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Friday, 18 October 2013

Truth and process

This is an avant-première of something I'm writing on Latour and truth. Comments, criticism and suggestions welcome.

Une phrase ne tient pas parce qu'elle est vraie;
c'est parce qu'elle tient qu'on la dit vraie.
(Latour, Irréductions, 2.4.8)

I'm going to do no more than to unpack this epigraph. My unpacking, however, will carry a metaphysical baggage which I will motivate but will be likely to do less than fully defend. The baggage is strongly shaped by a framework provided by process philosophy, inspired by Whitehead, Souriau and Latour himself. This will take me to a substantive account of truth. If the account is plausible, it will place truth (and some parts of logic) outside the places reserved to it by the maneuvers of the linguistic turn in its heyday.

Latour's dictum together with the metaphysical baggage will take me towards a very rough attempt to look at truth in terms somehow akin to those we use to think about natural phenomena. It is very sketchy and it only points towards a vague direction that I believe is plausible. It is some sort of physicalist take on truth that seeks to somehow place (at least parts of) logic within the scope of physics. Its physicalism, however, is one that is closer to Plato’s ‘physics of the all [tou pantos phuseos]’ (Tim. 47a9, 27a5) than to any commitment to physics as a a current scientific discipline either as it stands or as it could eventually become.

Hartry Field's work on truth could be taken as exemplary of the journey through darkness that a physicalist undergoes when trying to approach the nature of truth. Field (1972) started out proceeding in a courageous and yet straightforward manner. If truth is to be physical, there ought to be a physical property that at least correlate with it in the same manner that an extensionally equivalent physical property was given for valence in order to make it acceptable from a physicalist point of view. If such a property was not found, and only a description of the equivalence at each instance (potassium is +1, sulphur is -2 etc,) was possible, physicalism would have to be abandoned in favor of something like chemicalism. Analogously, he claims, if there is no physical extensional equivalent for primitive denotation – based on which truth is defined – we would have to allow for a sui generis semantical domain. Field provides a diagnosis and then a programme. The diagnosis: Tarski's definition of tuth was a step in the right (physicalist) direction but it was not enough. The programme: once we define truth in terms of primitive denotation we can then hope to find a physical extensional equivalent for it. Truth then would be reduced to something physical that ties together linguistic expressions and their primitive denotata. It is a property and a physicalist approach to properties is to show that they are reducible to physical properties. The rest of the journey is to some extent dismal. Field (1986), following a general tide against substantive conceptions of truth, gave up this strategy and retained physicalism while adopting a deflationary account of truth that would hold that truth is something short of a property.

Since then, deflationism was served in many flavours – disquotational, prosentential, minimalist à la Horwich. The basic idea is to keep to a general schematic notion of truth such as Tarski's. (Or to Ramsey's scheme requiring quantification over propositions.) Very roughly, truth is taken to be no more than an instrument to assert something, to provide a tool for anaphoric expression and to enable semantic ascent in a hierarchy of languages. In other words, it names no property. Typically, truth bearers are then supposed to be sentences or statements but Horwich (1990) holds that truth is a (deflated) predicate of propositions. Deflationist accounts help doing justice to the intuition that to say that something (a sentence, a statement or the content of a belief) is true is a recommendation on its behalf. Truth is often taken to entails good assertibility conditions - the reverse not being in general accepted as something could be safe to assert (within a context) – while being false. There is room, therefore, for some transcendence of truth with respect to assertibility – truth is not only something you get away with saying. It is something else beyond assertibility. Deflationary approaches can also make space both for the idea that truth is a value and that it transcends assertibility.

