The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, January 24, 2014

Man and Machine: Part Five

Technology and the Truth

Since ancient times goodness has been considered by the wise to be the highest ideal for which man strives, can strive, or ought to strive. It has never been isolated, at the apex of the mountain of human aspiration, however, and down through the ages of man its closest associate and constant companion has been truth. Not infrequently their names are spoken in connection with that of a third ideal, beauty. The association of these ideals is at least as old as the sixth book of Plato’s Republic, although the formulation of the three as a triad is much more recent, perhaps having its origins in the Renaissance efforts to regain the ideas and achievements of classical civilization. Even in the older, medieval triad of the one, the good, and the true, however, goodness and truth were always associated.

The Athenian philosophers understood goodness in terms of harmony between a thing and its natural end. Everything has a nature, an irreducible essence that makes it what it is. Every nature has an end, in the sense of a telos, a purpose. A lamp, for example, is made for the purpose of lighting up a room. That is the end towards which it is made, to which its nature is bent. If goodness lies in harmony between a thing and its natural end, a lamp is deemed to be good or not based upon how well it achieves the end of lighting up a room. The nature of goodness has been a major subject of philosophical discussion and especially the nature of human goodness which, given the definition of general goodness, can only be understood in terms of the natural end of man.

Goodness is the highest ideal because all other ideals are encapsulated within it. Take, for example, the concept of rightness or justice, which is the subject of ethics. Justice, as the concept was classically understood, means behaving towards others as one ought, in the most literal sense of the word ought, i.e., as we owe it to others to behave. This, it should be clear to see, presupposes that we owe certain kinds of behaviour towards other people. This is not as controversial a presupposition as it may seem. Even liberal individualism acknowledges a debt of behaviour towards other people, at least in the negative sense of owing it to them not to violate their life, person, and property. The most basic of our obligations towards other people are part of our nature as human beings and therefore if justice or rightness consists of fulfilling those obligations it can therefore be said to be goodness as applied to human behaviour, which is, of course, the way everybody thinks about it whether they have gone through the exercise of defining it or not. Likewise, beauty is goodness as applied to that which is appealing to the senses of sight and sound.

Truth too, can be thought of as a type of goodness. It is goodness as it pertains to thoughts and language. Thought, in the abstract, is the total conscious activity of our minds and brains. Specific thoughts are pictures that we form or models that we build in our minds. Language is the medium through which we communicate these pictures or models to other people. These pictures or models are representations of things as we understand them to be, to have been in the past, or as we either expect, fear, or desire them to be in the future. The more accurately our thoughts correspond with the way the things they represent actually are, were or will be the better will our thoughts achieve their natural end, which is our understanding of ourselves, the world in which we live, and that which lies beyond that world. This correspondence between depiction in thought and language and the actuality of what is depicted is what has traditionally been understood by the word truth.

If truth is goodness in thought and language that consists of accurate correspondence between how we depict things in what we think and say and how those things actually are can human beings ever be said to possess truth?

This question is an important one that arises out of the difference between things as they appear to us and things as they are in themselves. We can judge how the way things are depicted in thought and word correspond with how those same things appear to us because how those things appear to us is known to us. We should be careful, however, not to confuse how things appear to us with how things are in themselves. We know that things as they appear to us cannot be declared to be absolutely identical to how things are in themselves because we know that our own senses and minds interpret things so as to produce their appearances.

Do not make the mistake of reading too much into this difference. Our own participation in how things appear to us does not mean that there is absolutely no correspondence between appearances and actual reality. Indeed, for most, if not all, practical purposes it is safe to treat the way things appear as if they were identical to the way things are. The importance of recognizing the difference between the appearance of things, which we know, and the reality of things that lies beneath the appearance, lies in the fact that it is through this recognition that we are aware that there is a greater standard of truth, that lies beyond and beneath that truth to which we have access, of which the latter is merely an approximation. This, of course, is what Plato illustrated for us thousands of years ago in his allegory of the cave.

The insights of Athens are best seen when illuminated by the light of Jerusalem. Expressed in theological terms, the difference between such truth as is accessible to us and that which is beyond is, is the difference between human and divine truth. Man has a knowledge of things as they appear to him, God knows all things as they are in themselves. As the Lord said to Samuel “the LORD seeth not as man seeth ; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (I Sam. 16:7).

