Friday, 5 November 2010

In defence of truth (again....)

An interesting discussion with someone else - an academic this time - who can’t see how I reconcile believing in the possibility of absolute truth with working with multiple subjectivities or narratives.
I genuinely can’t see the problem, but we’ll come back to that.
It seems one of her concerns, inter alia, is that a belief in absolute truth has led, historically, to terrible persecution, oppression, totalitarianism, fascism and so on - none of which I would deny.
Oddly my adherence to the possibility of talking about truth in part springs from the same concern.  I believe it is important that we can say both that the Holocaust really happened (a claim to truth about the past) and that the Holocaust was a bad thing (a claim to truth about a value judgement).
And the fact that a belief in absolute truth has led to terrible things does not demonstrate that it is false or bad, merely that it is dangerous or powerful.  Just as the fact that religious belief has led to all sorts of attrocities does not prove it to be false, any more than the fact that in others religious belief leads to behaviours we may regard as good proves it to be true.  It was probably Augustine or someone like that who first postulated that Abusus non tollit usum (the abuse of something does not render its correct use impossible).
In fact, I would posit that it is the best things which become the worst when abused.  Thus the abuse of human love is one of the most terrible things (and my interlocutor made a pretty absolute claim about rape being always wrong), but that does not mean that human love is a bad thing.
My two principle concerns about the absolutely relativist approach are:
One is the inherent illogicality of the claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth - which is itself a claim to know absolute truth.
The other is the risk that if all value-judgements are seen a subjective social constructs, then one can easily opt out of them.  I may say the Holocaust was a bad thing, but someone else may say that from their perspective it was not, it’s only a late 20th century social construct to interpret it in that way.
I think people sometimes confuse my insistence on the possibility of absolute truth with the idea that I think I know what it is;  or conversely, that my recognition of multiple subjectivities means that I cannot possibly believe in objective truth.
My view is that, as we all know, the map is not the territory: our understanding of reality is not reality itself.  However, to map a territory is to recognise that the territory exists, and a map that says ‘here is America’ is more truthful than one that says ‘here be dragons’ - although it is clearly still a map, not the reality it represents.  Further, multiple maps may be useful for different people or different purposes - none of which are the reality, but all of which tell us something about it.  But to say that there is no such reality, and that we are making the maps up simply as consensual constructs with no basis in what is truly ‘out there’ seems to me a nonsense.

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