April 2017 Archives

An Important Insight about Scientific Truth


lies v truths.jpeg

I found myself reading an old (1944) paper by Erich Fromm while I was digging into one of his books, The Sane Society, I have just discovered. Having read a lot of Fromm, who is one of my prime sources of inspiration, I was delighted to find yet another equally meaningful work. I won’t comment on the book’s main theme here, but will say that his questioning the sanity of societies like ours is as valid in 2017 as it was in 1955 when the book was published.

The following excerpt comes from an earlier paper of his that Fromm used for this book. The paper, “Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis,” starts with a discussion of scientific truths, which I find very relevant almost 75 years after the paper was published.*

The history of science is a history of erroneous statements. Yet these erroneous statements which mark the progress of thought have a particular quality: they are productive. And they are not just errors either; they are statements, the truth of which is veiled by misconceptions, is clothed in erroneous and inadequate concepts. They are rational visions which contain the seed of truth, which matures and blossoms in the continuous effort of mankind to arrive at objectively valid knowledge about man and nature. Many profound insights about man and society have first found expression in myths and fairy tales, others in metaphysical speculations, others in scientific assumptions which have proven to be incorrect after one or two generations.

It is not difficult to see why the evolution of human thought proceeds in this way. The aim of any thinking human being is to arrive at the whole truth, to understand the totality of phenomena which puzzle him. He has only one short life and must want to have a vision of the truth about the world in this short span of time. But he could only understand this totality if his life span were identical with that of the human race. It is only in the process of historical evolution that man develops techniques of observation, gains greater objectivity as an observer, collects new data which are necessary to know if one is to understand the whole. There is a gap, then, between what even the greatest genius can visualize as the truth, and the limitations of knowledge which depend on the accident of the historical phase he happens to live in. Since we cannot live in suspense, we try to fill out this gap with the material of knowledge at hand, even if this material is lacking in the validity which the essence of the vision may have.

Every discovery which has been made and will be made has a long history in which the truth contained in it finds a less and less veiled and distorted expression and approaches more and more adequate formulations. The development of scientific thought is not one in which old statements are discarded as false and replaced by new and correct ones; it is rather a process of continuous reinterpretation of older statements, by which their true kernel is freed from distorting elements. The great pioneers of thought, of whom Freud is one, express ideas which determine the progress of scientific thinking for centuries. Often the workers in the field orient themselves in one of two ways: they fail to differentiate between the essential and the accidental, and defend rigidly the whole system of the master, thus blocking the process of reinterpretation and clarification; or they make the same mistake of failing to differentiate between the essential and the accidental, and equally rigidly fight against the old theories and try to replace them by new ones of their own, In both the orthodox and the rebellious rigidity, the constructive evolution of the vision of the master is blocked. The real task, however, is to reinterpret, to sift out, to recognize that certain insights had to be phrased and understood in erroneous concepts because of the limitations of thought peculiar to the historical phase in which they were first formulated. We may feel then that we sometimes understand the author better than he understood himself, but that we are only capable of doing so by the guiding light of his original vision.

A couple of comments on why I find this interesting. The second paragraph is an argument that part of the essence of being human, as opposed to just any old animal, is “to understand to understand the totality of phenomena which puzzle him.” In the book, he expands on this, arguing that the key feature that separates humans from all the other animal species is our existential longing, the drive to live in a meaningful manner. When we live in a way that is incoherent with that, as he argues we do in the insane modern world, we, as individuals fail to attain the potential of our humanness. We do not and cannot flourish in the language I use. Deliberate lying about the world only pushes us further away.

The second comes in the last paragraph in the part I have bolded. I read this as saying that scientific facts are historically situated and reflect “reinterpretations” that have been made over time. If some facts have persisted without such reinterpretations, they may no longer truthfully represent the world. This thought is central to my critique of modernity and lies at the base of my argument that two basic “scientific” models about the nature of the world and its human beings need such reinterpretation in the light of what we now know about both of them some four centuries after these ‘truths” were uttered. The modern scientific establishment continues to defend the masters of these beliefs, Rene Descartes and Adam Smith, and so continues to block progress toward truths that are critical in acting in today’s world.

