Academics and the Nature of Truth

March 4, 2013    By: Jeff G @ 9:10 pm   Category: Truth

Suppose we want to know what the rules of football are – what the nature of football is.  Who do we ask?  Where should we search for an answer?  Which person or source we choose to treat as authoritative is pretty important in cases like this since the Green Bay Packers fan will tell us something very different the Manchester United fan will.  And if we, in our attempt to be very thorough and even handed, go to both sources and (obviously) get two different and incompatible answers, how will we decide what the “true” rules or nature of football really are? 

Let us now suppose that we want to know what the rules of truth are – what the nature of truth is.  Who do we ask?  Where should we search for an answer?  More importantly, I suppose, is what do we actually do?  Who do we actually ask?  The philosopher.  The intellectual historian.  The philologist.  The linguist.  The dictionary.  In short, we consult the academic and the books he has written.  But why in the world would we ever assume that the scientists and philosophers see truth in the same way that the non-academic rest of the world sees it?  What makes us think that the academic’s search for truth is a game that is played by the same rules as we play by in our everyday lives?  Why should we allow academics to be the final authority on ought and ought not to believe?

The academic (if we’re still actually listening to him) would probably claim that there aren’t any alternatives – that he has the only real game in town.  This, however, is simply not true.  The academic sees truth as a set of facts – a collection of independent, but logically consistent pictures of the world which are binding regardless of context, values, traditions and/or authorities.  But this is not how the non-academic views or has viewed truth.  For them, context, values, traditions and/or authorities are and have always been part and parcel with truth.

So, since we have legitimate alternatives, why should we insist on consulting the academic or his books regarding the nature of truth? Why would we ever assume that his account is not self-serving, biased or otherwise skewed in some way, even if he himself does not recognize it?  What reason do we have to think that his account – his list of rules – must somehow be binding on us non-academics any more than the rules of American football are binding on Manchester United?  To be sure, we can let him have a word in our lives, but I see no reason why we must let him have the final word regardless of context, values, tradition and/or authorities.

40 Comments »

  1. Someone needs to write a blog post about “the blogger” and how “she” likes to create imaginary opponents to argue against in an intellectual exercise of anti-intellectualism. Not naming names here, of course.

    Comment by Quickmere Graham — March 4, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

  2. :)

    I like that.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 4, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

  3. First off, I don’t see how your opening example is relevant. It’s merely an elision of signifieds that share a signifier in different cultures. This is just semantic sleight of hand. Both fans in question are not going to argue over the true nature of “football” if confronted by the other’s version because they know they are discussing entirely different things. I won’t argue with you that “truth” can be hard to pin down and that people disagree over it, but how does that correspond to an analogy where people are confused by homonyms? Are you going to tell me that there is a legitimate philosophical debate over the nature of a “bank” merely because it has more than one definition?

    Obviously, people conceptualize truth differently, and clearly everybody has their agency as to what version of “truth” gets the final word in their lives — but your essentialist ideas on the nature of “the academic” or “the everyday” are probably a better metaphor for what you’re getting at than the one you’ve chosen.

    The academic sees truth as a set of facts – a collection of independent, but logically consistent pictures of the world which are binding regardless of context, values, traditions and/or authorities.

    Huh? You must not know many academics — or any in the humanities, for that matter. If you ask me, this idea sounds more like something pre-packaged for church magazines or lesson manuals, where the American / LDS notion of a culturally relative concept is elevated to something with absolute cosmic and eternal significance independent of a given place’s “context, values, traditions and/or authorities.”

    And I suppose your deliberate use of feminine pronouns for “the academic” is meant as some kind of clever commentary on gender equality / inclusiveness, but it just makes you come off as a jerk.

    Comment by Orwell — March 4, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

  4. Hmmmm, I wasn’t t trying to come off as a jerk at all, nor was I trying to make any kind of clever commentary of any kind. I just didn’t want to give the impression that men were the only people who had something to say in these matters. (If I’d been a girl, I might have used “he”.) There was no offense intended, and if anybody else was put off by the tone, I would be more than willing to change it.

