What is Truth? Science, Identity, and Imagination

During a stout and whiskey session with one of my regular interlocutors, JV, the kind of session where you push each other through various adversarial positions on philosophy and politics, the inevitable question came up: What is truth?

At that juncture in the floating debate, JV was in the pure science posture and the question was thrown at me. How can I assign any truth value to mythological systems (including religious ones) that have no scientific basis? And if I persist in such foolishness, how can I turn around and defend science against its contemporary critics from the Right (of the anti-evolution, climate denier sort) and from the Left (the “you don’t know my truth” identity politics that rejects the universals of science and reason and shared humanness, and indeed anything science might say that is politically unsavory at the moment, as vestiges of a racist patriarchy)?

To which I pled guilty on all three counts – the defense of mythological systems against science-based attacks, the defense of science against attacks from today’s political Right and Left, and, most boldly, claiming no contradiction to my impromptu epistemological system.

On the first count, I believe reality is more than just a collection of objects in this space we call the universe. Sure, that’s a big part of it, but lived reality is more complicated – at a minimum we can say it includes objective and subjective aspects. Science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and that there is nothing else to our lived experience. I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons.

It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

Imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love, electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc. Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain? It seems to me that the scientist observing the arc may have her finger on an objective correlative to the feeling of falling in love, but it is still just an objective correlative. She can use it to study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

The scientist gives us truths about the objective world, but the great mythological systems offer “truths” about lived experience that fall outside the scope of science. I put “truths” in quotes to avoid confusion. Myths do NOT give us scientific truths and indeed are often demonstrably false from a scientific perspective. I am not saying that they can compete with science on its own turf. No, when it comes to explaining the physical world, science rules. But “truths” about lived reality can be found in Greek mythology (for example) nonetheless. Indeed, the narrow definition of “truth” in the sense of scientific fact has only become the dominant sense in the past few hundred years. For most of pre-Enlightenment history, the pursuit of such truth about the physical world was a mere sidebar to the study of what were perceived as deeper inquiries into spiritual and intellectual truths.

In saying that science rules in determining truths about the physical world but that a broader sense of “truth” is needed to get at lived reality in its fullness, I have already segued to the second charge against me. How can I defend science against today’s critics from the political Right and Left? The defense against the Right is easy. Evolution and climate change are physical world studies. To claim, e.g., that the Bible has equal stature to science in studying the objective mechanisms of the physical world implies a gross misunderstanding of the difference between physical reality and lived reality, between the two senses of truth (the narrow sense, wherein science rules, and the broad sense, which concerns lived reality more broadly). Whether you agree with me or not, it is easy to synchronize this defense of science against the political Right with my defense of the great mythological systems. My defense of those systems in no way suggests that they be called upon to provide factual data about the physical world.

The defense of science against the political Left takes a similar path. There is a tendency in postmodernism (and I don’t want to reduce it to this tendency but this is the relevant tendency in the present discussion) to see truth as socially constructed. And if truth is socially constructed, science as an arbiter of truth is a social construct that can and must be interrogated. Now apply identity politics to this interrogation and you might conclude that science (and other Enlightenment formations) are not the conduits of general truths about physical reality but are formations that serve the dominant ideology (i.e., white supremacist patriarchy). This, if I may quote Henry Fielding, is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.” It is my position that the scientific method, no less than math, helps us to draw universal conclusions about the objective world. By “universal” I don’t mean “certain.” Theories need to be revised, and science can sometimes be hijacked for political purposes, but the basic conclusions of evidence-based science, like gravity, apply regardless of what this or that tribe or social demographic thinks. A very large point of the Enlightenment was to articulate tools that can get us beyond those tribal definitions of truth and worth, which had locked people for so long in darkness and prejudice and distrust across demographic lines. I believe my friends on the identity politics Left make a mistake when they try (however inadvertently) to lead us back down that road.

The final charge against me – the potential contradiction of my defense against science on the one hand and my defense of science on the other – should have resolved itself in the previous paragraph. For clarity, though, I will add that my defense of science against today’s political Left and Right does not negate my earlier defense of those image-filled systems that explore what Carl Jung calls “the subjective inner world … the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” Indeed, to the list of ancient Greek mythmakers and modern visionary poets, I will add this thought by LSD guru, Timothy Leary: “Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”

Gaston Bachelard, sometime science professor who became the Chair of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, talked at times about two axes in his epistemology: “the axes of poetry and of science.” The power driving the first axis, the axis of poetry, is imagination. If today’s seekers of truth are going to right the ship of planet earth, they need to give up the politicized definitions of truth. They need to respect the tremendous capacity of science to give us valuable information about our world that transcends tribe and reminds us of our shared humanness. And they need to recognize imagination as the power than can exceed science as it harnesses the vitality of those “invisible roots of consciousness” to visions of social reality that transcend tribal divisions and bring us all together for the next stage.

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13 thoughts on “What is Truth? Science, Identity, and Imagination

  1. “TRUTH, n. An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance. Discovery of truth is the sole purpose of philosophy, which is the most ancient occupation of the human mind and has a fair prospect of existing with increasing activity to the end of time.”

