Who Knows What’s True?

Tue, 12/22/2020 - 1:15pm

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

This is a tale about how our society has lost sight of “truth” amid the transition from one energy, economic and social space to another. It doesn’t claim to tell you what the “real truth” is. Instead, it’s about how it could be that so many honest people of good will could hold so many conflicting views about what’s true.

It will also introduce you to the Camden Philosophical Society, where I’m a long-standing board member -- despite never having taken university philosophy courses – and where all people of good will are welcome. And this tale will relate a bit of the thinking of a mid-20th Century philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who described “paradigms” in science, assumptions about how the world works that define how scientists view reality for a time, and which may then change.

When the prevailing paradigm shifts – as for example from Aristotelian to Newtonian to Einstein’s physics – the way scientists use words to communicate and convey meaning changes with it. Discussion between groups becomes “incommensurable.”       

At this moment in time, our entire social and economic fabric is undergoing a paradigm shift not unlike Kuhn’s scientific paradigm shift. The meaning we assign to words and the way we communicate may make us incomprehensible – incommensurable, to use Kuhn’s word -- to each other.

If there’s one thing everybody seems to agree on these days, it’s that Americans no longer agree about what’s “true.” Different groups hold different views not merely about who won the last election, say, but also about whether the coronavirus presents a grave danger made worse by doubters who ignore “science,” or an exaggerated threat perpetrated by an establishment afraid of losing power; about whether the main victims in society are devout Christians or people of color.

What’s more, instead of labeling this a split in opinion, we see dueling realities. The word “liar” is flung at those who say things we don’t like. People left, right and center insist angrily that their “opponents” are not just mistaken, but factually and “obviously” wrong.

How can it be that something that seems self-evident to many can appear self-evidently different to others? Maybe attributes like beauty are in the eye of the beholder, or to use the philosophical term, are subjective. But the world is full of objective facts we can all see, like whether it’s raining or not; or measure with a simple instrument, like what the temperature is; or on which we can find reliable “expert” opinion, such as how many people in the US have been diagnosed with coronavirus or who won the last election.

Maybe we could argue about whether the diagnoses are all correct or how many people have coronavirus that hasn’t been diagnosed, but those are “known unknowns,” to which answers could theoretically be obtained. Facts are still facts – until suddenly they aren’t. Until we can’t agree on things we would once have assumed were incontrovertible facts.

This is where Kuhn’s theories about science come in. Although Kuhn himself never claimed that this system applied in everyday life, I’m far from alone in thinking that his theories do help us understand social and economic relationships.

Here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains Kuhn’s basic thesis: “The functions of a paradigm are to supply puzzles for scientists to solve and to provide the tools for their solution. A crisis in science arises when confidence is lost in the ability of the paradigm to solve particularly worrying puzzles called ‘anomalies’. Crisis is followed by a scientific revolution if the existing paradigm is superseded by a rival.“

The functioning political and economic paradigm in the US virtually since its founding extols private property, free markets, economic growth, and human “dominion” over land, animals and natural resources. Behind it all, privately produced coal, oil and other fossil fuels converted the energy of past ages into the engine for economic growth.

However, we’re now coming to understand how that fossil fuel engine is endangering the climate, how centuries of economic growth have created numerous forms of pollution that threaten the planet, and how unregulated free markets can create untenable inequities and inequalities within and between countries. Something has to give. People on both the political left and right – and some in the center – see that “confidence is lost in the ability of the paradigm to solve… anomalies.”

However, that paradigm has defined American and much of European reality for more than 200 years. People didn’t just believe in these things, they held them to be self-evident truths. To quote American cultural philosopher Frederic Jameson, within our culture, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Further complicating things, there’s no broad agreement on a replacement paradigm, or even clearly competing candidates for the role. Suddenly a phrase from previously obscure 1920s Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci has gotten almost 50 million hits on Google: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born.”

If you put all that together in Kuhn’s framework, is it any surprise we Westerners have trouble agreeing on what is true, and indeed in communicating at all on many issues? Much is “incommensurable” within the fog of transition.

Not only is the Camden Philosophical Society where I first read Thomas Kuhn, it’s now holding online monthly discussions on the broad theme “Is Capitalism compatible with environmental sustainability." Group readings on this theme have ranged from Milton Friedman to Karl Marx to “degrowth” advocates, so don’t expect neatly packaged answers. But you might get some insights into the “real” questions. Details can be found on the Camden Public Library website.