    What my original example was supposed to suggest is that different types of people from different backgrounds will occasionally think that words mean different things. Accordingly, we should probably be suspicious of our tendency to consult only one kind of person about a particular word which that one kind of person uses in a way which is very different from how the rest of us use it.

    I suppose I could have said this explicitly in the post, but I was indirectly (although fairly obviously) suggesting that the solution to the “football” problem might be the very same solution for the “truth” problem. The purpose of my post, however, was not to solve this problem so much as raise it. I want religious people to realize that the source to which they look for answers automatically constrains the answer that they will receive, and not always for the better. I don’t think this is too daring of a suggestion.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 4, 2013 @ 10:58 pm

  5. Well, since you were charitable in your response to me, I’ll have to take you at word as far as the pronouns go. To be fair, too many others absolutely would have intended the offense I was so quick to see in that aspect of your post. But I’m in no position to cast stones. I come off as a jerk all the time, so naturally I see my own jerkiness in everyone. Such is the Internet…

    What my original example was supposed to suggest is that different types of people from different backgrounds will occasionally think that words mean different things. Accordingly, we should probably be suspicious of our tendency to consult only one kind of person about a particular word which that one kind of person uses in a way which is very different from how the rest of us use it.

    There’s nothing here I’d really take issue with at its core (but I never did have an issue with the question I believed you were raising, just the way you were doing it) — I suppose I’d just prefer you shifted the discussion from a linguistic to a conceptual level because, for example, the idea of “truth” is debated in all cultures and languages, despite the fact that there are so many different signifiers, or words, for such a nebulous signified.

    Comment by Orwell — March 4, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

  6. I suppose I’d just prefer you shifted the discussion from a linguistic to a conceptual level

    Maybe you wouldn’t mind unpacking this a bit?

    Comment by Jeff G — March 5, 2013 @ 1:16 am

  7. (If I’d been a girl, I might have used “he”.)

    If you’d been a “girl,” this would be a reasonably impressive post for a child to have written. As it is, your failure to deploy the word for grownup females suggests that your gender-inclusive pronouns were a ploy to cover your sexist ass.

    Comment by Kristine — March 5, 2013 @ 6:47 am

  8. Well that seems a little over the top, but point taken all the same. I’ll go back and change it.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 5, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  9. There. Hopefully now we can actually discuss the content of the post.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 5, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  10. Jeff,

    Why should someone suspect there is a better path to truth and reality than the academics, in your view? What affirmative, pragmatic reason does anyone have to not rely upon the arm of flesh, and to trust men?

    Comment by log — March 5, 2013 @ 11:00 am

  11. Log,

    I’m a little confused by your question here. I would think that you of all people would have plenty of verses which tell us not to rely upon the arm of flesh, etc.

    But then, my post isn’t really meant to answer questions like that. It’s about pointing out a bias which we (and by “we” I mean “I”) incur when we seek answers from the academic authorities. If we are trying to figure out if truth is or is not how the academics say it is, it simply makes very little sense to ask the academics what they have to say about it.

    You, however, are rather familiar with my broader, anti-intellectualist project and should know that my main goal is to open up possibilities and options as to how we go about reconciling faith and reason in our lives.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 5, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  12. I’m offering you an opportunity to explain why you believe someone should even consider the possibility that there is another way than trusting in men or the arm of flesh. Why should they even glance at the path of faith, in your view? What does it have to offer them? Does taking the path of faith mean travelling without reason (logic and evidence)? Do we have to hang up our brains in the church foyers?

    Comment by log — March 5, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

  13. But I am not arguing for faith or religion. This (the arguing for faith, not faith in itself) is exactly what I am arguing against. Rather than arguing for faith I am turning reason (logic and evidence) against itself.

    My target audience is those believers who struggle in prioritizing and harmonizing faith and reason within their own lives. But our brains are capable of so much more than mere logic and evidence, so no, we do not have to check our brains at the door.

