Conversations on Truth, Edited by Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson (Continuum) £14.99/$19.95 (pb)
A collection of interviews on the theme of truth, honesty, and associated notions is hardly inapposite. Gulf War II garnered what support it enjoyed because of lies, or at least untruthfulness; British MPs are apparently quite a fraudulent lot when it comes to expenses; and the global economy is in a mess because banks stopped trusting each other – for good reason given the prevalence of toxic debt. In short, public life is in the toilet. There is also much popular debate about the need for a new Enlightenment to combat a motley group of dark forces, ranging from the Taliban to palm readers and various sociologists. Two of the present interviewees are such self-styled crusaders (Simon Blackburn and AC Grayling); one may also mention Paul Boghossian and, of course, Richard Dawkins.
Being attuned with the Zeitgeist, however, does not necessarily make for an edifying read. One can’t complain at the very idea of the present volume. The value of the result will depend on the assembled cast. One should be thankful in this regard that the editors avoided the risible John Gray. What we do have is a bunch of media-friendly philosophers; a smattering of journalists from “left” (e.g., Nick Davis) and “right” (e.g., Peter Oborne); a historian (Richard J Evans) and a lawyer (Bruce Houlder); and Noam Chomsky, who has his political hat on. Gregory Chatin, the mathematician, is also interviewed. His views are fascinating, although somewhat out of place here. Finally, there is the odd choice of John Humphrys. I have no particular gripe against the BBC man, but why would anyone care that he thinks that “there is no objective truth”?
The responsibility for Humphrys’s silliness lies more in the questions asked, which occasionally give rise to absurdity. Thus, we have Mary Midgely being asked about “theories of everything” in physics. She opines that the pursuit of unity is “quite irrational” and that the inconsistency of general relativity with quantum mechanics is not “too surprising”. Oh, silly physicists! The fact is that gravity evades a unity that encompasses all other known forces – surprising, surely. The search for a wider unity still is far from irrational. Modern cosmology, for instance, just makes no sense without some unification of nuclear and gravitational forces.
The journalists offer more interest, with some quirks. Nick Davis calls Chomsky’s analysis of the media “crap” on no basis other than that journalists wouldn’t agree with it. Nothing Davis says, however, contradicts Chomsky’s position that the media function to distract the “bewildered herd” or set the agenda in which political discourse might take place, an agenda in line with major commercial interests. Davis is simply more interested in the micro-detail; besides, it is no more the business of journalists to sanction theories of the mass media than it is of rocks to sanction the theory of plate tectonics. Interestingly, Oborne, a self-described Tory, considers Chomsky “just stunning… his argument accords exactly with my practical experience.”
Chomsky himself is his usual blend of erudition, insight, and savage irony: How can we have a serious debate about potential Iranian “interference” in an invaded country? In line with Chomsky is Dan Hind, an independent author and blogger. He rightly complains of the neo-Enlightenment crowd targeting relatively peripheral issues, such as faith healing and theism (for what it’s worth, I am appalled by both); a genuine neo-Enlightenment should be concerned with contemporary impediments to our free, intellectual advancement (such as corporate hegemony, press independence, privatisation of education, a servile media), not the impediments of two hundred years ago. Hind is on less steady ground, I think, in his qualified interest in conspiracy theories. He is right that “conspiracy often serves to discredit legitimate concerns”. But the fact remains that states are guilty of enough that is known by all without the need for anyone to invent or root out often less nefarious crimes.
In a similar vein, Martin Kusch (a sociologist of science) upbraids Boghossian’s ill-informed polemics against the sociology of science and continental philosophy. It is a pity that Kusch has to state the obvious: science has a complex history, and inquiry into the social conditions that shape scientific development does not affect to usurp the science itself. It is of no little irony that the neo-Enlightenment lot, being unduly enamoured with common sense, tend to have a flat-footed conception of science. For sure, there is large-scale ignorance of science (nothing new there), but a better remedy is for people to learn something of its history, rather than read misinformed “popular philosophy”.
In general, the collection is of mixed interest. If you want philosophy, then there is little on offer here. On the other hand, Chomsky, Davis, Oborne, and Hind all provide righteous anger, and some entertainment along the way.
John Collins is a lecturer in philosophy at UEA and the author of Chomsky: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum)