The Fragility of Truth and Other Inescapable Facts

Let’s get this out of the way first: Truth itself is not fragile; our possession of it, our interpretation of it, the role it plays in our societies is fragile. So said Simon A. Levin, the director of Princeton University’s Center for BioComplexity, as he was introducing Sarah Jones Nelson, director of the Princeton Project on Fragility

Jones Nelson began by saying that “Truth has faced adversity since antiquity and the known story of Truth as justice has taken many twists and turns along the way.” Her thesis is that “the quest for Truth is fragile,” like our species, because “the processes of verification are complex” and “irrefutable verification often exceeds our capacity to conceptualize what is even vaguely Truth—in dreams for example, or in the deep past. This is why authentic perception of Truth often eludes us.”

She posed a series of questions:

*What is Truth? That Pontius Pilate was more brutal than the New Testament conveys is historical truth by inference. “Corresponding records to reality may be inferred as credibly factual because credible evidence supports it [reality?].”

 *What about philosophical truth related to values? A beautiful narrative or ancient Hebrew poetry, for example. “Here the question of verification is more elusive than historical and scientific truth, which have testable means for verifying data.” But even in astrophysics, “observation is strongly theory dependent.” The magnitude of the universe makes it impossible to observe apart from theories of what one is seeing.

Then there’s the question of what facts really are. There is a “dichotomy between valuatively deductive statements of fact” and “factually deductive statements of value,” such that it makes Truth “more complex than the known facts that comprise it. The perception of Truth signifies two universes of reference.” “Robust categories of Truth require a robust conceptual language “… Logic and syntax are foundational to the formation of the disciplines. “New fields generate new concepts of fact value and the corresponding Truths are fragile until they are credibly understood and when necessary verified by inescapable data.”

Our speaker hearkened back to Plato and Aristotle for a case study. She said Aristotle and Plato held different conceptions of Truth, and although these conceptions created the “first world synthesis of Truth,” one must note that its moral conception included both slavery and the subjugation of women. “Social norms emerging from ancient cultures continue to inform the contemporary open question of justice and the perception of reality that Truth is a fragile goodness.” … Students at Plato’s academy came from families where educated slaves had taught them their history of the Trojan War and prepped them for their first class in which Plato would be denouncing Homer’s heroization of Odysseus, the consummate liar” and “perilous twists and turns when lying meant outwitting and surviving better liars, thieves, monsters and angry gods.”  She is “certain Plato was thinking of Homer when he banished poets from public” saying, “Pythagorean truth was just about all he could handle.”

We returned to Princeton, with our guide calling it the “Athens of the Eternal Now.” She posed three questions (with passing reference to others, such as those related to establishing the historicity of ancient manuscripts).

1. What is truth?

2.  What is goodness, justice, beauty?

3. What is love?

Classical Athens “indelibly invented formal categories of human experience” and the foundations of democracy are as “fragile as documents of antiquity.” But, Truth can be found [emphasis mine]:

1. “Democracy functioned publicly by means of consensus and agreement, in which the role of women was manifestly paradoxical.”

 2. “Consensus was built upon common persuasion in an inextricable unity of religion, politics and theatre. Belief flowed from the will of godesses and gods.”

 3. “Slavery was thought to be a manifestation of the cosmic order. ”

“Plato might possibly have understood mathematical truth, but seemed to have been misguided by many of our standards of justice, equality and the rule of law. Clearly some principles do and must change to accommodate ever more humane interpretations of cognitive, moral and natural law. Furthermore moral pluralism is a fact of historical truth, raising deeper questions for criteria for explaining identity and difference, for distinguishing good history from good metaphors and the ends and origins of any phenomena. Take the misguided application of Christian eschatology to Big Bang cosmology. In her view this is “as preposterous as Paul the Apostle telling [director of the Princeton Center for Theoretical SciencePaul Steinhardt how to do pure physics…” She attributes the problem to “ongoing category mistakes from which Galileo and countless others have suffered enough.”

She asked:

* What is scientific truth? The answer has evolved with new discoveries: general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory,etc. “These matters prove there are deep limits of intelligibility defining the parameters of open questions.”

 * Is altruism rational? “How are group formation and identity internalized so that altruism becomes reciprocal, as good for self as others, as the Dalai Lama teaches in the traditions of ancient Buddhism.” “Poetry in Second Isaiah  is one of many examples from Hebrew Scriptures mandating universal law to care for what is other than the self ” It is “vindication of the unselfish.” She asked, “What does this say about the durability of altruistic values?”

 * What is moral truth? “We are asking whether or not it is viable to generalize reciprocal altruism on large scales. … Cooperation is fundamental to survival of the species. … We are seeing that cultural selection is a fragile phenomenon, but the institution of stable cultural practicing is robust on a small scale in courts of law and renaissance art guilds, for example … with strong constraints on membership, codified by statute. The resulting language of selective morals, of loyalty, of honesty stabilizes cultural selection groups where membership is identity … based upon trust, the single most important element of a good society. Fragile sensibilities can flourish in good faith.” [emphasis mine]

 * What is personal human truth? “The Fragility Group is engaged also in reflection on the fragility of human societies. Stable systems share an emerging process of adaptation. … Formal systems of adaptation are robust at all levels of complexity. … We examined the  history of cultural selection in which dynamical emergence occurs. For instance, in the practice of medicine, in a durable form of religious art and scholarship. This in turn raises the open question of causes for the emerging of Athenian democracy and theatre from which we can learn about the early mechanisms of psychology, as Freud did from Oedipus to Psyche.”

