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18 March 2021

Does the truth set us free?

A commitment to truth requires accepting limitations on our beliefs and actions, but it is also a precondition for engaging with the world rather than retreating from it.

By Ulrika Carlsson

Jesus said the truth will set us free. Francis Bacon said knowledge is power. Yet to recognise something as true is to be influenced by evidence or affected by the world – and in many ways knowledge limits our freedom.

Climate change science calls us to alter our way of life and make sacrifices in order to avoid disaster. The urge to reject this science is strong: people try to find weak points in theories and look away from empirical evidence to maintain their freedom to eat meat or drive to work.

Of course, critical scrutiny is crucial in science and an intrinsic part of scientific progress. The pursuit of knowledge goes hand in hand with doubt. The more intent a person is on obtaining knowledge, the less likely she is to have firm beliefs. That is why philosophy – the love of truth – often makes us more sceptical rather than knowledgeable. Socrates liked to say that he knew nothing except the fact that he knew nothing.

This doesn’t mean that all doubt is sound or that all scepticism is motivated by a love of knowledge. There is a form of scepticism which cannot be taken as a scientific or otherwise theoretical attitude at all. So although climate science denial presents itself as a kind of doubt, based on an alternative interpretation of evidence, much of it should be understood as a practical attitude. It is not interested in knowledge to begin with. Instead, it seeks freedom from knowledge.

That is how the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood Socrates’s self-proclaimed ignorance: it was a rebellion against knowledge and an assertion of himself against objective reality. Kierkegaard called this attitude “irony” and he distinguished it carefully from doubt. Doubt is something we suffer insofar as we are invested in the truth but find it hard to verify our beliefs. The doubter feels alienated from reality and wants to get back in touch with it. The ironist, on the other hand, triumphs in this alienation. He does not love the truth; he loves the freedom that comes from not believing.

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In Plato’s dialogue Meno, for instance, Meno explains to Socrates with great confidence what virtue is. For a man, virtue is to administer the business of the state and to further the interests of his friends; for a woman it is to take care of the household and obey her husband. In response, Socrates mocks the idea that virtue might be different for different kinds of people. This might sound like a progressive argument for equality between the sexes. But Socrates’s point is a purely formal or linguistic one.

If two things are each correctly called “virtue”, they must have a common essence. That essence can be expressed in a definition that will apply equally to both of them in a way that abstracts from what is particular to each. Thus, Socrates suggests that virtue involves performing one’s tasks properly, whether that task concerns the home or the state.

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In this way, Socrates shepherds Meno out of the concrete world toward that realm of ideas which can be accessed only through the mind. And while he appears to explain what virtue is, Socrates has not helped Meno understand virtue. At best, he has only shown Meno what it would be to know the nature of virtue, namely, to grasp an abstract idea. By abstracting the concept of virtue from any concrete circumstances, Socrates empties it of its content and in doing so frees his beliefs from outside influence. 

In yet another dialogue of Plato’s, Protagoras, Socrates makes a similar move when he puts off the possibility of understanding virtue indefinitely. Virtue, Socrates now says, consists in the art of measuring long-term goods against more immediate ones, adjusting for the perspectival distortion by which present gratifications loom larger than future happiness.

Yet such calculations, Kierkegaard notes, are impossible to carry out in practice, since we can’t know in advance what the consequences of our current actions will be. So again, we have an abstract understanding of virtue that we can’t apply in real life. To an ironist like Socrates, this is liberating: it exempts us from being virtuous. We are not bound by any norms.

In Kierkegaard’s words, abstraction enabled Socrates to “soar above” empirical reality and all cultural constructs, and thereby freed him from anything worldly that might bind him and determine his beliefs. In fact, Socrates’s great discovery, according to Kierkegaard, is that belief is not entirely passive. That is because belief – for instance, that the creature I see across the street is a human being or that some person I know is virtuous – involves abstract ideas, like “human being”, and “virtue”, which we cannot derive from perception and which do not exist in nature but are conceived by the mind.

