So as usual there are a million other things I should be writing right now, (NSF proposal for example, something that could actually bring me MONEY) but I just really need to think this through…

My first real exposure to philosophy was Popper, aka ducks guy. Popper talks about the philosophy of science, namely that we can never know what the absolute truth is, but we can know what is not true. By knowing more and more about what is not true, we can better approximate the truth. I call him ducks guy because the example he used is that you can see a million white ducks, but you still can’t deduct from that that all ducks are white, because you can never see all ducks that are and that have been and that will be. However, if you see just one black duck, you can deduce that not all ducks are white. Graphically, (and here I enter hardcore nerd land):

If the y axis = our observations, experiments, experiences, arguments or whatever, and the purple line is the truth (because purple makes me happy), then the best we can ever do is have an asymptotic relationship with the truth, that is, approximate it but never reach it.

What has made me think of this recently? Well, we’re doing this whole self-reflexive thing in grad school where we’re considering what is science, particularly what is political science, what is academia and what is the role of an academic. As an activist I insist that my role as an aspiring academic is to find that which is closest to the truth and fight for it.

But of course, “truth” for advocates is necessarily subjective. It requires that we make value judgments about what is more important – about which values should trump others, about what prices are justifiably paid for certain outcomes. It requires us to question what is right, what is good, what is truth, what is our goal. Sometimes I fear that all too often we get caught up in the battle part – in the tactics, in who are our friends and who are our enemies – that it’s too easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal and values that we are fighting for. Well, at least I’ve had those moments…

At the same time that we’ve been having this discussion in grad school, a dear friend has been challenging my utter disdain for postmodernism. Don’t get me wrong, I can easily subscribe to postmodernism as a theory about art (which, according to wikipedia, is how it started), but I think it’s just a cop out if taken as an approach to social or political thought. I mean, for me it’s a cop out – let’s not have the guts to make an actual decision or to take a stand (believe it or not even someone as humble as I am finds it an utterly intimidating act of courage to actually claim that your interpretation is right – but it’s necessary) and lets be too lazy to refute the arguments of others and just claim that everyone’s right and no one has the right to judge each other’s interpretations and yay and daffodils and kumbaya. Yuck. My view of postmodernism in art: art is a dialogue between artist and audience. No one can know the context or content of your conversation so all conversations aka interpretation are valid, and thorough that dialogue comes new interpretations of art that not even the artist intended and it’s all a great exploration. In social studies: there are things that are just wrong. Period. And the things that are wrong have real human consequences aka they can result in real human suffering. And so if we want to do something to work against this suffering we can’t be so hippie and openminded – we have to condemn what is wrong. And while, sure, it is scary because it requires us to make enemies (at least ideological enemies) because we necessarily declare some ideas are wrong, we are also required to, even more intimidating, choose and idea and declare that it is right, because we can’t just be against things – we have to be for something.

And I suppose that’s where the courage comes in. The courage to take a leap of faith and believe that yes, I’m right. But more importantly the ability to not only take criticism but to actively seek it. Here we go: following Popper, I do not believe I know what the truth is but I believe my approximation of the truth is closer than anyone else’s. Why? Not because I don’t think a closer approximation exists, but just because I haven’t found it yet. It’s largely a self-serving approach: My approximation of the truth is A. I believe in A because it’s the best approximation that I know. If I thought that your view, B, was better than A then I would make B my view. But I don’t, I think A is better and so I believe in A. There may be some even better view out there, say X, but I haven’t yet encountered X, or maybe I have encountered it but just don’t understand it yet, and so I still stick to A. BUT, I am always looking for X. I am always recognizing that there is always an X that is closer to the truth than the A that I hold and I am always looking for that X and seeking to understand it. And now the revelation moment: maybe that’s why I love being criticized. Because (again, following Popper) the more I’m proved  wrong the closer I get to the truth. The more I’m challenged the more I learn and the closer I get to X, the closer I get to the purple line. Hm yeah, that sounds about right for now…