Truth, reason & democracy
Michael Lynch interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Michael Lynch is a deep groove philosopher. He keeps us all wondering about truth. He writes cool books about it to help us, such as Truth as One and Many, True To Life: Why Truth Matters, The Nature of Truth, Truth and Realism co-edited with Patrick Greenough and Perspectives on the Philosophy of William P. Alston. How do we decide what to do if one person thinks there are no better sources of facts than science and someone else doesn’t? He thinks about democracy and the space of reasons and deception and the value of reasons. He narrows his eyes when thinking about the forces of reaction. He worries that without agreed principles of evidence and rationality we can’t agree of the facts and if you can’t do that you can’t agree what to do in the face of the facts. So he thinks we need to get this sorted out? Which makes him an engaged philosopher. He has no problem with burning his armchair so long what comes out of the smoke is handled right.
3:AM: When did you decide to become a philosopher and why? Has being a philosopher lived up to your expectations?
Michael Lynch: I am the youngest in a big family. My sisters are writers and artists, my brother a psychologist and a painter. So I always sort of expected to be an artist of some kind. And I guess I still think of myself as one. For me philosophy has always been as essentially creative discipline, always drawing and re-drawing the boundaries of the possible. That’s what drew me to it from the get go. I remember sitting in a philosophy course in college at 8:30 in the morning, listening to a lecture on Descartes, and thinking I had stumbled onto the secret language of the world. And while I admit that I sometimes weary of the whirligig of academic life, I still have that first sense of finding my creative home. Here’s a simpler way of putting it: I couldn’t stop thinking about this stuff if I tried.
3:AM: It might seem obvious to some people, but to others the question of ‘what is truth?’ doesn’t seem quite as important as it once did. Why do you think this is such an important question, not just for philosophy but for the rest of us?
ML: During the Bush administration, Ron Susskind famously reported that one of Bush’s top advisors (probably Karl Rove) sneered that the administration’s critics were continuing to live in the “reality-based community”. That was a mistake, he said, because “we are an empire now, we create our own reality”. This is a telling remark. It illustrates not only what was wrong with that administration but why truth is so important a concept – and not just for philosophers. When we ignore the difference between what those in power say is true and what is true, we risk not only losing our rights, but the ability to even give ourselves any critical voice. So that is why thinking about truth matters – because the truth matters.
3:AM: You have spent a great deal of your time figuring out what truth is. This is one of the big questions, the kind of question the folk expect their philosophy departments to be thinking about. There are a whole bunch of positions contemporary philosophers take towards this subject so I wondered whether it would be good if you could give a quick overview of the landscape before asking you where we’d find you. So can you say something about what the variations are, for example, monism and pluralism and relativism, functionalist and alethic and folk theories, realist and anti-realist theories, correspondence, coherence, deflationism and so on. Where do we find the most pressing work taking place these days?
ML: Traditionally, philosophers have always thought that truth had a single essence. Call this monism about truth. The oldest monist view, traceable perhaps to Aristotle, is that beliefs are true when they correspond to the world. On this way of looking at things, beliefs and sentences are like maps – they are accurate or true when they represent the world as it is. An alternative view, not as old, but not new either, is that beliefs are true when they hang together – when they form a coherent narrative as it were. This may have started with Hegel. Call it the coherence theory: truths don’t need to fit the world; they need to fit each other.
In more recent years, many of us who work on truth for a living have given up on monism of either type. The newly dominant view is that truth has no nature at all. Views of this sort are often labeled deflationary – they deflate the pretensions of the traditional theories. Pluralism about truth, on the other hand, rejects monism not because truth has no nature, but because it has more than one. According to this idea, both of the major traditional views of truth are right in their way, they just over-generalized (William James thought this was the compulsive habit of philosophers – a great generalization if there ever was one!) Some of our beliefs are like maps. Beliefs about our immediate environment, when we are lucky, do represent how things are in that environment. But many of our beliefs are not like that, but they can still be true. They can be true because it is possible for them to fit extremely coherent narratives. Moral and political beliefs for example, can be correct or off-base. But they don’t picture a world completely independent of us.
Your other question was about what questions are particularly pressing right now in truth theory. There are four I think. One concerns the value of truth, why it matters. The second concerns whether its nature is one, many or none (the points I just talked about). The third concerns the logical paradoxes, a prime example being the liar. Consider a sentence that says, in effect “I’m false”. Is it true or false? Both? Neither? Meaningless? Each answer has been tried, and each has its costs. And the fourth concerns the relationship between all these questions. A particularly open and interesting issue – one of the many to which my colleague JC Beall has contributed – is the extent to which our logical theories of truth, arrived at after grappling with the paradoxes, should change our metaphysical theories about truth – and vice versa. The answer I suspect is “yes” but the “how” is still a work in progress.
