A Few Words on #Trust, Patricia Wong

I am not a philosopher. I am a mathematician. I have taught mathematics for more than 30 years, and so, when it comes to knowledge, I am comfortable only where certainty can be obtained, or, if it cannot be obtained, we know that it cannot be obtained,[1], [2] or at the very least, we know that we don’t know if it can be obtained.[3] That is how obsessed we mathematicians are with truth. We must feel that we are standing on its ground at all times, no matter whether at the first, the second, or the nth order … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: edward stojakovic via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Wong, Patricia. 2022. “A Few Words on #Trust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (5): 39-43. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6Oi.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

I am however also a living human being with an active social life, with many hobbies (especially that I am now retired), including the hobby of studying philosophy, and many intellectual passions, including the passion of figuring out how to debate people with whom I strongly disagree on issues important to me, and do so without losing sight of the fact that they are fellow human beings. (It is not easy to do that, but it gets much better with practice.) In such a life, I learned a long time ago that to live happily, one cannot think like a mathematician.

As fortune would have it, last year, I bumped into my now dear Twitter friend and my adopted mentor, Professor Steve Fuller. That such an accomplished scholar would engage with me, someone who knows very little, and with many others (they all seem to know more than me, but still, they know little compared to the Professor), is truly astonishing. Professor Fuller, if nothing else, lives his motto, which, if I may sum it up, is: “Down with the experts and their ivory towers!” I like that motto a lot and, although astonished that such a mind would bother with someone like me, I will not, as Americans put it, look a gift horse in the mouth.

Be that as it may, I write today concerning one specific topic that animated a recent thread between me and my good mentor: the topic of “trust”.

I will walk us through the thread and after that I will share my own thoughts.

The thread was triggered by this statement from Professor Fuller:

I hate #trust as a concept generally. Etymologically, it helps explain why I’m not so keen on #truth. But the proving ground is whether you can trust someone who deals successfully with people you don’t trust. That’s when trust/truth really starts to have some philosophical bite.

To which I responded:

And yet, I am afraid to inform you Prof. Steve, that without #trust the world would not function. Next time you hop on a plane, ask yourself: would I be here if I didn’t trust the many, many strangers to do their job? This applies to our food, water, surgeries, etc.

This answer clearly irritated the good Professor, for his response to it was:

Wrong. It’s just a calculated risk, which normally turns out to work. #Trust is just a way of mystifying these ordinary judgements.

To this my response was:

Every single word in our dictionary mystifies reality, my dear Prof. Steve. ‘Love,’ ‘hatred,’ ‘sarcasm,’ ‘laughter,’ etc. That is the nature of language. Everything is a metaphor … Now, if your problem is with language itself, why then that’s an altogether different matter.

This seems to have further exacerbated Professor Fuller’s irritation, for he wrote:

I’m sorry, that’s a lazy response. Think about what I’m saying. People like #trust because it then enables them to offload their poor judgement to others.

My response was to ask him to:

… [p]lease walk me through a single non-trivial decision making process where absolute trust does not have to be embraced at some point. PS: The answer: ‘Any situation where one does not take calculated risk’ is, to borrow a word, ‘lazy’.

Sidestepping my request, Professor Fuller responded with:

I’m sorry that you don’t get where I’m coming from. ‘Absolute trust’ is a metaphysically inflated way of talking about ordinary calculated risk. It’s the kind of thing that the #LogicalPositivists would have been screaming about. But perhaps the phrase is of personal meaning.

To which I responded with:

After [some] further self-reflection, I believe that your stand bothers me because it assumes that we all have the means (the tools, the knowledge, the education) to verify … It sets the blame (‘blame’ – another mystical creature) at the victims. In other words, your stand is quintessentially neoliberal and something a libertarian would embrace. (I find libertarians charmingly ridiculous.)

Professor Fuller’s response was:

Yes, #blame is mystical, but not #responsibility. Are you familiar with this concept? That’s tied to bringing a particular agent to trial in case of alleged harm, the outcome of which is unknown in advance. That’s what #trust should mean -– nothing more.[4]

Undeterred, I responded with:

Next time you hop on a plane, tell me that you are not trusting at multiple levels: the crew, Boeing, the mechanics who worked on the plane, the business, the laws that regulate the business, etc. … ‘Trust’ is indeed shorthand for taking calculated risk. So what is your beef, Prof. Steve. That people use the word? That people often act without thinking?