  • American Sociological Review (1944) 9 (4), pp. 380-384

Keep Digging Deeper


reality slaps

John Searle, the American philosopher of the mind I often draw on, wrote that institutional facts are “the glue that holds civilization together.” I find this assertion very important in this time when our civilization seems to becoming unglued. To understand this, you need, first, to know what Searle means by institutional facts.

Searle divides the world of facts into two classes, brute facts and institutional facts. Brute facts are assertions about manifestly real states. I am a male. My house is in Lexington, MA. The Earth is approximately spherical and about 93 million miles from the Sun. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second. The validity of such facts can be established by observation. Negative brute facts, like “I do not own a dog,” are important, but cannot be positively validated by observation because it is always possible that the observer has missed something. I will come back to the role such facts play in social life but want to turn to the other class now.

Institutional facts are statements about the world that have been entirely created in language and subsequently have taken on the same sense of reality as brute facts convey. Institutional facts are created by a form of speech act, Declarations. The words uttered create a new reality that did not previously exist. The Constitution of the United States created a new polity. Naming my son Tom creating a new discrete individual. A football referee signaling a touchdown changes the world for the players and spectators. The game of football is an institution created entirely in language. Its rulebook contains 71 pages of detailed regulations and definitions. I would guess there are about a thousand individual entries. The Commissioner has the authority to make the rules. Referees have been delegated authority to enforce them. This year, questionable calls by a referee are remotely adjudicated by the Commissioner’s agents.

Virtually every intentional action that every human being undertakes occurs within an institution and is guided by the rules and powers associated with the institution. Individuals and inanimate objects are endowed with powers as part of establishing the institution. A policeman is just another human that has been empowered to make arrests. Neither “policeman” nor “arrest” has any meaning at all outside of the declaration that created the new distinction. Winning is always an institutional fact, differing only in details from setting to setting.

The process by which newborns become full-fledged Homo sapiens is primarily one of acquiring brute and institutional facts about the world. We learn about the isness or existential status of objects and processes as we are socialized and educated. “I am John” eventually becomes a pointer to my body. I learn the difference between an apple and an orange. As I experience different situations in different institutional settings, I accumulate the facts. I learn the rules and roles governing activities at the dinner table, in my schoolroom, later in the workplace and public arena, and so on. The entire body of such knowledge forms a network of facts that guide all of my social actions throughout my intentional life, the part that corresponds to my being sufficiently socialized and learned to be held responsible for my actions.

At the same time I acquire a set of strategies about how to respond to the factual context I am constantly being exposed to. These accumulate similarly to the facts to form a background of capabilities I call on whenever I decide to act intentionally. Reactive, unintentional emotional responses are formed differently. They are very important in social life, but I will not discuss them further in this post. The network of institutional and brute fact conforms to Gilbert Ryle’s category, knowing that; and the background of capabilities to his term, knowing how.

Since most of our life is spent in institutional settings with other actors, our actions are largely coordinated by the institutional rules and roles. If all are followed, action tends to move effortlessly in the desired direction. Whenever someone fails to follow a rule or act out of character (beyond the established, legitimate role), trouble generally follows. The smooth flow of activity stops; the actors may get angry or frustrated. Coercive means may have to be employed to get the system working again. Simultaneously, I may begin to question the competence of a co-worker to do what she was expected to. I might begin to wonder about the trustworthiness of my boss after I discover that he hasn’t been straightforward with me. I could observe that the environment has changed since we learned the rules and roles, so, perhaps, they no longer correspond with brute reality.

Reality will always win the game. No matter how firmly we believe we are acting according to both brute and institutional facts, our outcomes will depart from our expectations if these facts are not true, that is depart from reality. Our assessments of the failures to get what we had acted toward can vary greatly. We may simply be disappointed, but come to understand that something had changed. In these situations, we may make adjustments in the rules and try again. If our questioning points to another actor, we may express anger or frustration temporarily. If the issues continue, we may add a level of distrust along with the anger. At the extreme, actors can simply exit the institutional game. (For more on this important possibility, see the work, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, by Albert Hirschman.)

When broken situations arise in small institutions like families or business organizations, people often turn to outside coaches, consultants, or therapists to return the situation to normal (expected) operations. Such practitioners are good at changing rules overlooked by the players, or modifying the roles, similarly. Coaches can improve individual performance so as to avoid breakdowns. As the size of the institution increases, say to the size of a nation, the opportunities for breakdown grow for many reasons. The roles and rules, in particular, those that define winning, may not be clear. Because the importance of following the rules and abiding by the roles is critical to the smooth functioning of the institution, big institutions like societies and their major component institutions-governments, economies, educational, and so on-are always going to experience breakdowns and subsequent assessments by the actors in those institutions.

