Monday, July 31, 2017

Is there Truth? Dealing with theoretical disagreements

One of my enduring interests is in trying to understand the nature of knowledge. In my studies, guided by my logical mind, I am absolutely confident that knowledge is limited, imperfect, and that there are no facts, no “capital-T Truth,” no absolute system of objective knowledge—no “God’s Eye View” to use a phrase from the philosopher Hilary Putnam. And unconsciously and intuitively, I am absolutely certain that some things are absolutely true and somethings are absolutely false.

I do not have an answer to this dislocation between my logic and my intuition. This is one of the reasons that I so often turn to the phrase from the Tao Te Ching, that the Tao that can be [spoken of/named] is not the absolute Tao. But saying that there is no answer is often unsatisfactory.

The idea that knowledge is contingent on historical or social or other factors—that it is not objective—is a lens that can be used on itself: the idea that knowledge is contingent, is an idea that is, itself, contingent. If you believe that knowledge is contingent, where do you choose to stand? To what do you commit? (I have some answers to these questions that I find at least marginally satisfying, but those answers are not what I want to talk about.)

In a recent post, I was talking about the political nature of knowledge—how beliefs guide our actions, shape our morals, and generally influence those decisions that move into the political sphere—the sphere of dealing with individuals and groups. Beliefs cause conflict. I had a professor once whose beliefs clashed with mine in ways that left us unable to work together. Fortunately, I was able to work with other people. But I was thinking about this conflict in the context of a scholar with whom I am currently working who has a number of theoretical differences with her professors, and this is contributing to difficulties.

Managing this kind of theoretical difference can be very difficult. Ideally professors would welcome other ideas—but, again, belief shapes action: if you believe that an idea has an insufficient grounding, you won’t accept work based on that idea. A professor who disagrees with a theory may not think “I should be open minded,” but rather “If only I could help this student understand their error.”

Getting through a situation like this is difficult, but I think it can be negotiated. I do not think that a student should give up ideas just because a professor doesn’t like those ideas. In my case, the ideas that my professor didn’t like were grounded in a large community of scholars doing good research, so it was hardly the case that I had good reason to abandon these well developed ideas because one professor objected. For the scholar with whom I am currently working, there is a similar concern: both she and her professors share some theoretical roots, but their theories diverge, and she has good reason to reject their line of reasoning and follow her own because it grows out of solid foundations. At the same time, we can’t say that her professors are “wrong” because judgement of right and wrong requires some absolute standard for comparison. We can say that their ideas are incompatible with hers, but by what standard do we choose one set of ideas as right and one as wrong, when one of the basic presumptions is that knowledge is contingent?

To me, the answer is pragmatic: there is no abstract answer, but action can be taken.

Faced with someone who disagrees with fundamental theories that you accept, I think there are generally three important steps:
1. Demonstrate that you understand and value their view. Look for places where their view overlaps with yours.
2. Focus on specific points of difference, and emphasize how they are limited differences within a larger framework of agreement.
3. Describe your specific framework as an alternative to, not a replacement of the other.
A possible fourth action is to call on specific published scholars to support you, but I haven’t included that in this list because citing the “wrong” scholar can cause problems: you don’t want to cite a scholar that your audience hates. Calling on a Freud or a Marx, or some other polarizing figure, can trigger emotional responses. But if you can use citations that your professors like to support your own arguments, then citation can be very effective.

Emotionally, I really believe that there are right and wrong, and when I get into a theoretical debate, the emotional side can really trigger a stronger attachment to ideas than I can logically defend. In a world where knowledge isn’t absolute, it should be possible to avoid some sorts of theoretical conflict by trying to accept and negotiate difference rather than trying to strongly defend a point.

I think theoretical debates are important because theory shapes action, and action has real impact in the world. But is winning a theoretical debate important? It depends on context, but I would always recommend that students try to avoid theoretical debate when it comes to writing their dissertation—is there some way that a contentious theoretical debate can be transformed into an exploration of a theoretical alternative?

This is hardly a well-rounded essay—ending, as it does with questions. But then, the truth [Tao] that can be told is not the absolute truth [Tao], so maybe an inconclusive ending is appropriate.

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