Daniel C. Dennett

February 18, 1997

Faith in the Truth

Mathematics is the only religion that can prove

it is a religion.

--John Barrow

1. Is science a religion?

Is mathematics a religion at all? Is science? One often hears these days that science is "just" another religion. There are some interesting similarities. Established science, like established religion, has its bureaucracies and hierarchies of officials, its lavish and arcane installations of no utility apparent to outsiders, its initiation ceremonies. Like a religion bent on enlarging its congregation, it has a huge phalanx of proselytizers--who call themselves not missionaries but educators.

An amusing fantasy: an ill-informed observer witnesses the intricate, formal teamwork that goes into preparing a person for the arcane paraphernalia of positron emission tomography--a PET scan--and decides it must be a religious ceremony, a ritual sacrifice, perhaps, or the investiture of a new archbishop. But these are superficial appearances. What of the deeper similarities that have been proposed? Science, like religion, has its orthodoxies and heresies, doesn't it? Isn't the belief in the power of the scientific method a creed, on all fours with religious creeds in the sense that it is ultimately a matter of faith, no more capable of independent confirmation or rational support than any other religious creed? Notice that the question threatens to undermine itself: by contrasting faith with independent confirmation and rational support, and denying that science as a whole can use its own methods to secure its own triumph, it pays homage to those very methods. There seems to be a curious asymmetry: scientists do not appeal to the authority of any religious leaders when their results are challenged, but many religions today would love to be able to secure the endorsement of science. A few have names that proclaim that desire: Christian Scientists, and Scientologists, for instance. We also have a word for science worship: "scientism." Those are accused of scientism whose enthusiastic attitude towards the proclamations of science is all too similar to the attitudes of the devout: not cautious and objective, but adoring, uncritical or even fanatical.

If the scientists' summum bonum or highest good is truth, if scientists make truth their God, as some have claimed, is this not just as parochial an attitude as the worship of Jahweh, or Mohammed, or the Angel Moroni? No, our faith in the truth is, truly, our faith in the truth--a faith that is shared by all members of our species, even if there is great divergence in approved methods for obtaining it. The asymmetry noted above is real: faith in the truth has a priority claim that sets it apart from all other faiths.

2. The priority of truth

Right now, as I speak, billions of organisms on this planet are engaged in a game of hide and seek. It is not just a game for them. It is a matter of life and death. Getting it right, not making mistakes, has been of paramount importance to every living thing on this planet for more than three billion years, and so these organisms have evolved thousands of different ways of finding out about the world they live in, discriminating friends from foes, meals from mates, and ignoring the rest for the most part. It matters to them that they not be misinformed about these matters--indeed nothing matters more--but they don't, as a rule, appreciate this. They are the beneficiaries of equipment exquisitely designed to get what matters right but when their equipment malfunctions and gets matters wrong, they have no resources, as a rule, for noticing this, let alone deploring it. They soldier on, unwittingly. The difference between how things seem and how things really are is just as fatal a gap for them as it can be for us, but they are largely oblivious to it. The recognition of the difference between appearance and reality is a human discovery. A few other species--some primates, some cetaceans, maybe even some birds--shows signs of appreciating the phenomenon of "false belief"--getting it wrong. They exhibit sensitivity to the errors of others, and perhaps even some sensitivity to their own errors as errors, but they lack the capacity for the reflection required to dwell on this possibility, and so they cannot use this sensitivity in the deliberate design of repairs or improvements of their own seeking gear or hiding gear. That sort of bridging of the gap between appearance and reality is a wrinkle that we human beings alone have mastered.