    For the record, I considered (and probably should have) re-run the same argument for rationality that I did for truth. I’ll let you define reason as logic and evidence, but I refuse to equate rationality with reason so defined.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 5, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

  14. Jeff,

    In plain terms: why bother “reconciling” “faith” and “rationality” or “reason”, however you define them? Why, on your view, should one not simply reject “faith” in favor of “rationality” or “reason”, as you construe them? What, in your view, is there to commend “reconciling” “faith” and “rationality” or “reason”?

    Comment by Log — March 5, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

  15. Hopefully now we can actually discuss the content of the post.

    Whence your privileging of content at the expense of, say, reader response?

    Comment by Peter LLC — March 6, 2013 @ 2:38 am

  16. Well, at this point I would privilege anything at the expense of some trumped up accusations of sexism which have exactly nothing to do with the point I was trying to make. Btw, why aren’t people offended when I make the academic a male? Why was nobody offended the other times that I made my target female? Why is it that as soon as I go after academics, a couple academics suddenly come along to cry foul? Finally, what single and childless female that is my age would ever be offended by being called “a girl”?

    /rant

    Comment by Jeff G — March 6, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  17. Log,

    I’m still confused by your question since you don’t seem to be the type that would deny the value of making science and religion, in some sense, compatible with each other. Religion is a good thing and so is science, but sometimes they clash with each other. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could negotiate our way around such clashes?

    More personally (I don’t bring this up often, but I do talk about it in a couple of my posts), the rules of reason are exactly what led me to lose my faith 8 years ago. I’m still convinced that an uncompromising adherence to the rules of reason and liberal science (which include rules governing how to assign the burden of proof) is quite hostile to faith. Thus, these posts are basically the “present me” arguing against “me from 8 years ago”.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 6, 2013 @ 11:17 am

  18. Jeff,

    I, personally, don’t deny the value of the union of faith and reason/rationality/science, even though to me this way of framing the issue is necessarily incomplete. They don’t conflict, for me. I was asking so as to understand more fully where you were coming from and where you intend to go, and why.

    I think you and I have wildly different backgrounds in both experience and philosophy of life. It contributes to a continual sense of miscommunication between us.

    But now I understand your perspective a bit better.

    Comment by log — March 6, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

  19. Oh sheesh, Kristine

    Comment by Jacob J — March 8, 2013 @ 11:57 pm

  20. It’s nice to know there are those in the church who understand confirmation bias, who have begun to understand the simultaneous need for both reason and faith, as well as the need for multiple methods of looking for answers,and who have begun to see that there exist many valid, though sometimes widely-separated, perceptions of the truth. Too bad they are still so few in number, though. Sometimes I wonder if there is anywhere I can go to find more of them. Other times, I recognise it as a weakness in myself that I feel the need to look.

    Comment by Bill B — March 11, 2013 @ 10:50 am

  21. That’s true. I suppose when Joseph went into the grove, he experienced a massive bout of confirmation bias. He seemed pretty narrow from that point onwards, always telling people to seek and ask of God for themselves, rather than relying on the words of others.

    Rejoice, for there are indeed very few like him anymore, who say there is no other way but by revelation to come to a knowledge of the truth!

    Comment by log — March 11, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  22. Jeff G., it seems to me that you’ve taken a shellacking in the comments, and not without reason, but I’d like to just explain my criticisms of your post even though they in some cases may overlap what others have written, not because I am (consciously) indulging in the long American tradition of simply speaking louder when you didn’t understand the first time, but in the belief borne of teaching experience that sometimes another person’s description simply clicks.

    First, you paint an unfavorable, and in my academic experience, very inaccurate picture of academics. We’re not all positivists anymore. This is bound to elicit an unfavorable response, especially when read in Mormonism’s troubling history with (anti)-intellectualism, still culturally present through sizable swaths of the membership. To be frank, your premise about academic beliefs regarding the nature of truth is so poorly framed that it makes it difficult to consider seriously the remainder of the post, including your main hypothesis.

