes and brain divide up the world into objects, and our finite systems of values — are very serious concerns to our attempts to acquire truth. These concerns are deeply related to my linguistic worries because language not only is limited in its perspective it is also perspective limiting because language reinforces certain worldviews, making value systems and ways of dividing the world seem so natural that it is hard to imagine different ones.”

As for linguistic worries, I also share them, but did not address them in the article partly because my understanding of the issue is limited, but mostly because I felt my other argument was sufficient to make the point. I should have been more clear that I believe the creation of truth is, for the most part, a creation of narrative. Which, it so happens, is much harder to define and discuss, so again I left it out because that wasn’t my focus. And like the linguistic problems, I have yet to work out all the kinks in my thoughts on the subject.

On second thought, it is hard for me to explain why I think both of your readings – especially the first – are correct and important without getting into a much more detailed conversation of narrative. I’ll file this away as an article to write in the future.

Response to Dan

I also thought it was odd how Keen could champion the market-based economy while not seeing Web 2.0 as a competing, alternative market. If there isn’t enough money to be made, it somehow doesn’t qualify as a real participant in the market system. In other parts of the book’s introduction, he basically equates the new Internet market with communism because things are free, which I believe shows a very poor understanding of the real difference between capitalist and communist economic systems.

Dan wrote: “I think that you owe us an explanation or at least some stronger hints at the relationship between truth and Truth. I think that while the number of truths are infinite and are all quite subjective, I cannot help but think that some truths have a closer relation to Truth than others.”

For the purpose of this article, I was mostly thinking of truths as things often thought of as objective or verifiable truth. Truths that can be fact-checked, or subjected to experiments. I leaned this way subconsciously, probably because this is what Keen and Hesse were generally referring to.

My belief in Truth is roughly equivalent to how a devout but somewhat skeptical Christian might believe in God. I see evidence of it all around, I act as if it is right, it is comforting to me – but I can never be completely sure that it is there as a firebrand evangelical might claim they are SURE God exists and the Bible is his Word.

I specifically designated Truth to be a physical Truth, probably because of biases and the nature of the discussion. Because I made Truth physical, then yes, some truths (those more often considered subjective) are further away from Truth than assertions about physical states.

However, I see now that this is a problem. I am unsure how to deal with it at this point, and I might be wrong. I might have made a mistake when I concentrated on truth vs. Truth, etc. I should have focused more on the role of narrative and its relationship to truth, which I see now was the actual topic on my mind.

Dan referred to “culturally-defined modes of processing,” and correctly pointed out that I ignored this complex subject. Understanding this phenomenon is incredibly important for understanding how we create truth and how this affects our inter-cultural relationships. The reason I didn’t discuss this is because by acknowledging that there are different cultural modes of truth creation, and that cultural pre-disposition affects what the individual will hold true and what they will not, the point I was trying to make (that truth is already “user-created”) is assumed.

Dan also said: “Talking about humans and events that take place on a human scale [or community of humans scale] is particularly prone to considerations of subjective truth because all human action is defined using a system of intentionality that, while helpful in discussing such things, inevitably distorts them and because human action can be understood equally well in various ways depending upon the narrative structure into which the action is placed (this is why our actions appear different to us in the moment than they do upon reflection after some hours, a year, many years...).”

Wow. I didn’t even think to address the role of memory and collective memory in narrative creation. My mind was focused on truth in the present. Dan’s point that “human action can be understood equally well in various ways depending upon the narrative structure into which the action is placed” is something I was driving at but didn’t pronounce clearly enough. Finite existence demands a narrative. While the selection of truths is critical and required, the structure into which they are placed is undeniably important as well.

The question I am thinking of now is, can any truths or physical “facts” be separated from the narrative in which they are placed? I’m not sure. The issues Dan and Landon brought up have nicely complicated the simple system I formulated. While I knew I was simplifying it, I hadn’t thought of how many complexities there are.

“I am also extremely wary of this new version, this free-for-all of information creation and dissemination,” said Dan. In some ways, I am too. In the long term, I believe that there will always be a place for professional journalism, even if their hold on information is no longer dominant and business models change. I believe that the Internet will improve overall news coverage, especially if viewed from the global perspective. What it will do to music, literature, etc... I have no idea.