We are the species that discovered doubt. Is there enough food laid by for winter? Have I miscalculated? Is my mate cheating on me? Should we have moved south? Is it safe to enter this cave? Other creatures are often visibly agitated by their own uncertainties about just such questions, but because they cannot actually ask themselves these questions, they cannot articulate their predicaments for themselves or take steps to improve their grip on the truth. They are stuck in a world of appearances, making the best they can of how things seem and seldom if ever worrying about whether how things seem is how they truly are.(1)

We alone can be wracked with doubt, and we alone have been provoked by that epistemic itch to seek a remedy: better truth-seeking methods. Wanting to keep better track of our food supplies, our territories, our families, our enemies, we discovered the benefits of talking it over with others, asking questions, passing on lore. We invented culture. Then we invented measuring, and arithmetic, and maps, and writing. These communicative and recording innovations come with a built-in ideal: truth. The point of asking questions is to find true answers; the point of measuring is to measure accurately; the point of making maps is to find your way to your destination. There may be an Island of the Colour-blind (allowing Oliver Sacks his usual large dose of poetic license), but no Island of the People Who Do Not Recognize Their Own Children. The Land of the Liars could exist only in philosophers' puzzles; there are no traditions of False Calendar Systems for mis-recording the passage of time. In short, the goal of truth goes without saying, in every human culture.

Indeed saying would not go at all without the ideal of truth. But no sooner had truth-telling been invented than ways of exploiting this presumption were discovered as well: lying, mainly. As Talleyrand once cynically put it, language was invented so that we could conceal our thoughts from each other. Truth-telling is, and must be, the background of all genuine communication, including lying. After all, deception only works when the would-be deceiver has a reputation for telling the truth.(2)

Flattery would truly get you nowhere without the default presumption of truth-telling: cooing like a dove or grunting like a pig would be as apt to curry favor.

The world of non-human animals has often discovered the possibility of false advertising. Where there are poisonous species, truly warning would-be predators of their danger with their bright colors, there are very often non-poisonous species who mimic these bright colors, getting cheap protection thanks to a deceptive practice. But would-be liars among the animals have also discovered an enforcer of truth: the Zahavi principle. As the biologist Amotz Zahavi has argued, only costly advertising wears its credibility on its sleeve, because it can't be faked. For instance, in the competition for mate choice, suitors with cumbersome antlers, peacock tails, or other handicaps are in effect saying: "I am so good that I can afford this huge cost and still survive." Competitors are forced to indulge in this extravagant outlay or go mateless. Non-human species, then, are often blindly guided down the straight and narrow path to veridicality; we alone among the animals appreciate truth "for its own sake." And--thanks to the science we have created in the pursuit of truth--we alone can also see why it is that truth, without being appreciated or even conceived of, is an ideal that constrains the perceptual and communicative activities of all animals.

We human beings use our communicative skills not just for truth-telling, but also for promise-making, threatening, bargaining, story-telling, entertaining, mystifying, inducing hypnotic trances, and just plain kidding around, but prince of these activities is truth-telling, and for this activity we have invented ever better tools. Alongside our tools for agriculture, building, warfare, and transportation, we have created a technology of truth: science.

3. Science as the technology of truth

Try to draw a straight line, or a circle, "freehand." Unless you have considerable artistic talent, the result will not be impressive. With a straight edge and a compass, on the other hand, you can practically eliminate the sources of human variability and get a nice clean, objective result, the same every time.

Is the line really straight? How straight is it? In response to these questions, we develop ever finer tests, and then tests of the accuracy of those tests, and so forth, bootstrapping our way to ever greater accuracy and objectivity. Scientists are just as vulnerable to wishful thinking, just as likely to be tempted by base motives, just as venal and gullible and forgetful as the rest of humankind. Scientists don't consider themselves to be saints; they don't even pretend to be priests (who according to tradition are supposed to do a better job than the rest of us at fighting off human temptation and frailty). Scientists take themselves to be just as weak and fallible as anybody else, but recognizing those very sources of error in themselves and in the groups to which they belong, they have devised elaborate systems to tie their own hands, forcibly preventing their frailties and prejudices from infecting their results.

It is not just the implements, the physical tools of the trade, that are designed to be resistant to human error. The organization of methods is also under severe selection pressure for improved reliability and objectivity. The classic example is the double blind experiment, in which, for instance, neither the human subjects nor the experimenters themselves are permitted to know which subjects get the test drug and which the placebo, so that nobody's subliminal hankerings and hunches can influence the perception of the results. The statistical design of both individual experiments and suites of experiments, is then embedded in the larger practice of routine attempts at replication by independent investigators, which is further embedded in a tradition--flawed, but recognized--of publication of both positive and negative results.

