Are we all sophists now?

Note: I thought about making what follows more succinct, but I was concerned about losing necessary nuance. I’ve pared it down as much as I am comfortable with (admittedly putting a lot in the lengthy footnotes below). I hope you’ll give this almost article-length piece a chance.


If some folks do believe, vs. the New York Times, that there is an alternative to truth, just what is it they believe?*

I thought I knew. In one of my published papers taking on the popular idea among librarians that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” (see the abstract of the first paper here, which has now been downloaded over 350 times), I in essence argued that truth is not, contrary to impressions given, power alone.

I now am thinking that my argument was perhaps not specific enough. I am beginning to think that, for many, truth is ultimately fitness alone. Sola Commoditas. In other words, whoever evolutionary-wise is most fit, is most true.

How was such a conclusion — startling to many of us to say the least! — reached? And what is wrong with this idea?

I got there in part by reading a piece from Oregonian writer Douglas Perry: “Donald Trump rejects reality? That might make him a great president.”

“I alone can fix it!” – Donald Trump, author of Think BIG and Kick A** in Business and Life and 45th President of the U.S.A

Jumping off the example of a Donald Trump television surrogate who argued that facts, for example, are not really facts (of course, intriguingly, that person also said that this is unfortunately the case now), Perry provocatively says “Well, it turns out Trump and [his surrogate] Hughes just might be onto something important here (italics mine).”

Having dropped that bomb, he goes on… “Just ask Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California in Irvine.” Hoffman, Perry explains, argues that “Our senses are not designed to show us the truth, he argues. Their job is to help us survive, procreate and, yes, win.” They “maximize[] evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.”

Perry comments:

….Maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction. That does kind of sound like Trump — or any successful salesman. Trump rose to public prominence as a Manhattan real-estate developer. And Manhattan real-estate developers — always selling, working over bank executives and politicians and the press — exist by necessity in a fantasy space between what is and what might be. Here’s how a big-time real-estate developer in Tom Wolfe’s novel “A Man in Full” sees himself: “You had to sell the world on … yourself! Before they would lend you all that money, they had to believe in … you! They had to think you were some kind of omnipotent, flaw-free genius. Not my corporation but Me, Myself & I!”

Wolfe “maps” Trump?

More Perry:

“But it’s not just Trump’s expert salesmanship at work here, at least not according to scientists like Hoffman. It’s quantum physics, which tells us that objects don’t really exist — that an object is simply whatever it’s measured to be, meaning that whoever is doing the measuring gets the prize.”

(and now cue link to “Schrodinger’s cat” You Tube video)

In sum, Perry’s article boils down to the idea that life is ultimately about personal power for non-“traditionalists” – even if here we are mercifully just talking about their ability to satisfy and sway, not coerce or physically force. And even if what persons like Scott Adams claim about Trump is true — that he is not so much a liar as much as he is a strategic and natural “bull-shitter” — we are still fixated on what works. Here ideas, consequential as they are, are not so much related to truth so much as they are useful and expedient tools of the fit history-making and shaping will.

And here, are we not viewing the world from the peak of pragmatism, with everything ultimately being an engineering problem of sorts?** Whether it be through the “useful fictions” of the scientist or the propaganda (including mis- and disinformation) of the politician, we can make things work. We can save ourselves and the world, or, at least, make a difference.

Looking more closely at an interview with Hoffman, we learn that evolution has “programmed” us to survive in complex ways that are largely beyond our ability (or the average person’s ability) to understand. For example, it is not accurate perceptions which help us to survive but “fitness functions,” i.e. “mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction.” “Suppose,” he says,

“there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not… And yet the desktop is useful.”

In the end, Hoffman calls this view “conscious realism,” meaning that “Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.”

“we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.” — Donald Hoffman

And again, he speaks of “maximiz[ing] evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction”. Therefore, are we not left wondering what “truth” has to do with anything? Are things not rather all about a particular kind of success in the world: surviving and thriving (gaining respect, influence, health, wealth, power, etc.)?

If this is the case, why urge anyone to seek truth? Might such a notion just get in the way? Whether one attempts to simply give one’s children a good future or to enact more utopian dreams why give too much attention to this idea of “being honest with” “facts”? Who can know, after all? Why should we worry about what is ultimately the right, true, and good thing to do? Yes, it is disturbing to some of us when utopians talk about the need to break a few eggs (millions of eggs?!) in order to make an omelette, but we have self-sacrificing heroes like Spock from Star Trek as well, right?: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Some take real comfort in that. And in the meantime, different variations of scientism, materialism… philosophical naturalism (including some approaches to quantum physics) — all get worked into our “life equation”. Even the Romantic and Idealistic (as in the actual formal philosophy of “Idealism”) philosopher Curtis White’s core argument in his book The Science Delusion, is that the attack on the arts is “also an attack on our earliest human instinct: our ability to invent our way to survival” (p. 91, italics his).