3:AM: So your position in Truth as One and Many about truth is one that begins with rejecting that if a proposition is true it must be true in the same way. You say that truth is a functional property that can be made manifest in more than one way. So can you say something more about how this works?
ML: I’m a pluralist; I think that there is more than one kind of truth. Truth, in this sense, is many. But what do all these kinds of truth have in common – what makes them all kinds of truth? Pluralists have different answers to this question (Crispin Wright has a different answer for example). In my view, they all share a common job or function.
The basic idea is that a belief’s being true consists in its having a particular job in our cognitive economy. Just as one person can sort the mail one day, and another person can perform that function on another day, one feature can perform the truth-function for some kinds of beliefs and another feature for other kinds of beliefs. So correspondence or representational properties do the truth-job for certain kinds of belief. A type of supercoherence may do it for others.
The underlying idea here – that some of the concepts and properties that interest us philosophically are functional properties – is not unusual. It is familiar in the philosophy of mind – thanks to the work of Hilary Putnam and David Lewis, among others. Part of what I’m doing is pointing out that, with a little metaphysical work, we can apply it to basic concepts like truth too.
3:AM: So why do you think this is better than rivals?
ML: One way to judge philosophical theories is by the work they do, the problems they help to solve, and by this standard, a functionalist version of pluralism about truth comes off pretty well. Here’s an example. There is a longstanding problem with explaining how some kinds of propositions can be true. At least some propositions about what is right or wrong, for example, seem capable of being true. Most of believe, for example, that slavering is wrong, and to believe it is to believe that it is true. Yet that proposition doesn’t seem to represent any part or feature of the natural world. We don’t find moral rightness in the lab, so to speak. This observation has led philosophers to say some crazy things: like maybe there aren’t any truths about what is wrong or right, for example, or maybe they really do map the world but the non-natural or supernatural world.
Pluralism allows us a way out: we can say, with common sense, that some propositions are true, but they aren’t all true in the same way. Not all propositions have to represent the world in order to be true.
3:AM: Yes, so an interesting theory of truth that also appeals to some is not that truth has a single nature (which is possibly the account that most folk might hold) but that it has no nature at all. These are labeled ‘deflationary’ theories of truth. Can you say something about these and why you feel that your theory is superior?
ML: We live in somewhat curious times for truth theory. Business is booming – lots of books being written, dissertations written etc. Yet the prevailing view about truth is that there is not much to say about it. I find that pretty strange. It’s sort of like if those paid to think about the nature of poetry or art or architecture spent a lot of time talking about the fact that there is not much to say about it.
The most basic reason I deny deflationism is that such theories rob us of a theoretically useful tool. If deflationism were true, then we could know a priori that we don’t need to appeal to truth in order to explain anything philosophically interesting, like content, or meaning or the norms of belief. After all, if truth has no nature, if there are no facts about it over and above the equivalence principle (the idea that, it is true that p if and only if p) then we can hardly appeal to the nature of truth to explain anything else. (In other words, we can’t say: well, since truth is like this, then it follows that property x is like that).
I think this type of explanatory pessimism is far too hasty. We may well need to appeal to truth, and the properties that manifest it, to give a satisfactory explanation of these things. Indeed, for some cases, like the case of how the content of our mental states get determined, I think the issue is going to hang on yet to be worked out theories in cognitive science. So I think it is too early to judge whether we should be deflationary pessimists.
What I like about functionalism is that it agrees with the deflationists that our ordinary concept of truth is pretty simple: you understand truth if you understand its job, and that job may not be complicated. But it allows us to appeal to the varying nature (the underlying properties that manifest truth or do the truth-job) to help us explain knowledge, meaning and so on.
3:AM: The theory as you present it is a framework for further investigation I think. So questions might be raised about whether it is a framework that inevitably presupposes consistency with other philosophical positions that are not purely about the nature of truth. So is this approach consistent with those philosophers who have realist inclinations, for example? Can you say something about this worry and how you answer it? I guess this is a general question about the scope of your theory and the notion of ‘super-coherence.’
ML: That’s exactly right: functionalism about truth is something of a meta-theory of truth. It tells you that truth is a functional property that can be manifested in more than one way. One can agree with that and still disagree with my own views about how truth is or isn’t manifested in particular domains of inquiry.