What inspires faith in arithmetic is the fact that hundreds of scribblers, working independently on the same problem, will all arrive at the same answer (except for those negligible few whose errors can be found and identified to the mutual satisfaction of all). This unrivalled objectivity is also found in geometry and the other branches of mathematics, which since antiquity have been the very model of certain knowledge set against the world of flux and controversy. In Plato's early dialogue, the Meno, Socrates and the slave boy work out together a special case of the Pythagorean theorem. Plato's example expresses the frank recognition of a standard of truth to be aspired to by all truth-seekers, a standard that has not only never been seriously challenged, but that has been tacitly accepted--indeed heavily relied upon, even in matters of life and death--by the most vigorous opponents of science. (Or do you know a church that keeps track of its flock, and their donations, without benefit of arithmetic?)

Yes, but science almost never looks as uncontroversial, as cut-and-dried, as arithmetic. Indeed rival scientific factions often engage in propaganda battles as ferocious as anything to be found in politics, or even in religious conflict. The fury with which the defenders of scientific orthodoxy often defend their doctrines against the heretics is probably unmatched in other arenas of human rhetorical combat. These competitions for allegiance--and, of course, funding--are designed to capture attention, and being well-designed, they typically succeed. This has the side effect that the warfare on the cutting edge of any science draws attention away from the huge uncontested background, the dull metal heft of the axe that gives the cutting edge its power. What goes without saying, during these heated disagreements, is an organized, encyclopedic collection of agreed-upon, humdrum scientific fact.(3)

Robert Proctor usefully draws our attention to a distinction between neutrality and objectivity. Geologists, he notes, know a lot more about oil-bearing shales than about other rocks--for the obvious economic and political reasons--but they do know objectively about oil bearing shales. And much of what they learn about oil-bearing shales can be generalized to other, less favored rocks. We want science to be objective; we should not want science to be neutral. Biologists know a lot more about the fruit-fly, Drosophila, than they do about other insects--not because you can get rich off fruit flies, but because you can get knowledge out of fruit flies easier than you can get it out of most other species. Biologists also know a lot more about mosquitoes than about other insects, and here it is because mosquitoes are more harmful to people than other species that might be much easier to study. Many are the reasons for concentrating attention in science, and they all conspire to making the paths of investigation far from neutral; they do not, in general, make those paths any less objective. Sometimes, to be sure, one bias or another leads to a violation of the canons of scientific method. Studying the pattern of a disease in men, for instance, while neglecting to gather the data on the same disease in women, is not just not neutral; it is bad science, as indefensible in scientific terms as it is in political terms.

The methods of science aren't foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible. Just as important: there is a tradition of criticism that enforces improvement whenever and wherever flaws are discovered. The methods of science, like everything else under the sun, are themselves objects of scientific scrutiny, as method becomes methodology, the analysis of methods. Methodology in turn falls under the gaze of epistemology, the investigation of investigation itself--nothing is off limits to scientific questioning. The irony is that these fruits of scientific reflection, showing us the ineliminable smudges of imperfection, are sometimes used by those who are suspicious of science as their grounds for denying it a privileged status in the truth-seeking department--as if the institutions and practices they see competing with it were no worse off in these regards. But where are the examples of religious orthodoxy being simply abandoned in the face of irresistible evidence? Again and again in science, yesterday's heresies have become today's new orthodoxies. No religion exhibits that pattern in its history.

What difference in these institutions can explain this fact? It is, quite clearly, the leverage provided by the scientists' faith in the truth. Consider Richard Feynman's diagrams in quantum electrodynamics, for instance.(4)

When I first encountered them, they seemed like numerology to me, ludicrously unlikely guides to truth, more like dealing Tarot cards or casting lots than science. It seemed strange that such a weird process would yield the truth--but it does work, and the reason why it works can be understood (with effort!). And because it works, and can be proven to work, yielding results of dazzling precision and accuracy, it has become an accepted part of orthodox scientific method. And if casting lots or astrology could be demonstrated to yield results of similar accuracy, they too could be accommodated, along with the theory of why they worked, in orthodox science. But of course no such methods have ever been vindicated. Scientists have faith in the truth, but it is not blind faith. It is not like the faith that parents may have in the honesty of their children, or that sports fans may have in the capacity of their heroes to make the winning plays. It is rather like the faith anybody can have in a result which has been independently arrived at by ten different teams.

