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Leaving Truth Introduction – Gary Wersing

Gary on balcony I first met Keith in 2007 when I responded to a letter he wrote in the Humanist Network News.  Over the years we have exchanged countless emails and discussed many things, but mostly philosophies surrounding his main essay “Truth?” which evolved into the present book Leaving Truth.  Keith has the philosophical background and intellectual firepower to give this philosophy a credibility that I never could.  But it’s fair to say that most people (including myself) misunderstand it at first, and “at first” is as far as most people have gotten so far.  Here then is my attempt to assist the newcomer.

 

Truth and Consequences

The rejection of the truth concept Keith is proposing is a lot to wrap your brain around, and may encounter visceral resistance.  So if you are going to get past Point 1 of is his thesis, you need to know why he is doing it.  Over the years I have watched Keith take loads of crap, sometimes quite disrespectful, from folks he now calls his “brothers and sisters”.  You can be sure there is a reason, and it isn’t that he expects to get rich off of sales of this book!

No less than the future of humankind lay may be in the balance.  A future we can see to be fraught with “rising pollution levels, global warming, rising sea levels, food and fresh water shortage, and disease pandemics.”  Keith and I both imagine a future in which there will be a lot fewer of us, and not in the happy everybody-using-birth-control way we would like to see.  Other epistemologists have expressed theories of truth similar to Keith’s (Keith cites Richard Rorty), and other prophets have identified irrationality as the bottom-line factor preventing humankind from digging itself out of its own mess (Keith cites Ronald Higgins).   Keith marries the two, showing that the locus of humankind’s irrationality is in our truth concept itself (the last place where we would ever have thought to look for it), and pointing a way out.

With so much at stake, you might think he would be asking a lot of you.  Not so.  His most basic request is that those of you who already claim reason as the primary determinant for knowledge stop using the words “true” and “truth”, except in opposition.  If you are an engineer or scientist, you will not find this difficult, as these words almost never come up in daily conversation.  When they do, you can bet someone is trying to attach some bogus weight and authority to his pronouncements, which is not typically tolerated in these circles.  Of course, if you want to do more, you know where to find us.

 

Truth Bearers

I believe much of the resistance to Leaving Truth‘s core epistemology can be answered with a basic analysis of truth bearers.  Keith does not mention this in his book, but it’s very helpful in answering the person who says, “Whatever you say, it is true that I have two arms and a head.”  If we are going to apply the property of “true” in this case, exactly what is it that bears this property?  Most people would say it’s the statement “I have two arms and a head”, or perhaps the belief in it, that bears truth.  To understand Leaving Truth, you must constantly keep in mind that Keith is assuming truth will be applied to statements (or “knowledge proposals” or other synonym) and it never occurs to him that someone may attach “true” to anything else.  But for two-arms-and-a-head guy, it’s not the statement about his body parts that bears truth, it’s the body parts themselves.

 

Leaving Truth

Leaving Truth neither denies the existence of a free standing reality, nor our ability to make valid statements about it; it simply says that any such statements are limited by the interplay between the reality being represented and the mind doing the representing.  The epistemic foundation of Leaving Truth can be proclaimed in a number of succinct ways.  Among them:

  1. “Man is the measure of all things.”  – Protagoras
  2. “The divisions that we can see ourselves to be imposing upon reality cannot, in reason, be taken to be its own intrinsic divisions.” – Keith Sewell
  3. “Nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and there is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence.”  – Richard Rorty

#1 and #2 are equivalent.  As to #1, I would substitute “the observer” for “man”, and ask you to consider how unlike you own world is the world of a mouse not 4 feet from you.  You and the mouse impose different “divisions” on reality, ala statement #2.  Statement #3 is a mathematical trap.  Direct experience does not get you out of it as you must be previously inclined to trust direct experience.  Even those who say “seeing is believing” abandon that slogan when it fails the test of coherence (dreams, hallucinations, phantom limb sensations).

Keith often uses the term “qualitatively superior form of knowledge” in contrast to the admittedly human generated knowledge described above.  Such knowledge – if there were such – would relate to the “actual state of reality”.  It is this knowledge that he identifies with “truth”, and this knowledge that he believes to be a dangerous chimera.  He argues that we have either been using our ‘truth’ concept to refer to a qualitatively superior form of knowledge or we have been using it incoherently.

 

Gaining Knowledge

It would be a sad day indeed if after showing us the cliff we’re heading toward, and dismantling our primary theory of knowledge, Keith would offer nothing in its place.  In Point 3 of the Leaving Truth, he states firmly that knowledge is possible; that is, in a post-truth world it will be quite possible to decide between logically exclusive pairs of proposals.  Indeed, it’s not only possible, but more likely that we will be able to do so once we have thrown off the notion that the deeply held “truths” of each proposal’s proponents need to be “respected”.

The fundamental engine of this new regime is the “knowledge selection procedure” (KSP).  Keith offers his own KSP as an example, but not as a prescription.  Instead, he prescribes only the most basic requirements a KSP would have to satisfy (hint: it needs to be able to select knowledge), and trusts the evolution of ideas to take care of the rest.  This is probably one of the wiser moves in a book not lacking in wisdom.

2 Comments on “Gary’s Introduction”

  1. Bert Bigelow

    I’m a bit behind you in my flight from “truth,” Gary.
    As an old, broken down retired engineer and computer programmer, I am a “nuts and bolts guy,” not much into philosophy.
    As I told Keith, I am a lifelong nonbeliever in the “truths” of organized religions. That’s what drew me here.
    You can read my writings on various subjects, including religion at http://www.bigelowbert.com.

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