The transcendence of truth is a point that deserves some pause here: the epigraph points at some lack of transcendence in truth. Traditionally, adequatio accounts (correspondence and identity) but not epistemic and pragmatic ones do justice to transcendence of truth (with respect to assertibility, agreement, widespread opinion or belief). Epistemic and pragmatic accounts, taking truth to be the result of inquiry (or agreement) and not self-standing independently of human practices, maintain that truth is not transcendent, being no more than the result of the way we seek it. Putnam in his brief internal realism phase has put forward a notion of truth based on the ideal of inquiry. There truth transcends our current epistemic state because it is some kind of human ideal. Notice that truth can be a human concern and yet be transcendent to the human ways: Davidson famously opens his Truth and Predication (2005) saying that “[n]othing in the world, no object or event, would be true or false if there were no thinking creatures”. A central issue concerning truth – and concerning in particular the nature of logical truth in its elusive connection to provability – is how human truth is.

Now Latour's take on what there is draws from basic tenets of process philosophy. Nothing exists without something else making it exist. Souriau talks of ontological instauration. In my paper in Speculations 2 I used the English phrase “bringing about” to translate it stressing that nothing is brought about once and for all for Souriau. In recent writings I have been using the word sponsor to translate it (Harman's gestiftet from Heidegger etc.). Then the idea is: to be is to be sponsored (and to sponsor). Nothing is sponsor-free and therefore the existence of something is always dependent on the existence of something else (its sponsors). Not only us, humans, sponsor the existence of what there is for us but everything else is for-something. Plus, we cannot sponsor something on our own – something holds if there is enough sponsoring behind it. Ontology would be then a study of sponsoring relations. Process philosophy is a way to be a realist about the constitutive relations that the anti-realists talk about: we sponsor things-for-us as river banks sponsor rivers, the water of Earth sponsors the clouds, bees sponsor flowers etc. Existence is somehow a matter of agreement between sponsors. We cannot sponsor anything on mere human agreement – except, of course, for characters of fiction, rumors, widespread falsehoods etc – because we need other parts of the world. (Latour talks about agents in a deliberately vague way because they are not individuated before agreements are put into test.) What there is transcends our human interests and yet it doesn't transcend the sponsor's interest. Existence is immanent to sponsoring.

There is a number of consequences to this ideas. Concerning what is necessary, we can say that nothing holds, say, because it is necessarily full stop; all necessity is itself sponsored by something. We can bring to fore a use of the word 'contingent': something is contingent on something else. When we say “arms sales contingent on the approval of congress”, for example. Likewise with necessity: it is necessary on something, because of something, given something. Maybe all modality would have to be thought as conditional modality. Further, we can say that the temporal order of events is relative to a sponsoring scheme that somehow limits time travel – if we find sponsoring (in tachyons, in cosmic space or somewhere else) for a time shuttle enabled to reach the past, the sponsoring scheme will change in a way that the past will be altered by the present or future. Laws of nature themselves are contingent on some configuration of things – they are the result of a stable agreement between sponsors rather than something that forces the sponsors to agree on. If it seems that the sponsors are forced to agree on something, it is because we need to take into account some other sponsors who are strong enough to impose it. In other words, laws hold because they are held and not because they are necessary in themselves. Process philosophy doesn't assume a metaphysically fixed framework where everything takes place, no established order of things – there is no underlying structure that transcends all the sponsors and their activity. It could resemble some sort of anti-realism: it's all up to us – except us ranges not over us humans, but rather on the class of all sponsors. (It is interesting to ask the difficult questions concerning membership in this class: do abstract objects belong? Numbers? Proofs? It is also interesting to try and answer affirmatively to these questions. Surely, however, abstract objects cannot sponsor anything on their own, they need to be part of a sponsoring pool. I will not proceed in these lines here but I do believe there are several promising avenues to be explored in this area.)

I'll now go back to truth – and the epigraph. I’ll try to show that we can bring together both the intutitions behind adequatio accounts and the insights of the so-called antirealist takes on truth. We can now understand the epigraph as stating that a sentence is true because it makes explicit the scheme of alliances promoted by a sponsoring pool. We can begin to disclose what I call a sponsoring account of truth. We say that the “snow is white” is true because it reports a state of affairs involving the snow sponsored by the cold weather, its whiteness sponsored by luminosity and reflection on pigments etc. Truth is then akin to a report on the agreement between sponsors – the agreement is the truth-maker. But truth is not only a matter of reporting. Truth is also a way to make agreements – and this is where the antirealist insights also have a room. Truth lie in the agreement between sponsors – but it is always subject to new tests of resistance, as Latour would put it. The agreement is always up for grabs: any sponsor, including those who can state truths (and falsities), can affect it. A statement of what is true has a performative character – and not merely a descriptive one. To state that something is true is, in some cases, a way to interfere in the agreement.