4. Epistemology: trying to tell the truth about truth

The ultimate reflexive investigation of investigation occurs in that branch of philosophy known as epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Here too controversies at the cutting edge have created a scale effect, a distortion that has often led to misinterpretations. Agreeing that truth is a very important concept, epistemologists have tried to say just what truth is-- without going overboard. Just figuring out what is true about truth turns out to be a difficult task, however, a technically difficult task, in which definitions and theories that seem at first to be innocent lead to complications that soon entangle the theorist in dubious doctrines. Our esteemed and familiar friend, truth, tends to turn into Truth--with a capital T--an inflated concept of truth that cannot really be defended.

Here is just one of the paths that leads to difficulty: suppose knowledge consists of nothing but true propositions believed with justification. And then suppose that true propositions, unlike false propositions, express facts. What are facts? How many facts are there? (Tom, Dick, and Harry are sitting in a room. There's one fact. In addition to Tom, Dick, Harry, the room they are sitting in and whatever they are sitting on, we seem to have a plethora of other facts: Dick is not standing, There is no horse on which Tom is riding, and so forth, ad infinitum. Do we really need to countenance an infinity of further facts alongside the rather minimal furnishings of this little world?) Were there facts before there were fact-finders, or are they rather like true sentences (of English, French, Latin, etc.), whose existence had to await the creation of human languages? Are facts independent of the minds of those who believe the propositions that express them? Do truths correspond to facts? What do the truths of mathematics correspond to, if anything? The categories begin to multiply, and no unified, obvious, agreed upon story about truth emerges. (5) Skeptics, seeing apparent pitfalls in any absolute or transcendental version of truth, argue for milder versions, and their opponents argue back, showing the flaws in the rival attempts at theory. Unremitting controversy reigns.

This modest but intermittently brilliant investigation of the very meaning of the word "truth" has had some mischievous consequences. Some have thought that the philosophical arguments showing the hopelessness of the inflated doctrines of truth actually showed that truth itself was nothing estimable or achievable after all. Give it up, they seem to be saying. Truth is an unachievable and misguided ideal. Then those who have gone on searching for an acceptable, defensible doctrine of truth appear to be clinging to a creed outworn, avowing a religion that they cannot secure by the methods of science itself. Epistemology begins to look like a mug's game--but only because the observers are forgetting all the points about truth that both sides agree upon. The effects of this distorted vision can be unsettling.

When I was a young untenured professor of philosophy, I once received a visit from a colleague from the Comparative Literature Department, an eminent and fashionable literary theorist, who wanted some help from me. I was flattered to be asked, and did my best to oblige, but the drift of his questions about various philosophical topics was strangely perplexing to me. For quite a while we were getting nowhere, until finally he managed to make clear to me what he had come for. He wanted "an epistemology," he said. An epistemology. Every self-respecting literary theorist had to sport an epistemology that season, it seems, and without one he felt naked, so he had come to me for an epistemology to wear--it was the very next fashion, he was sure, and he wanted the dernier cri in epistemologies. It didn't matter to him that it be sound, or defensible, or (as one might as well say) true; it just had to be new and different and stylish. Accessorize, my good fellow, or be overlooked at the party.

At that moment I perceived a gulf between us that I had only dimly seen before. It struck me at first as simply the gulf between being serious and being frivolous. But that initial surge of self-righteousness on my part was, in fact, a naive reaction. My sense of outrage, my sense that my time had been wasted by this man's bizarre project, was in its own way as unsophisticated as the reaction of the first-time theater-goer who leaps on the stage to protect the heroine from the villain. "Don't you understand?" we ask incredulously. "It's make believe. It's art. It isn't supposed to be taken literally!" Put in that context, perhaps this man's quest was not so disreputable after all. I would not have been offended, would I, if a colleague in the Drama Department had come by and asked if he could borrow a few yards of my books to put on the shelves of the set for his production of Tom Stoppard's play, Jumpers. What if anything would be wrong in outfitting this fellow with a snazzy set of outrageous epistemological doctrines with which he could titillate or confound his colleagues?

