The Flavour of Truth

This is literally happening right now at universities across the world. Exactly this.

There has been another round of discussion online about evil humanities professors disordering our political life by spreading pernicious relativism about truth and objectivity. I remain convinced that this is a distraction, that in fact none of our disputes in political and social life are actually about the nature of truth. Apparently I have not persuaded people! So today I try a different approach. I will try to persuade you that all the sorts of things people do to actually create trouble for claims of objective truth are, in the main, unobjectionable, or even where controversial not really the sort of thing that divides us politically.

When philosophers discuss truth we have a stock example of a true sentence -- "snow is white". This is because of the role the claim played in a classic, really genre defining, paper by the polish logician Alfred Tarski. In the serene peace of academic debate this is taken as a fairly uncontroversial example of a claim that might be thought true, and indeed is actually true. So let's imagine that into our eden sneaks a postmodern neo-Marxist snake, keen to cause trouble by disrupting the ways of God and man. How might the serpent try to undermine our faith in truth using "snow is white" as their staging ground?

Off the top of my head I can think of three avenues of attack they might try:

  1. "Snow is white" is true, certainly... in English. But it's a nonsense string of symbols in German, and false in Schmenglish, which is a language I made up just now to be exactly like English except for one difference, wherein the word English uses for snow is actually its word for coal. So you can't really say it's true, you have to say it's true in a language (this is in fact what Tarski did). But once you have admitted a bit of linguistic relativity then aha the postmodernist has you in their vice-like grip! For languages are cultural objects if anything is, so it seems you admit the truth of the claim is relative to a cultural decision -- what language to talk. And we can make the matter worse! Different languages divide up the colour spectrum differently, and there is some evidence this even causes people to see colours differently. So who are we to impose our culturally preferred categorisation of the world onto others!? Something something power something oppression something!

  2. But actually though is "Snow is white" true? The sentence is a generic. These are claims which attribute properties to collections or groups without making it clear how many within the collective are being claimed to have the property. Sometimes it seems like it's most or all ("tigers have stripes" is true, odd exceptions don't change that), sometimes it's about half ("ducks lay eggs" is true, even though male ducks cannot do so), sometimes its a minority ("mosquitos carry west nile virus" is true, even though the vast majority do not). So which is it here? Reasonable people might differ. And anytime there is room for reasonable disagreement on just how many instances of counter-examples could be admitted before the claim is falsified you have a wedge our demonic postmodern Neo-Marxist can use to ply their wares. For maybe the way this is decided is some sort of convention, we all agree that such and such a proportion or these striking instances or... whatever... have to carry the property for the claim to be true. But then aha, a convention! Who are you to impose your convention on others! Do you know who else did that? The1884 Berlin conference. Really makes you think.

  3. Also what is up with that "white"? Colours are secondary qualities are they not? Sure there is a physical light spectrum, but colours are defined by the way we experience them subjectively. And did... did the serpent just hear the word subjective!? Now we're truly off to the races. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out what havoc our little deceiver may wreak with this.
Ok so what I want to note about this is none of it is very impressive, right? Like all of us would be pretty nonplussed if someone seriously tried to get us to doubt snow is white on this basis. Let alone found some new political project! But at least the first two are fairly uncontroversially correct -- I mean we do need to speak some language, languages are cultural objects, and they require fixing conventions for dealing with things like generics and dividing up the colour spectrum. If the demon stamped its serpentine foot (this is pre-fall you see) and insisted that while it might be true that snow is white, it is important we realise from these considerations that it is not objectively true that snow is white (somehow they pronounce the italics) I guess personally I would just shrug. Shrug in agreement to be fair, but still shrug. Sure, I guess, you gotta fix a language, decide how to deal with generics, kinda just accept that colour experiences may differ between individuals. None of these are... fixed features of the world? They are to do with us and our decisions, I grant. So if you want to say that therefore there is some special objectiveness property that "snow is white" lacks as a truth for these reasons go ahead. But still... like...snow is white, it's fine, whatever disagreements exist here are all (genuinely) very interesting for specialists, but not the sort of thing that need trouble me in any normal circumstance. I don't really see granting these things as affecting me politically one way or another. Yet I have just ceded the objective truth of a stock example of an uncontroversial truth!

Well, how about if rather than "snow is white" we used "2+2=4" as our example sentence -- then could the great deceiver maybe make us sweat? After all the first two arguments can be adapted pretty directly. The language of mathematics is a language just as much as any other, the exact same argument as (1) goes here. And as to (2), sure it is not a generic but the underlying point still goes. We do after all have conventions we must fix for logic and mathematics to work -- maybe those could be done differently. Indeed it has been argued that there is cultural variation in what conventions are accepted here. And, while it is a niche activity sure, it is not really that unusual for logicians and mathematicians to explore alternative arithmetics (e.g.). Maybe it'll turn out there's some interesting one where something recognisably like my claim "2+2=4" is false. I dunno. Finally, while there is not an analogue to the third argument re individual variance in colour perception, there is a possibly-more-serious worry. The literal read of mathematical claims plausibly involves some truly wacky metaphysics that we could do without, and so pure mathematical claims are literally false even if useful. The last of these cases is an even more serious challenge: it is not even just saying that 2+2=4 isn't objectively true, it's saying it's not true at all!

