Today I’d like to talk about Richard Rorty. He was an American philosopher that became famous in the late 70’s and 80’s for advocating a new form of pragmatism. I thought this might be a timely topic, because we’ve been spending a lot of time on making sense of data. Modern society has become polarized on a bunch of issues which basically stem from more fundamental questions: what is knowledge and what is truth?
On the one side we have radical scientism. This side argues that in order to count something as knowledge, it must be falsifiable, formulated as a scientific hypothesis, and demonstrated with 95% certainty. There are of course much milder variants on this side. For example, one might stipulate that all questions that naturally have a scientific formulation must meet scientific standards before we consider it to be reliable information, but science doesn’t have much to say about non-scientific questions.
The other side is radical skepticism or postmodernism (I know these are not at all the same thing). The radical skeptics claim that all knowledge is impossible, so we should be skeptical of all things that we hear (even if they were proven by a scientific study). I have a lot of sympathy for this side. Facebook alone makes me skeptical of basically anything anyone says, because I know that half of the interesting things I’m told probably come from a totally false Facebook post someone made. Everyone has bias and/or funding which skews results including supposedly objective scientific ones.
Postmodernism gives a bit more substance to this argument. It essentially says that we have no foundations anymore. Science can’t prove that science is getting at truth, so we shouldn’t treat it as a special class of knowledge. This “lack of foundations” argument ends up giving merit to a lot of dangerous ideas. Since the scientific method is no longer seen as the most reliable way to truth, maybe new age spirituality or alternative medicine actually works and is just as effective.
I’ll state my bias right up front. I tend to agree with the scientism viewpoint (although I’d probably call my stance “naturalism,” but let’s not get into that). Both sides make really good critiques of the other when done by a careful thinker. Science has assumptions that cannot be justified. It is merely building models. Maybe our model of gravity is totally wrong, but just happens to consistently give really accurate predictions when tested.
Science critiques the other positions as well. Skepticism is not self-consistent, because it requires you to be skeptical of skepticism. The lack of foundations in postmodernism does not mean that all things are equally likely to be true.
These differing foundations manifest in huge shouting matches: evolution vs intelligent design, medicine vs alternative medicine, atheism vs theism, and on and on. The main reason I err on the side of science is because all people seem to think that science provides the best answers until those answers disagree with their previously held beliefs. It is only then that the lack of foundations is pointed out or the bias of the researcher is brought up. See also this post which shows why the scientific method is needed to surpass bias and this post for an ethical reason to err on the side of science.
Anyway, we’ve passed 500 words already and I’m still just setting up why Rorty is such an important thinker. His views seem to just gain importance as data sets keep getting bigger and we get confused about who we should believe. Rorty basically comes up with a middle ground which is sometimes called neopragmatism. He entered the scene at a time where both sides seemed right and wrong. His position is that the postmodernists are right that there are no foundations, but this doesn’t matter because some systems are useful. Let’s unpack this a bit.
First off, if this interests you, then go read Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A quick blog post cannot do it justice. It is quite complex and subtle. One side says that they’ve built a fantastic pillar called science on the solid foundations of peer review, objectivity, etc. The other side says that all our institutions can be knocked down, because there are no solid foundations.
Rorty has a somewhat shocking response that both sides are wrong. There are no foundations (i.e. external objective standards), but this doesn’t mean the pillars are unstable. It just means that the rules of the game depend on which game we’re playing. When playing tennis, we must follow the rules of tennis. When doing science, we must play by the rules of science. There is no universal, correct rule set for all games. It is just dependent on the game. That’s okay. None are more “right” than another, because this concept doesn’t even make sense.
So what is truth? Rorty says that we can think about justification, but not about truth. How we justify beliefs is dependent on the system we are in. We know how to use the word true in each system, so we don’t have to define it. This is a very classic pragmatic response. When speaking of scientific truth, we have a collection of things we mean. When speaking of literary truth we have another. These truths are dependent on time and place (e.g. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”)
So how is this different from the extreme relativism of postmodernism? Well, Rorty would say that usefulness has to be taken into account. There is no way to get at objective truth, but some systems are more useful for certain purposes than others. For example, at this point in time, science seems to be the most useful system to answer scientific questions. Your computer is working, polio was eradicated, we put people on the moon, etc, etc. As the internet meme goes, “Science. It works, bitches!” And so even though we don’t know if science is getting at truth (which reasonable scientists fully admit, by the way), it does consistently get at something useful. There may be other contexts in which scientific rigor is not the most useful system.
Rorty develops a theory that fully admits that the postmodernists are right when they say that we have no basis for foundations anymore. But he doesn’t descend into extreme relativism. He leaves room for some systems of thought to be more useful than others. They don’t have a monopoly on truth, because we don’t even know what that means. Relativism doesn’t even really make sense from Rorty’s viewpoint, because you can never leave your current context from which to make a relative judgement. And that’s why I think he’s so important. He points out that our shouting matches aren’t about content or truth. They are about coming at the same question from different systems.