Sunday, 21 June 2015

Philosophers and Truthiness

By Matthew Blakeway

The comedian and political commentator Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness* . This is a way of mocking politicians who claim to know something intuitively but fail to put forward any evidence to support their assertion. Too often in political rhetoric, truthiness presents as fact what is merely an ideological belief – not a real truth, but a truth that we want to exist. As Colbert put it ‘Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.’

Over the last few weeks, academic economists have started the share the fun. The equivalent term that Paul Romer coined to mock his less-than-rigorous colleagues is mathiness. This, he says, is an argument that looks like robust mathematics and sounds like robust mathematics, but actually isn’t. Sloppy economists create arguments that use terms that are mathematically defined elsewhere but which have subtly different meanings in the argument presented. In this way, an ideological position (e.g. if welfare is cut, the unemployed will all find jobs) can be presented as a solid economic argument. As Romer says: 
‘Academic politics, like any other type of politics, is better served by words that are evocative and ambiguous, but if an argument is transparently political, economists interested in science will simply ignore it.’ 
Mathematical theories, like those created by academic economists, should only be trusted when each term is precisely defined and consistently used. Only then can the conclusions of such arguments be empirically demonstrated to be either true or false. The example that he gives is growth theory, where competing versions all appear to be clearly stated, yet show no converging consensus.

And now that creating words to mock woolly thinking is in danger of becoming an epidemic. It occurs to me that the humanities need one of their own. Or, as Stephen Colbert might say, ‘truthiness’ and ‘mathiness’ just don’t feel right in our context. So I propose that we adopt the word ‘explaininess’ because I think this is a problem that is pervasive throughout writing in philosophy and human sciences. Explaininess is an intellectual Ponzi scheme where one nebulous notion is needed to explain another nebulous notion, but the cumulative whole is presented as an explanation.



For example, in connection with a current project of mine, I recently spent a two miserable weeks reading all the recent academic theories explaining various forms of mental illness. In one paper summarising four theories of borderline personality disorder, I was left struggling to succinctly state the difference between Theory B and Theory C. These used terms like ‘maternal imprinting’, ‘suppressed memory’, ‘learned anxiety’ and ‘secondary emotion’. At least an example was given for the last one: anger turns to shame. But I was left asking: is that normal? I certainly don’t think it happens that way with me, so if we are to talk about how that happens at all, we at least need a box and arrow diagram with meaningful things in the boxes and understandable causal relationships. Otherwise, the existence of secondary emotions is questionable and their causality is entirely unknown. Yet in the world of explaininess, this is a theory of a mental illness where competing theories don’t converge towards consensus because none of them are empirically verifiable.

In philosophy, explaininess is rampant. A particularly egregious example is Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, based around two terms that Derrida coined differance and presance. These are two perfectly reasonable words intentionally misspelt by just one letter. Geddit? But he tells us that these terms can’t be defined; so how am I supposed to know that my understanding of them is the same as his? After a period of hair-tearing frustration, I was reassured to discover that Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault had both stated that they didn’t understand it either. In this case, if you admit you don’t understand it, then you are in more elite company than if you pretend that you do.

Derrida is famous for his obscurity, but explaininess exists everywhere in philosophy. There are hundreds of books on ‘freewill’, for another example, but few of them offer a robust hypothesis as to what it is. If you are writing a book claiming that this concept is useful, then the burden falls on you to explain to your readers what it is. Too often, writers just presume that I understand the term, but actually I don’t. If freewill is a piece of brain hardware, then that is alright because eventually a neuroscientist will find it in the hypothalamus or somewhere. And if it is a piece of mental software, then eventually some mathy person will build a model of it so that we can all understand how it works; so that is all good as well. But if it is a part of your aura or something that is beamed to you through the aether, then I suggest that some academic philosophers should be seeking alternative employment. Oh, the joys of tenure!

The problem is that if we ban explaininess in philosophy, then there isn’t much left for us to talk about. But I think this points to the real objective of philosophy. Too often, people say that philosophy’s role is to ask questions, but it ends up with us talking ad infinitum about all the questions that can’t be answered – the things that scientists can’t be bothered with. If, on the other hand, philosophy’s objective is to answer questions, then we would all have given up in the 3rd century BC, by which time it was already clear that almost no progress would be made in concrete terms. My suggestions is that the objective of philosophy should be to take unanswerable questions and try to change them into ones that can be addressed in a scientific fashion. For example, if nobody can tell us what freewill actually is, then maybe we should change the question into ‘what is the cause of a human action?’ Already that is starting to sound like a scientific question, rather than a philosophical one. I'd say, pull off that trick, and true progress will have been made.



* More on 'Truthiness'  and on 'Mathiness' - as a PDF*


13 comments:

  1. Thank you, Matthew, for an article which is not only of philosophical interest, but of vital practical importance, not least in academia today. This is not just an topical essay, but it does what philosophy does best: a fresh expression with a broader view.

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  2. I do agree with this: "In philosophy, explaininess is rampant" - which surely is a critique - but how do we arrive at this later:

    "My suggestions is that the objective of philosophy should be to take unanswerable questions and try to change them into ones that can be addressed in a scientific fashion"

    ?!

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  3. "Presance" is not a Derridean term to my knowledge.

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    1. I think it is Matthew's little play on words, no? différance being the model?

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  4. Did Derrida use the word "presance"? Or something like it, in French? It is, however, used surrounding Derrida.

    Derrida has been described as "a tissue of confusions". I think not. Here is the most illuminating essay I have read on Derrida. If only Derrida himself had put it like this: http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~sflores/KlagesDerrida.html

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    1. I also liked videos about him, with interviews and excerpts of conferences, etc. I forgot the names.

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  5. I agree that the Klages article in Thomas' link is very good. Maybe Derrida wasn't guilty of explaininess, but of simply being unable to explain himself. In any case, he couldn't explain what "differance" was supposed to mean. A philosopher who isn't good with words is a bit like a surgeon who isn't good with his hands.

    Martin, regarding your comment on taking philosophical questions and turning them into scientific ones: If somebody wants to debate freewill or god with me, then it is for him or her to explain what the thing is that we are debating. Otherwise, there is no debate worth having. Ordinary people walk away from philosophy for this very reason and philosophers have a weakness for diving into a debate without forcing the other person to define his terms. But this trap is avoidable. If a debate hinges upon a word that nobody can define, then that should be a catalyst for changing its terms of reference completely. For example, if we debate whether god created the world, but nobody has the foggiest idea what god really is or what he does, then the debate is best avoided. But the question "how did the world come into being?" is a valid scientific question that is slowly being answered without resort to the concept of god. I am suggesting that most philosophical debate ultimately gets resolved this way.

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    1. You call it scientific, and I agree, but "socratic" fits well too, it's the endless fight against the sophists.

      But hey, should we address scientific explanations that are both absolutely clear but bring even more fog than before? Those paradigm breakers...

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  6. How, and, importantly : a very pleasant read Matthew --

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  7. I suggested to a fellow student in the USA that she might define her terms. She said, "No, no, it's about absorption. You don't define meanings, you absorb them through conversation." It sounded to me as though Wittgenstein's "forms of life" had found a home ...

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