Truth, belief, and consequences
Hello again, folks.
Enjoy! And let me know your thoughts in the comments. :)
I want to start with an ancient Indian fable about six old, blind men who were dearly loved by their fellow villagers. They were kept away from harm by the villagers, and so they had to resort to wondering and listening to the stories of travelers about the outside world.
They were most curious, however, about the elephant which sounds so majestic and dangerous, yet also curiously gentle. Finally, the villagers decided to let them meet an elephant because they would not stop arguing about it.
Since the elephant is huge, they all touched a part of it, and drew their own conclusions on what the elephant really is like.
One claimed it’s like a wall, another like a snake. The third blind man said it’s like a spear, and the fourth said it’s just an extremely large cow. The fifth claimed it’s a fan or a magic carpet, and finally the sixth said it’s just an old rope.
They argued about this, each claiming that the part they held was what made the elephant an elephant. Finally, the Rajah woke up to their noise and asked them, “How can each of you be so certain you are right? The elephant is very large, and if you put the pieces together you will see the truth.”
The six blind men agreed, and discussed it on their way home.
Truth, as some of you may know, can have many facets — and just because you have a truth it does not automatically mean that other truths are not as legitimate. A scientist’s notion of beauty is just as valid as an artist’s, for example. Hence, if we keep excluding truths of certain people just because they come from a different demographic, how can we get any closer to the whole picture?
This is not to say that truth is relative. After all, philosophy for example would not evolve at all if we just keep on accepting claims from anyone who dares to form an argument. The point is, there are people who do have pieces of truth and it is important that we listen to them so that we can form an accurate picture of the elephant — whatever that elephant may be. Maybe that elephant is existence, maybe it is justice, or maybe it is knowledge.
And perhaps there are other questions that need to be asked regarding the six blind men and the conclusions they drew —
- Who were they listening to?
- What made them draw those conclusions?
- What made them not listen to each other despite knowing they were all blind?
- What made them listen to the Rajah when they were told to put the pieces together?
- And to whom will they describe the elephant?
After all, both the process of forming this elephant and the final picture of it have impact not just on the people who made the picture, but also the recipients of that picture.
That is why conceptualization and analysis not just of the idea itself but also its possible origins and possible versions is extremely important in philosophy.
For example, if I ask you what you consider to be totally obvious, your answers would be different from each other — and for good reason. You know that you are able to see certain things as obvious because you come from and exist in a specific context. You have a standpoint, which affords you the very view of life that you have now.
You also know that the truths we hold can be considered as truth — but for varying reasons. Maybe they’re useful to us in the long run, such as thinking that everything happens for a reason. Maybe they fit your entire worldview, such as religion. Or maybe your orientation towards the world is such that what you take to be true are the ones that can be fact-checked.
But your standpoint also affects how you perceive truth — for example, some people take to be true only those that are part of their lived experience, and reject anything that criticizes or contradicts it. Theoretically speaking this can actually be justified, but there is harm. Is it epistemically responsible? No, because in that case your pursuit of knowledge doesn’t take into account the fact that there are experiences outside of your own.
You are essentially taking a look at your piece of the elephant and proclaiming it as the only truth.
But again, there are theories and even systems that support the continuing denial of legitimacy of epistemic resources that come from other people — these are the victims of epistemic injustice.
You see, the things we come to accept as true do not just come from ourselves and our standpoints. There are social and institutional factors at play that get to accept and deny epistemic resources. They have a hand in saying what counts as true and what doesn’t — just like with the Rajah who suggested to put the pieces together.
There are many reasons as to why this takes place, such as building a legitimate body of knowledge. But society and the institutions we trust are far from perfect, and that is why there are ideas we accepted or still accept as true that have caused so much harm because they really only work for a number of people.
I hope you can see that these concepts, as simple as they may sound, have ethical dimensions to them.
And what we take to be true are the things that we believe. And similar to my point about truth, beliefs don’t exist in a bubble. Knowledge doesn’t exist in a bubble. Our beliefs and the things that we have come to know always come from somewhere. Maybe it’s family, friends, your school, your religion or belief system, the government. You have sources.
Yes, it is important that our beliefs are true and epistemically justified. But what if the institutions that produce our concept of truth are faulty? What if the resources you can access, you can create, and you can proliferate are limited — either because you are part of a dominant demographic and can willfully turn a blind eye to minorities, or you are part of that minority and your knowledge and capacity for knowledge is denied its legitimacy —
What does that say about knowledge in general?
What does it say about what you know, what you believe in, and what you accept as true? And how do you fix it?
A good example of this would be what happened to our own history.
Pre-Hispanic times were depicted as barbaric, when in reality we were civilized people with our own political and economic systems. We respected women and the LGBT, and even put them in positions of power. Both boys and girls were able to go outside of the house.
But the Spaniards oppressed us because they had their own ideas — such as how the rest of the world was theirs for the taking — and unfortunately one of those ideas is that women are supposed to be kept pure and so locked inside the house.
There are two versions of the origins of that idea: first, the Babaylans and the Catalonans were deemed as threats; second, they really were concerned for the souls of the women who dared to be outside the house.
Whichever is true, they both had the same outcome — our women were subjugated and kept inside the house, doing chores and keeping out of sight. Literally hundreds of years later, long after Spain has ceased to be a superpower, we still have people who believe that it is the woman’s role to take care of the household.
The truths that we create and the beliefs we hold have concrete impact. Again, that is why we study them, take them apart, criticize them. And that is why we need to pay attention to who proliferates ideas — who is dominant? Who gets to control narratives? Who gets to silence others?
Keep in mind that social power affects who gets to run or be a member of these institutions, and even if you are part of that institution you can still experience epistemic injustice simply for not having the right social factors to back you up. An example of this would be women in powerful positions who still experience testimonial injustice from their peers.
Hence, we need to go back to the idea that philosophy is a way of life. Philosophy is not just a way of life simply because it is something that we constantly do, but also because the ideas we argue for are ideas that are lived.
And so as philosophers, we also need to “live” these ideas.
For example, a philosopher cannot argue for the existence of free will then refuse to take accountability for their actions.
A philosopher cannot argue against systemic oppression then participate in that very practice.
A philosopher cannot argue for truth then proliferate falsehood.
The way these ideas are supposed to be treated is to not just study them for brownie points, but to be aware that these ideas have real life consequences. I hope you also see them that way.
As a final note: knowledge is not just a concept that we learn from epistemology class — it is a political reality that those who control narratives are the most powerful.
What kind of institutions should we have that will allow for knowledge to be as inclusive as possible?
What kind of people should we allow to be placed in power — people who will get to decide the narratives that will dictate the truths we will come to accept?
And what should we do when these institutions bastardize the truth and silence knowers?