Saturday, May 14, 2011

Truth, Perspectivism and Methodology in Philosophy

Gadamer observed in an essay on Truth in the Human Sciences that many different people can appropriate the humanities for different political purposes and there is no proper way to study the humanities in order to prevent this from occurring. Unlike the sciences, there are no clear methodologies one can point towards in the study of humanities (I say this as a wholly convinced phenomenologist). One literary interpretation of Leviticus can commit one's faith to exclusion of otherness, while a more generous reading might carry the day for openness. All we can do is maintain an openness to otherness and do so as if it were an ethical imperative.

This reflection is spawned by watching the documentary Equality U. In this documentary, LGBT Christian Activists went to 19 different Christian universities to end religiously-based discrimination. Now, some of the exchanged between these groups reached a theological impasse. Group A maintained that homosexual gay lifestyles were inherited sinful. That's just what we believe and the other Group B urged for a loving-kindness and openness. At one point, members from Group A just said "Let's just agree to disagree." The activists felt their viewpoint needed to be shared and they spent about two hours in the film justifying their activism. What made this so difficult for them is a problem that lurks in the humanities in general, not just theology. Activism can feel like the assertion of an ideology rather than an argument for the "truth" of that moral position.

In any science -- whether it is social or natural science -- there are clear methods one uses to access structures in the world. The power of the science is limited in what we can actually say about that objective world, but the point is that objectivity is a goal of the scientist. They talk about something they can all experience and even repeat within the methods used to describe the same thing. Therefore, the "truth" of the science has a point of reference. Theology, on the other hand, has no clear method to access the world and does not share the same reference. There is no objective structure one is pointing towards, even if they are referencing the same text. Interpretation mitigates this access and interpretation itself is the problem. In the humanities, that is all we can do.

The hermeneuticist in me might want to claim a reversal of priority in method. I could argue that scientists are fooled; they are as bootstrapped in the same way as the humanities. All science is just interpretation, but without texts, the scientist must interpret through a series of signs and symbols--essentially the theoretical model and the quantitative representation of the phenomenon in question. Some scientists think of the model as what is truly real and others construe the model as an instrument to make sense of reality. I don't know I can go so far in claiming science is like hermeneutics, but I do have sympathies with this view.  It's just that I don't know where to place the emphasis on openness. In science, the scientists usually have a good grasp of the limit built within the practice. If they don't, they're not really doing science. Science is about asking questions to things we don't know and designing ways to investigate our best guesses about a phenomenon.

Back to the openness... In the beginning, I said that we must maintain an openness to difference. We must be humble in our intellectual commitments lest we commit the political sin of excluding others from counting. In the 1800s, European racists concocted "phrenology" to exclude Negroes from counting in the moral community. They weren't African-American, nor even people. They were slaves and treated like cattle. People used the Bible to justify slavery. The Bible was also appropriated by Martin Luther King, Jr. as a point of wisdom to oppose Jim Crowe laws. Yet, where do we point to say who had the right theological interpretaton? We can't with any reliability. We can, however, make sure we have a constant open attitude towards openness and view our beliefs as tentative efforts to know the world. We should not be convinced with certainty about our beliefs to the point they become dogmas and exclude others from counting. This is harder said than done. Also, this is the ethical imperative of postmodernism and why postmodernists exert great effort in showing that meta-narratives of truth are dead.

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