The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the eleventh contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. David Detmer.
Giraffes Are Taller Than Ants, and Other Observations
Giraffes are taller than ants. I claim to know this. Moreover, I maintain that “giraffes are taller than ants” is an objective truth. It accurately reports on one aspect of what the world, quite apart from human subjectivity, is really like, so that anyone who denies it–anyone who thinks that ants are as tall as, or taller than, giraffes–is simply mistaken, wrong, incorrect.
But some philosophers, and quite a few other scholars in the humanities and social sciences, claim that we can’t know anything about what the world is really like. According to these thinkers, the problem is that we are all hopelessly finite and thoroughly conditioned beings who can’t help but perceive the world through the distorted lens of our own subjectivity, and can’t help but think about it only by means of the limited conceptual framework available to us. As a result, according to this view, we can never be justifiably confident that we are seeing an object as it really is, and understanding it accordingly; rather, for all we know, it could be that many important aspects of the object must remain utterly inaccessible to us, due to our perceptual and cognitive limitations, while other aspects are available to us only in a highly impure way, having been twisted and deformed by the biases and prejudices that we impose on the object from the outset. While some of these biases and prejudices may vary from person to person, depending on each individual’s unique genetic makeup and/or particular life experiences, others may be shared with other people who have undergone the same or similar conditioning. Thus, on this view, when people tend to agree about some matter, it may well be that this is not because they have accurately grasped the external object in its full independent objectivity, but rather because those who share this agreement have been subjected to the same or similar conditioning, whether social, political, economic, or educational, or based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, income, or some other set of contingencies. In short, according to this way of thinking, we are trapped within a kind of subjective predicament. We cannot see reality as it is, but rather only as it looks to us, where that, in turn, has been shaped and molded by forces outside of our control.
What can be done about this? Some have suggested that we give up on the project of trying to figure out what things are really like, and what the “objective” truth is. Instead, we might be content merely to strive for consensus within our group or culture (however that might be understood), and to call “true” whatever our group agrees is true. This is the ethnocentric approach, in which truth is defined in terms of consensus. Or, we might limit our inquiry to the question of which beliefs help us to cope with life successfully, and to call “true” whatever beliefs turn out to be helpful. This is the pragmatic approach, in which truth is defined in terms of utility.
What are we to make of these proposals? Some of the premises underlying them seem plausible enough. It would appear to be true that we can’t somehow jump outside of our subjective skins in order bump up against reality-as-it-is-in-itself. And it is a truism that people from different walks of life tend to view the world differently from one another.
But it is also clear that this line of thought, if stretched too far, starts to undermine itself. If we don’t know what reality is like, how things stand, what the objective truth is, then we can’t possibly know that we don’t know what reality is like, how things stand, what the objective truth is. If one insists that all beliefs are merely subjective opinions that reflect the social conditioning of the believer, then this belief itself must be seen as merely a subjective opinion that reflects the social conditioning of the person who believes it. It is inconsistent to claim as an objective truth that there is no objective truth, or to claim to know that the true nature of things is such that we can never know the true nature of things.
This criticism is an ancient one, and is usually stated in the abstract. But let’s look at it concretely in connection with the proposal, mentioned above, that we should abandon the quest for objective truth, which is said to be unavailable to us in principle, and instead seek only what is allegedly more accessible to us–consensus or utility.
On the ethnocentric approach, to determine whether or not it is true that giraffes are taller than ants we would have to find out whether or not people in our culture think that giraffes are taller than ants. So we would need to investigate, not giraffes and ants, but rather people’s beliefs about them.
But now notice this. Suppose we determine that there is indeed a consensus opinion on this issue in our culture: everyone agrees that giraffes are taller than ants. What is the status of this discovery? Have we uncovered an objective fact about some aspect of the world–namely, that it is really true that everyone in our culture thinks that giraffes are taller than ants (so that anyone who thought otherwise would be mistaken)? If so, we have now abandoned the premise that set us on this path in the first place–that objective truths of this sort are not available to us. To retain that premise, and to proceed in a manner consistent with our new ethnocentric approach, we would have to construe our new truth claim (that everyone in our culture agrees that giraffes are taller than ants) as itself established (as all truth claims are) by consensus. Thus, not only does “giraffes are taller than ants” mean ” everyone in our culture agrees that giraffes are taller than ants,” but this, in turn, must also be taken to mean that “everyone in our culture agrees that everyone in our culture agrees that giraffes are taller than ants.” And this would then have to mean that everyone agrees that everyone agrees that everyone agrees…and we’re off on an infinite regress.
Another possibility would be to give up the claim that all objective truths are inaccessible to us, so that, while we can’t know whether or not giraffes are really (objectively) taller than ants, we can know what people really (objectively) think about this. But that claim is implausible. It is often difficult to know what people think. We can’t read minds, and thus have to draw inferences about people’s beliefs based on what they say and do. Moreover, if the culture is large enough it may be impossible to survey or otherwise study everyone in it, so that any conclusions about what everyone thinks would have to be based on generalizing from a sample. It is difficult to see on what basis anyone might think that knowledge claims based on such inferences and generalizations, which take as their subject matter something not directly accessible to us (other people’s thoughts), would somehow be more secure, more certain, less fallible, better candidates for the status of knowledge, than would be knowledge claims about the relative size of giraffes and ants based simply on looking at them. To put the point another way, if our subjective predicament closes us off from achieving knowledge about giraffes and ants, then so does it close us off from achieving knowledge about what people think. No practical problem facing someone trying to determine the relative heights of giraffes and ants is solved by shifting from the project of investigating giraffes and ants directly to that of investigating what people think about them.
And exactly the same set of problems confronts the pragmatic alternative. On this view, “giraffes are taller than ants” means, “it is useful to believe that giraffes are taller than ants.” If this is taken as an objective truth, we contradict the premise driving the shift to a pragmatic approach. But if we maintain the pragmatic approach consistently we get an infinite regress: “Giraffes are taller than ants” means “it is useful to believe that giraffes are taller than ants,” which, in turn, means “it is useful to believe that it is useful to believe that giraffes are taller than ants,” and so on. And, from a practical point of view, what problem would be solved by this shift? It is often difficult to determine what will be the practical advantages and disadvantages of holding certain beliefs. More to the point, it would appear to be much more difficult than it would be to determine whether giraffes are taller than ants.
Some might object that arguments of this sort only work in connection with straightforwardly empirical and quantitative issues, such as determining whether or not giraffes are taller than ants. But perhaps they help to establish some subtler, philosophical, non-empirical issues as well, such as whether there is any practical advantage in abandoning the quest for objective truth in favor of an ethnocentric or pragmatic alternative.
Dr. David Detmer is a professor of philosophy at Purdue University Northwest. His upcoming book, Zinnophobia: The Battle Over History in Education, Politics, and Scholarship, will be published later this year or early next year by Zero Books. It is a defense of the work of radical historian Howard Zinn against his many critics. He is also the author of Freedom as a Value, Challenging Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Politics of Truth, Sartre Explained, and Phenomenology Explained.