.... And yet. Be honest. Be real with yourself. Allow yourself a moment of peace and clarity. None of these claims really bothered you, did they? None of these claims, challenging the truth or objectivity of mathematics really seemed to portend the end of Western civilisation, etc. (To be fair there really are some people who think you need to be committed to the real existence of abstract mathematical objects for Western Civilisation to function. I feel safe in assuming these are a minority.) Indeed some of them seem to be pretty obviously true (do you think "2+2=4" isn't a sentence in a language!?) and its never bothered you before and it is not going to start bothering you now either. You can cede that maybe the claim isn't strictly speaking objectively true and not feel much turns upon it, one way or another. Good!

So our serpentine postmodern Neo-Marxist is in a bit of a pickle. They keep saying stuff which is plausible, sometimes even kinda trivially true, and it entails exactly the sorta claims about truth and objectivity which culture war debate would have you believe is incredibly dangerous and edgy. Yet with it all laid out plain it just doesn't really seem like a big deal. Certainly very interesting for scholars and important for various intellectual debates. Debates which can have real consequences for how we live and understand the world, to be clear. I don't want to suggest anything anti-intellectual here -- worrying about the foundations of mathematics ultimately led to the theory of computation! These things are worth discussing. But they have nothing like the sort of significance that the culture war debate would have you think. Where have they gone wrong?

Here, at least, is my little error theory of the situation. People do not really object to doubts about truth's objectivity or fictionalist metaphysics of mathematics or what have you. What they object to is something like... the flavour, the tone, the spicing... of the ideas. Their presentation and the affect it produces. I have given these in a very dry style, a bit too wordy because I am a bad stylist, but not spruced up with any serious commentary on politics or culture accompanying them. Truth may or may not be objective in these cases, maybe there is some metaphysical sense in which they are literally false, and sometimes maybe claims' truth depends on details of our inner world that are inherently private and subjective. All that at most inclines you to say "Huh, neat". That's if you care at all.

But I could have accompanied all the above with a bit more serious intonation about how we mustn't impose upon others, and did you know colonialists tended to insist upon themselves and their preferred conventions even more than the Godfather, and actually it's rather lovely indeed that there are many other cultural conventions to be adopted, and... cetera cetera.... Then it would have felt like a scolding lecture. Coming from me it would have (for many in the audience) activated white guilt and attendant psychodrama. It would, in short, have riled people up. And for reasons totally unconnected with the basic arguments about truth and objectivity which are ostensibly the centre of the debate. The flavour text around the main claim would dominate people's emotional reactions. Thus is culture war debate on truth.

People care about how they interact with others, they care about how their history is understood and appreciated. There are particular claims about conventions we should or should not adopt around race or gender that they find very controversial indeed. And I think by sheer coincidence (ultimately related to the prestige economy of academia rewarding high-level discussion of abstract concepts combined with the habit of humanities scholars to want to pose as radical) we often get discussions about such cultural hot topics appearing next to discussions of the nature of truth and objectivity. And by Lockean association of ideas people come to pair the vexation they feel at the former with the nuances of the latter. 

But politics is about how we live together, who is to command and who is to obey and when these roles should be reversed or abandoned, what our shared resources should be spent upon and when they should be saved, what burdens are to be borne and by whom. Theory of truth and ideals of objectivity are not irrelevant to all this, but their role remains fairly indirect. Keep your eyes on the prize.


  1. There's a debate about whether it is true that Trump is a fascist or if that is merely a simile. It matters whether it is true since it simplifies how we should respond. It's truth that is at issue because many participants don't disagree about any of the relevant facts, they disagree about whether one is justified based on those facts in claiming something is true.
    On the one hand, many liberals believe that truth is less important in a democracy than what one can reasonable believe; on the other, people do care about more than whether "their history is understood and appreciated." They care when truths they believe in are disbelieved.

    1. Well I think that's a debate wherein we care whether A ) Trump is a fascist, B ) whether people perceive Trump to be a fascist, C ) what actions will be taken in light of A or B or ... etc. Those things really do matter for US (hence global) politics! But I really really doubt that it will turn out that these debates turn on what truth or logic is, etc. I think people don't agree on whether we should infer that Trump is a fascist from his statements of 7th Jan or etc because they are not sure what sort of things one has to do to count as a fascist, not because they disagree about when one claim entails another.


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