The history of humanity is, at its most basic level, is a series of institutional changes; each one representing an unwillingness of the actors to continue to play by the same rules or to accept the same roles. The last of these major shifts, the emergence of modernity and liberal polities, has lasted for centuries with some changes, but largely maintaining the same rules and roles. US society has been held together by the Constitution and its derivative institutions: the tripartite structure of our government, and lower-level ones like the two-party political system. The economy has been a capitalistic market, mostly free from government intervention, designed by the principles of neo-classical economics. Playing by the rules of this complex set of interlinked institution is presumed by the actors (citizens) to create a winning situation as (loosely) defined by the “American Dream,” the promises of the Declaration of Independence, or other normative sources like political party promises, etc.

When the promises remain unsatisfied for some time, the dissatisfied actors will likely exhibit any or all of the responses I listed above for general institutional failures. How they transform their feelings will depend on the opportunities for gaining satisfaction. I believe that this last sentence is the key to understanding the seemingly abrupt turn in the last election cycle.

Early in the life of the US polity, one highly visible feature, as observed by de Tocqueville, was the myriad civic associations he saw during his visit. More recently, as depicted in Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, such institutions have largely disappeared with the associated loss of what Putnam called social capital. I would use Searle’s term of “glue” instead. The unsatisfied actors chose the exit strategy. The same strategy can be seen in recent trends in voting participation. Exiting the electoral process seems to me to be a symptom of a larger dissatisfaction with the overall political economy. Many cannot find jobs; when they can, the pay is inadequate to make a real difference.

I used the word, commoditization, in some recent posts to describe what appears to be happening to many people. It is no wonder to me that the false promises to change the system and restore old glories made by Trump and others drew many to give the political system another shot. But those promises are certain to fail because the anger and dissatisfaction are being directed at the wrong institutions, such as the political, the economic, or the moral/ethical.

My argument in presenting this partial snapshot of disaffection and loss of connection is to claim that attempts to restore trust and involvement by addressing socio-economic superstructure, like the party system, are focused on the wrong sources of the problems. It is interesting to me that most of the proposed fixes address the two categories of knowing that and knowing how. Trump rode into the presidency on a wave of alternate facts (knowing that) and promises to change the way things were done (knowing how), but neither the pundits nor the politicians have the right handle on knowing why. Without a good grasp on that form of knowledge, any solutions and their implied promises are destined to fall short.

The critical theory that grew from Marx’s analysis represented his concern that conventional scholarship failed to dig deep enough into institutional foundations to know why they were failing to achieve normative ends. But even he and his followers failed to look much deeper than the political economy to unearth its roots in the basic institutional rules of modernity. He thought the operative institutions rested on a base of the forces and relations of production. My work takes critical theory a layer or two deeper to two institutional, importantly, not brute, facts about the nature of the natural world and the essence of human beings. For anyone coming to this blog for the first time, the two are 1) the mechanistic model of the world and the epistemological fiction that science will give us all the knowledge we need to interact with it, and 2) the self-interested human being model of economics

Unless one is very, very careful about these two “facts,” they are generally taken as brute, objectively true descriptions of the world, but they are not. They were declarations by two very prominent natural philosophers of the time, Rene Descartes and Adam Smith. They do not even have the imprimatur of today’s scientific (institutional) facts. They are little more than what we might label, mere opinion. In their place, we should be treating the world as a complex system, one that requires a completely different epistemology to understand and using distinctly different processes to “govern.” Humans are caring, not inherently selfish, beings.

I have expanded on this thesis in all my work and in many previous entries on this blog. I feel it is necessary to keep repeating because I see so many academics and practitioners of many stripes focused on the superstructure. It is always important to fix leaks in the dike, but, if the dike is to become overtopped, it is also essential to think and act at a more fundamental level. I have been searching for a word to describe the level of thought and action consonant with the nature of the problems facing us. “Enlightened” comes to mind, but its history suggests that the light hasn’t yet shone on the understanding (knowing that) necessary to attain the inherent and socially-created potential of human beings and tend to the needs of the surrounding and nurturing world.