This post gets deliciously philosophical, I recently watched a video by Jordan Peterson about postmodernism. Jordan interviews Dr. Stephen Hicks who wrote a book about the history of postmodernism. My interest is in the philosophical but very important part of the discussion.
Watch full video here
The part that got me really thinking is the part where they discuss the American pragmatist definition of truth. Which is something that when acted upon leads to a good outcome for you, or for society in general. Naturally, as a scientist, this definition seems uneasy for me. I seek truth in my day Job. So when I’m deep in my work am I judging my theories by the outcome that they produce? whether it’s good for humanity or bad?
The answer to that question is no, we do not judge truth by whether it results in a positive outcome in science. And I don’t think that we should. In science, we judge truth by whether it leads us to conclusions that can be tested and verified in a nontrivial way by looking at the world. This definition includes the American pragmatist definition that they talked about in the video. Because a prediction could be that a specific set of actions will lead to a positive outcome for the world. But the prediction could also be that the outcome will be negative, yet Jordan wants to call these theories “Not true enough”. You can use words for whatever you want, I just think truth should be reserved for the more general definition.
Please don’t get me wrong, I think our highest ideal should be to seek knowledge that will “make the world better”. We should not divorce science as societal endeavor from the responsibility to do good. But I just think there is a concepts of truth that is more general than that, and is more in line with the workings of the universe. If we are honest and “truthful”, we would recognize the universe doesn’t always care about what happens to us. It is our responsibility to take care of that.
One last point I do think that knowledge in the general (Objective) form could be a net positive good for humanity. For two reasons. The first is that it’s beautiful to understand the world, it makes us feel connected . The second it gives us power.
Of course when we give humanity power, it could lead to very bad outcomes. But it is of crucial importance for our future to work hard on filling humanity with good intentions and make us more like good people so that we can use the power to make the world better.
I will end with this thought about our future. Wouldn’t be great if we developed enough capacity to end a lot of suffering and increase our capacity to accommodate more humans and life on earth? We would be telling these new life forms welcome, enjoy the fruits of our hard work and creativity and help advance it forward. I think a future like that should sound very positive to most people.