    Secondly, and more damningly, your post doesn’t offer anything new to a discussion that began millennia before either of us were born. It doesn’t even contribute an insightful anecdote that might shed light on a well-worn road (the football comparison is conceptually very poor – it’s really a faux amis and not a disagreement about truth).

    Finally, you created a situation conducive to thread-jacking by your too casual use of pronouns.

    Now, I know that’s a lot of bad that I’ve pointed out and not a lot of good. I don’t mean any insult to your person, just a criticism of your work (academics are theoretically able to separate their identity from their work). It’s probable that you have something worth sharing on this topic, but it just didn’t get communicated here, and that’s okay. Consider the criticisms, do some more thinking and reading and conversing, and then try again. It’s a concept I find very important and so I’m keen to find new or well-articulated perspectives about it.

    Comment by Brian — March 17, 2013 @ 7:58 am

  23. Kristine Haglund,

    Make sure you look under your honey, if it’s like my house there are sexists under there.

    Jeff G,

    Careful… Academics can’t have people thinking we don’t need academics. Then there little gatherings will lose all ten attendees and they’ll be left to talk to each other. Thankfully Brian had the charity to send you off with some “keep swinging slugger” advice and a pat on the head.

    Comment by Chelsey — March 17, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

  24. ha joke fail!

    “…look under your *bed*, honey.”

    Comment by Chelsey — March 17, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  25. Brian,

    While I certainly disagree with the content of your comment, the tone was very much appreciated. To be sure, writing is not my strong point, but I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this that I haven’t read very much on the subject. I was an undergrad and grad student in philosophy (I’ve certainly never been accused of *not* reading enough), so I hope my criticisms of academia aren’t written off too lightly.

    Let’s start with my depiction of academia. By this I do not mean some strong form of positivism or some such thing. I’m talking about the standard run-of-the-mill empiricism and rationalism bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment and which can be traced all the way back to Plato.

    Yes, I am trying to knock academics off of the pedestal on which we tend to put them. They are not in the Truth-business with a capital “T”. This is not to say, however, that they do not have anything valuable to offer us at all. It’s just that there is no good reason why we should let them have the final word about what we ought to believe.

    You accuse me of anti-intellectualism, or at least you should have since I have called myself a Darwinian Anti-intellectualist. My whole stint here at the ‘Thang has essentially been an attempted intellectual assault on intellectualism. As such, I do not find Mormonism’s history with (anti)-intellectualism near as troubling as you do.

    My post must have been poorly framed indeed if you think that I was trying to contribute to the “what is truth?” conversation. Indeed, the main purpose of my post was to dissolve such endless (and pointless) conversations. My point, then, was not “here is yet another theory about truth,” but to get us to stop thinking that such theorizing is worthy of our time and attention.

    Let me now attempt to articulate some points and connections which I intentionally (albeit unwisely) left out of the post. The point at which my post seems most vulnerable to attack is my comparison of truth to a mere homonym or a “faux amis” as you called it. But no good academic would simply assert this leave it at that. Indeed, one of my intentions was to get somebody to give me a reason for why religious truth and academic truth aren’t themselves a mere homonym for two different games which are played by two different sets of rules. Of course these two games roughly share a common ancestry but the same thing can also be said for american football and soccer.

    Let us now re-approach the question raised in the post: If religious truth and academic truth are two different games (and I see no reason to assume that they cannot or ought not be so construed), then which one has the “real” or “true” Truth? In order to answer this question we could ask a philosopher, linguist, or some other academic, but this would be to bias the answer from the very start. Consequently, there seems to be no unbiased reason to think that the religious truth which we hold so dear is in any sense morally bound or constrained by what the academic has to say.

    Yes, what the academic has to say is very important and useful to all of us, but they are not the prophets of the modern world whose prerogative it is to pontificate on what is or is not True.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 18, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

  26. I think you post is fine Jeff. And I second the sheesh. Sheesh, Kristine.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — March 18, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

  27. What “very important and useful to all of us” stuff has academia given us?

    Darwinism? Marxism? Feminism? Naturalism? Sensitivity training? Fractional reserve banking? Interventionism?