Now “realism” is one of those words in philosophy, like “naturalism” that gets thrown around a lot. But I’m certainly not opposed to realism in most of the interesting senses. Indeed, one might say my over-all view requires it. Here’s a way of illustrating this: As I said above, I’m inclined to think that in some domains, like the domain of morality, that truth isn’t a matter of corresponding to the world. Whether a moral proposition is true depends, roughly speaking, on whether it would cohere without defeat with the other moral and non-moral truths. But I don’t think that view would make sense across the board. For one thing the truths about what coheres with what can’t be a matter of coherence.
3:AM: I guess linked to the last question is how well your approach can accommodate science and maths. I presume you would want to do this. If, for example, a naturalist philosopher is left out in the cold then this would prove a difficulty for your approach I suppose. Or is there room for your theory to winnow out philosophical positions that don’t cohere? Can you say something about this?
ML: I have always thought that the two hardest test cases for any theory of truth are morals and mathematics. I’ve got a theory of moral truth more or less. But I still don’t have a settled view on mathematical truth. (So I still have some job security). But nothing about functionalism itself precludes holding some version of high church Platonism about mathematical truth, although I myself am not deeply attracted to that view. If I were to have to go with a theory, it would probably be something like structuralism but luckily no one is yet holding a gun to my head.
3:AM: The collection you edited with Patrick Greenough, Truth and Realism was largely papers from a conference at which Timothy Williamson presented his (in)famous ‘must do better’ talk which is the last chapter of his own book, The Philosophy of Philosophy. He was critical of the variety of approaches to truth that were current, and thought that many were too imprecise to be good philosophy. Was Williamson right?
ML: Well yes and no; it is hard to say precisely (ahem). Yes: we must always strive to do better, and be as precise as the subject matter merits. No: because, as that remark indicates, not all theories of truth are constructed for the same explanatory purpose. They all want to tell the truth about truth, as it were, but they do so with other goals in mind as well. Some are concerned with the logical paradoxes, some with the metaphysical nature of truth, and some are more interested in the semantics of the English predicate “true”. Each of these explanatory goals have merit, but they may bring with them different requirements on what counts as “precision”. Good philosophy, like good art or good science, gets done in a variety of ways. Surely the history of philosophy illustrates this fact.
That said, Patrick and I have often regretted not having that particular session – and the firestorm of discussion and debate – taped. Tim’s brilliant presentation and the various responses by Williams, Rorty etc. amounted to some exceedingly good philosophical theatre. Now days of course it would have been all put on Facebook five minutes after it happened.
3AM: You’re interested in the history of philosophy and co-wrote a book with Heather Battaly on a figure who to most people is pretty obscure, William Alston. He looks pretty dry on the cover. Why is this guy fascinating?
ML: William Alston was a philosopher’s philosopher. He is often associated with traditional views: In epistemology, he revitalized foundationalism, in truth-theory, realism, and he was one of the most influential philosophers of religion around. But the thing that always fascinated me about Bill is that if you scratched the surface of his views, radical notions teemed beneath the surface. One of Bill’s last (and most overlooked) books argues that there really is no such thing as “epistemic justification”, and philosophers should just give up trying to define it. Instead, we should just acknowledge there is a plurality of features a belief can have that make it good from the epistemic point of view. And those features are the ones we should care about. That’s a sort of pluralism, and there it is no surprise I suppose that it resonates with me.
I’m proud to say that Bill was also my friend and mentor (a distinction I share with many others, including Al Plantinga, Bob Audi, Heather Battaly, Alessandra Tanesini, etc.). We never agreed on that much, but he was amazingly encouraging of those with whom he disagreed. He died in 2009, but I find I’m arguing with him still.
3:AM: So your new book In Praise of Reason takes on those who are skeptical about the role of reason. Why do you think reason need defending?
ML: I think that there are two things that need defending: the value and efficacy of reason-giving in a democratic culture, and the idea that the sorts of reasons we should give are those that emerge from broadly scientific methods of inquiry.
One of the most pervasive sources of skepticism about reason and its value in our culture is the thought that at the end of the day, reasons always give way to something else, something arbitrary. How many times have you heard someone say: even science comes down to faith – that reasons must always hit bedrock after which there is nothing else to say? This is a very old idea, and there is more than a grain of truth to it. But that doesn’t mean it is completely right either. It encourages the worse sort of dogmatism and conservatism in my view.
