Veritism as Fake Philosophy: Reply to Baker and Oreskes, Steve Fuller

SERRC —  September 15, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Fuller, Steve. “Veritism as Fake Philosophy: Reply to Baker and Oreskes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 47-51.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3M3

Image credit: elycefeliz, via flickr

John Stuart Mill and Karl Popper would be surprised to learn from Baker and Oreskes (2017) that freedom is a ‘non-cognitive’ value. Insofar as freedom—both the freedom to assert and the freedom to deny—is a necessary feature of any genuine process of inquiry, one might have thought that it was one of the foundational values of knowledge. But of course, Baker and Oreskes are using ‘cognitive’ in a more technical sense, one introduced by the logical positivists and remains largely intact in contemporary analytic epistemology and philosophy of science. It was also prevalent in post-war history and sociology of science prior to the rise of STS. This conception of the ‘cognitive’ trades on a clear distinction between what lies ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ a conceptual framework—in this case, the conceptual framework of science. But there’s a sting in the tail.

An Epistemic Game

Baker and Oreskes don’t seem to realize that this very conception of the ‘cognitive’ is in the post-truth mould that I defend. After all, for the positivists, ‘truth’ is a second order concept that lacks any determinate meaning except relative to the language in terms of which knowledge claims can be expressed. It was in this spirit that Rudolf Carnap thought that Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigm’ had put pragmatic flesh on the positivists’ logical bones (Reisch 1991). (It is worth emphasizing that Carnap passed this judgement before Kuhn’s fans turned him into the torchbearer for ‘post-positivist’ philosophy of science.) At the same time, this orientation led the positivists to promote—and try to construct—a universal language of science into which all knowledge claims could be translated and evaluated.

All of this shows that the positivists weren’t ‘veritists’ because, unlike Baker and Oreskes, they didn’t presuppose the existence of some univocal understanding of truth that all sincere inquirers will ultimately reach. Rather, truth is just a general property of the language that one decides to use—or the game one decides to play. In that case ‘truth’ corresponds to satisfying ‘truth conditions’ as specified by the rules of a given language, just as ‘goal’ corresponds to satisfying the rules of play in a given game.

To be sure, the positivists complicated matters because they also took seriously that science aspires to command universal assent for its knowledge claims, in which case science’s language needs to be set up in a way that enables everyone to transact their knowledge claims inside it; hence, the need to ‘reduce’ such claims to their calculable and measurable components. This effectively put the positivists in partial opposition to all the existing sciences of their day, each with its own parochial framework governed by the rules of its distinctive language game. The need to overcome this tendency explains the project of an ‘International Encyclopedia of Unified Science’.

In short, logical positivism was about designing an epistemic game—which they called ‘science’—that anyone could play and potentially win.

Given some of the things that Baker and Oreskes impute to me, they may be surprised to learn that I actually think that the logical positivists—as well as Mill and Popper—were on the right track. Indeed, I have always believed this. But these views have nothing to do with ‘veritism’, which I continue to put in scare quotes because, in the spirit of our times, it’s a bit of ‘fake philosophy’. It may work to shore up philosophical authority in public but fails to capture the conflicting definitions and criteria that philosophers themselves have offered not only for ‘truth’ but also for such related terms as ‘evidence’ and ‘validation’. All of these key epistemological terms are essentially contested concepts within philosophy. It is not simply that philosophers disagree on what is, say, ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’. (I summarize the issue here.)

Philosophical Fakeness

Richard Rorty became such a hate figure among analytic philosophers because he called out the ‘veritists’ on their fakeness. Yes, philosophers can tell you what truth is, but just as long as you accept a lot of contentious assumptions—and hope those capable of contending those assumptions aren’t in the room when you’re speaking!  Put another way, Rorty refused to adopt a ‘double truth’ doctrine for philosophy, whereby amongst themselves philosophers adopt a semi-detached attitude towards various conflicting conceptions of truth while at the same time presenting a united front to non-philosophers, lest these masses start to believe some disreputable things.

The philosophical ‘fakeness’ of veritism is exemplified in the following sentence, which appears in Baker and Oreskes’ (2017, 69) latest response:

On the contrary, truth (along with evidence, facts, and other words science studies scholars tend to relegate to scare quotes) is a far more plausible choice for one of a potential plurality of regulative ideals for an enterprise that, after all, does have an obviously cognitive function.