 * What is political truth? “[Political scientist] Maurizio Viroli… introduced the Fragility Group to Plato’s analysis on the “goodness of political institutions being fragile for two reasons. Because passions like ambition and avarice erode goodness. And because time erodes goodness by weakening memory and true knowledge of the self.” Civic love, agape, keritas [sp.?]. “Is a form of reciprocal altruism and self love consistent with love for your neighbor as commanded in ancient Greek, Hebrew and Roman manuscript traditions? Love is a virtue and a formal energy.”

“In politics,” she said, “human memory is a possession of Truth that can be destroyed by war, genocide, famine and torture.” eg. “trivializing the Geneva Convention.”  “By contrast our fragile acquisition of the Pythagorean Theorem, a durably beautiful truth, like music, unchanged by events, flourishes in memory as if by miracle.”

We all undoubtedly have open questions that require Truth gleaned from a multiplicity of disciplines. “We are witnessing a dynamical explosion of information with no predictable outcome as to how these fields will combine intelligibly, as the Internet makes the printed media ever more fragile.” Historian Anthony Grafton demonstated this fact to the group. “The Project on Fragility is giving birth to a renaissance of clarity and renewed understanding of interdisciplinary approaches to curricula. We are creating a remarkable level of intuitive coherence.” The goal is collaborative problem solving on a grand scale, the likes of which Jones Nelson says has never before occurred.

In conclusion, our prophet assured us that “Truth itself is robust. By contrast, possession of Truth is fragile” [emphasis mine], because “what we know we can forget,” eg. what we know about slavery and the Holocaust. “The imperishable task of remembrance must be protected by the inescapably durable fact that Truth itself is something sacred.” The “survival of the species” demands that the collaborative search for Truth continue. The alternative is “moral paralysis.”

With a nod toward students, she advised: “You needn’t believe in God to act with moral integrity. Nor does belief in the existence of God make you an imbecile incapable of rational thought simply because the proofs are inconclusive in the minds of others.  And if anyone says you don’t fit in because you differ, be a good skeptic and remember you’re right to take it as a compliment.”

As usual with these events, the Q&A was nearly as interesting as the lecture. The first commenter compared the talk to a romantic poem that he could not readily interpret. What was the point, he wanted to know. A mathematician noted that Truth in mathematics isn’t as absolute as people imagine. He said that in order to define Truth in mathematics, one must get outside its language. He called this a “sobering reality.”

A student then asked if the anti-intellectualism of American culture demonstrates the fragility of knowledge. He advocated a hierarchy of disciplines in regard to Truth. Of course, he wanted the empirical disciplines at the top and poetry at the bottom. Jones Nelson marginally agreed with his assessment. Fragility Project group member and Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams was in the audience. I caught up with him at the reception. He disagreed with the subjugation of artistic truth to the empirical, as did I. One can find Truth in artistic forms that is obscured in empirical expressions.

A man to Williams’ right wanted to know if fragility is a problem or a solution. Obviously in the case of slavery, it’s a solution while in the case of Holocaust denial it’s a problem. Jones Nelson said the conversation itself is somewhat fragile, because there’s never before been one like it across disciplines. I find this claim difficult to take seriously. Perhaps she meant in a formal sense, one that requires sponsors and funding, which the group is seeking. The Vatican asked her to launch this project … long before Pope Benedict reinstated the Holocaust denier(s)… but after she had spoken at the Vatican about Holocaust denial.

Finally a student asked what my husband called the Philosophy 101 question: Does Truth exist at all?  Here Jones Nelson mentioned the Deconstructionists, sounding at first as if she was affirming them, even though she concluded by saying she believes Truth does exist, eg. historical Truth verifiable by archaeological evidence.  She unfortunately qualified this statement by saying that whether or not Truth exists for oneself is entirely subjective. I asked her later about the Deconstructionists, telling her that my philosopher friends tend to dismiss them outright. She acknowledged this and tied the early Deconstructionists to Holocaust denial. She relegated the “harmless” ones to the 1980s like bad hairdos. Leave it to us evangelicals and post-evangelicals to be 30 years behind the times in philosophy  philosophical fads, as well as just about everything else. Humility. We should be first in that.

For years, my husband has been advocating in private conversation just this approach to problem solving. He asked the speaker if the group won’t ultimately have to come to some consensus about Truth in order to accomplish anything tangible. She didn’t really seem to have an answer. In fairness, the question was asked over a delightful banquet of salmon, steak, asparagus, cheeses, chicken piccata, eggplant rollitini, raspberries, etc. and amidst a small crowd of inquirers.

The Fragility of Truth and Other Inescapable Facts. It’s a lovely title and a fascinating topic that was elegantly outlined. There was free food and, later, a martini crafted and named just for me. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon! Here’s to hoping the Princeton Project on Fragility leads somewhere.