When truth is not the truth

One thing that I witness in my own faculty’s history researchers more often than I would like is what I would call the pathological crutch of relativism.

I just recently gave my first-year history students the task of thinking about the concept of ‘truth’ as it relates to history, and in the answers I could see what this crutch has already done to them. Truth as a word is used by them interchangeably with fact, reality, experience, and belief, depending on the context. And while it is ‘sanctioned’ to speak of people’s personal experiences of the world as their own truths, for me it’s an abomination. Truth is truth, anything else is diluting the word. There is as clear a distinction between ‘past’ and ‘history’ – and somehow this difference is not difficult for historians to acknowledge. However, there is as great a difference between ‘truth’ and ‘experience’, yet as historians use the word ‘truth’ its meaning gets somewhat muddled in the minds of everyone. For something to be deemed true, it should be at least open to experimentation – and nothing in history is. We cannot even be certain that what someone claims in a written source is their honest belief.

I believe the route to the error of the pathological crutch of relativism and the subsequent confusion about the word ‘truth’ follows from the same cognitive paths, as does the adoption of relativism in beginning philosophy students, according to Michael Rooney:

When confronted with reasons to be skeptics, they instead become relativists. That is, when the rational conclusion is to suspend judgment about an issue, all too many people instead conclude that any judgment is as plausible as any other.¹

It is painfully obvious to even beginning historians that the past is something we can never really know the truth of, and as such, the history we write cannot claim to be truthful as those scientific articles of our colleagues from other experimenting fields can.

I myself try to practice humility in my day-to-day life not just in regards to my profession, but everything else as well. It both helps me appreciate everything a bit more, while also giving me a reason to strive forward. Admittedly I do have the help of a healthy amount of natural ambition and confidence to fuel this process, but I am quite sure that anyone would benefit from reminding themselves from time to time of the fact that no matter how knowledgeable or important they feel, there is a mountain of knowledge still for them to learn.

I try to maintain a mental picture of myself as someone who is not mature, so that I can go on maturing.²

I believe historians have a bit of an inferiority complex because of the way our discipline is categorized – standing against and among other sciences. Laymen consider it an academic pursuit requiring a degree of scientific rigour, and historians are expected to bear the burden of evidence and to adhere to the truth to the best of their abilities. Yet we are not dealing with truths, not by a long shot. We are trying to figure out what was true by examining sources from unreliable narrators owing to their flawed perception, flawed reasoning, and conscious agendas. We have to make guesses about the truth based on these accounts, and our guesses can never be verified.

This, I think, leads to the epidemic of sage proclamations of “multiple truths” existing in history. Referencing personal beliefs and experiences of the world as “truths”, and further allowing one’s own interpretation of the sources to be their own valid version of “truth” makes it all seem more credible and nice regarding one’s sensibilities of whether or not what we do has any sense in it.

The problem is that beliefs, no matter how fervent, are not ‘truths’ in the sense that the word is most commonly understood. There is a reason why the word ‘belief’ exists, and it irks me a bit to see beginning history students confusing themselves by attempting to understand the relation of truth and history while using the word in multiple different ways.

¹ https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/AdYdLP2sRqPMoe8fb/knowing-about-biases-can-hurt-people?commentId=Z9LacBsgsH7cPAnhu

² https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/rM7hcz67N7WtwGGjq/against-maturity

Remember the Direction of Causality

In his essay Three Fallacies of Teleology, Yudkowsky goes over Aristotle’s four definitions of the word aition:

”These were his four senses of aitia:  The material aition, the formal aition, the efficient aition, and the final aition.

The material aition of a bronze statue is the substance it is made from, bronze.  The formal aition is the substance’s form, its statue-shaped-ness.  The efficient aition best translates as the English word ”cause”; we would think of the artisan carving the statue, though Aristotle referred to the art of bronze-casting the statue, and regarded the individual artisan as a mere instantiation.

The final aition was the goal, or telos, or purpose of the statue, that for the sake of which the statue exists.”¹

Within most natural sciences, telos can be ignored completely in favour of ‘efficient aition’ because the objects of study are unconscious particles or systems. In modern academic circles, it is commonly understood that the ‘final aition’ is something reserved only for intelligent agents (humans), who can at least seemingly make decisions about their actions based on an abstract future goal. As such, even if future does not directly affect past actions, the beliefs about a possible future certainly do.

That being said, people’s cognitive motivations should be given very sparing credit for what actually drives their behaviour. Evolution has no foresight, but only takes the next greedy local step. While humans do have a concept of cognitive cause, our evolutionary adaptations have had a longer time to wire into our system than any of our current plots, and as such the next unanticipated greedy step towards feel-good hormones is likelier to throw a wrench in our plans than we think. Not to mention that in general people are not very good at planning or accurately assessing the motives of the people around them.

“Cognitive causes are ontologically distinct from evolutionary causes. They are made out of a different kind of stuff. Cognitive causes are made of neurons. Evolutionary causes are made of ancestors.”²

Because of our cognitive machinery, humans have a tendency to look at an outcome and start to look for a path which led there, as if the decisions on the way were made with the explicit unifying purpose of arriving at the ultimate destination. This line of thinking is difficult to avoid for us historians, because our study subjects were intelligent agents with some foresight and sense of purpose when choosing the course of their actions. However, telos is such a complicated concept that it can be detected even semi-reliably only in single persons, and even then one should keep in mind how rarely our own plans end up exactly where we intended them to go from the beginning. Not to mention how, regardless of where we end up – unless we are good diary keepers – we are often undercut by the biases of narrative memory, which makes it retrospectively feel like we were more on track all the time than we actually were. There are no historical masterminds, and people are much more reactionary than they think.

“The third fallacy of teleology is to commit the Mind Projection Fallacy with respect to telos, supposing it to be an inherent property of an object or system. Indeed, one does this every time one speaks of the purpose of an event, rather than speaking of some particular agent desiring the consequences of that event.”³

Historians do this all the time, and really, how could we not? History is constructed and understood in the narratives, and a narrative needs to be compressed to be compelling.  We are also writing to an audience with brain machinery just as biased as our own, so pandering to these biases will make the text resonate better for them. Thus we end up saying the purpose of the suffragette move was female emancipation, or that the purpose of the 13th amendment was to abolish slavery forever – even though these are in truth gross oversimplifications of even the various motives of any single agent advocating for these things.

Using language like this is understandable, but we should seek for more accurate ways to express ourselves whenever possible, lest we lead our own thinking astray. The shape of our words influence our thinking, so we should strive to be as clear as possible, even if that means giving up some of the rhetorical impact.

While if one is to subscribe to a causal universe without free will where the future is ’predestined’ by the links of causation, one should also always keep in mind that the causal arrow only works in one direction.

¹ https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/2HxAkCG7NWTrrn5R3/three-fallacies-of-teleology

² https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/epZLSoNvjW53tqNj9/evolutionary-psychology

³ https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/2HxAkCG7NWTrrn5R3/three-fallacies-of-teleology