What would be wrong would be that since this man didn't acknowledge the gulf, didn't even recognize that it existed, my acquiescence in his shopping spree would have contributed to the debasement of a precious commodity, the erosion of a valuable distinction. Many people, including both onlookers and participants, don't see this gulf, or actively deny its existence, and therein lies the problem. The sad fact is that in some intellectual circles, inhabited by some of our more advanced thinkers in the arts and humanities, this attitude passes as a sophisticated appreciation of the futility of proof and the relativity of all knowledge claims. In fact this opinion, far from being sophisticated, is the height of sheltered naiveté, made possible only by flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power. Like many another naif, these thinkers, reflecting on the manifest inability of their methods of truth-seeking to achieve stable and valuable results, innocently generalize from their own cases and conclude that nobody else knows how to discover the truth either.

Among those who contribute to this problem, I am sorry to say, is an earlier Amnesty Lecturer in Oxford, my good friend Dick Rorty. Richard Rorty and I have been constructively disagreeing with each other for over a quarter of a century now. Each of us has taught the other a great deal, I believe, in the reciprocal process of chipping away at our residual points of disagreement. I can't name a living philosopher from whom I have learned more. Rorty has opened up the horizons of contemporary philosophy, shrewdly showing us philosophers many things about how our own projects have grown out of the philosophical projects of the distant and recent past, while boldly describing and prescribing future paths for us to take. But there is one point over which he and I do not agree at all--not yet--and that concerns his attempt over the years to show that philosophers' debates about Truth and Reality really do erase the gulf, really do license a slide into some form of relativism. In the end, Rorty tells us, it is all just "conversations," and there are only political or historical or aesthetic grounds for taking one role or another in an ongoing conversation.

Rorty has often tried to enlist me in his campaign, declaring that he could find in my own work one explosive insight or another that would help him with his project of destroying the illusory edifice of objectivity. One of his favorite passages is the one with which I ended my book Consciousness Explained (1991):

It's just a war of metaphors, you say--but metaphors are not "just" metaphors; metaphors are the tools of thought. No one can think about consciousness without them, so it is important to equip yourself with the best set of tools available. Look what we have built with our tools. Could you have imagined it without them? [p.455]

"I wish," Rorty says, "he had taken one step further, and had added that such tools are all that inquiry can ever provide, because inquiry is never 'pure' in the sense of [Bernard] Williams' 'project of pure inquiry.' It is always a matter of getting us something we want." ("Holism, Intrinsicality, Transcendence," in Dahlbom, ed., Dennett and his Critics. 1993.) But I would never take that step, for although metaphors are indeed irreplaceable tools of thought, they are not the only such tools. Microscopes and mathematics and MRI scanners are among the others. Yes, any inquiry is a matter of getting us something we want: the truth about something that matters to us, if all goes as it should.

When philosophers argue about truth, they are arguing about how not to inflate the truth about truth into the Truth about Truth, some absolutistic doctrine that makes indefensible demands on our systems of thought. It is in this regard similar to debates about, say, the reality of time, or the reality of the past. There are some deep, sophisticated, worthy philosophical investigations into whether, properly speaking, the past is real. Opinion is divided, but you entirely misunderstand the point of these disagreements if you suppose that they undercut claims such as the following:

Life first emerged on this planet more than three thousand million years ago.

The Holocaust happened during World War II.

Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald at 11:21 am, Dallas time, November 24, 1963.

These are truths about events that really happened. Their denials are falsehoods. No sane philosopher has ever thought otherwise, though in the heat of battle, they have sometimes made claims that could be so interpreted.