    – Ambrose Bierce

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  2. The articulation of knowledge is socially constructed, and we tend to be careless about equating systems of knowledge with truth. Marx once quipped that Darwin looked at nature and saw British society (or something to that effect.) This is not at all to invalidate evolutionary theory, but to point out that the socially produced dimension of his thought was a blind spot for Darwin, and perhaps even more so for contemporary Darwinians who adapt Darwin’s insights in natural selection into dubious areas such as evolutionary psychology. Natural selection, then, shifts from explanatory hypothesis and becomes an article of faith. This is not to say, either, that natural selection has no insight to provide into the phenomenal world. It was on the basis of Darwin’s evolutionary insights that John Hughlings-Jackson came up with his dynamic model of the brain and the theory of neural evolution and dissolution. This was a major breakthrough, moving past the impasses of phrenology, and providing a solid basis for the scientific discipline of neurology.

    Significantly, Hughlings-Jackson held to a correlative model, in which it was enough to say that there was a correlation between the organic brain and the phenomenal mind, without delving further into how those realities or aspects of reality might produce each other. Even more significant was the realization of the “I” of cognition as a complex, neurally evolved system, rather than an innate substance. This poses a difficultly since it means that not only is knowledge socially constructed, but social constructions (including the notion of a “self”) are based upon cumulative and integrated layers of neural function.

    Now, to address Bachelard. Bachelard’s central contention about the scientific episteme is that it “does not develop through a continuous accretion of knowledge,” but through a series of ruptures and discontinuities. Is this not at odds with your view of science “giving us valuable information about the world?” This reads, to me, precisely like an accretion of data (i.e. knowledge) whose application can only be technocratic. Whenever someone says “we need to trust science” or “science tells us” I suspect that we are no longer doing science which, in the end, is a discipline and not a repository of knowledge.

    Apologies for my long, somewhat meandering response. I appreciated your post, it provoked thought.

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    • We may not be that far off. I agree that science needs continual revision, in part because of seepage of social backgrounds into the theories, but I tend to distrust those who attack the objectivity of science as either actively motivated by politically-based tribal definitions of truth or passively opening the door to those who are. Through its basis in math and logic and evidence, science can transcend tribal prejudice and approximate (without ever fully reaching) an objective point of view. I think we agree that, despite Marx’s wit 😊, and despite the fact that social conditions help shape how a theory gets articulated, evolutionary theory has some evidentiary basis that allows it to apply to times and places outside of Darwin’s England. The same with environmental science, etc. So you and I, we may just differ on emphasis. We may agree on the one hand that the time and place of the scientist is one factor in how a theory gets articulated, and we may agree on the other that the scientific method can nonetheless yield results whose validity transcends the time and place of the scientist. You are more wary of those who trust to the objectivity of science and I am more wary of those who take issue with it. I believe the postmodern take on truth may be (however inadvertently) leading us back to a disharmonious version of tribalism, in which shared humanness becomes seen as anathema to “true” identity (perceived as tribal), and the groundwork for pre-Enlightenment prejudice and distrust across demographic lines is once again laid. I think we’d be better off giving more play to the tools (e.g., the scientific method) that can help us to transcend tribe and see things from the point of view of our shared humanness.

      Per Bachelard, I am familiar with the later work on poetics but not the earlier philosophy of science. As I understand him, those ruptures in the trajectory of science indicate that there is something besides accretion at play – what he would come to call poetic imagination – that erupts within the plane of otherwise ongoing empirical investigation. I am 100% good with that (per “count 1” and the penultimate paragraph of my blog entry). However, this “thing” that comes as a kind of uncaused eruption in the ongoing quest for truth gives no succor to my friends of the postmodern Left. In Bachelard, that power of imagination, if not universal, certainly goes back to the primitive roots of consciousness, and far transcends the demographic identities (race, etc.) that the postmodern Left privileges (or rather reifies). And it doesn’t imply that there is no accretion of knowledge over time, just that this subjective force of imagination can produce creative ruptures in the trajectory of accretion. Thus, I boldly (or rashly) claim that Bachelard’s interrogation of the overzealous claims of science are completely incompatible with the postmodern Left’s interrogation of scientific truth (though perfectly compatible with my blog entry 😊).

      Geez, I didn’t even get the phenomenology stuff. You’re better versed than I there, but the closest I’ve come is in my entries on Kant. A philosopher friend of mine, Michael Madary, just published a book, Visual Phenomenology, with MIT Press that you might be better prepared for than I.

      Thanks for the rich and erudite response. Wish you were here for the next pot of sangria 😊 – always happy to banter with contrary voices over a pot of sangria – indeed, that willingness to entertain varied and contradictory viewpoints is something, perhaps ironically, that my postmodern Left friends seem to have lost. (My conservative friends can also lack an appreciation for dissent, but in their case I don’t consider it ironic 😊.) Lots to think on.


