One of the first things I had to grapple with in trying to understand the LT philosophy is how you square what you might call “objectivity” with lack of Truth. Indeed, what would objectivity even mean in this case? To survive as long as I did – as an atheist in a sea of believers, with problems requiring divine intervention thrown in for good measure and no internet to turn to – I had to hold to the proposition that X could be true even if everyone in the world disbelieved X (or at least everyone except me). To subscribe to LT was literally to deny the validity of that which had kept me sane, or so I thought at first.
I have long seen atheism as a well man’s luxury. In my pre-internet view, as a bipolar alcoholic, I had no “right” to cling to atheism, and doing so might even have been construed as a betrayal of the people who were trying to help me. And yet the “truth” would remain what it was, even if its last defender threw in the towel.
To kick the last epistemological leg I was standing on out from under me at that point in my life would have been devastating. But thankfully that’s not when I met Keith and Leaving Truth doesn’t just leave us there once properly understood. A new regime is offered, that of the “knowledge selection procedure” (KSP). According to “Gary’s Intro”, Keith leaves it to us to spin off our own KSPs, but does a pretty good job of advancing one of his own in “Invitation”.
What really prompted this blog entry was “Keith’s Corner” in the August 2014 newsletter (yes, this blog has been sitting in a “drafts” folder for way too long). If you missed it, reading “Invitation” will get you to about the same place for our purposes, except that in the “Keith’s Corner” version were the words
Can even our most emotionally appealing proposals honestly be worth the mind damage of deliberate internal obfuscation; of maintaining as knowledge proposals that we can see to be antithetical to clear thought? And if we insist on saying that it is okay, then how and where can we redraw the objective line? If we choose emotional appeal as our most powerful knowledge determinant at this fundamental level, then at what more superficial level will we be able to reject it?
What perked me right up was to see that the word “objective” not only had a place, but apparently a very important place, in Sewellean thought. Based on some further discussion with Keith, his position is that ‘reason’ developed directly from our sensory observations. To quote from the beginning of LT’s Point #6:
“Reason” is averaged and extrapolated observation. It is, for any particular mind, the best present understanding of reality’s most fundamental regularities that that mind has been able to achieve in terms of the units into which it has divided reality (its words, numbers, musical notation and so on).
‘Objectivity’, then, is merely our deliberate use of reason rather than emotional appeal in our selection of knowledge.
From this position there can be no final or ultimate objectivity. If there could be then its output would indeed be ‘truth’. What there can be is our honest selection of proposals as knowledge on the basis of their passing some test or set of tests that we can see to be functional; that is, a KSP. Ironically, this leads to a more – rather than less – powerful style of argument. If we are in disagreement about something relatively simple and emotionally neutral; say, the present state of the weather, then we can safely assume a shared KSP, open up the door, and go out to check it together. But if our disagreement is about a complex and emotive issue; say, the existence of a god who has pronounced certain rules for our behavior, then we are warranted in seeking agreement at the KSP level before proceeding to the question itself. That, we maintain, can make a lot of our famously intractable disagreements finally solvable.
At this point I must digress a little, because not all KSPs are equally coherent or useful. I could create a KSP that merely rejected all proposals. That would not be coherent (a proposal and its opposite would both be rejected) nor very useful. In Leaving Truth, Keith presents three bare bones requirements any KSP must meet:
- It needs to be functional (to clearly select some proposals as knowledge, while equally clearly rejecting others).
- It needs to be coherent (to be explicitly incapable of selecting logically exclusive proposals).
- It needs to be pragmatically feasible from the position of our present knowledge (to be understandable as yielding at least all of our current proposals that we can see to be essential to our survival).
In simplified form, what I have dubbed the Sewell conjecture is this: “Any two KSPs dedicated to the above three requirements will pass the same set of proposals as knowledge.” It’s simplified because the proposals a KSP passes change over time, based on a growing database of observations,* so what we have is more of a convergence that a snapshot agreement. KSPs dedicated to the above three requirements will be forced to converge on the same set of knowledge proposals when their supporters debate honestly among themselves.
So what does all this mean in the real world? Here goes the gauntlet hitting the floor: Our position is that no KSP meeting the above three requirements can be offered for belief in any of our emotionally seductive irrational knowledge systems, explicitly including all of our theistic religions. Its implication for objectivity is that we can now have it more clearly and certainly than we ever previously thought. We can never have enough certainty to warrant coercion of our intellectual opponents, but we can have enough confidence in our own KSPs to invite our opponents to stand with us on the snowfield and explain to us how and why they maintain that it is black.
* I am using the word “observation” expansively here. Hearing someone say “X” is to observe them saying X, and may or may not be a factor in having your KSP pass X. Ditto reading X in a book, or a scientific paper, or a bathroom wall, each of which might lend it a different number of “credence points” toward passage. Observing X with your own eyes is great, but even that doesn’t settle the matter or few people would believe the atomic theory of matter. And yet everything is based on the personal observation. If I am going to believe a book or a paper or a news account, I must first decide if it is trustworthy. I do this by applying the filter of coherency to my own database of personal observations, including but not limited to observations of other books, papers, and news accounts.