Sunday, September 10, 2006

There is More to Truth than Objectivity

My recent post on Plan B and the problems with defining conception as fertilization of an egg invited lots of comments and some very insightful. However, thinking about this recent exchange, I find myself frustrated with how arguments about choosing to take Plan B or terminating a pregnancy can turn into abstract, metaphysical arguments that are so far from the earthly beings we are as to seem wholly irrelevant. What is perhaps, even more interesting, is how most moral debates these days tend to assume only two possible perspectives on moral matters: objective truth or wholly subjective truth. Such a construal of truth is not only wrong, but it genuinely hampers any progress on many of the profound moral and scientific questions of our day.

Many non-philosophers tend to see truth as either wholly objective and irrefutable, exemplified either by Physics or for some zealous theologians, Neo-platonism. In the first paradigm, what is true is what can be demonstrated with mathematical proofs. In ths second paradigm of objectivity, what is true is what follows from a belief in a omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good God. The theological arguments that claim objectivity: life begins X, are incapable of appealing to any evidence to support them. They are axioms of faith, and hence the likelihood of persuading such a thinker against them is virtually nonexistent. The Physics paradigm of truth is only applicable to a small subset of phenomena in the world, not including human behavior or ethical questions.

So, those who cling doggedly to "objective truth" either try to avoid wading into ethical questions, or they do so with a blind faith that their first principles about life and death matters are correct and indubitable. If no objective code exists, guaranteed by an omnipotent, omniscient, or wholly good God, then everything is in a state of hopeless subjectivity, wherein people are left to decide for themselves what is good or bad.

The fact is that this construal of truth--either wholly objective or hopeless subjective--is a false dichotomy. If philosophers could do a better job explaining this to the world, we might make some headway on difficult questions. Some truths are true relative to a frame of reference. In order to determine the right answer, you must first clarify the context in which you are making such a judgment. A classic example to illustrate this point is time. The claim that it is 4:20 pm right now is true only by virtue to a particular frame of reference (SteveG gives fabulous lectures on this and I encourage all of you to go bug him and ask for such a lecture).

Another example, which I just discussed with my students in Philosophy of Psychiatry, is the concept of Mental Illness. A famous anti-psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz has long argued that the notion of mental illness is wholly invented by those who want to control the population. Mental illness is a description, according to Szasz, of socially deviant behaviors. He makes this argument by falling into the same trap I just outlined above: assuming truth is either wholly objective or hopelessly subjective. If it is the latter, then we are in danger because now we are in the territory of "might makes right," and so those who wield psychiatric power are able to lock up people, who are different, against their will in order to bring about better conformity.

But, what if mental illness was in fact a concept that referred to something real (which means scientifically meaningful), but could not be defined in the sort of absolute truth conditions of Physics of Theology? What if mental illness is a concept that picks out illness--harmful dysfunction--but that concept is both an empirical and value-laden notion? Are we doomed to hopeless subjectivity like Ssasz believes? Isn't it possible to articulate a frame of reference to which we compare those who are mentally ill, from those who are not, and not assume that frame of reference is TRUE in some profound metaphysical sense?

After all, disease is never a wholly empirical concept. We are always making a judgment that it would be better for someone suffering to not suffer; that is why we have medicine as a profession and medical research. If we didn't think it was important to alleviate suffering, we would let evolution or God have its way, right? But, humans intervene in the world. They make judgments that some things are not good, but they cannot base these judgments on Mathematical or Ontological proofs. What if our frame of reference in some cases is stipulation--judgments in reference to some norm that we articulate and create our worlds and relationships in accordance with. Those norms, such as suffering is that which we would like to have relieved, are not discovered in the world in the same way that the chemical structure of water is. Nor do we necessarily divine these norms from God, faith or the good book.

To assume that the concept mental illness is hopelessly subjective is to cling to a naive view of truth and knowledge. We philosophers have not been doing a good job clarifying that we can have knowledge about the world that doesn't correspond to the narrow dichotomy of objective/subjective truth. If our concepts make practical and helpful contributions to our ability to predict things about the world or to our well being, then they are true. This is not a claim to unshakeable Truth; but rather knowledge that is consistent with certain shared background assumptions or a frame of reference that is necessary to make sense of phenomena.