Also undeterred, Professor Fuller responded with:

Again, you’re being lazy… No offense to you personally, but this is why I never bought the #Hume bullshit …

Tripling down on my stand, I replied with:

No my dear, I think you are the one who is being lazy by throwing very large words my way and insisting on remaining in the clouds in the manner of Aristophanes.

Then, hoping to obtain a reaction from the good Professor to something concrete, I added:

I have given you a concrete example: hopping on a plane. Help me understand why ‘trust’ there is not operative.

But instead of addressing my concrete example, cited twice, Professor Fuller wrote, in his own sarcastic style that he sometimes (but only sometimes) adopts:

I realize that #responsibility is large word. My apologies!

To which, meaning no ill will, I responded with:

In The Clouds, if I remember, sarcasm and double sarcasm [were] the main currency…

At this point, my husband, the very wise Professor Harry Wong, stepped in and gently suggested that I convert this thread to an article. (This was his way of telling me that I was abusing the good professor’s generosity.) And so here we are.

I completely understand Professor Fuller’s distaste for the word “trust”: it is indeed often abused by those who wish you trust them and it is often invoked by those who are lazy and do not bother to do the minimum due diligence, only to later on blame those who “betrayed” their trust, so that they are in fact guilty not of one sin (laziness), but of two: laziness and irresponsibility. I am one with this spirit of spurring people not to be lazy, not to trust too much, to be vigilant and to be morally courageous.

But what I do not understand is why the Professor thinks that “calculated risk” is a superior designation to situations where one can simply not engage in any meaningful calculations. When I hop on a plane, Professor Fuller believes, I am taking a calculated risk. But am I, really? To the extent that I select an airline that is known, yes, I am calculating. But given the million things that have to happen just right for the airplane to depart and land safely, the only word that is appropriate to describe what enabled my action of hopping on the plane is “trust”. I trust everyone engaged to make it possible to fly planes in the sky to do their job. It is as close an act of faith that one can engage in: literally putting your life in the hands of strangers and hoping that all will be well.

Aside the inadequacy of the phrase itself, from what I have read, heard, and watched from Professor Fuller, pure faith, I believe, is not something that the good Professor is allergic to. If I am not mistaken, he has often argued that without something akin to religious faith— pure faith—science would not have gotten us to where we are today. Now, one could argue whether we are in a better place or not, but that track I do not believe the good Professor is willing to take, since, again, from what I understand, he is a modernist who believes in progress and that we have made it.

As for moral responsibility: I believe that precisely because the word “trust” is heavy with a mystical-metaphysical load that we need it and must have it, for in the equation of the airline and myself, the airline has all the power, and I have very little power. In other words, I am sure that the airline, and the FAA, and the mechanics, and the inspectors, and all those involved, would be just fine offloading responsibility to me and my fellow passengers. “Well, you know, you should have calculated better” would be a perfectly appropriate response if we all took seriously the notion that we are all taking “calculated risks” and not engaged in the act of trusting.

Let me end by saying this: I am not advocating for “more trust” as such. God knows we need citizens all around the world to trust far less and to do their homework for more often. But I certainly do not want to live in a world where the word “trust” is banished or winced at. In other words, I do not want to live in a purely transactional world, perhaps wearing Augmented Reality goggles that compute for me the level of risk incurred if I were to engage this person or that company. This would be akin to a scientist waiting for a risk management bureaucrat to compute for them the risk level of delving into this experiment or that experiment. Faith must remain at the center of all that we do, and trust, its goddaughter, must be allowed to stand by its side.

Author Information:

Professor Patricia Wong, pat.b.wong.2020@gmail.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/patricia-wong-4b52261ab. I am a retired Mathematics university professor and author of two erotic novels.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undecidable_problem

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del%27s_incompleteness_theorems

[3] https://mathworld.wolfram.com/UnsolvedProblems.html

[4] https://jstor.org/stable/23940271

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