The sentence prima facie commits the category mistake of presuming that ‘truth’ is one more—albeit preferred—possible regulative ideal of science alongside, say, instrumental effectiveness, cultural appropriateness, etc. However, ‘truth’ in the logical positivist sense is a feature of all regulative ideals of science, each of which should be understood as specifying a language game that is governed by its own validation procedures—the rules of the game, if you will—in terms of which one theory is determined (or ‘verified’) to be, say, more effective than another or more appropriate than another.

Notice I said ‘prima facie.’ My guess is that when Baker and Oreskes say ‘truth’ is a regulative ideal of science, they are simply referring to a social arrangement whereby the self-organizing scientific community is the final arbiter on all knowledge claims accepted by society at large. As they point out, the scientific community can get things wrong—but things become wrong only when the scientific community says so, and they become fixed only when the scientific community says so. In short, under the guise of ‘truth’, Baker and Oreskes are advocating what I have called ‘cognitive authoritarianism’ (Fuller 1988, chapter 12).

Before ending with a brief discussion of what I think may be true about ‘veritism’, it is difficult not to notice the moralism associated with Baker and Oreskes’ invocation of ‘truth’. This carries over to such other pseudo-epistemic concepts as ‘trust’ and ‘reliability’, which are seen as marks of the scientific character, whereby ‘scientific’ attaches both to a body of knowledge and the people who produce that knowledge. I say ‘pseudo’ because there is no agreed measure of these qualities.

Regarding Trust

‘Trust’ is a quality whose presence is felt mainly as a double absence, namely, a studied refusal to examine knowledge claims for oneself which is subsequently judged to have had non-negative consequences.  (I have called trust a ‘phlogistemic’ concept for this reason, as it resembles the pseudo-element phlogiston, Fuller 1996). Indeed, in opposition to this general sensibility, I have gone so far as to argue that universities should be in the business of ‘epistemic trust-busting’. Here is my original assertion:

In short, universities function as knowledge trust-busters whose own corporate capacities of “creative destruction” prevent new knowledge from turning into intellectual property (Fuller 2002, 47; italics in original).

By ‘corporate capacities’, I meant the various means at the university’s disposal to ensure that the people in a position to take forward new knowledge are not simply part of the class of those who created it in the first place. More concretely, of course I have in mind ordinary teaching that aims to express even the most sophisticated concepts in terms ordinary students can understand and use. But also I mean to include ‘affirmative action’ policies that are specifically designed to incorporate a broader range of people than might otherwise attend the university. Taken together, these counteract the ‘neo-feudalism’ to which academic knowledge production is prone—‘rent-seeking’, if you will—which Baker and Oreskes appear unable to recognize.

As for ‘reliability’, it is a term whose meaning depends on specifying the conditions—say, in the design of an experiment—under which a pattern of behaviour is expected to occur. Outside of such tightly defined conditions, which is where most ‘scientific controversies’ happen, it is not clear how cases should be classified and counted, and hence what ‘reliable’ means. Indeed, STS has not only drawn attention to this fact but it has gone further—say, in the work of Harry Collins—to question whether even lab-based reliability is possible without some sort of collusion between researchers. In other words, the social accomplishment of ‘reliable knowledge’ is at least partly an expression of solidarity among members of the scientific community—a closing of the ranks, to put it less charitably.

An especially good example of the foregoing is what has been dubbed ‘Climategate’, which involved the releasing of e-mails from the UK’s main climate science research group in response to a journalist’s Freedom of Information request. While no wrongdoing was formally established, the e-mails did reveal the extent to which scientists from across the world effectively conspired to present the data for climate change in ways that obscured interpretive ambiguities, thereby pre-empting possible appropriations by so-called ‘climate change sceptics’. To be sure, from the symmetrical normative stance of classic STS, Climategate simply reveals the micro-processes by which a scientific consensus is normally and literally ‘manufactured’. Nevertheless, I doubt that Baker and Oreskes would turn to Climategate as their paradigm case of a ‘scientific consensus’. But why not?