Finally, Dan ended by saying that, “If this piece of your wasn't inaccessible because of its own length and complexity, then Landon's comment made it so; and if Landon's comment didn't make it so, mine will certainly help...” One of my goals for this blog is to establish a small group of people, whom I know or do not know, who are interested in discussing topics that I am interested in.

As a general rule, internet blogs that I am familiar with are dominated by short posts, most of which have two elements: 1) A link or extended quote to a primary text and 2) a comment on the material. And this is a fine format, one I enjoy greatly and learn a great deal from. However, I wanted to make Every Week Essay different, if only just longer and slightly more considered. We’ll see where it ends up, but these are some of my current goals.


Daniel said...

Just a few thoughts:
First, I am intrigued by this model of blogging; I find it refreshing and am glad to recognize that this is what you are doing, as it may affect the way that I respond. At least, I will be far less concerned with accessibility.
I apologize if I gave the impression that I found your previous post insufficient because of the brevity of its gloss on the truth/Truth distinction. I realize that that was not the focus of your post and I think that you did a fine job in addressing Keen and truth on the internet. However, as I am sure that we can all agree, these issues cannot fully be resolved or understood without a more complete delineation of this distinction.
I also found Landon’s comments illuminating and interesting, having brought a lot to the table for discussion.
I agree that Wikipedia, by its very nature is an encyclopedia and could not become the self-proclaimed source of truth. However, there is something complex to be addressed here as well. As the global community and people in general are increasingly members of the internet community and as Wikipedia gains strength and readership, Wikipedians could very well come to be the dominant community of information-providers of an encyclopedic nature. So, while, Wikipedia would not become the ultimate determinant of truth, it would certainly be elevated to a level where it would be highly truth-conferring. In fact, it has already grown substantially and achieved a dramatic increase in acceptability as a source of accurate information.
As for presenting facts and theories without passing judgment on those theories, I think that that is largely the goal of such institutions, but that, in actuality, nothing so clear cut exists or can exist. Also, I fear your reliance on a communal doubt in distinguishing a theory from fact. My worry rests in part on the fact that doubt often results from ignorance. This fact again relates to my concern about trusting the general public to compile information and select what information is of value. While I am suspicious about the information provided to me by professionals and experts, that distrust growing from an understanding of their ability to manipulate information to perpetuate an agenda, I am also extremely suspicious of the general public because not only do I need to worry about hidden agendas, but I need to be concerned with blatant ignorance. I’m not sure who to trust less…
On another subject, while you seem to be largely in agreement with Landon’s statement about truth being relative to the community in which it is spoken, I find such a thesis tenuous and, while recognizing some truth to it, I am extremely skeptical. While I can recognize the accuracy of his statement with regards to sentences that employ terms whose referent is context-dependent and relative terms, like hot or flat, Landon’s example of a statement spoken in church and the same statement spoken in a laboratory disturbs me. I am not sure if he had any statement in mind, but I think of something like: The Earth is only a few thousand years old. I don’t think that a speaker could believe this to be true in church and false in a laboratory within some degree of self-deception or contradiction within his system of beliefs.
I do, in true Nietzschean fashion, believe that words have a tendency to falsify the world and hence complicate matters of truth determination. Of course, truth may be inherently linked to some form of human understanding (like language), making certain difficulties inescapable, but I maintain that this would not eliminate the possibility of a truly objective physical world, only the possibility of the human mind grasping it. So, yes, the nature of truth is pretty difficult to consider and discuss, especially using language.
I’m intrigued by the idea of a perspective “from everywhere.” I assume that what is meant by that is something that is not merely all possible human perspectives, or the perspectives of all sentient beings, or even all possible sentient perspectives. I’m not really sure what such a perspective would be and so am, again, skeptical.

