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December 12, 2005

Richard Dawkins, relativism, and truth

Abbas Raza of 3Quarks Daily takes Richard Dawkins to task for some of his sloppy pronouncements about relativism.

Abbas quotes this passage from Dawnkins' Devil's Chaplain:

A little learning is a dangerous thing. This has never struck me as a particularly profound or wise remark, but it comes into it's own in the special case where the little learning is in philosophy (as it often is). A scientist who has the temerity to utter the t-word ('true') is likely to encounter a form of philosophical heckling which goes something like this:
There is no absolute truth. You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit's entrails, or the ravings of a prophet up a pole. It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth.

I share Abbas's irritation.

As Abbas notes, Dawkins isn't really holding himself above the philosophical fray on truth. He's actually defending a correspondence theory. Correspondence theories of truth hold, roughly, that truth is correspondence to a fact. According to the correspondence theory, true statements are true because they bear the correct relationship to the world. This commonsense view turns out to be much more problematic than you might think. For example, it's hard to explain what it means for a sentence or a proposition to correspond to a fact.

It's important to remember that when philosophers talk about truth, they're usually talking about a property of statements. When we're speaking more casually we sometimes use "the truth" as a synonym "the way things are." Philosophers who study truth are looking for a very precise technical understanding of the linguistic, logical, and empirical factors that must align in order for a statement to be true.

Dawkins accuses philosophers of believing that The Facts are relative to a speaker or a culture. In fact, most analytic philosophers don't believe anything like that. Most of the technical work on the nature of truth is an attempt to specify how facts and beliefs must align in order to make statements true.

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Comments

I dunno. I can see what Dawkins is talking about. I hear that kind of shit all the time, but not from analytic philosophers. If I am ever caught saying something obvious ("evolution is true" or "organized religion is ridiculous") in a room with a Enlightened Critic of the Scientific Establishment, a serious argument ensues, usually usually taking the form that Dawkins has suggested.

Dawkins accuses philosophers of believing

Dawkins: where the little learning is in philosophy

Fixed: "Dawkins accuses people who dabble in philosophy of believing..."

Being charitable, I would say that a lot of philosophers (more on the continental side, I imagine) do say those sorts of things.

At the same time, others having this attitude about philosophers is one of the most irksome things about people finding out I study philosophy. It's up there with people thinking that studying philosophy can't be hard because there's no such thing as a wrong answer in philosophy class or assuming that I must spend a lot of time studying Ayn Rand.

Gotta disagree with you on this one, Lindsay.

First, Dawkins is not accusing philosophers of anything in this passage, but those with "a little learning" in the field of philosophy. Anybody who merits the title "philosopher" has more than a little learning in the field.

Second, Dawkins is not setting forth a correspondance theory of truth here. He is merely attacking naive relativism. This is consistent with any number of views on truth: correpondance theories, Horwich's minimalism, Frege's view, Davidson's view, etc.

I agree with Brock. There are a lot of dabblers with ulterior motives who are quite keen on the notion that science is not a useful means to obtain truth.

You have industrialists who want to discredit global warming. You have creationists who want to discredit evolution. The average guy may not give a damn about those things, but he'll go along with them because it means he can safely eat pork chops with cholesteral levels over 400. Dabbling in the misinterpretation of relativism has very broad support.

At the same time, others having this attitude about philosophers is one of the most irksome things about people finding out I study philosophy. It's up there with people thinking that studying philosophy can't be hard because there's no such thing as a wrong answer in philosophy class or assuming that I must spend a lot of time studying Ayn Rand.

As an historian of science, I run into a similar attitude from time to time myself. I know where it comes from, but it can be irritating nonetheless.

Pretty funny. I only know Dawkins from this one passage quoted here. But it's pretty obvious why lots of people can't resist telling him that he shouldnh't be so sure.

I dunno. It seems pretty clear to me that Dawkins is directing is criticism at pseudo-philosophical laymen, and not at actual philosophers.

wow, Lindsay, you share Abbas's irritation that "You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method" or "It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth";read it twice "your brand of truth" i see you are moving towards your my feminist homies (who have your back, i'm told), towards feminists a la Irigaray or Sandra Harding.

well, it is not a big surprise because what you are doing here is mostly ideological stuff - and if you start with ideology, you end up at best somewhere near relativism.

although it is difficult to understand whay you so angry at ID stuff in biology classes etc. WHY? They have their brand of truth; you have your personal faith in the scientific method and they have faith in smth else. And rapists perhaps have their brand of truth. When you start your relativism don't forget to ponder the consequences.

don't forget that metaphysically loaded conceptions of Truth, there is quite simple commonsensical usage of the word "truth" - this usage is common in everyday and scientific inquiries. We need not to investigate what some philosophers have to say about the capital T Truth in order to carry on scientific inquiry.

