Friday, July 26, 2013

Philosophical naivety

Attentive readers of this blog will know that I have been working on a book about Wikipedia for the past year. As part of the background research, I have been reading Lewis Hyde’s book Common as Air. The following passage deserves quoting in full:
The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion once addressed himself to the puzzle of how to psychoanalyze a liar and at one point in his argument he makes this striking claim: "The lie requires a thinker to think. The truth, or true thought, does not require a thinker—he is not logically necessary."
What can this mean? Bion compares the working psychoanalyst to a scientist, and in the case of science the point would seem to be that truths of the natural world are independent of the particular people who conceive of them. If Franklin and his friends were right that electrical charges always appear in equal and opposite amounts, the correctness of the insight would still exist had they never been born. Once the Leyden jar had been invented, someone else would have soon come upon this truth. Similarly, once Franklin declared his idea, anyone else could do the experiments in question and arrive at the same conclusion. Of "work that corroborates the discovery of others," Bion writes, "even if it requires a thinker it does not require a particular thinker and in this resembles truths—thoughts that require no thinker." Human minds in general are where such thoughts appear, but these thoughts do not depend on any one such mind.
The point gains clarity by way of its opposite: "The lie and its thinker are inseparable," Bion writes. "The thinker is of no consequence to the truth ... In contrast, the lie gains existence by virtue of the epistemologically prior existence of the liar." Lies require a liar, and as such they say something about the liar, they are thus better fitted than truths to the task of gratifying the self-regard or narcissism of the individual who makes them. Any work that simply replicates a truth known to others lacks narcissistic appeal. No "I" can get much from it. When it comes to truth, however, as the poet Rimbaud wrote, "it is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought"
Eighteenth-century thinkers might have framed ideas such as these not so much in terms of truth versus lies as of truth versus opinions. Opinion, in Franklin's day, acted as a sort at middle term between truth and error, denoting any belief that was not yet, or could never be, confirmed by sense experience, experiment, and reason. Like lies in Bion's view, opinions reside with particular peoples in particular places. Englishmen in London observe the first day of the week as their day of worship, Turks in Constantinople observe the sixth: there may be truth in one case and error in the other, but no experiment or line of logic will tell us which is which. True knowledge, on the other hand, does not suffer the contingency of opinion. Lightning is electricity no matter if it is described by Dalibard in Paris or by Franklin in Philadelphia. As Newton suggested in his "Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy", the cause of the tailing of stones should be the same "in Europe and in America"; the cause of "the reflection of light* should be die same "on our earth and the planets."
Opinions can never be detached from persons and places in that way. More to the point, because they require a thinker, as Bion says of lies, opinions are potentially divisive. Truth, needing no particular embodiment, can lead to concord; opinion, on the other hand, produces sects and tactions, and makes it difficult to move from any group of private selves to "the public good."
What is he on about? It is a wonderful example of “the confusions and absurdities of scientists and science journalists when they encroach ineptly upon philosophical territory”, as Vallicella neatly puts it (although Hyde is not a scientist, but a professor of creative writing). Taking the points in turn.

“… truths of the natural world are independent of the particular people who conceive of them”. Of course, but so are falsehoods. It is false that the earth is flat, and it is false that the moon is made of green cheese. These falsehoods are equally independent of the particular people who conceive of them. And yes, the correctness of the insight that electrical charges always appear in equal and opposite amounts would still exist had Franklin never been born. But equally, the claim that there is substance with negative weight that is released during combustion would be incorrrect, even if the inventor of the phlogiston theory (Johann Becher ) had never been born. If Hyde means that truth is mind-independent in some way that falsity is not, he is wrong. Both are mind-independent.

“.. once Franklin declared his idea, anyone else could do the experiments in question and arrive at the same conclusion”. Certainly, but the essential repeatability of scientific experiments is based on certain assumptions about causality, to which logical and epistemological issues are irrelevant. Certain true or false claims can be tested by experiment. Others cannot, e.g. claims about life after death, claims about parts of the universe which we could never possibly observe.

“Human minds in general are where such thoughts appear, but these thoughts do not depend on any one such mind”. False. Any thought depends on a thinker, and any thinker must have a mind. What Hyde probably means is that the truth of such thoughts is mind-independent. Sure, but as noted above, the falsity of such thoughts is mind-independent too.

“Lies require a liar, and as such they say something about the liar, they are thus better fitted than truths to the task of gratifying the self-regard or narcissism of the individual who makes them”.  To start with, this confuses lying with falsehood. A lie is an utterance known to be false, uttered with the intention to deceive. An actor is not a liar (not having the intention to deceive). One who utters a falsehood in good faith is not lying (because he or she does not realise it is a falsehood). And why shouldn’t truths be equally well-fitted to gratify self-regard? We often assert things we believe to be true in order to increase the esteem or regard in which others hold us. Why should truth be privileged over falsehood in this respect?

“… as the poet Rimbaud wrote, "it is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought" ” It is unclear how this observation about thinking relates to truth and falsehood. If I think that the earth is flat, can’t I equally say that ‘I am thought’?

“Eighteenth-century thinkers might have framed ideas such as these not so much in terms of truth versus lies as of truth versus opinions.” The definition of opinion that he attributes to Franklin is idiosyncratic, and does not seem true of other eighteenth-century thinkers (Hume? Reid? Adam Smith?)

“… opinions are potentially divisive” Why? Is he suggesting that the truth is somehow privileged, that, merely as truth, it has some inherent power denied to error? I discussed Mill’s view on that here. “A piece of idle sentimentality”, Mill says, “which all experience refutes”.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Alan Wheat said...

"I have never entered into any Controversy in defence of my philosophical Opinions; I leave them to take their Chance in the World. If they are right, Truth and Experience will support them. If wrong, they ought to be refuted and rejected. Disputes are apt to sour one’s Temper and disturb one’s Quiet." -- Benjamin Franklin

4:09 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

>> Any thought depends on a thinker, and any thinker must have a mind. What Hyde probably means is that the truth of such thoughts is mind-independent.

If any thought depends on a mind-possessing thinker then surely the truth of such a thought must also be mind-dependent? If no thought then no truth of thought.

I think your man is confusing a true thought with the way the world is that makes the thought(n), if thought(vb), true. But this seems to require truth-makers (or something pretty close) for its disentanglement.

10:57 am  

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