Linguistic concerns and recognizing the ways in which established forms of language perpetuate world views is extremely interesting and I find it horrifying, both for ontological and epistemological issues like the division of the world into discrete objects and for cultural and sociological issues like the masculine/feminine distinction. However, such issues are another entire can of worms…
Two final notes:
Memory and collective memory and their roles in narrative creation have interesting implications for individual and cultural/national identity and visions of personal and cultural/national destiny. They also have interesting implications in controlling the public with relation to identity and destiny. History and its constant creation and recreation have an enormous, if ultimately unquantifiable, effect. My mind wanders to thoughts of 1984 and doublethink…
Finally, while I am relatively confident that you are correct about the continued existence of professional journalism (and perhaps professional literature, art, and music), I am still enormously concerned about this form of media creation and dissemination and its implications for journalistic (and aesthetic) values. However, it can probably not do much more in terms of a destructive force than capitalism has already done. Or perhaps its contribution along with the negative effects of capitalism upon these values will spell the death-blow for respectable journalism (and high art). Or, more likely, I am just being overly dramatic.

I'm glad that you gave this topic a second glance right away, and I look forward to the possibility of the proposed post concerning a more detailed discussion of narrative, as well as other posts dealing with issues raised in these posts. However, I am even more intrigued to see what other topics you've got squirreled away and look forward to another good one next week.

Mark said...

Well, its too bad that I haven't been able to hit the once-a-week goal, but I am thoroughly enjoying the blog so far. Just going to have to keep on pushing to get material written.

Creating a more complete delineation of the truth/Truth distinction would be a fun project. However, I'm not exactly sure where to begin because my conception of Truth is admittedly based on an ideological faith, and I don't know how to delineate that in a philosophically valuable way.

Dan you said that, "I fear your reliance on a communal doubt in distinguishing a theory from fact. My worry rests in part on the fact that doubt often results from ignorance." First, within the context of my statement, I don't think that the status of scientific ideas as "theories" is something that results from ignorance, at least not malignant ignorance or ignorance that is equivalent to that which I think you are referring to - the "blatant ignorance" of general populations. In the case of There are just some things we don't know. Even things we thought were certain (or near certain), such as Einstein's theory of gravity, seem to be falling apart. Not that anyone has come up with something better than what he offered to deal with the cosmic (as opposed to the quantum) side of physics, but his theory is still inadequate to deal with our observation of the expanding universe.

Second, as a political, social, and practical manner, I whole-heartily agree with your distrust of widespread ignorance. Ignorance's habit of spawning doubt is tough to deal with. However, just because I don't like it when media portrays things as theories (usually with the language such as "many people say that") that that is not the truth as it exists. If a man is convicted by a jury for a murder he did not commit and the public accepts the verdict, it is true for most people that he murdered, at least according to my theory of truth and Truth. The Truth of the matter does not matter, no matter how distressed this example makes me.

While I'm on the subject of things I hate but can't control when it comes to the media and collective ignorance, I really hate it when the media reflexively try to portray two sides to every argument as if each side has a valid say. The "debate" with regards to whether waterboarding is torture is a good example. But this is a tangent and should not be confused with what I see occurring, philosophically, in the media's behavior.

You also said that, "I am not sure if he had any statement in mind, but I think of something like: The Earth is only a few thousand years old. I don’t think that a speaker could believe this to be true in church and false in a laboratory within some degree of self-deception or contradiction within his system of beliefs." Again, it frightens me as well, but I would not rule out the possibility of this thing happening. I try never to doubt how many seemingly contradictory ideas a person can hold without it mattering to them.

Also, I've been doing a a lot of thinking about this 1000 year example (one reason why this response is so delayed). While in the end I agree that the discipline of science as it stands would find these ideas self-contradictory, I can see how someone could work in a lab but not accept what is normally considered science's explanation of Earth's origins. Lab scientists perform experiments, and experiments can only be performed in the present. We cannot perform experiments on past events. The reason why I didn't post this week is because I spent several hours furiously trying to explain how a paleontologist is in many ways not a scientist, but I couldn't decide on what I thought science was. Either way, my opinion is that someone could legitimately consider themselves a scientist and still be a creationist (though admittedly, I've never heard of such a creature).