Thursday, 26 July 2007

Can we be certain about anything at all? (1)

I'm currently reworking a lunchbar I wrote a couple of years ago with the above title. As I've worked on it again, I've realised I need to do a bit more thinking in some areas. I want to write a mini-series of posts with my understanding of things so far, and I'd be happy to engage with what others think too.

In this first post, I want to briefly introduce the philosophical background to the question of certainty, and the recent increase in scepticism.

Whilst I think it's over-simplifying things to say that modern philosophy was more comfortable with the idea of certainty, it did have a more comfortable relationship with the idea of being certain than we do today. John Stuart Mill, for instance, wrote that, 'There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for purposes of human life.' The modern view of 'truth' was correlative to this position on certainty: it was generally assumed that truth existed and could be known.

This view of truth and certainty was eroded during the 20th Century, as continental postmodern philosophy increasingly developed. Ludwig Wittgenstein's book On Certainty, written shortly after the Second World war, was founded upon the premise that the way that we understand things depends on the context from which we see them. Each person is restricted in our view of the world by their embodied perspective. One postmodern theorist asked the question: what shape is a piece of A4 paper? His reply was: if you look at it one way, it is a very thin, straight line. Look at it from a different angle and it is a rectangle. It is your perspective that tells you what shape a piece of A4 paper is.

And it's not only that we can only be in any one place at any one time. Feminist and post-colonial writings have woken us up to the fact that the way in which we diagnose and understand any given thing or situation depends upon a whole series of elements and characteristics: one's period in history, thought world, personality, childhood, and so on. The way in which a humans understand things - even objects - are affected by whether, for instance, they are from Birmingham or Baghdad (see here for a posting on Jacques Derrida's work in this area). In other words, when you look at the world around you, you see it from within the horizons of your own world, and so do I, whether those horizons are linguistic, emotional, social, artistic, linguistic or whatever. Actually our perception of things are, at best, a limited or partial view of the truth.

Once we begin to grapple with these ideas, we see whether the postmodern attack on 'truth' is rooted. Indeed, theorist Jean Baudrillard said that it’s wrong to speak of 'truth' or 'facts' any more, but instead we should speak of ‘models of reality’. In addition, Foucault's work on power and knowledge led him to speak about a 'hermeneutic of suspicion': he argued that whenever someone is claiming to tell 'the truth' that they are trying to wield power over others. We're suspicious of the folks that phone us up to tell us 'the truth' about how they can cut our phone bills (often rightly, as we know there is a hidden agenda). Foucault calls us to be sceptical of all truth claims, because there is most likely more going on than just simple communication.

When we add the media to the mix, things get even more confusing! Baudrillardwrote extensively on the media. He argued that the modern media – including films, papers, TV and the internet – mediate the world to us in very powerful ways. It starts to become difficult to work our whether what is being presented is the real world, or merely someone else’s view of the world. In fact, Baudrillard famously claimed that we cannot possibly know whether world events such as the Gulf War actually ever occurred, because the only access we have to the events is mediated. Media inevitably give a partial and manipulated version of events. It’s impossible to know whether we are reacting on the basis of the real and [fairly] unmediated facts, or someone else’s version or manipulation of things. Again, we become our most sceptical when we think there’s power involved: “The government, or society [or whoever] wants me to believe this so that I will act in a certain way.” And we don’t like to think that we’re being manipulated in this way. We have lots and lots of information – but 'the truth' is obscured and considered by many to be unknowable. A number of books and films have picked up on these themes – books like Neuromancer by William Gibson, and films like The Matrix and Wag the Dog blur the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality. Perhaps the best recent example is The Truman Show – where the main character, Truman, lives in a totally artificial world - but has been unable to tell the difference for most of his life.

This view of the truth and spirit of scepticism has big implications: including for Christianity, our understanding of the Bible and for evangelism. In future posts, I'll pursue some of these areas.

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