In the tank with scientism,  materialism, and Social Darwinism after all?

What is happening here? Why, quaint ideas like real beauty, goodness, and virtue are leaving — have left! —  the building. Perhaps we didn’t even notice as they went. As fellow cognitive scientist (and philosopher of science) Daniel Dennett says (who, now, has a new book out which seems to echo Hoffman’s claims), things like evolution (which he equates with philosophical naturalism) are a

“universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways” (see here).

And, it is here where I make the claim that Hoffman’s views sync perfectly with those of the ancient sophists. Like many of our modern materialists (who might say they personally believe in goodness and evil but that they do not exist in any real sense), the Sophists of the ancient world said that our base assumption should be that certain truth and goodness is unattainable. With change being the only constant and knowledge an illusion, absolutely everything must be about building consensus through persuasion. The ethical sophist – assuming positing such a person is reasonable! – would persuade on the basis of arguing for things that are not true, but possible and perhaps probable… (cue librarian Lane Wilkinson’s understandable efforts to salvage “information literacy” in a post-truth world — I note that even I make the argument to classes that library databases, for example, have a “greater concentration of deeper and factually sound sources” than the web — at least when it comes to traditional academic disciplines).

Daniel Dennett’s new book, syncing with Hoffman.

So the possible, or perhaps even probable, is all that we are left with. This is something that perhaps many think they can live with. That said, remember that with Hoffman’s view temporal survival seems to be what life is all about, and  “Fitness alone!” is the cry, where, truth, including but not limited to “accurate perceptions,” is driven to extinction. But if this is if this is the case, as long as one can avoid the impression one is totally disconnected from what many have traditionally considered “matters of concrete fact,” disqualifying one’s self in others’ eyes, is not the sky the limit? “Useful fictions” and propaganda become one.

Why should any theory or narrative we use to help us cope with and explain life not be thought of as us advertising our fitness — which might well include our ability to deceive (tell “noble lies!” we say) — through clever and plausible sounding words? (helping advertise that we are one of the fit!) Why, for example, should a philosophical naturalist believe that the theory of evolution is true at all? It might be useful for “life” to perpetuate itself, but true?***

WWWJD: What would William James do? What about Peirce?

And yet, of course, what Hoffman is doing in his interview – what he cannot avoid doing even if he might protest he is doing it – is putting forth not a possibility or a probability but a truth claim. Truth, in one sense, is “driven to extinction,” where, in another, it rises from the ashes reborn. “Believe me,” he is saying… “I am speaking with some real authority on these matters.” Again, the ancient sophists played the same game… the truth is that we cannot not really know truth… what is important is that you listen to me, noticing how clever I am…

So just what is his truth claim?

In short, it is this: He is the Truth. And take heart! For maybe You to, if he wants to associate with you (perhaps because you believe his materialistic theory and narrative!), are also the Truth! This is what he seems to really believe is the truth, even if, at this point, he perhaps knows more than he can tell (see Michael Polanyi). This, after all, “works” for him (and here, whether the desire to be the truth comes before or after materialistic accounts of evolutionary theory becomes the chicken and egg problem).

Again, if Hoffman means what he says, everything we as human beings experience, do and say will impact our evolutionary fitness level, increasing it or decreasing it. Regarding any particular issue, “truth” need not relate to what really is the case. And that, I conclude, ends up being “truth”: Subjective Truth with the ability to master this physical realm — including the power to influence one’s fellows — is all there is

This is the “fitness function” at work! As Hoffman says, “Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.” Again, to sum it up, Fitness Alone. Sola Commoditas is his creed. Again, whoever evolutionary-wise is most fit, is most true.

Maybe that, after all, is what the New York Times means when it talks about the truth? “We, subjectively, are the Truth.” Maybe I should ask them for clarification?

Merely a survival strategy? Or should it be something more?

In any case, when it comes to this kind of kind of sophistry exhibited by Hoffman and Dennett — infused with a modern scientific and technological mindset as well (what I call the MSTM, where all “truth” and “limits” must succumb to human ability*) — I’m calling B.S.

There is real truth and common ground, as I argued forcefully in my last post.

Where do we go from here?

Well, if all of the Hoffman and Dennett Truthers oppose persons like me socially and politically and we fight back (evidently with our own fitness functions that still falsely believe there is real truth and real goodness!), just what hope for common ground do we now have?

I suggest that insofar as the kind of thinking that Hoffman and Dennett exhibit is rejected or at least questioned, there remains a sliver of hope.

