Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tell Me the Truth

Aaah, a hot sunny morning, seagulls and two long comments to reply to. Cornelius:
Epistemic relativism means that nobody's knowledge is more accurate to an assumed single reality than any other (in other words, there is no single, knowable reality) - and this is a respectable academic position that is shared by some archaeologists (including myself).
Respectable, my ass. Cornelius is abusing the word knowledge. What he should say is faith. Absolutely appalling.

Anyone who asserts that "nobody's knowledge is more accurate to an assumed single reality than any other" is, as I said, willingly or not, an anti-intellectual enemy of democracy and the open society. And also either disingenuous or nuts, in my opinion. There either is or is not milk in the fridge. There either were or were not gas chambers in Auschwitz. Having been able to survive for decades in urban environments, Cornelius clearly looks both ways before crossing the street. This indicates that he realises that cars have an independent physical existence, which suggests, encouragingly, that he is not nuts.
Making judgements on the basis of politics and ethics is not anti-intellectual but the duty of every good citizen in a democracy.
Sure, judgements about what to do. Not about what the real world is or has been like. First you investigate what the factual situation is. Then you make a moral judgement as to what to do about it. You can't act morally unless you know the facts. I think it would be morally superb if nobody had ever been oppressed or exterminated, but the fact is that they have, whatever Cornelius or myself try to persuade ourselves.

As to the problem of arguing about the truth with "clever fascists", I am pretty confident about the power of reason and open debate.
We are much rather paid to educate students, manage heritage and museums, satisfy peoples' curiosity, interpret artefacts, influence collective identities.
Here, Cornelius assumes the right to interpret the instructions given by the parliament to the universities in any way he likes. As a university scholar, he is in fact instructed to teach and do research on a solid scientific foundation. The sad case of bewildered professor Eva Lundgren, whose "hermeneutic" work with abused women led her to fantasise about Satanist orgies and ritual murder, and who was publicly disgraced when her work was scrutinised, shows clearly that the Swedish public has the same simple concept of truth and science as myself. They pay archaeologists to find out and disseminate facts about the past, period.

So, in the name of honesty, I think Cornelius should preface his future grant applications with the words "I believe that all knowledge is culturally constructed and that no scholar can know better than the next man what the world actually is or has been like." For fairness's sake, I'll come clean too and preface mine with the words "I believe that scholars can and should find out interesting solid facts about what the world actually is and has been like".
For a truly enlightened tax payer there are very few good reasons to care about the truth of how a farmer may have lived thousands of years ago, and those few that do exist would never justify all the different activities archaeologists are currently paid to do.
I suppose this means that Cornelius feels that democracy isn't working very well on the areas of academic research and heritage management. The public's attitude towards these things isn't adequately represented by their elected representatives in parliament, who belong to a small elite with bourgeois minority values. Correct, Cornelius?

Onward to Alun Salt:
If for instance we believe that archaeological epistemology cannot aid interpretation and that acceptability of explanations is a political affair then there's a strong argument to cease teaching people to be bad archaeologists and teach them to be good politicians instead.
Well put, I agree!
I think a good point Cornelius raises in his recent book is that it's the process that is important. If you're seeking a spiritual connection to ancient sites then is an archaeological process useful?
Process? Bah, fluff. But sure, everybody has a right to accessing the cultural heritage as long as they don't ruin sites. Meanwhile, I consider it my right as a citizen and my duty as a scientist to object when pyramidologists and Wiccans and Christians make erroneous statements about the past.
If I ever got to produce an archaeology or history series I think I'd have two opposites (processualist v. post-processualist or orthodox v. alternative) tackle a different issue each week.
I think a lot of the dissent among such members of different camps would be about untestable hypotheses. I'd prefer archaeology to point out clearly and then avoid such unprofitable areas of inquiry. There are so many things nobody can ever know about the past.

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Blogger Alun said...

There is a flaw in my argument about teaching politics. It does imply that a politicial epistemology is a better way of deciding what to do about something than any other. If we were to adhere epistemological relativism then politics would simply be one way of knowing what to do alongside divine revelation, chance, science, violence and anything else you'd care to mention.

Also the concept of teaching may not be compatible with epistemological relativism.

13 June, 2006 14:36  
Blogger Martin said...

Haha, yes, you're absolutely right!

As to teaching, well, it does kind of hamper communication when two people cannot be sure that the other person has any perspective-independent existence.

I wish I was a hyper-relativist. Then I could disregard people who don't agree with me as mere figments of epistemic misconstruction.

13 June, 2006 23:29  
Anonymous Victor said...

I'm very worried about people that WANTS to get archaeology wrong.. It's always for their own good.. Always for a profit.

Hyper-relativists beware! The view of the past DOES has significant effects on how we think today.

Then about Cornelius, I can get his job, acording to him I'm as qualified (I went one semester studying archaeology!)

28 June, 2006 12:34  
Blogger Martin said...

Sorry, Victor, you're obviously over-qualified. (-;

28 June, 2006 14:18  

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