Re: Truth

Danny Yee (danny@ORTHANC.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Thu, 16 Dec 1993 16:44:48 +1100

> Here is what interests me most in D. St. Christian's recent posts: ". .
> . before anthropology can assert to tell any sort of truth, it must
> first consider how it, as an intellectual project, constitutes truth
> itself." This sounds reasonable, but is rotten to its core
> epistemologically. First, there are not many "sorts of truth," but only
> one. Truth is not a profound mystery (unless one wants, for purposes of
> poetry or obfuscation, to make it one); it is simply a quality we
> attribute to certain propositions. Understanding the concept of truth
> requires simply determining the conditions under which we want to
> attribute it. Consider four propositions: (1) "God is love." (2)
> "Postmodernism is anti-scientific." (3) "The earth is round." (4) "The
> period of a simple pendulum is proportional to the square root of its
> length." (5) "The Yanomamo are aggressive." Are different "sorts of
> truth" at stake? No. We want to attribute truth to (1) if, and only
> if, God is love. And so for each of the others. The hard part is not
> understanding what truth is, but finding out what is true. Even St.
> Christian's charitable reading of pomo is, just below its surface,
> antiscientific: the "project" is vague and interminable, and
> regressively diverts attention from efforts to learn what is true.
> (I say regressive because the problem of the nature of truth was solved,
> for anyone who wanted a solution, by Alfred Tarski in 1944 in a paper
> entitled "The Semantic Conception of Truth.") "The only really
> interesting questions are those that have no answers," I once heard
> a sociologist say. Does anyone have trouble identifying this as a
> postmodern *as opposed to a scientific* sentiment?--Bob Graber

Why is it always those disciplines that are unsure about their
"scientific" standing that appeal to narrow conceptions of "the
scientific method" and "truth" and suchlike? Psychology is the
traditional example of this, of course, but some anthropologists seem to
have the same problem. The standard explanation is that it's all
"physics envy", but I think the mystique associated with the word
"science" has grown beyond any particular awe inspired by the successes
of modern physics. Could I suggest you read some philosophy of science,
perhaps Popper and Kuhn and Lakatos and Feyerabend for starters? I
would hardly say Tarski *solved* the problem of the nature of truth!

Before you make some rude comment about Feyerabend, I must say that I
know quite a few physicists who think very highly of Feyerabend's view
of science. This doesn't stop them doing physics, but it does stop them
thinking what they do, in practising science, somehow elevates them to a
mystical high ground from which they can look down (and throw things) at
others. Science is great, but there are other ways of knowing and other
ways of spending ones life.

And yes, I know physicists don't have to fight for their lives with non-
and anti-scientific viewpoints, which makes things somewhat easier for
them. I sympathise with many of your complaints about anti-scientific
anthropology, but there is an (admittedly rough) border between
defending your own field and stomping on all others. Lumping everything
that isn't scientific as "postmodern" is a bit like Christians lumping
all non-Christian philosophy together as "secular humanism".

Danny Yee (