Monday, May 16, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Objectivity

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.


B. Weave writes, 

PB! I’ve been a stumped Bro for a long time about this one: What’s the deal with truth? Is it a universal thing, or can one Bro’s truth be another Bro’s fallacy?

Oh, man. What is truth, amirite? 

Let's start at a pretty fundamental spot in the universal truth discussion: metaphysics. Does everyone objectively share the same reality? Are we, as philosophers, trying to figure out how the world really is, or are we just trying to get to how we see it?  "There is no universal truth" is a claim that is supposed to be universally true, so it looks self-defeating; still, defenders of objective truth want something stronger than that, and there are much more nuanced ways of setting up the problem.

Maybe the most prevalent anti-universality position is social constructivism, which, as you'd guess, holds that 'truth' is a social construct. (Look, we don't name shit very creatively. Just get used to it.) We have social concepts of what words mean and what ideas represent; those dictate what is 'true' or 'not true' in our society. Eating spinach is healthy? Depends entirely on what we consider 'healthy'. Even simple, straightforward shit like 'stop signs are red' - what if we had a way more specific concept of red? Maybe to a culture that emphasized color differentiation at a young age, our stop signs are all sorts of different colors, because they can tell the difference and we can't; we just learn to call a whole range of colors 'red' in our society. Why are we imposing ‘red’ on them?? Post-structuralists made this point about a whole bunch of really important concepts - 'good', 'just', 'reasonable', even 'logical' - is logic something somehow built into the fabric of the universe, or is it something we invented to make our discussions more orderly?

Needless to say, not everyone is amused by constructivist shenanigans. You can find criticisms of those ideas everywhere, but one of the most straightforward and simple explanations I've yet seen is by Peter van Inwagen. It runs something like this:

"Look, that mountain is 5000 feet high. That's just how it is. And you say, 'Hey, fuck you, our culture calls that a shmountain, and it's 4900 shmeters high.' Ugh. Whatever, bro. All I'm saying is, we have a piece of metal that we call a meter, and if you stacked them from this point here, where what we call a mountain starts, to up there, where this mountain ends, there would be a number of them that we call five thousand. Change the names around all you want, but no matter what you call them, objectively, this is how many rods that are that long that it takes to go from here to there." 

The point is, maybe we construct ways of interacting with the world, but it seems like there must be an underlying way the world is for us to interact with or construct that exists independent of the mind. It doesn't matter if you don't believe in mountains; if that mountain is 5000 meters high for me, it's that high for everybody.

Pragmatists, most vocally W. V. O. Quine, have said that we should stop fighting over the way the world really is on different grounds: it's not that important. How would you convince someone who didn't believe in mountains, of all things, that mountains (or something we call mountains) exist? Except that there aren't many of those people, and they have intellectual starting-points so far away from our own that it doesn't matter. Maybe that bro is objectively wrong. But he's so wrong there's no way to convince him otherwise. Quine thinks it's irresponsible to hold beliefs that we won't let go of no matter what we learn; since we can't get to the heart of the matter, it's more important to have beliefs that fit with what we know, that make sense in light of our reality.

That's great and all, except for some reason, people are just so goddamn hell-bent on believing things. A girl at a party once told me that she believed that Christianity and Islam are the same religion, and are both ways of accessing the same truth, and I just about had a fucking conniption. One of them says that Christ is the Son of God, and one of them says Christ isn't. Maybe they're both wrong, but they definitely can't both be right. But what could I say to her to convince her otherwise? Point out the logically contradictory claims the religions make? Tried that. She just said "Yeah, those are just different ways of understanding Christ's relationship to God." Is one of us wrong? Obviously, I think she is. But I don't know how to prove it to her. And I'm not really ‘proving’ it to you - I'm relying on the fact that you agree with me on some key points, like non-contradiction and maybe a general disdain for sophism. I'm just sort of gesturing at the shit I think is dumb and saying, "How dumb is this? Eh? Eeeh?"

So believing in some sort of universal truth, some objective reality, doesn't get you past the problem of knowing. If someone you disagree with tells you, "Whatever, man, maybe your truth isn't my truth," and he's objectively wrong, you're still stuck in the position of how to show that. If you show him, "Seriously, it's fucking ridiculous to believe that," and he still disagrees, you're pretty much stuck.

If you and I disagree about that girl at that party, I could make arguments for her being wrong, but they would be based on ways to argue that I think are good ways to argue. Most people who professionally argue agree that these are in fact the good ways to argue, that these do help us get to the way the world really is, just like scientists agree that the scientific method is a good way to discover things about the world. And we've made progress in science and philosophy, which helps our case. It's just unfortunate that, even though we generally agree on good ways to discover the truth, at a certain point we have to say, "Yeah, these'll have to do." and go to work.

I'm not saying that we should throw our hands up in despair and stop seeking truth - though, if I were saying that, I wouldn't be the first. There's a certain intellectual honesty to admitting that you could possibly be wrong about the way the world is, rather than relying on everyone being right to make you right. At a certain point, maybe we do have to agree to disagree. But I'd rather that happen after we've dug to the foundations of each other's beliefs, when we’ve agreed to bite the important bullets of our respective theories, than right at the beginning as an easy out. As Wittgenstein said, "Explanations come to an end somewhere." Maybe that end is just that someone is objectively wrong about an assumption, and we have to agree to disagree over who that is.


You can find van Inwagen's argument about objective truth, as well as a bunch of really good introductions to important metaphysical concepts, in his Metaphysics, which is a textbook, but is totally readable outside of any class.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's On Certainty touches on some of the epistemological issues of objective reality; you can find my summary here.

Richard Rorty does take himself to be one of the voices calling for us to stop treating philosophy as a hunt for truth in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

W.V.O Quine discusses how even aspects of science are constructed socially, and argues that we should not worry about what metaphysics is true, in his incredibly important and widely celebrated Two Dogmas of Empiricism.


  1. Bro. Truth is subjectivity.

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  3. Sadly I was reminded that all anyone is ever really saying is "Eh? Eeeh?"

  4. Bahave yourself, bro! Cf. :))

  5. So I can say something is logical and you can say something is fishical, but I still feel like there are some universal truths like math. Because shit just universally works in math.

  6. Totally tripped me out bro. You just articulated what I've been pondering over for quite a while.


  7. Truth ( with the capital 'T') is an interesting concept. "The sun has appeared to most human beings to come up every morning for thousands of years." is to, the best of my knowledge, a "TRUE" statement. But notice the qualifications? That is about best we can do with "Truth". It functions well to guide us through the day ,so to speak, and that is about the best we can do. If the sun does not come up tomorrow, adjust.

  8. "It doesn't matter if you don't believe in mountains; if that mountain is 5000 meters high for me, it's that high for everybody." is a statement that is only "True" with qualifications such as 'everybody I ever encountered'. It is possible that it simply does not 'truly' exist or to some other being may be a simple 'mole hill'.

  9. James, what if I was convinced that 1 + 1 = 3? Can you prove me wrong if I think differently on this one basic axiom?