Thursday, December 1, 2016

Humanist definition of truth

I was recently reading Richard Rorty’s “Contingency, irony, and solidarity.” In the introduction, he delineates the core problem he is talking about: relationship between individualism and solidarity. Should people be altruistic or should they be antisocial? Following a common philosophical practice, Rorty completely ignores the entire scientific body of evidence related to this topic which was available to him at the time when he was writing the book. There is no mention of evolutionary basis for altruism or other scientific theories of human motivation and social interaction. Instead, Rorty discusses what people like Nietzsche or Hegel, ignorant of any scientific investigation into the topic, pulled out of thin air hundreds of years before. This is why I don’t like (most) philosophers.

In the following chapter Rorty explains what he thinks “the truth” is. The explanation contains statements like “The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs” and culminates in a statement that “truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences.” As it turns out this is a common understanding of what the truth is, among people involved in humanities like, say, anthropologists. Rorty himself is a popular philosopher having his part in shaping of the modern liberal academic ideology. The book I am discussing here was cited over 10,000 times according to Google Scholar.

The aforementioned definition of truth made me come up with a quick example. Consider a dog. Show two cups to the dog and put a bone into one of the cups. Then, distract the dog and quickly swap the cups. Then, let the dog choose one of the cups. The dog will choose the cup it remembers to have a bone in it. That is, the dog believes that bone is in a certain cup. This belief is false if you swapped the cups and is true if you did not swap the cups. Since the dog cannot speak, the existence of beliefs and their truth or falsehood do not depend on existence of a language.

This definition of truth is an expression of anthropocentrism that seem to be central to the modern liberal academic ideology. Nothing but humans is important. Nobody bothers to question whether the reasoning presented would be valid for agents who do not share all human characteristics, in this particular case, the use of language. As a result, Rorty’s arguments depend on how he implicitly defines human nature. Yet he is explicitly against the notion of human nature. The whole structure is internally inconsistent.

Why is it important? Well, it shows how modern liberal ideology is grounded in ignorance. This ignorance gives rise to dogmatically defended stances like cultural relativism. It makes otherwise perfectly reasonable people to say things like “2+2=4” is no better than “2+2=5” if the latter is an inherent element of a culture which assigns truth to it. The intellectual discourse deteriorates. Harmful policies gets enacted.

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