    Can we name any academic who has persuaded men to believe in Christ and obey God? How about an academic who has convinced men to pray?

    Comment by log — March 20, 2013 @ 7:47 am

  28. Seriously Log? You think the world would be just as well off without the advances in science, medicine, and technology we have seen in the last 3000 years? Seriously?

    Comment by Geoff J — March 20, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  29. Who do you think developed all the fancy technology used in the MTC, the airplanes and vehicles by which missionaries travel the world, the media by which the world can hear the prophet? Why do you think the church puts so much tithing into a university or the perpetual education fund?

    Comment by Jeff G — March 20, 2013 @ 11:11 am

  30. Jeff G:

    Question 1: Engineers.

    Question 2: Funny thing you should ask. BYU was explicitly founded to counter Marxism and Darwinism, and provide a space for preaching the gospel. That was a cause worth tithing funds. While I am sure the university’s purpose has indeed suffered from “mission creep”, it is yet a place where the gospel may be heard and lived a little more freely than, say, at Harvard.

    As to the PEF, it is wise and compassionate to assist members in gaining credentials wherewith they may get more gainful employment.

    Comment by Log — March 20, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

  31. Get back, Troll! Back I say!!

    Comment by Jeff G — March 20, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

  32. Log normally seems like a weirdo zealot. But sometimes he comes off as a troll pretending to be a weirdo zealot. His last couple of comments fall into the latter category.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 21, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

  33. Jeff G,

    My answer apparently displeases you. Why?

    Comment by log — March 22, 2013 @ 1:22 am

  34. I want to see Kristine’s analysis of Log… Plus she pulled a better Troll than he did. Got to respect the hit-and-run.

    Comment by Chelsey — March 22, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  35. Log,

    I just thought that the proper response to your comment was so obvious and not worth saying that you couldn’t have been serious. After all, who are these mythical engineers who never went through the university system? What university teaches Marxism, Darwinism and nothing else? Why would Brigham Young establish a university in order to get rid of universities? And then to top it all off you end by saying that the church pays for people’s education at universities in order to help them, which is the very thing you were arguing against.

    Maybe it wasn’t obvious that my attack was not just against those academics that I happen to not like or agree with. My attack is against academia in general – the entire university system. Thus, I certainly agree that academia is very important and useful in a lot of ways… but let’s not think that they get the last word in what we ought or ought not believe.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 22, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  36. Jeff G,

    If you are sincere and your definition of “academic” is anyone who has been through a university, then your thinking is utterly opaque to me.

    As in the twain shall ne’er meet.

    I disagree that universities are “important and useful” for anything other than job training and credentialing for government-enforced qualifications to join artificial monopolies (such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and beauticians) and as a stand-in for now-illegal pre-employment intelligence testing.

    Academics, in my discourse, are the people who produce the ideas which drive societies – scripturally, these things are called “the philosophies of men”, “the doctrines of men”, and “the precepts of men”. Politicians, philosophers, lawyers, think-tanks, and the like, are the academics. In other words, universities are useful only insofar as they lead to a bigger paycheck, or power and authority among men, and that’s not very useful, in a gospel-centered context.

    Engineers and technicians produce stuff.

    Even their services may be dispensed with.

    Comment by log — March 22, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

  37. sigh. The sentence “in other words” belonged at the end of paragraph 3.

    Comment by log — March 22, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

  38. Regarding #36:

    I’ll bet the congregation at your Mormon splinter group just eat stuff like that up, Log.

    Home-schooling and apprenticeships for all!

    Comment by Geoff J — March 22, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

  39. Who do we actually ask? The philosopher. The intellectual historian. The philologist. The linguist. The dictionary. In short, we consult the academic and the books he has written.

    Thanks for your posting! Truth can certainly be found in “context, values, tradition and/or authorities” — it is not necessary that all truth must be academically sound — and some academically sound truths may not be true after all.

    Comment by ji — March 23, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

  40. That’s a wonderful way of putting it! Thanks for stopping by.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 24, 2013 @ 10:27 am

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