Richard Rorty deserves his large and enthralled readership in the arts and humanities, and in the "humanistic" social sciences, but when his readers enthusiastically interpret him as encouraging their postmodernist skepticism about truth, they trundle down paths he himself has refrained from traveling. When I press him on these points, he concedes that there is indeed a useful concept of truth that survives intact after all the corrosive philosophical objections have been duly entered. This serviceable, modest concept of truth, Rorty acknowledges, has its uses: when we want to compare two maps of the countryside for reliability, for instance, or when the issue is whether the accused did or did not commit the crime as charged.

Even Richard Rorty, then, acknowledges the gap, and the importance of the gap, between appearance and reality, between those theatrical exercises that may entertain us without pretence of truth-telling, and those that aim for, and often hit, the truth. He calls it a "vegetarian" concept of truth. Very well, then, let's all be vegetarians about the truth. Scientists never wanted to go the whole hog anyway.

5. The truth can hurt

Everybody wants the truth. If you wonder whether your neighbor has cheated you, or if there are any fish in this part of the lake, or which way to walk to get home, you are interested in truth. Why, though, if truth is so wonderful, and so obtainable, is there so much antagonism towards science? Everybody appreciates truth; not everybody appreciates the truth-finding tools of science.

Some, it seems, would prefer other, more traditional methods of getting at the truth: astrology, divining, soothsayers and gurus and shamans, trance-channeling, and consulting a variety of holy texts. Here the verdict of science is so familiar that I hardly need repeat it: as entertainments or stretching exercises for the mind, these various activities have their merits, but as truth-seeking methods, none can compete with science, a fact regularly conceded, tacitly, by those who defend their favorite alternative practice by citing what they claim to be scientific support--what else?--of its claims to power. One never encounters a believer in trance-channeling enlisting the support of an association of astrologers, or a College of Cardinals, but every shred of putative statistical evidence, every stray physicist or mathematician who can be found to offer friendly testimony, is eagerly brandished.

Why, then, if science is regularly appealed to even by those who seek to spread the word about alternatives, is there also so much dread? The answer is well known: the truth can hurt. Indeed it can. That is no illusion, but it is sometimes denied or ignored by scientists and others who pretend to believe that truth above all is the highest good. Surely it is not. I can easily describe circumstances in which I myself would lie or suppress the truth in order to prevent some human suffering. An old woman at the end of her days, living her life vicariously through tales of the heroic achievements of her son--are you going to tell her when he is arrested, convicted of some terrible crime, and humiliated? Isn't it better for her to leave this world in ignorant bliss? Of course it is, say I. But note that even here, we have to understand these cases as exceptions to the rule. We couldn't give this woman the comfort of our lies if lies were the general rule; she has to believe us when we talk to her.

It is a fact that people often don't want to know the truth. It is a more unsettling fact that people often don't want other people to know the truth. It darkens counsel to attempt to transform these facts into support for the fatuous idea that faith in the truth is itself a culture-bound, parochial, or in any way optional human attitude. The father of the accused who sits listening in court to the testimony, the woman who wonders if her husband is cheating on her--they may well not want to know the truth, and they may be right not to want to know the truth, but they believe in the truth. Very clearly they do; they know that the truth is there to be shunned or embraced, and that it matters. That's why they may well not want to know the truth. Because the truth can hurt. They may manage to deceive themselves into thinking that their attitude towards the truth on this occasion reflects ill on truth, and truth-finding and truth-seeking itself, but if so, this really is self-deception. The most they can hope to cling to is that there may be good reasons, the best of reasons--in the court of truth, note--for sometimes suppressing or ignoring the truth.

Should we not, then, consider suppressing the truth on a large scale, protecting various threatened groups from its corrosive effects? Consider what inevitably happens when our scientific culture, and its technology, is introduced to populations that have hitherto been spared its innovations. What effects will cellular telephones and MTV and high tech weaponry (and the high tech medicine to deal with the effects of the high tech weaponry) have on the underdeveloped peoples of the Third World? Many destructive and painful effects, no doubt. But we don't have to look at electronic wizardry to see the damage that can be done. Tijs Goldschmidt, in his fascinating book, Darwin's Dreampond (1996), tells of the devastating effects of introducing the Nile perch into Lake Victoria: the amazing species flock of cichlid fish was nearly extinguished in a few years, a catastrophic loss--for biologists, but not necessarily for the people who lived on its shores and who now could supplement their subsistence diet with the bounties of a new fishery. Goldschmidt also tells, however, of a similar cultural effect: the extinction of traditional Sukuma baskets.