But I will start with considering the sponsoring account in contrast with adequation ones. The agreement between sponsors is in this case something close to a state of affairs and we can then take this idea of truth as very close to that of a correspondence between sentences and states of affairs. Correspondence accounts typically don't yield that truth is what makes things hold, something is correspondence true simply because it corresponds to what holds. While corresppndence-truths transcend our beliefs and expectations about it, they could be either transcendent or imanent to how things are. They command beliefs rather than negotiate with them – beliefs have no say about what is true, they just report on what, in virtue of something else, is true. The correspondence typical truth-maker is the state of affairs. If we understand state of affairs in terms of facts, facts can either make something be true – in this case truth is immanent to them – or they can conform to something that is true – in this case truth transcends them. One could say that snow is white is correspondence-true because facts, including mostly the property of snow to be white, make it correspondence-true but also because the facts conform to something else – namely anything that has that snow ought to be white. In other words, facts can be as they are per se, or they can conform to a law or a principle that make them how they are. Correspondence truth is indifferent to whether truth transcends facts or not because truth-makers are facts – and not whatever make them what they are. In correspondence accounts, truth is a property of a sentence (or a proposition) that depends on a feature of the world. Something is true because it reports what is going on independently of the report. Truth is human to the extent that language and though are human – and therefore sentences and propositions are human. The content of what is true transcends language and though as truth makers transcend true sentences or propositions. Something similar can be said about other adequatio conceptions of truth – namely identity theories. Identity-truths are also transcendent to beliefs while they can either be transcendent or immanent to the facts. The truth maker is independent of any act of thought even if it constitutes the content of thought (see McDowell, 1994: 2).

In adequatio accounts, truth is not defined as a force affecting things. It is also an important feature of the image of truth we're trying to grasp that truth is dependent on what holds it true. Truth is not an agent (it is not, therefore, a sponsor). In the sponsoring account, truth is the name of a sponsoring agreement – the sponsoring agreement that makes whatever is true hold. Agreement is a relation between all the sponsors that make something hold. Like in adequatio approaches, truth is a relation involving the truth-bearer – but not by being in agreement with something but rather by being in an agreement with several relata. A crucial difference between adequatio accounts and the sponsoring account I’m sketching is that in the latter, the relation is not between the truth-bearers and the state of affairs as such, but rather the relata are rather all the sponsors of the agreement including the statement of the truth-bearers. While truth is not an agent – a sponsor – the bearer that conveys it is. It is an agent within the pool that sponsors the state of affairs. Truth is not the property of the truth-bearer but rather a global property of the state of affairs that includes the truth-bearer. This is the performative element of truth that is not captured by adequatio accounts – when truth is made by asserting it. Asserting is a form of holding something true. In some cases, as we shall see, the influence of asserting something over its truth-value could be comtemptible, but for the sponsoring account of truth nothing is held (by whoever asserts) because it is true but rather it true because it is held (by the sponsors, including eventually whoever asserts it).

In the sponsoring account, there is no ready-made truth before the act of stating it (or formulating it, or getting to know it). This has an antirealist ring to it, as truth is to some extent produced by arriving to it. To hold something as true is never simply a description – phrases or thoughts involving truth are not declarative sentences, but entertain a performative character: they involve undertaking a commitment. To hold p as true is to be part of an alliance that makes p true. The sponsoring account of truth harbous this antirealist element: truth-bearning is not indifferent to truth-making. But truth bearing doesn’t make truth on its own – stating something (or getting to know it) doesn’t by itself make it true. Truth bearing is not the sole constituent of truth. In fact, truth bearers are always proper parts of truth makers.

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