Fri, 7 Jan 1994 08:52:49 CST

In response to points raised by D. Yee, and touching on points made by
others: Yee does not believe we "can divorce a definition of truth
from an understanding of the ways in which one discovers it." I think
that this is precisely the divorce that we should--and in practice do-- h
make in order to move from philosophical ratiocination to scientific
investigation. It is my understanding, too, that this very divorce is
exactly what gives Tarski's semantic conception of truth its quantum
superiority over the preceding efforts by the logical positivists
to explicate truth itself as a matter of relative evidential support.
Oh well. Those who want to can beat their heads against whatever
non-semantic conception of truth they like.
Yee also writes:
>Bob Graber says he doesn't accept that there are ways of knowing other
>than science. But even Marvin Harris (_Cultural Materialism_ page 315)
>"... there are domains of experience, knowledge of which cannot be
>achieved by scientific research. The ecstatic knowledge of mystics and
>saints, the visions and hallucinations of drug users and schizophrenics,
>and the aesthetic insights of artists, poets, and musicians are
>certainly not obscurantist merely because they are not based on
>scientific research principles."

Indeed. May I be permitted to disagree with Marvin Harris, to whose
work I am more indebted to than any other save perhaps that of Robert
Carneiro, about use of the word "knowledge"? I am more than willing
to stick with my declaration that evidence and reason--including flashes
of insight, except when they exempt their content from further evidence
and reason (tip of hat to K. Poewe)--are our only access to anything
worthy of the term "knowledge." I in fact was all too aware of this
passage in Harris, and therefore was conscious of our divergent uses of
the term. Frankly, I can consider it only self-defeating for those of
us committed to the growth of human *knowledge* to use that word for
the ravings of drugheads or religious mystics, regardless of how widely
believed such mental products may become. The content of "knowledge"
obtained in such ways is propositionally worthless, good only as data
for studying the correlations between kinds of mental disequilibrium
and symbolic production. It should be pointed out that Harris, in the
same book (p. 27), asserts that science transcends these other paths
to so-called "knowledge": "We must recognize that there are other ways
of knowing, but we must also recognize that it is not mere ethnocentric
puffery to assert that science is a way of knowing that has a uniquely
transcendent value for all human beings." I consider that a great
sentence, despite disagreeing with its permissive use of the word
Even Harris' view is entirely antithetical to the postmodern gang.
Their whole position is destroyed the moment it is conceded that
evidence and reason enhance an account's credibility even the tiniest
bit. For if a little evidence and reason do a little good, wouldn't
more do even more good? No, there must be absolutely no "privileged
accounts" whatosever; and that is why they must end in nihilism,
denying the possibility of differentiating knowledge from ignorance,
and hence denying the possibility of knowledge itself.
But if I define "knowledge" more narrowly than Harris, I certainly
do not equate it with "truth"; to do so would be much too restrictive,
since at any moment we don't know how much of what is passing for
knowledge will have to be modified or rejected due to future evidence
and reason; and we at any rate claim never to have the absolute truth.
Only two groups have that--the fundamentalists with their revelations
and the postmodernists with their "absolute truth" that there are no
privileged interpretations. Actually, "knowledge" is the compliment we
should pay to the best accounts in town, so to speak. By "accounts" I
mean descriptions and explanations, and by "best" I mean those sustained
relatively well by reason and evidence. "The orphan-baby Narssuk causes
the weather" is not an item of human knowledge, because meteorology has
transcended it. "The Netsilik Eskimos believed that the orphan-
baby Narssuk caused the weather"--*that* is an item of human knowledge.
I am glad to have shocked D. Yee a little by declaring a preference
for fundamentalist Protestantism over postmodernism. He replied:

>This worries me a *lot*. I was expecting you to complain that your
>position isn't really the same as that of religious fundamentalists (and
>I think you malign most animists by your replacement :), but instead you
>seem to glorify in the comparison! If you are really prepared to say
>"science good, non-science bad" without actually looking at the
>non-science at all, then sure, you have a lot in common with the
>fundamentalists. However, despite my almost life-long commitment to
>science and my general aversion to religion, I think I prefer
>open-minded Christians to *scientific* fundamentalists.

Oh, alright. I admit I would rather spend time with an open-minded
animist than a closed-minded one. I was making a specific point about
the hypocrisy of postmodernism, not about the kind of Christian company
I like to keep.
Yee asks, finally, do I read novels? Seldom; the last one was
*Jurassic Park* I think. A slow reader, I greatly prefer poetry anyway
(strictly for fun, never for *knowledge*); Sara Teasdale is my current
favorite. "The heart asks more than life can give/ When that is
learned, then all is learned." I call that neither a special type of
truth, nor another form of knowledge; I call it poetry. --Bob Graber