These watertight baskets were woven by women and used at celebrations as vessels for consuming vast quantities of pombe, a millet beer. . . . Blades of grass dyed with manganese were woven into the baskets in geometric patterns with a symbolic significance. It wasn't always possible to find out what the patterns meant because the arrival of the mazabethi--the aluminum dishes named after Queen Elizabeth that had been introduced on a large scale under British rule--had signified the end of the masonzo culture. I spoke to an old woman in a little village who, after more than thirty years, was still incensed about the mazabethi. . . . "Sisi wanawake, we women, we used to weave baskets while sitting around and chatting with each other. I don't see anything wrong with that. Each woman did her best to make the most beautiful basket possible. The mazabethi put an end to all that." [p.39]

Even more sad, I think, is the effect reported of the introduction of steel axes to the Panare Indians of Venezuela.

In the past, when stone axes were used, various individuals came together and worked communally to fell trees for a new garden. With the introduction of the steel ax, however, one man can clear a garden by himself. . . . collaboration is no longer mandatory nor particularly frequent [emphasis added]. (Katharine Milton, "Civilization and Its Discontents," Natural History, March, 1992, pp.37-42.)

These people lose their traditional "web of cooperative interdependence," and they also lose a great deal of the knowledge they have amassed over centuries, of the fauna and flora of their own world. Often their very languages are extinguished, in a generation or two. These are great losses, without any doubt. But what policies should we adopt regarding them?

First, we should take note of the obvious: when traditional cultures encounter Western culture, the traditionalists enthusiastically adopt almost all the new practices, the new tools, the new ways. Why? Because they know what they have always desired, valued, wished for, and they find that these novelties are better means to their own ends than their old ways. Steel axes replace stone axes, outboard motors replace sails, modern medicine replaces witch doctoring, transistor radios and cellular phones are eagerly sought. These people turn out to be no better than we are at foreseeing the long-term effects of their choices, but on the basis of the information they consider, they choose rationally.

Yes, there are times, to be sure, when their innocence is taken advantage of by meretricious "advertising" cunningly aimed at their sheltered appreciation of the possibilities life has in store. But notice that this deplorable tactic is not the special province of those who would exploit them. Those who would protect them from modern technology are apparently prepared to grit their teeth and lie to them on a large scale: "Conceal your high tech wonders from them! If you must give them something, palm off some shiny beads, or other tidbits that they can readily incorporate into their traditional culture."

Is this any way to treat adult members of our species? Do we not all have, among our human rights, the right to know the truth? It is shockingly paternalistic to say that we should shield these people from the fruits of civilization. What, are they like elephants, to be put in a preserve? I recommend that we treat them as we treat our own citizens: we offer them all the truth-seeking tools in our kit, so that they can make an informed choice--if they so choose. To be sure, that course of action is a one-way street. Once they have been so informed, we have already violated their pristine purity. There's no going back.

You can't have it both ways. If these are human adults, then they have a right to know, do they not? Would you really advocate taking steps to prevent them from educating themselves? Educating themselves will turn them into something radically different. They will lose many of their old ways. Some of this will be good riddance, and some, no doubt, will be tragic. But what standard would you use to anchor the "right" ways for them? The ways of the last hundred years, or of last ten years, or of the last ten millennia? And more pressing, what would give us the right in the first place to treat them differently from the way we treat our own citizens?

Who cries out for this self-imposed restraint, by the way? Who beseeches us to button our "imperialist" lips and keep our so-called scientific truths to ourselves? Not, typically, the people, but rather, their self-declared spiritual leaders. It is they, not their flocks, who demand that their flocks be shielded from the corrosive and irreversible influences of our scientific culture of truth. Those people who work in "cultural studies," and others who fly the banner of multiculturalism, should linger thoughtfully over the following suggestion: their well-meaning policy of tolerance for traditional policies that deny free access to the truth-seeking tools of science is often--more often than not, I would judge--a policy in the service of tyrants.