Is guilt for any “wrongdoing” more of a pragmatic problem, psychologically and socially, than anything else? If so, where does that leave us? (pictured: Freud)

Even then, some may be tempted to reject Hoffman and Dennett only insofar as they deny that we can have empirical accuracy (they also do not deny the reality of mathematics of course, which not only survives the materialist acid, but is presumably behind it all). In other words, in spite of being almost entirely naturalistic in the variety of methodologies that they practice, they simply deny the logical endgame of philosophical naturalism, asserting, for this or that reason, that it does us no good (e.g. it is not useful for our sanity! : ) ) to posit that our senses may deceive us, even if we might be able to readily imagine them doing so in this or that circumstance. Skepticism about some things, even if arguments are echoed by other highly accomplished secular persons, is a bridge too far.

To counter such an attitude, here is my question: “Are the stakes too high?” I am talking about the importance of truth in principle, but consider also the truth about how this relates to the least powerful likely to be preyed upon. Note the words of librarian Joshua Beatty:

“For elites, the evolutionary model has served to retroactively justify the hierarchy of society — the wealthiest and the most successful must have been the most fit, while those in ranks below were progressively less fit.”****

Harrowing diagnosis

I’d hope that people at the extremes who ideologically insist that economic poverty causes bad character, full-stop — or vice-versa — might both pause at that.

And I’ll close with a rhetorical question for the highly stubborn from near the end of my recent paper titled: “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual: a Classical Challenge” (mentioned second here):

“When the influential Richard Rorty defined truth as “what our peers will let us get away with saying”, how does this not, in effect, make truth liable to being nothing more than a power play for one’s advantage? From which it follows that it is really true (!) that it is ultimately only things that overpower other things that can be said to exist – to be. This certainly puts a new spin on what Aristotle said about truth, namely that “to say that which is, is and that which is not is not, is true”! With this assumed, the best among us can only be those who take – and lead – leaps of faith into oceans, hoping that the evolving beliefs we think are “good” – and not just our genes – will be spread and passed on. Here, any classical notions of knowledge as “justified true belief” are banished, as whatever can function to win, if only temporarily, is all that remains for us to hope in. On the other hand, what if what we ultimately need is just such knowledge… and real wisdom… perhaps even involving a truth that even goes beyond “accuracy” – implying perhaps even a goodness that goes beyond our own subjective impressions?”

A childish view? Perhaps, but then again… (click on that if you want a well-thought-out religious answer)

“Computer scientists talk about the difference between exploring and exploiting — a system will learn more if it explores many possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most likely one. Babies explore; adults exploit.”Alison Gopnik


Images: Trump, William James, Freud, Gopnik: Wikipedia. Donald Hoffman:


-Some parts of the post have been updated to increase clarity since its initial publishing. Also, substantial parts of this post contain re-worked content from my previous writing.

*Many of these certainly believe in science. Or, at least one particular kind of purportedly scientific approach which is the enemy of truth — where all the boundaries limiting man’s power over nature increasingly are expected to succumb. We can call this faith, as I did in a conference presentation, the Modern Scientific and Technological Mindset, or MSTM, for short (this would go hand-in-hand with scientism, while not being the exact same thing).

Many years ago, I was reading Isaac Asimov’s fictional Foundation series and was introduced to the character of Hari Seldon. This man develops a science called “psychohistory” that enables him to predict the future via probability using mathematical formulas.  As an impressionable sixteen year old, this was a very new idea for me at the time and had a real impact on me – I vividly remember the time and place I read this and my subsequent wrestling with the concept: was science really progressing such that it would have abilities like these? Or if it was not, could it? Recently, I came upon what is by now a familiar theme – the universe as a machine, albeit a beautiful one – in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. As opposed to Hari Seldon’s formula(s), which took into account contingencies (and hence probabilities), what we find in Hugo Cabret certainly seems to be a more deterministic way of looking at things. Whether or not this is the case, here I submit that the practical idea is the same: by treating the cosmos as a machine and by carefully observing it, mathematical formulas can assist in “capturing” the world and be used to make predictions about it.

**Of course, none of us can simply be pure “social engineers,” for matters of myth, morals and meaning have at least some pull on all of us — more or less so (this is not to say that a person cannot attempt making this into an engineering problem as well – where confident about how things work and could work, we look to find a balance between humankind’s selfish and more altruistic impulses). Years ago, “postmodernists” looked to dispense with value “systems” because they were thought to perpetuate oppression, and “preferences” were highlighted. These days however, there is a growing awareness (see Jonathan Haidt’s work) of the fact that most every human being always find some forms of life — ways of being and doing — “beyond the pale”

Think here, for example, of the Nuremberg trials. Or, consider this quote also from the 18th c. Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid:

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, 1997, p. 117)

For some, ethics fundamentally evolves as humans evolve (and now, this primarily happens culturally), and some are able to “get it” while others do not. For others, things like beauty, justice, and goodness not only are intrinsic in our cosmos in general and human nature in particular (and these also exhibit some real stability), but also, to some degree, the way the cosmos is informs our moral decision making.