There is a story that was related by nineteenth century Danish Lutheran theologian and existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. (1) In the second part of the book, where Kierkegaard discusses the eighteenth century German philosopher and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, he quotes Lessing as having said that if God were to hold out both His hands with the right hand containing the truth, pure and whole, and the left hand containing the relentless, endless, striving for truth, and say “Choose”, that he would fall down before God’s left hand, saying “Give, Father, for the truth is for You alone”. While Kierkegarrd did not seem to be impressed with Lessing’s profession of humility (2), he approved of the idea that truth is something for God to possess and man to eternally strive for. By approving this idea, Kierkegaard was not endorsing the behaviour of the “silly women”, St. Paul refers to, who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (II Tim. 3:7). The Apostle was talking about people who constantly jump from one new religious fad to another. Kierkegaard was talking about the gulf that exists between the pure and absolute truth as it is known to God and that small approximation of it which man can arrive at through his philosophical efforts. (3) He contrasts that idea with the arrogance of Hegel’s absolute idealism, and the whole concept that human philosophy could devise a “System” which would satisfactorily explain all of reality.

The arrogance which Kierkegaard objected to in Hegel’s “System” is hardly unique to Hegel. The idea that a complete and fully integrated knowledge of all things lies within man’s reach if he will but stretch forth the hands of reason and science to grasp it lies at the heart of most modern thinking. The contrast between this attitude and that of Socrates, who was puzzled by the Delphic Oracle’s proclamation that he was the wisest man in Greece because in his own estimation he “knew nothing”, could not be any greater.

Now it could be argued that Socrates, who laid the foundation of classical philosophy, lived almost two and a half millennia ago, at the dawn of Western thought and that between then and now we have accumulated so much knowledge that while a disavowal of knowledge was an indication of wisdom in his day, humanistic confidence in man’s ability to attain full knowledge is the mark of wisdom in our own. Indeed, the modern point of view would be difficult if not impossible to hold, without some such argument being taken as an assumption. Is it the case, however, that our accumulation of knowledge has been so great as to justify such an assumption, or is it rather that modern man, by an alchemy of redefinition, has reduced the meaning of knowledge itself so as to make our knowledge appear more complete?

There is much that points to the latter explanation as being the most correct one. As far back as the fourteenth century William of Ockham argued against the multiplication of entities and on this basis denied reality to the universals the knowledge of which Plato argued was the truest of knowledge. Renaissance humanism, shifted the focus of human thought away from God and the metaphysical and towards man himself. Rationalists argued that the only true knowledge is that which can be rationally formulated and empiricism reduced the meaning of science to observable information about the natural world and theories explaining that information which can be tested in the laboratory.

The result of all of this is that while our store of facts has indeed grown since Socrates’ day, a growth which has been both exponential and accelerating in modern times, our concept of knowledge itself has been severely reduced. Thus, an attempt at producing a modern integrated system of knowledge is actually less impressive than classical and medieval attempts at synthesizing a worldview, for while the latter had less in the way of raw data to deal with they sought to incorporate what information they had about the whole of reality into their synthesis.

Our idea of truth cannot be unaffected if our understanding of what constitutes knowledge changes. For if truth is goodness as it pertains to thought and language then it must also be the goal of knowledge. Thought is the medium of knowledge, just as language is the medium of thought. If modern man has deluded himself into thinking that he has a fuller, more complete, system of knowledge by shrinking the definition of knowledge how has this affected his concept of the truth?

Modern man continues to acknowledge truth to be the end of knowledge (and hence science) in theory. In practice, however, he has substituted another end for knowledge in place of truth. Modern man’s confidence in modern science rests upon its practical results – its ability to deliver tools and techniques that decrease his burden, increase his leisure, make the necessities and luxuries of life more available, provide relief from pain and illness. This ability of modern science is nothing to be sneered at but it must be acknowledge that this ability is the result of modern man having substituted power for truth as the practical end of knowledge. George Grant, in his critiques of modern science and technology, argued that technology is, like the term itself, a fusion of making and knowing, created by modern man to serve the end of modern science which is the subjection of nature to the will of man. (4) That this is indeed the end of modern science was acknowledged by one of its earliest and most important proponents, when Sir Francis Bacon equated knowledge with power.