In our culture, the idea of informed consent is one of the cornerstones of liberty. In other cultures, the very idea of informing the people so that they might consent or not is viewed with hostility. The next century will, I hope, sweep away this hostility. Indeed, I think it will become more and more impractical for political leaders to preserve the uninformedness of their people. All we need do is just keep putting out the word, clearly and with scrupulous concern for telling the truth. There is really nothing new in this suggestion. Institutions such as the BBC World Service have been doing just that, with tremendous success, for decades. And year after year, the elite in every nation in the world send their children to our universities for their educations. They know, perhaps better than we ourselves appreciate, that the science and technology of truth-seeking is our most valuable export.


Akins, 1990, "Science and Our Inner Lives: Birds of Prey, Bats, and the Common Featherless Biped," in M. Bekoff and D. Jamieson, eds., Interpretation and Explanation in the Study of Animal Behavior, Vol 1, Boulder, CO: Westview, pp.414-427.

Dawkins, Richard and Krebs, John, 1978, "Animal Signals: Information or Manipulation," in J. R. Krebs and N. B. Davies, eds., Behavioral Ecology, Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, pp.282-309.

Dennett, Daniel, 1991, Consciousness Explained, New York and Boston: Little, Brown; London: Allen Lane.

Feynman, Richard, 1985, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Princeton Univ. Press.

Goldschmidt, Tijs, 1996, Darwin's Dreampond, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hauser, Marc, 1996, The Evolution of Communication, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Milton, Katharine, 1992, "Civilization and Its Discontents," Natural History, March, 1992, pp.37-42.

Rorty, Richard, 1993, "Holism, Intrinsicality, Transcendence," in Bo Dahlbom, ed., Dennett and his Critics, Oxford: Blackwell.

1. The world of appearances for each of them has been vigorously biased by natural selection in the direction of their narrow best interests. Which facts do they find? Their sense organs--and their information-gathering behaviors using these sense organs--have been tuned to "narcissism" (Akins, 1990) designed to exaggerate, smear, discount, and in other ways adjust or edit their gifts of meaning in favor of life-preserving interpretations. This does not prevent them from tracking facts. Rather, it determines that the facts they track are those with a built-in perspective, thus not "here is water" in the chemist's sense, but in the thirsty organism's sense that glosses over the niceties of definition and ignores impurities up to the point where they become a health issue. Exactitude of definition, or the "transduction" of a "natural kind" has never been one of Nature's goals. Failure to appreciate this point has led to a cottage industry of philosophical fantasy (about Twin Earth, XYZ, and other chimeras).

2. Richard Dawkins and John Krebs (1978) opened up the field of theoretical investigation of this side of communication. See Marc Hauser, The Evolution of Communication (1996) for a masterful overview of the empirical and theoretical work in the field.

3. Even supposedly trained observers--such as those working in the new fields of "Science Studies" or the sociology of science--often overlook this mountain of quiet results, concentrating their attention on the noisy and exciting moments. In anthropology generally, this is a well recognized problem of observer bias. Consider: you have obtained a grant to study some relatively exotic human group, and you spend several years far from home, enduring hardships, tedium, and isolation. You would surely find it extremely hard to contemplate the prospect of coming back with the following discovery: they're pretty much just like us. Or worse: they actually do just what they say they do. Why worse? Because if you, the anthropologist, can't offer an account that contradicts or otherwise improves on the account we already have from their own mouths, it seems you have been wasting your time--and our grant money. There is, then, a natural, even reasonable, human bias in favor of concentrating on the extraordinary, in hopes of finding something riveting, something new, something surprising to repay the effort of the investigation.

4. The classic explanation is Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Princeton Univ. Press, 1985.

5. If you think, impatiently, that there is an obvious way of cutting through this Gordian knot, wonderful. Write up your solution and submit it to a philosophy journal. If you're right, you'll become famous for solving problems that have stymied the cleverest epistemologists for years if not centuries. But be forewarned: it was just such brave convictions that led most of us into this discipline.