  3. If I understand you correctly, then you suggest that Bachelard attempts to supplement scientific rationality with poetic imagination. I don’t think this is the case – Bachelard does not attempt to reconcile his work on poetics and his work on scientific rationality. The thing with scientific rationality, for him, is that it has to move away from image-based thinking. Discontinuity is not supplemented by poetic imagination, but by openness to the discovery of the new. The most important rupture in scientific thought, for Bachelard, occurs in 1905 with the proposal of Einstein’s relativity. The rupture is particularly significant in the shift from representational to mathematical thinking. Intriguingly Bachelard did not grant mystical powers to the imagination – at least in his early work. “Bear in mind that we imagine with our retinas and not with some mysterious and all-powerful faculty. The imagination takes us no further than sensation.” So the imagination, far from supplementing science, actively hinders its advance – at least in this early articulation. One of the central contentions of Bachelard’s work on scientific epistemology, and in this he mirrors Descartes, was the unreliability of the senses. It is, in some ways, hard to avoid the sense that his work on the imagination – in Psychanalyze du feu – for example is something other than a retreat from the rigours of the cold, inhuman rationality he had set up for himself – an injection of passion into a world which had become so sterile that it could no longer support life in a recognizably human fashion.

    We are certainly agreed that identitarianism is a dead end, though perhaps not on the way to proceed. My favourite formulation of this problem is given by Alain Badiou in his book “Being and Event,” – “If truths exist they are certainly indifferent to differences. Cultural relativism cannot go beyond the trivial statement that different situations exist. It does not tell us anything about what, among the differences, legitimately matters to subjects.” The question then becomes what the role of truth is vis-a-vis the subject. Badiou would argue that truth is something that is borne out through a body, in a sense activating its subjectivity. Another way to think about it, here following Nishida Kitaro, is through what Kitaro calls pure experience. This is reality prior to individuation and individual experience. What he suggests, which I found illuminating, is that experience precedes and produces individuation, rather than individuals existing autonomously prior to experience. This is why Bachelard’s poetic – elemental – reflections are so powerful. They draw on experience shared, if not universally, then across a large cross-section of human experience over time and place. This is still not pure experience, since the subject-object distinction (a reflective dimension) is already at play.

    The question raised, in some ways, by what you call the postmodern Left, seems to be what constitutes our shared identity. The Enlightenment vision of a shared humanity was articulated when a human with certain characteristics had a position of dominance, and now some of the central assumptions of that vision are being challenged. As we proceed with the demands of that challenge, and with the work of extracting and salvaging what we need from the wreckage, we will need to be aware of the dead ends and false trails. Abandoning the notion of truth and evidence-based investigation is certainly one of those dead ends.

    The next pot of sangria and some good heated discussions sounds like a lovely prospect.

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    • Maybe I am pushing off of Bachelard more than summarizing him. I’ll throw out a few quotes, though, that trigger my train of thought. The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) starts me pondering when Bachelard says, “The axes of poetry and of science are opposed to one another from the outset. All that philosophy can hope to accomplish is to make poetry and science complementary, to unite them as two well-defined opposites.” For me, this suggests two ways to approaching truth – the scientific way (the rigor of the scientific method) and the poetic way of imagination – separate but equal.

      Bachelard elaborates later in The Poetics of Space (1958), wherein he “propose[s] … to consider imagination as a major power of human nature.” He is at pains to separate the poetic image from the scope of science. “Whereas philosophical reflection applied to scientific thinking … requires any new idea to become integrated in a body of tested ideas … the philosophy of poetry must acknowledge that the poetic act has no past.” This “essential newness” of the poetic image renders it “independent of causality.” It is an “origin of consciousness.”

      Actually, although he never speaks explicitly of three axes, a third axis is implied in Poetics of Space. Because of its status as “a flare-up of being in the imagination” with “no past,” the poetic image is “not accessible to such investigations” as offered by science or psychoanalysis. This suggests three axes in the quest for truth or knowledge: science (which traces out material causality), psychoanalysis (which traces out psychological causality), and poetics. Of the third, Bachelard says, “The poetic image has an entity and a dynamism of its own; it is referable to a direct ontology. This ontology is what I plan to study [in The Poetics of Space].” In the case of the poetic image, “expression creates being” without causal antecedent. “The poet speaks on the threshold of being.” He adds: “I always come then to the same conclusion: the essential newness of the poetic image poses the problem of the speaking being’s creativeness. Through this creativeness the imagining consciousness proves to be, very simply but very purely, an origin.”

      I suspect that all of this means that your quote – “The imagination takes us no further than sensation” – is something that Bachelard had revisited by the time of Poetics of Space.

      Geez, you make me work too hard. I never even got to your second paragraph. Your comments are so rich – so many doors and only time to get through the first one or two.

      Per the pot of sangria, I have just finished hitchhiking 11 countries, with some layover time teaching ESL at a university in Germany, but I will probably bounce between New Orleans and Guanajuato, Mexico, for a bit, so let me know if you come my way 😊 Gary


  4. Remember last scene of Inherit the Wind? Spencer Tracy walks out of courtroom with both Evolution of Species and King James Bible tucked under his arm. Easy solution to your dilemma, but then again, it’s Spencer Tracy.

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    • Hahaha. Don’t mess with Spencer Tracy. Or Darwin, who made the same point in an underappreciated passage of Origin of Species: “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone. . . . It is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that he created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.”

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