One of the results of this has been that facts have taken the place of truth. Facts the modern man has an abundance of. They are the raw material of the kind of science that produces power and domination. They are not the same thing as truth, however, and as Oscar Wilde once put it “When a truth becomes a fact it loses all its intellectual value.”

In his Technology and Empire, George Grant criticized what he called “the most sacred doctrine of our public religion”, saying that it is “not self-evident, as is often claimed”. This is the distinction between a fact” purportedly a description of what is, and a value, a description of what we think ought to be. The former, the modern academy declares to be that with which science has to do. The latter it relegates to the realm of moral judgement. This, Grant maintained, creates problems in both the fields of science and morality. To think about morality in terms of values, Grant frequently argued, was to think about morality solely in terms of our freedom and choices, for values are what modern man has substituted for goodness, the difference being that values are what he chooses for himself whereas goodness is something that is which he is to seek after, strive for, and find. To think of science in terms of facts is to create and maintain the idea of an objective or value-free science when science is actually in the service of the human will. In other words the fact-value distinction as it is commonly understood separates what is from what we decide but puts each in the wrong place.

What Grant said values are to goodness, it can be argued facts are to truth. In the third chapter of his Historical Consciousness, (5) John Lukacs writes that the historian “does deal with things that happened” but that “these things are not necessarily facts” and gives a fascinating history of the word fact, pointing out that when it was first used as a noun it originally referred, as its cognates in other languages continue to refer, to something that was done or accomplished rather than to a category of reality. Just as Grant argued that the fact-value distinction was created to serve the interests of modern technological society by creating a false image of scientific objectivity and subjective morality, Lukacs wrote that “the nineteenth-century cult of Facts was…one of the intellectual concomitants of the Industrial Revolution”. He went on to explode the “Fact-Fiction dichotomy”, by showing that facts are as much the intellectual constructions of men as fictions and to illustrate the difference between fact and truth by writing:

One evening in 1960, after having worked all day, I drove over the hill to see some friends after supper. My account in my 1960 diary reads: “June went by, closely together with H., in our little country house.” “Late on the evening of June 1”, someone could write, “Lukacs left his ailing wife alone in a darkened house, and drove off to spend several hours drinking with friends on a well-lit terrace, in an electric atmosphere with pretty women.” Absolutely correct. Deeply untrue. (6)

The difference between fact and truth illustrated in the above quotation is the difference between accurate details and a right understanding.

This brings us back to that vital distinction between things as they appear to us and things as they are. Facts, at least in the sense the word came to be used by the nineteenth-century in the English-speaking world, belong to the realm of appearances even though the fact-value and fact-fiction dichotomies both attempt to place them in the realm of things as they are. A fact is a thing or an event as interpreted for us by our senses and our own minds. For practical purposes we can safely act as though the facts we possess are things and events as they are or were.

To forget or deny, however, that there is a reality beyond and beneath fact and appearance is as much a mistake as to think that morality consists only of what we choose to value for ourselves. Goodness and truth, in the sense that these are known to and belong to God, are beyond the reach of our human capabilities. We should not, however, settle for values and facts as substitutes, but should strive to achieve goodness and truth while acknowledging the gap between our achievements and the ideals. Only thus can any sort of human excellence be accomplished.

(1) First published in 1846. Kierkegaard wrote the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and the Philosophical Fragments which appeared two years earlier, under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus. The title of Concluding Unscientific Postscript appears to have ironic intentions. It refers to a book of over five hundred pages, written as a “post-script” to a pamphlet of less than one hundred.

(2) Immediately after the quote he says that if Lessing had lived to see Hegel’s “System” he would have embraced it with both hands.

(3) Note that it is in this same work, indeed in the same section discussing G. E. Lessing, that Kierkegaard points out that the only way across this gulf is a leap made in faith. In speaking of this leap, his point was not, as it is often misrepresented as being, that faith is something that one must exercise in the absence of evidence or even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

(4) This is a persistent theme throughout all of Grant’s writings but especially his Technology and Empire (Toronto: Anansi, 1969) and Technology and Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1986).

(5) John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers Ltd., 1994, originally published by Harper & Row of New York in 1968).

(6) Ibid., p. 108.

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