Okay, so truth matters (but what is it?)

by Dave Maier

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks we heard a great deal about the end of moral relativism, the point being that from now on we would all agree that some things are Just Wrong (and since to say so is Just True to boot, this means the end of irony, skepticism, and so forth as well). At the time conservatives were the ones to expound this point most enthusiastically, claiming that the events themselves refuted trendy liberal doctrines of multiculturalism and pluralistic tolerance of difference. Instead, they said, we must simply acknowledge what we all know to be true, such as [… well, actually, for some reason it remains unclear what should go in here, and this is our subject today].

Of course it was not only the political right who was pouring scorn on facile cultural relativism back then. Alan Sokal, of Sokal Hoax fame, had made much the same argument several years earlier. His target too was the political left, but as he reminded us repeatedly, he was himself a proud leftist, having taught mathematics for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. What provoked his stunt, he told us, was that he was upset that what he had taken to be the left's characteristic commitment to, as they like to say, speaking truth to power, was dissolving into a puddle of wishy-washy jargon-ridden postmodern relatvism which scorned the very ideas of truth and rationality as imperialist dogma.

Benson This was all confusing enough as it was. A new wrinkle was added a few years later, when the events leading up to and during the 2003 Iraq war suggested to some that the right wing had its own problem with postmodernism in the ranks, or something at least very similar in its cavalier attitude toward truth and reality. Progressives pounced; and much real and virtual ink was spilled anointing the left as “the reality-based community,” as opposed to the “right-wing postmodernism” in the White House, as well as to creationism, climate change denial, religion itself, and whatever else seemed to fit the bill. Philosophers have not missed this opportunity to prove their relevance to contemporary debate by writing books with the word “truth” (or “true” or “knowledge”) in their titles, and in today's column I will discuss a few of the problems we run into when trying to make sense of these things, especially (paradoxically) when the target is such seemingly low-hanging fruit as postmodern gibberish.

In general I find myself ambivalent about these efforts. I do agree that (for example) most versions of creationism, such as “flood geology,” are so very insane as to justify our rejection of it as due to our own relatively firm basis in reality, and it is difficult to make sense of the idea that we need not be concerned about whether what we believe is in fact the case. However, that very difficulty infects as well our efforts to make sense of the apparently opposite view. The philosophical controversy about the nature of truth may lurk behind these political and cultural controversies, but they are not the same. While some misguided souls seem to be denying plain facts, it is not at all clear that they are denying the status, as “plain facts,” of those things they consider to be plain facts.

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And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

by Daniel Rourke

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What’s there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore… I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

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‘The Thing Itself’ : A Sci-Fi Archaeology

by Daniel Rourke

Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine’s ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time’s grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

The Things ThemselvesLike the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

“In the course of my work… I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice

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