Again however, not only the practical, but the pragmatic, is lurking in the background. William James, the father of pragmatism, is the father of us all, where “truth is the cash value of an idea”. “Moral decision making,” in many cases, is understood in just this frame, where a kind of scientific and technological mindset* also prevails.

***Broken down piece by piece, the argument would look like this:

  • In brief, Hoffman makes the assumption that temporal survival is what life is all about, saying that it is our “fitness functions,” and not accurate perceptions, which help us to survive, pass on our genes, etc.
  • For example: “According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.
  • Along the same lines however, why would it not also not be the case that being able to create grand, plausible sounding theories – whether they are true or not – also can be reduced to being about survival value (in that they attract fit partners who intuit or know brains are valuable for providing, protecting, and producing good offspring)?
  • And if this is the case, as long as one can avoid the impression one is totally disconnected from what we typically call “matters of concrete fact,” disqualifying one’s self in others’ eyes, the sky is the limit!
  • As Hoffman says, our perceptions are “tuned to fitness, but not to truth”. Why, then, would our capacity to construct narratives, our story-telling imaginations, not be as well? Why would this also not figure into the all controlling “fitness function”?
  • So, if this is the case, why, for example, should a philosophical naturalist believe that the theory of evolution is true at all? It might be useful for “life” to perpetuate itself, but true?
  • Why can’t it just be a way of us advertising our fitness — and ability to deceivethrough clever and plausible sounding words?

****Another interesting chunk from Beatty, writing at In the Library with the Lead Pipe:

“It is innovation that takes the place of evolutionary changes in Moore’s business ecosystems. Moore argues that we have to accept the collapse of business ecosystems as a fact of life Instead of propping up old ecosystems, we should help those individuals affected make their way into newer, healthier ecosystems. The key to making this transition work is laissez-faire capitalism: “it’s only essential that competition among them is fierce and fair — and that the fittest survive.”

This last phrase is a tell. “Survival of the fittest” is a famous phrase coined by Herbert Spencer, and not Charles Darwin himself. Spencer, a philosopher, took up Darwinian ideas to argue for the application of evolutionary ideas to society and politics. “Social Darwinism,” as it later came to be called, was the intellectual justification for decades of foreign colonization and internal racial oppression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nor was Darwin averse to the use of evolutionary ideas in this manner. Gregory Claeys has argued that both Darwin and Spencer were influenced by the Victorian intellectual culture of their time, which viewed society through a lens crafted by the Enlightenment thinker Thomas Malthus.

According to Claeys,

Malthus viewed society in terms of an organic metaphor in which similar laws governed both animal and human worlds. He strongly distinguished between people who benefitted society (as defined in terms of productivity) and those who did not, and he defined rights as derived solely from productivity, competition-as-natural-selection dictated the survival of the “fittest,” and the starvation of the less successful, unless other factors intervened. We do not, of course, have a theory of inherited characteristics in which this “fitness” is transmitted, but we do very nearly have the symbolic imagery, so suitable to an age that prized usefulness above all else, in which such a concept functioned not as science, but as social theory.11

Our age, too, prizes “usefulness” above all else. Evolutionary metaphors are everywhere in our culture. They’re so pervasive that in an article about the dark underpinnings of evolutionary metaphors Claeys (to all appearances unwittingly) used one himself, referring to “intellectual historians concerned with how ideas themselves evolve.” For Moore to use a fairly complex evolutionary metaphor to describe the world of business was no more than tycoons and corporate thinkers had been doing since the Gilded Age. But the ecological metaphor would itself become pervasive, creeping into the library world via the high-tech business press.”

(end quote from Beatty, italics and bold mine)

Regarding “usefulness,” a quote from a previous blog post:

“In the second paper (RSR), I, at one point, state: “1) Are we, as human persons, concerned primarily with questions about what is true and right – or, alternatively, questions about what is useful and “works”? And, 2) what are the reasons for our answer?”… and go on to deal with this issue. That said, I understand that the practical (it’s William James’ world and we are all his children!) is undoubtedly on many people’s minds here, so let me also briefly address that. With the help of Thomas Mann, I put some real flesh on Wilkinson’s point in the RSR paper. You can read that excerpt near the end of my blog post Rebutting the Often Unstated Premise “Libraries Must Change or Die.”