From certainty to dialogue: furthering the project of modernity

One of the accusations thrown at postmodern theorists and activists, such as the purveyors of identity politics is that they are advocates of relativism and deniers of facts. I am going to argue that this is actually their greatest virtue. They go downhill from there on in, as they seek to impose their own brand of conformism on the majority, but in dismantling the ‘grand narratives’ of the past few centuries, they have performed an important service to the future. Only, I would go further and turn this into a permanent state of knowledge at the edge of chaos in order that the presently halting project of modernity may continue.

The virtue of relativism is precisely the undermining of certainty, that vice of the fearful and vengeful, to which so many throughout history until today have been sacrificed, a vice to which postmodernist theorists and activists after their initial foray into emancipatory rhetoric have themselves succumbed. How to avoid the trap of, in the words of the philosopher William Warren Bartley III, this “retreat to commitment”? I propose a first step of the dissolution of ‘facts’ as badges of prestige and authority to which everyone wishes to lay claim. Through a number of further steps the final goal is the reconstitution of a range of broad but shifting and tentative agreements on a normative account of the world.

This first stage can be referred to as epistemic levelling and this is likely to be the most contested, but as I will argue, the most necessary step to get beyond the current ideological impasse. This is the proposition that there be no ‘facts’ upon which we can build a rock-solid case for whatever position we wish to hold on any particular issue, but rather sets of beliefs about the disposition of the world. The concept of a fact is like a fossil in the strata of knowledge, the immutable remains of a once-living idea. If the history of thought has taught us anything it is that yesterday’s firm and accepted truths are now viewed with incredulity. We can and should flip that around; how likely is it that what is considered either orthodoxy or ‘edgy’ today will be reviewed with anything other than stupefaction in the future? Except perhaps by historians and philosophers.

The relativity of truths is something that we have come to accept in even such a hard-edged area of science. The mechanistic worldview constructed throughout the period of modernity from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, with the contributions of such geniuses as Galileo and Newton, and which fostered the belief in the nineteenth century that almost all that could be known was already known, began to collapse in the twentieth century, first with Einstein’s theories of relativity and then with quantum mechanics. The primacy of historical relativism in the sciences was consolidated in Kuhn’s concept of the scientific paradigm, but even in Popper’s conception of scientific method, the bold conjecture on what the flow of information reveals about reality is only tentative as it awaits its inevitable falsification. The generally accepted view of the nature of science today, Lakatos’ concept of ‘research programmes’ essentially combines elements of both Kuhn and Popper.

We can generalise what we have learned from science to say that one’s perspective on the world, whether that be physical reality, political partisanship, views on morality, and so on, is a theoretical ordering of the information that is available in any context, which is essentially saying that we all operate on belief systems sustained by the information available to us, or at least the information we are willing to entertain. This view is largely supported by a recent development in the cognitive sciences, known as ‘active inference’, which asserts that humans – as well as all other sentient beings – are continually modelling their environment and their place in it and algorithmically correcting model error through informational signals coming through their sensory organs as they act (although given what I have argued above, you are not obliged to take this as evidence, only perspective). There is a twist to this, though, to which I will return later.

There is a possible objection to the proposition of epistemic levelling and the dissolution of facts that I can think of. That is what can be called second order perspective. If I state that ‘X believes Y’ it can be argued, irrespective of the facticity or otherwise of Y, that “It is a fact that ‘X believes Y’”. If statements of the sort ‘X believes Y’ are classed as Z statements, then it can be argued that there are classes of statements, of which Z statements are an example, which are facts. Such logical formalism finds its apotheosis in mathematics and, to take the most elemental mathematical statement ‘1 + 1 = 2’ as an example, such statements are clearly facts. Or are they?

There are several potential refutations of this stance, all interrelated and related to the idea of decontextualization. One is that such formalisms tend to yield either tautologies or paradoxes. Such self-evident statements are formally true but yield no interesting information about the real world that we could categorise as insightful or practically useful. Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem demonstrated that no mathematical system can be proven within its own parameters. Ultimately, all mathematics rests on a genre of belief, known as axioms. In our own experience, once contextualised to the world of experience, even 1 + 1 does not always equal two, for example in system formation or in the fusion of two things onto one.

The proposition of epistemic levelling is that all perspectives are at ground individual and that all perspectives are rooted in the sets of beliefs that an individual has about the world they inhabit and that at this level of intentionality there is an implicit equal validity: no hierarchy of opinions, no preferential beliefs, no orthodoxy, only the way that each individual sees the world. This is an important precursor to the rest of the argument, and its implications essentially shape the argument.

The next step of reasoning should be as follows: assuming we are not in a Cartesian dream or in the Matrix, but we live in a real world which we share with others, if each person’s set of beliefs is individual and unique, then one of three moral stances is true; either my perspective on the world is uniquely right and everyone else’s is wrong, or someone else’s is right, or we all are right about some things and wrong about others. Intrinsically, there is no a priori way to know which of these three options is correct, but only a posteriori testing of one’s beliefs through gathering information as we act in the world. Acting in such a manner, though, implies that the third option is the most likely and reasonable, for in doing so we accept the first option as implausible. The second is realistically untestable. This being so, it suggests that we should have at least a grudging respect for others’ views of the world, tolerance of views different than our own, and an openness to dialogue with others, for this is one of the mechanisms by which we discover confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence.

