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Errol Morris: The Truth About "Truth"


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Errol Morris has had a distinguished career as a maker of documentary films—such as The Thin Blue Line (1988) and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)—that complicate established beliefs about truth and how to recognize it. In the Boston Review, he has a piece that attacks one specific established notion of truth—the one developed in Thomas Kuhn’s hugely influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). In the piece, Morris also talks to philosopher Hilary Putnam and linguist Noam Chomsky about Kuhn’s lasting influence and what he got wrong. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Some philosophers and historians of science who are familiar with the controversies that have swirled around Kuhn’s work believe that most of the issues have been put to rest. I would argue otherwise. But just what are these controversies and why should anyone care? Why should you, the reader, care? I suppose it depends on whom you ask, but for me, they point to big questions—about how language attaches to the world, the nature of truth, reference, realism, relativism, progress. Questions that continue to demand answers. Can we have knowledge of the past? Does science progress toward a more truthful apperception of the physical world? Or is it all a matter of opinion, a sociological phenomenon that reflects consensus, not truth? Unfettered emission of greenhouse gases promotes global warming. Species evolve through natural selection. Can we meaningfully assess the truth of these assertions? In my book, The Ashtray, I discuss many aspects of Kuhn’s work—indeterminacy of reference, incommensurability, scientific change triggered by anomalies, Darwinian evolution as a model for the development of science, the relativism of truth, the social construction of reality, his philosophical idealism, and more. In each of these aspects, I have found it to be wanting and, more often than not, false, contradictory, or even devoid of content.

Image of Errol Morris via Grantland.