I saw some time ago that you had paid compliments to Susan Haack. so I suggest you read her writings carefully if you admire her. But perhaps you have paid compliments just because of her gender...

wow, Lindsay, you share Abbas's irritation that "You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method" or "It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth"

You're quoting Dawkins, not Abbas.

Brock's first point may be correct (in which case why is Dawkins bothering to argue against morons?), but his second point is not. If you actually read the essay that I cite, it becomes clear later on that indeed Dawkins IS defending a coorespondence view of truth, and he has done this in other places as well. His views are absolutely NOT consistent with Davidson, for example.

Scott Armstrong, if people challenge the whole notion of truth when you say "evolution is true", you should ask them is "snow is white" is true. If they say no, then they are insane and you should run for your life. If they say yes, then ask them to explain why the notion of truth is less problematic there. This is not rocket science.

non-anglosaxon male: you have obviously not read either my essay or paid attention to what Lindsay is saying. We are AGAINST the same thing that Dawkins is making fun of...

sorry my quotations were not correct, anyway i don't understand your irritation, guys
Dawkins is NOT defending a particular view of truth, he is speaking against sloppy relativism.

Philosophers contributed a lot to help so relativists. All these funny theories of truth or investigations into the nature of truth. Often they start as criteria of truth but finish as explications of the word 'truth', funny stuff.

i've already said that that besides, metaphysically loaded conceptions of Truth, there is quite simple commonsensical usage of the word "truth" - this usage is common in everyday and scientific inquiries.

a good example of muddling things is Hilary Putnam. He started as a metaphysical realist, then he got confused in his metaphysics via logic; so he became internal realist which is kind of relativist; ok - then he said sorry i have gone astray, i was wrong - he started quoting Wittgenstein and Austin. yes, this not bad in comaprison with all this internal realism and relativisms, but it's not so clear the he speaks about relaism with human face etc

anyway, read the oponents of Alan Sokal and you will see that there is no need to attack Dawkins in this respect and sorry - don't forget that in some countries relativists are becoming kind of icons, so think twice before posting

WNASM, have you read the Dawkins' essay in full? Therein, he defends naive correspondence, though you wouldn't know it from the excerpt I quoted. I didn't make that clear in the original post. My bad.

I don't think I'm attacking Dawkins. Like Abbas, I'm a huge admirer of his scientific and his philosophical writing. Sometimes, I just get a little exasperated with his emphatic insistence that he's doing straight science and not philosophy. The two aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they're inextricably linked. Both science and philosophy are stronger if we acknowledge the mutual dependence.

I hate sloppy relativism. Actually, I'm pretty unsympathetic towards most nuanced and sophisticated versions of relativism.

The scientific/commonsense concept of truth is exactly what philosophers should be trying to understand. If truth is worth studying at all, it's because truth is as robust and important as science and common sense take it to be.

The difference between religion and science is the concept of certainty. There is none. Not logical, not empirical, certainly not linguistic.

But who cares? The dishes need washing. We are not going to argue if they are there. And we are not going to argue if we should teach evolution in schools. Some things are certain enough.

But Dawkins is wrong. Hindu and Christian philosophers both understand the problem with the concept of truth. What they don't agree on, what is taken as "relative" to the culture, is monotheism vs polytheism. And Dawkins' anti-intellectual but literate defense of monotheism (yeah, that's what it boils down to) is intentionally (?) unknowing.

Is Dawkins willfully ignorant? Does he also think that the relativity in Einstein's theory was the difference between the Hindu and Christian frame of reference.

Abandon all hope. Apparently they stopped teaching science before Dawkins went to school?

WOW, this is heady stuff. Thanks Lindsay.

I find the notion of truth to be very simple and very unsimple.

I have never found the assertion that there is one way of looking at things
or one way things are, convincing.

It seems most obvious that people differ, experts differ, and this is
necessarily so if science is to progress and change.
I think frankly absurd the idea that beyond a certain point in scientific development no new fundamental scientific theory will arise to usurp a previous theory.

I am not saying that there is no truth; Indeed if I thought that , why would I
bother to assert what I do here? People do feel that some things are true
and not in a relativistic way-- but absolutely.
And they feel that way until a second truth arises which either contradicts
the first or they simply abandon the first for a more compelling truth.

But will there ever be a time when another point of view will not arise?
--- is there a point at which some statement or point of view will be
indubitable and which simply somehow prevents another point of view
from arising?