The social and political implication of this is that freedom of expression, including the expression of unpopular views but also the encouragement of dialogue should be fundamental principles in every social institution in society, as this allows for error correction and the growth of knowledge.

Merely dialoguing with others will not necessarily lead us to have the same ideas; it is probably better if it doesn’t. What it does do is generates greater respect for difference, exposes at the same time similarities of human experience, refines our own thinking and makes us more emotionally resilient. It also prepares us for the final stage of the process, which is the differentiation of beliefs through their consequences experienced as social agents. As this takes place at the individual level and as we are most likely to have a model that mixes beliefs that are more closely aligned with reality and those which are less so, the consequence for individuals is likely to be salutary but beneficial in the long run.

How can this very private experience of model testing and error correction be contextualised with the reality of our social belonging? After all, we typically inhabit different forms of life, such as families, neighbourhood associations, religious organisations, political parties, professional bodies, schools and colleges, trade guilds and unions, the various forces, voluntary organisations, musical bodies, clubs, and so on. The answer is not entirely clear but goes something like this. The tenor of life in a developed society is of multiple and voluntary belonging, in comparison with the past when opportunities for belonging were limited and anyway mostly compulsory. In the evolution of the project of modernity this is likely to be a trend that continues and accelerates, fractionating the established forms of society and even nations more. At the same time people will negotiate new forms of life, some long-term and some short-term, based on shared values. Societies will become ongoing experiments in living, with some better outcomes and some worse, but none being perfect. Relatively good outcomes can be expected to be more widely adopted, with the emergence of normative agreements, but through the natural osmosis of observation and dialogue, not through coercion.

Dream on; such an evolution of modernity cannot come to pass unless the dragon of certainty is slain first. I mentioned a twist in the process of active inference: normally, one updates through error correction the model of the world based on the information incoming; however, it is also possible to act in the world in such a way that the incoming information is only that which reinforces prior views. This relates to the first of the three moral stances mentioned previously – the position that one’s own perspective is the only correct one. Unlikely as that is, it is a position that some people hold due to such factors as immaturity, bad experiences (such as abuse or persecution) or mental illness and often a combination of those.

There are a number of ways in which people in this position can deal with the cognitive dissonance that must inevitably arise. One is to isolate themselves completely (the hermetic solution); one is to curate the information to which they are exposed, something that is now possible with the internet and social media (the ‘filter bubble’ solution); the third and most dangerous to a culture such as that in the West, which has thrived on freedom of expression, is to band together with those that share a subset of one’s view of the world and collectively pressure changes in society that essentially outlaw any other views (the collectivist solution). That manifests as the ideological suppression of dissent

All three phenomena are expressing themselves in developed nations today. But whereas the first two do more damage to the individual concerned (although can be a problem for society in the long run), it is collectivism that is damaging society most visibly and immediately. Whereas the prior political settlement of left/liberal and right/conservative was not perfect, both positions had claims to legitimacy and were broad in philosophical scope, encompassing many on both sides who could comfortably have been on the other. The left led the way (as it often has done, embracing more creative and disruptive types) in adopting identity politics, essentially the interests of marginal minorities – ethnic, religious, sexual and lifestyle – that do not naturally represent the interests of the majority and, through a process that does not need to be reiterated here, have made this the priority of almost every public social institution and have effectively banned discussion of whether this should be so.

Clearly, the phenomenon is far more complex than this. Moreover, postmodern identity politics does raise legitimate questions about the place and inclusion of marginal minorities that need to be debated. Collectivist coercion of the majority, however, does not allow debate. Such a model of reality can only accumulate errors as time goes on as corrective information is banned, denied and deflected. Three dangers now present themselves. Postmodern identity politics can only thrive in a society that is open, tolerant and prosperous, but itself not only does not contribute to these conditions but aggressively denigrates the culture which does and that has allowed it to appear and propagate, effectively becoming a form of parasitism, weakening and perhaps even terminally threatening the society that it inhabits. Then, while the collectivist front must inevitably disintegrate, as it is starting to do now that it is reaching almost total hegemony, the question is how much damage will be irreparably done to society in the process. The third danger is that of reaction, a backlash against minorities that will undo all the progress that has been achieved through democratic reform.

A curious admixture of ignorance and certainty has become the default position of too many in society today. The charge of ignorance is justified, one that we are all prey to; what needs to be punctured is the mantle of certainty. I have suggested that this is achieved through an understand that we are all operating with sets of beliefs, mostly wrong, but some helpful, many innocuous and some downright dangerous, and that the best method of error correction is to engage in vigorous debate with others, particularly on points on which there is disagreement. It is good to see that some governments and institutions are waking up to the threat that muzzling free speech poses and are taking corrective measures. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for overcoming the impasse to restoring the project of modernity. There should also be encouragement for the practice of the free dialogue of ideas within our institutions as widely as possible.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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