***

This notion of irony as a practical attitude different from doubt can be applied to a lot of climate science scepticism, such as the right-wing Breitbart journalist John Nolte’s facile and grossly fallacious argument which cherry-picks a few dozen failed scientific predictions in order to reject all ecological science.

Of course, irony manifests itself in a great deal of political thought, which has a thorny relation to facts, nature and culture. We see it at work when advocates of free immigration assert that national borders are purely imaginary and then infer from this that it is illegitimate to deny anyone entry into a territory.

Certainly, national borders are not natural entities. But political theorists and activists deal with the realm of human value and meaning, and human beings do not and cannot live only in the natural world. We make worlds for ourselves that go beyond nature: norms and laws, cultures and states. Political scientists and activists therefore cannot dismiss cultural constructs wholesale as unreal.

The bird’s-eye perspective from which national borders don’t exist is far too abstract for those studying society or trying to change it. Moreover, it is only by constructing other “fictions”, such as human rights and international organisations, that we can posit an obligation to offer refuge to people fleeing war zones. The rejection of cultural constructs in the argument against borders is thus very selective, and this selectiveness suggests that the denial of borders follows, not from a love of truth, but from a certain freedom from reality.

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Consider too the fierce resistance of some feminists to research in evolutionary biology that finds an innate basis for psychological and behavioural differences between the sexes. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, for example, casts doubt on all of science by way of discrediting such findings. The discipline of biology, she points out, has a history of “encoding and justifying bias” by purporting to prove that women and non-Europeans are intellectually inferior to white men.

Although it is difficult to establish with certainty that a given gender difference is biological rather than merely cultural, the fact that women and men don’t have the same chromosomal make-up gives us a prima facie reason to expect real differences that go beyond basic physical characteristics. If Prescod-Weinstein’s argument were an example of doubt, her critique should end in a call for researchers to scrutinise their methodologies to produce more secure results – not to abandon their field of research altogether.

As it is, Prescod-Weinstein’s dismissal is ironic in that she rejects the very possibility of unbiased science in a patriarchal world like ours. Only if we ran a study of men and women with a control group taken from a culture in which boys and girls were raised in exactly the same way could we find out which gender differences are biological and which result from socialisation.

Yet that’s an elusive prospect. In practice, the project of establishing once and for all that these differences have a biological basis must be indefinitely deferred, just as Socrates’s appeal to future goods indefinitely deferred our ability to understand virtue. In the meantime, we are left with more abstract notions of “man” and “woman”. And on the issue of gender differences, Prescod-Weinstein is, like Kierkegaard’s Socrates, happy to trade knowledge for freedom.

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My point is not to reject these political aims and ideals – asylum for refugees, equality for women – nor to suggest that politics should not aim at liberation. But political freedom is not the same as freedom from knowledge. This is first of all because facts do not by themselves generate norms. Even if we could conclude once and for all that certain gender differences have a biological basis, that would not invalidate the pursuit of equal rights for women. If evolution has made men more assertive than women, that does not mean they have good reason to be so.

But secondly, facts must play some role in the way norms are applied and turned into policy. This requires a genuine love of truth and an openness to empirical reality. It cannot be achieved by ironically distancing ourselves from the world. It may be – as some political theorists hold – that human rights cannot be secured unless the world is divided into territories whose borders are controlled by a state whose institutions are bound by exclusive obligations to its citizens. Such a fact, if it is a fact, must be taken into account as we try to answer the plight of refugees.

In this sense, knowledge is indeed power. And by listening to climate science in order to protect life on the planet, by taking evolutionary biology seriously to understand the different existential conditions of men and women, and by acknowledging that fictional borders might be legitimate, knowledge provides us with a more meaningful freedom than irony ever can: the freedom to act and engage with the world rather than distance ourselves from it.

Ulrika Carlsson completed her PhD in Philosophy at Yale University. She is the author of Kierkegaard and Philosophical Eros.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.