On Libel? (Academic Freedom, Truth and Whatnot)

10 May

In this lecture delivered at The New School, Akeel Bilgrami has a number of incisive things to say about what academic freedom is, how it should be justified and the deeper ways in which it is stifled or blocked in contemporary academic discourse. En route to his conclusion he attacks what he calls a “classically liberal” fallibilist defense of freedom of speech (academic and otherwise) that he identifies with John Stuart Mill, and if I may make the unwise decision of picking nit with a professor of Philosophy at Columbia, I think his critique is unneccessary for making the very good points he concludes with, and flawed in and of itself.

He identifies Mills argument for freedom of speech thusly:

Premise 1:  Many of our past opinions, which we had held with great conviction, have turned out to be false.  

Premise 2:  So, some of our current opinions that we hold with great conviction may also turn out to be false. 

From these premises, he drew a conclusion about tolerance and free speech,

Conclusion:  Therefore, let us tolerate dissenting opinions just in case our current opinions are wrong and these dissenting opinions are right.

Bilgrami’s begins to attack this reasoning:

To begin with, even at a cursory glance, you will notice that the judgement in the first premise is made from the point of view of one’s current opinions and convictions.  It is from our present point of view, from what we currently take to be true, that we are able to say that our past opinions are false.  But the judgement in the second premise is telling us that our current point of view may contain false views and therefore to be unsure and diffident about them.  Now, if we are unsure about our current beliefs, and our judgement in the first premise is made on the basis of our current beliefs, then to that extent we must be unsure of our first and basic premise.  Any conclusion based on it therefore is bound to be, to that extent, itself shaky and uncertain.

This idea, that the fallibility of past opinions cannot be known because “some past opinions have turned out to be false” is, itself, a held opinion, and can therefore be false, does not, for me, hold water, because “some past opinions have turned out to be false” and “some of current opinions may also turn out to be false” are both neccessarily true because the only alternative possibility is for there to be a point in time at which all current opinions are true. This would seem to me to be an obvious impossibility: knowledge must be limited and therefore imperfectable: to store all information about the universe, it would be neccessary to use an amount of matter equal to all the matter of the universe, and if one were to somehow store information about the universe outside the universe, that would demand a recognition that there is even more outside the universe which we cannot have perfect knowledge of. These theoretical extremes have very little to do with the sorts of opinions that both Mill and Bilgrami are talking about, but they do function to show that Premise 1 and 2 are neccessarily true. They can be supported against Bilgrami’s objections by the addition of the premise:

Premise 0: At no point will all currently held opinions be all perfectly true.

Bilgrami prefers Mill’s other arguments for freedom of speech, for example that it breeds creativity, diversity and moral courage, and while I may agree that these are more noble and attractive, I see no reason to throw out the “meta-inductive” reasoning presented above. To me, the oddest part of Bilgrami’s complaint is this:

But, now, if that is so, there is something internally peculiar about an argument that appeals to the value of truth and the goal of pursuing the truth, as it does, while also implying, as the second premise does, that we can never know that we have achieved the truth.  How can we claim to have a goal that we can never know we have achieved, when we have achieved it?  What sort of goal is that?  It is not perhaps as peculiar as having a goal that we know that we can never achieve.  That is outright incoherent.  You cannot coherently strive to achieve what you know to be impossible.  But to allow that we can achieve a goal and yet insist that we can never know we have achieved it when we have, though not perhaps outright incoherent, is a very peculiar understanding of what goals are. 

Truth-seeking is not a “goal” in the sense he wants to insist upon, it functions more as an orientation or an attitude. He is essentially calling the scientific method incoherent: this central axis of modern truth-seeking is not at all about finding things that are true and knowing with certainty that they are true, it is an attempt to compile an increasing number of correlations between theory and observed reality while striving to falsify previously held opinions and theories, thereby aligning it quite closely with Mill’s meta-inductive argument. Falsification is possible while absolute verification never is; without the assumption that some past and current opinions must be false, there is little reason to continue the pursuit of truth.

Bilgrami asks

If the goal of inquiry into the truth that all academic institutions embrace is really to pursue in this way something that we never can be sure we have achieved, then we must be assuming that what we do, in pursuing it, is a bit like sending a message in a bottle out to sea.  We never know what comes of it, we never know that it has arrived.  What sort of epistemological project is that?

and I would suggest that it is the only sort of epistimelogical project possible, thank you very much.

Bilgrami then states that this Millian meta-inductive argument, which he finds so much fault in, is directly tied to the form of “balance” in academic life which is used not to inspire the full consideration of all available evidence but to require that two sides of a disagreement be presented, which often amounts to a bullying tactic for the side with little or no evidence at all to be included in a discussion. While I agree that this conception of balance is unacceptable, I don’t see that Bilgrami even bothers to explain how Mill’s reasoning leads directly to.

After he leaves Mill be, Bilgrami’s piece becomes much more illuminating, as he moves to discuss his idea that the most subtle, and therefore in some ways the most injurious form of academic unfreedom is the exclusion of alternative frameworks of investigating, thinking and knowing, which also excludes the evidence and arguments that might arise from that framework, which are never taken into consideration, but also never consciously excluded because they are never even brought into the awareness of the guardians of academic orthodoxy. It’s worth reading, and he ends by making a point I myself tend to emphasize: that academics (and people in general) have more of a moral responsibility to criticize those systems of which they themselves form a part, or to which they are more directly connected.

It is said that whenever Sakharov criticized the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the fifties, he was chastised by his government for showing an imbalance and not speaking out against the treatment of blacks in the American South.  That is precisely the kind of imbalance that courageous academics are going to be accused of by the enemies of academic freedom in this country, and I hope that all of us will have the courage to continue being imbalanced in just this way.


One Response to “On Libel? (Academic Freedom, Truth and Whatnot)”

  1. Trent Diamanti May 18, 2011 at 2:32 PM #

    I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad sign for your thinking, but I had almost the exact same reaction to his attempted take down of Mill’s main argument concerning free speech as you did here:

    “He is essentially calling the scientific method incoherent: this central axis of modern truth-seeking is not at all about finding things that are true and knowing with certainty that they are true, it is an attempt to compile an increasing number of correlations between theory and observed reality while striving to falsify previously held opinions and theories, ”

    You put that very nicely! For me the thought that was brewing as I read your opening paragraphs (and I think it aligns well with yours) was “Well, ideas don’t fit neatly into the categories of ‘true’ or ‘false’. There’s degrees of truth and degrees of falsehoods. It’s like Descartes dualism. It is false in the sense that it’s easily falsified as it fails to adequately explain many empirical observations and I don’t see how it’s a useful metaphysical theory in light of modern scientific investigation, BUT there’s truth to it in that there is something of a division between humans and animals, a threshold separating them, even if there’s no such things as souls or a neat divide between Mind and Matter. Some things are more true and less true, but no explanation is ever complete.” But yeah, you said it a lot more nicely. Have you read the article about Obama’s foreign policy in a recent New Yorker, and the battles inside the Beltway between realists and idealists? I’m working on a paper using that as a key source to discuss what is the right sort of foreign policy merging both realist and idealist elements. It’ll take awhile, given how ambitious its goals are, but I already can’t wait to share it with you!

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