3:AM: So this is very much an argument that links democracy with the ‘space of reasons’ isn’t it? Can you explain how you make this link?
ML: Absolutely. Democracy is, or should be, to use Sellars’ ringing phrase, a space of reasons. Democratic politics isn’t war by other means. In a properly functioning liberal democracy, mutual deliberation proceeds through the exchange of public reasons – reasons that can be assessed by the common point of view. And here we encounter what I think is a very deep and overlooked problem. In order to even have a common point of view we have to have a shared set of epistemic principles – principles that tell us what methods and sources of belief to trust. Without those shared principles, policy disagreements stall out. After all, if we can’t agree on the best methods for identifying the facts, we won’t be able to agree on what the facts are, and if we can’t agree about what the facts are, we will hardly be able to agree on what to do in light of the facts. We won’t be able to agree on policy.
This is just the situation in the US. We live in isolated bubbles of information pulled from different sources that only reinforce our prejudices. No wonder that political action grinds to a halt. Increasingly we lack the common principles of rationality that would allow us to engage in meaningful dialogue.
3:AM: The argument that we need to be more reasonable in order to combat prevailing prejudices and irrationalities is likely to resonate with many people. Dogmatic conservativism is a real enemy. But what do you say to a threat coming from those who find evidence that the role of reason in agency is less powerful than might be expected. So we find experimenters in cognitive science and psychology finding that when people tell us why they acted as they did what sound like cogent reasons are merely post hoc rationalizations in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. So Peter Carruthers and Eric Schwitzgebel, for example, seem to have lots of evidence that suggest that the powers of reason are pretty feeble, and reasoned agency is less secure than we like to think. This kind of argument is the sort that Nietzschean naturalists launched against Kantians but you defend what Anthony Gottlieb has called ‘the Enlightenments’ best idea.’ So what do you say to this threat?
ML: I think some of these conclusions are overblown (if not always by the people you mentioned). But it is certainly something I talk about in the book, in part because it has received so much attention. The funny thing is, we don’t really need a study, do we, to know that our reasons for our actions are often post hoc rationalizations. Nor do we need much more evidence than we already have for the obvious fact that many people make their political and economic decisions just as much or more on emotional or intuitive considerations. In short, I certainly don’t dispute that reasons are often not as efficacious in our decision-making as we’d like to tell the world they are.
But do we have evidence to think that reasons can’t be efficacious? Or even that they never actually are? I know of no studies that show that. Nor do I think it is plausible, in part because the more radical view, were anyone to hold it, would appear to be self-undermining. How do you make a scientific argument for the conclusion that no scientific argument ever convinces anyone?
There is of course a ton of really interesting work being done on the relation between intuition, reason and emotion. In my own view, this work does explode the Platonic myth that reason is and should be the master of the mind. But I also think that we should be just as suspicious of the idea that reason is a simple slave to passion, as
3:AM: Linked to this is what you feel about the work of experimental philosophy and its relevance for your arguments. Would you change your mind if there was evidence that skepticism about reason was a better description of what people actually do than yours?
ML: Nope. The reason is that I think that lots of folks (not everyone, but lots) actually are skeptical about reason. I want to convince them not to be. That said, I’ve come around on experimental philosophy. Like most of us who are comfortable in their armchairs, I confess to being initially skeptical. But I now think there is value in much of this data—we just need to be careful about explaining that value.
What experimental philosophy can tell us is what folks think about stuff. It can tell us therefore about the scope of “common sense” on certain philosophical topics. And what’s disturbing (and interesting) is that that may turn out to be different than what we eggheads thought it was. Yet what x-phi can’t tell us, or so I believe, is what we should think about the relevant topics. That’s the job of the philosopher: not just to describe the world, but to change our thinking about it. Sometimes the proposed change can be radical (think Peter Singer or Graham Priest) sometimes it can be a matter of suggesting that we systemize our thought, make it more coherent in one direction or another (think Davidson or Rawls). Philosophy in either case is revisionary; it builds.
3:AM: Recently I was talking to a non-philosopher and I was surprised that she thought that most philosophers were dogmatic and conservative and she then linked this perspective to their belief in the objectivity of truth and couldn’t believe that a politics of the left could be defended from such a position. That’s why she liked French philosophers (honest!). So what would you say about this and its inference of reactionary politics linked with objectivity, on the one hand, and left politics being linked with relativism of a French kind (probably Derrida) on the other. It made me realise that something that might be supposed to be neutral regarding ones politics, like a theory of truth, is often supposed to be part of a much wider discourse. Is this something you’re aware of? It seems to be the source of some of the difficulties and bad reputation that some Anglo/American philosophy has acquired. I sense that someone like Richard Rorty felt something like this. What do you think?
ML: People like me who grew up intellectually in the nineties were soaked with the idea that those on the left must reject the idea of objective truth. That was a mistake, and one that, as I noted above, the Bush years in the US made us learn the hard way. The fact is that we on the progressive left have done ourselves a terrible disservice by rejecting the concept of objective truth – if only because it is hard to stand up for your opinions if you think they are no more true than anyone else’s.
This was something that at the end of his life, Richard Rorty and I went around about it in several venues. In his view, talk of truth is just like talk of God. It is a metaphysical crux, and one that should be abandoned. I see it differently. I think that giving up on objective truth is giving in to those who would like to convince us that there is no difference between what is right and what they say is right, between lies and reality. It is not just a metaphysical mistake. It is a political one.
Having said that, it is unfortunate that so many philosophers tend to think that pluralism is inconsistent with objectivity. That is a mistake too, and it gives us a bad name. There can be more than one true story of the world. That just doesn’t mean that every story is equally true.
3:AM: Linked to that last point, do you agree that the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy is a phony one? Where do you situate yourself? What are the big questions that are going to be pressing on philosophers’ brows in the next decade?
ML: Yes and no. Looked at from the vantage point of inquiry, philosophers should be without borders. In my view there is no deep and philosophically interesting divide between “analytic” and “continental” philosophers in the way there is between say “nominalists” and “realists” about numbers or between utilitarians and Kantians in moral theory.
Nor is there much a methodological divide either (not all “analytic” philosophers are doing “linguistic philosophy” and not all “continental” philosophers are doing phenomenology or deconstruction). But there is a sociological divide that these unhappy terms can be used to pick out, and we can’t ignore it.
What marks the divide is much a matter of which books you were brought up to read as much as anything else: whether for example your graduate program privileged Husserl over Frege or Derrida over Quine. And then there is a matter of style too, (which is not the same as method). Marked that way, I’m an analytic philosopher no question. But the questions I’m interested in are questions that many “continental” philosophers are interested in too.
What’s going to be big in philosophy? That’s a dangerous question—like asking what is going to be big in the stock market. (“Plastics” said the guy to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. “Plastics”). But I’m a risk taker as much as the next guy, so here goes. One issue I think that philosophy is ripe to return to is the nature of the imagination. This was a question that fascinated the heroes of old, but it hasn’t been central recently (although folks like Tamar Gendler and Tim Williamson have started us down the path again). What is the relation between imagination and knowledge? They are often seen as opposites, but I think that is a mistake. What we imagine can give us knowledge too.
I think the problems of knowledge and reason will continue to be important. The virtual age is changing how we think about both. Most of what we know (or think we know) now is via search engine. As a result, knowledge more than ever relies on testimony, on “book-learning”. But testimony can classically be terribly unreliable. So what does the fact that we can’t seem to rely on it mean for what we know – and for what knowledge is? I don’t think we’ve fully grappled with that fact yet, and so far I think philosophers have been ignoring it – which is a problem, for all sorts of reasons.
3:AM: So have there been any books, art, or films that have been enlightening to you outside philosophy?
ML: Tons. Here’s one. I was in Rome recently and spent a lot of time looking at some early and lesser-known (at least to me) pieces by the Bernini. What struck me is that he was not afraid of the curve. Philosophers shouldn’t be either.
3:AM: And finally, for the seekers of truth here at 3:AM, can you recommend five top books, other than your own which of course we’ll all be ordering straight away, that will be mind blowing for the non-philosophically-trained but smart reader?
ML: First: Reason, Truth and History by Hilary Putnam. I’ve been rereading for the 10th time and still find it separates my brain from the rest of my body (in a good way).
Second: The Reliability of Sense Perception by William P. Alston. This tiny little book deserves to be a classic (and in some circles is). It argues that we have no non-circular way of proving that our senses are reliable. That seems like a pretty powerful skeptical argument, no? Alston thought it showed something else. Read it to find out what.
Third: Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. As Quine said, the Humean condition is the human condition.
Fourth: Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. I disagree with much of what he says, but he has the problem nailed. And no matter what he (and everyone else) might have said: this is a man who took philosophy seriously.
Fifth: Game of Thrones. Loved it. (And all the other books in that series too). So sue me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 15th, 2012.