Friday, August 31, 2007

Thinking about Truth

We are often told that the crucial divide in today's world is between the Western scientific ethos and the Western and Eastern religious ethos, particularly fundamentalism. Yet I see, at the core, a more important division: between those who assert there is truth and those who claim there is no such thing.

In modern philosophy, it's the distinction between analytical and foundational thought.

You know foundational philosophy. It begins -- and, thought Nietzsche, ends -- with the Greeks, through rafter of Germans from the Black Forest to Koenigsburg and loses its way in the marshes of Denmark and the cafés of Paris' Left Bank.

Aristotle and the other "foundationals" viewed philosophy as the mother of all sciences, forever exploring the fundamental reasons and principles of everything. On the fundamental questions, science settled on precepts or theories and moved on, yielding Newton's slaying of Euclid and Einstein's slaying Newton and so on. Philosophy soldiered on with those questions that would have paralyzed the scientists.

We can meander from Aristotle to Aquinas to Erasmus to Descartes, Kant and Hegel to Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre and we'll see -- at least until Kierkegaard and Sartre -- a common concern with capital-T truth. It may well be a truth that is difficult -- or impossible? -- to know, but it's there, the elephant in the room.

That worked in societies in which there was a common worldview. Indeed, in the middle ages, the Catholic clerics of the European West attempted to claim philosophy's spot for theology -- unsuccessfully.

But what happened when, in the 20th century, the two powers that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in 1836 would rule the world last century -- the USA and the Russia -- proposed an ethos that involved renouncing the affirmation of a particular Truth as part of the common social knowledge?

In the West, the sole remaining torchbearer for the moment, philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and Alfred North Whitehead developed a new philosophy that drew on positivism and empiricism, that turned philosophy into an inquiry of the methods of analysis and the clarification of thought, truth be damned.

The damning was not so much an ideological battle, as it was a quiet conclusion that philosophical truths simply don't exist, and that we might as well settle for checking that our thinking makes sense, is cogent and can withstand critical evaluation. This is the portal at which I find myself at the present, a good century behind developments.

I sense that the philosophy of the future will be analytical rather than foundational, assuming that neither a natural cataclysm, nor a fundamentalist dark age, impedes what seems as the foreseeable evolution of science, technology and human endeavor. It's implicit in recursive thinking and in fields such as quantum physics.

Yet I remain stubbornly a foundationalist -- and an absolutist at that. I think there is a universally valid truth, of which some truths are levels or expressions. Such truth is difficult and may be even impossible to know; certainly, I don't happen to know at this moment what it is.

At this point, greater minds than mine are weighing whether a generalized theory of everything is possible. I would propose that merely the fact that we can conceive of it means that it is.


Julie Pippert said...

Hmm well science, philosophy and religion claim that there is a generalized theory of everything, although they use different terms for it, I suppose. Maybe questioning it means it exists? How does this logic apply to other elements?

Ravin' Picture Maven

Cecilieaux Bois de Murier said...

You're right, Julie, that (many) religions offer cosmologies and whole worldviews; in particular the Abrahamic ones lay claim to a dogmatic truth above and beyond all others. The same can be said of a number of philosophic systems. But each of these has met with enough criticism that sustained assent to religion and a particular philosophical system usually requires a leap of faith of some sort.

As regards science, my understanding is that since about 1915 (Einstein & co) we have been at the most precarious state of general knowledge about everything. Einstein overthrew the last scientific system that conceived itself to have major answers and nothing has come to explain discordant information that new theories have teased out. In physics, the search is on for a generalized theory.

I would argue that, yes, even thinking of the possibility means it might be likely.

Don't understand your last question. (After this I will really, really get back to work, so don't expect a quick reply.)

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