Some will say yes and some will say no. And the two groups may accuse each other of speaking nonsense or of misunderstanding meaning or reality
but then the topic for debate will be defining nonsense or meaning or reality. And so it may go with any who differ and I see no end to the speculation and debate other than in exhaustion (but since I enjoy the debate I don't mind).

If truth must be universal and indubitable, I just don't see that there is any
truth in that sense. What , at base, characterizes truth then is that it is an
indubitable somewhat that arises in individuals, few or many, and it may or may not be replaced by another indubitable somewhat.
If this seems ironic or contradictory , well so it is; truth, from my point of
view is the most ironic and contradictory thing there is.

If I maintain that there is no truth, this is an assertion that something is true and I seek to establish a state of affairs.. If I say then that I do not seek to establish something or rather, that nothing is being established -then this too is an establishing of something. If I say that all truth is hypothetical
I am asserting that this assertion is not hypothetical---but instead establishes a state of affairs.

But then again, what the utterance of any statement or phenomena implies or assumes is up for grabs as far as I can see, as is the nature of disagreement.

Of course, my ironic point of view need not be subscribed to and in fact,
the whole question of what is truth need not be entertained at all, life will continue quite well without asking such questions.

But finally , I am not impractically minded: the truth seems to be that people do take their medicine as science suggests and conviction does arise that the results of science are beneficial-- but what import this has to how we should characterize reality and whether it has bearing on all the different contexts of life is again, up for grabs.


I confess unrepentant fascination for the whole topic and related issues and all the different points of view concerning them and that is why I must thank Lindsay for this post.





practical results.

If I believe the earth is flat

It seems clear that no one point of view is

if one wants to go buy the best tomatoes,




If there is no universally indubitable statement, then truth cannot be
a universally indubitable thing. Rather, the character of truth is that it is differs. In other words the fact that

SORRY , SLOPPY EDITING.

ok guys, i admit i haven't found the dawkin's essay to read it. But i have read a lot of stuff where scientists express similar worries. well, they are mostly right. One thing that is wrong in some scientists' writings is that they know few positions for instance positivism and relativism and treat all philosophers as idiots. But to repeat, the sad fact is that philosophers themselves often are to blame.

now, damn it :) i always defend commonsensical correspondence which is not so naive after all, just ask youself 'is it true that there is some beer in the fridge?'. Please don't confuse it with the kind of metaphysical doctrine of Facts a la a logical atomism.

one more point: as far as i can understand, the problem with Dawkins is that he attacks religion with quotations from science; in this respect he confuses scientific and theological stuff. You have problems in America with all this ID, etc. My worry is that very often people attack religion in general in these debates. But the main thing should be to demarcate science (where empirical evidence is the basis) from theological layer. For example there migh be Catholic thinkers who work as evolutionary biologists, but as religious persons they go beyond science and introduce theological explanations which they know are not on the level of empirical evidence.

Well, my humble opinion is that Dawkins not talking smack about philosophy Phds, but about the stereotypical black turtleneck and beret sporting 2nd year artsie crowd that has taken one into philosophy course and uses that shallow understanding to denegrate soemthing that they are clearly clueless about (like science).

Just like Philosophy Phds who get cranky when someone who doesn't posess a scintilla of philosophical education (like an undergrad biologist or engineer) criticises things they clearly don't understand, Biology Phd's experience similar crankiness when criticised by folks without a scrap of biological education.

Looks like human nature to me.

Cheers,

Naked Ape

Lindsay-

sorry for my outbursts :) in the end i am glad to see that as to the question of relativism we have much more in common than i had previously thought.

I would love to hear a "commonsense" definition of "truth" that is not circular.

Science rarely formally addresses the issue of "truth". Science simply (or not so simply) seeks scientifcally useful and predictive descriptions of phenomena. Deciding on a proper definition of truth is peripheral to this task.
This is why two very different physical theories, quantum mechanics and relativity, may exist (however uncomfortably) within the same physics; each describes its realm in a way physicists find compelling.
Ultimately, physicists aim to have one description of fundamental physical rules. When (and if) such a description is found it may replace the current two separate theories, not because it conforms to a definition of "truth", but because
it explains in a way that physicists find concise, useful, pleasing, predictive, unified and more complete.
I'm not sure why Dawkins is complaining. Why should the fact that there are relativists among the populace (even some well trained philosophers are relativists) be worthy of discussion? Is Dawkins obliquely criticising other biologists he suspects of relativist tendencies? Is he attempting to police the ideological borders of his field? Or is he chiding the public at large? What a peculiar cat.


The difference between religion and science is the concept of certainty. There is none. Not logical, not empirical, certainly not linguistic.
Um, there is certainly no certainty? :p

Hi, I really wanna know the origin of the saying that truth can be find in rabbit's entrails.why? I don't understand thanks!

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