The reason is that they refuse to acknowledge the labour that is involved in securing collective assent over any significant knowledge claim. As I observed in my original response (2017) to Baker and Oreskes, one might be forgiven for concluding from reading the likes of Merton, Habermas and others who see consensus formation as essential to science that an analogue of the ‘invisible hand’ is at play. On their telling, informed people draw the same conclusions from the same evidence. The actual social interaction of the scientists carries little cognitive weight in its own right. Instead it simply reinforces what any rational individual is capable of inferring for him- or herself in the same situation. At most, other people provide additional data points but they don’t alter the rules of right reasoning. Ironically, considering Baker and Oreskes’ allergic reaction to any talk of science as a market, this image of Homo scientificus to which they attach themselves seems rather like what they don’t like about Homo oeconomicus.

Climbing the Mountain

The contrasting view of consensus formation, which I uphold, is more explicitly ‘rhetorical’. It appeals to a mix of strategic and epistemic considerations in a setting where the actual interaction between the parties sets the parameters that defines the scope of any possible consensus. Although Kuhn also valorized consensus as the glue that holds together normal science puzzle-solving, to his credit he clearly saw its rhetorical and even coercive character, from pedagogy to peer review. For this reason, Kuhn is the one who STSers still usually cite as a precursor on this matter. Unlike Baker and Oreskes, he didn’t resort to the fake philosophy of ‘veritism’ to cover up the fact that truth is ultimately a social achievement.

Finally, I suggested that there may be a way of redeeming ‘veritism’ from its current status of fake philosophy. Just because ‘truth’ is what W.B. Gallie originally called an ‘essentially contested concept’, it doesn’t follow that it is a mere chimera. But how to resolve truth’s palpable diversity of conceptions into a unified vision of reality? The clue to redemption is provided by Charles Sanders Peirce, whose idea of truth as the final scientific consensus informs Baker and Oreskes’ normative orientation. Peirce equated truth with the ultimate theory of everything, which amounts to putting everything in its place, thereby resolving all the internal disagreements of perception and understanding that are a normal feature of any active inquiry. It’s the moment when the blind men in the Hindu adage discover the elephant they’ve been groping and (Popper’s metaphor) the climbers coming from different directions reach the same mountain top.[1]

Peirce’s vision was informed by his understanding of John Duns Scotus, the early fourteenth scholastic who provided a deep metaphysical understanding of Augustine’s Platonic reading of the Biblical Fall of humanity. Our ‘fallen’ state consists in the dismemberment of our divine nature, something that is regularly on display in the variability of humans with regard to the virtues, all of which God displays to their greatest extent. For example, the most knowledgeable humans are not necessarily the most benevolent. The journey back to God is basically one of putting these pieces—the virtues—back together again into a coherent whole.

At the level of organized inquiry, we find a similar fragmentation of effort, as the language game of each science exaggerates certain modes of access to reality at the expense of others. To be sure, Kuhn and STS accept, if not outright valorise, disciplinary specialisation as a mark of the increasing ‘complexification’ of the knowledge system. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they also downplay the significance in the sort of capital ‘T’ sense of ‘truth’ that Baker and Oreskes valorise. One obvious solution would be for defenders of ‘veritism’ to embrace an updated version of the ‘unified science’ project championed by the logical positivists, which aimed to integrate all forms of knowledge in terms of some common currency of intellectual exchange. (My earlier comments against ‘neo-feudal’ tendencies in academia should be seen in this light.) This would be the analogue of the original theological project of humanity reconstituting its divine nature, which Peirce secularised as the consensus theory of truth. Further considerations along these lines may be found here.

References

Baker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. ‘Science as a Game, Marketplace or Both: A Reply to Steve Fuller.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 65-69.

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Fuller, Steve. ‘Recent Work in Social Epistemology.’ American Philosophical Quarterly 33: 149-66, 1996.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge Management Foundations. Woburn MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.

Fuller, Steve. “What are You Playing At? On the Use and Abuse of Games in STS.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 39-49.

Reisch, George A. ‘Did Kuhn Kill Logical Positivism?’ Philosophy of Science 58, no. 2 (1991): 264-277.

[1] One might also add the French word for ‘groping’, tâtonnement, common to Turgot’s and Walras’ understanding of how ‘general equilibrium’ is reached in the economy, as well as Theilard de Chardin’s conception of how God comes to be fully realized in the cosmos.

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