If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? This oft-cited philosophical question is an example of epistemology, which is the philosophical inquiry into the nature of knowledge, asking “What is true, what is real, and why can we say so?”
I first encountered this question as a freshman engineering major in an elective course I took on philosophy. I was utterly befuddled: “What are they talking about?” “What’s the point?” “Who cares?” The “tree-falling” query is also a source of ridicule about the absurdities generated in philosophy, so my befuddlement is widely shared.
I have since learned, however, the importance of questioning the truths we believe, and the reasons we believe them. The answer to the “tree-falling” question, the one that makes sense to me, is that when it falls, it creates vibrations in the air, but if nobody hears it, then it makes no sound. There are physical consequences that are independent of a human presence (vibrating air), and social-psychological consequences that require human presence (sound). So, the answer is “no”, there is no sound, but “yes,” it is an event with physical consequences.
The “no and yes” answer undermines the common assumption of a singular, imperial Truth. Rather, it points to different kinds of truth: a natural kind of truth, which is not dependent on human presence, and a human kind of truth, which arises from human presence, often within a social context.1 What is considered real, what is deemed truth, differs greatly between these kinds of truth. Important practical, even lifesaving consequences, can result from appreciating these differences.
Malaria, tuberculosis, small pox, bubonic plague, cholera, and influenza are the most deadly diseases in human history, killing untold billions of people, bringing unimaginable suffering, and changing the course of human history. A host of other diseases, although not quite as lethal, have made their unique contributions to human misery and include AIDS, yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus, meningitis, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, and polio.
All of these diseases have been cured, prevented, or their effects have been greatly mitigated and managed through vaccines, sanitation, and other medical treatments. The estimated lifespan for most of human history, up to the 19th century, was 30 years of age. In 1850, it was 38 years; in 1900, 48 years; in 1950, 66 years; in 2000, 75 years.2 Prior to the 19th century, presumed causes of disease included the visitation of malevolent spirits, retribution rained on humankind for their transgressions by angry gods, alignment of the stars, imbalance of bodily processes, and miasmas. Cures included charms, amulets and chants; sacrifices, offerings and prayer; smoke, nosegays and herbs; potions, baths and purgatives; self-mutilation, bloodletting and witch-killing. Despite the many deeply believed causes and desperately sought cures, little worked. What did work did so by accident; the reasons were not related to the presumed cause.
What changed? Science. A radically new way to understand the material world, based on doubt, systematic methods of experimentation, and material explanations that can be objectively verified, was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. When this method began to be applied to diseases in the 19th century, germs were identified as their cause. Despite great resistance, astonishing medical advances ensued. Human life expectancy has doubled in the last 150 years!
Germs are a natural kind of truth. They are indifferent to human beliefs, have consequences that only derive from their physical properties, and are real whether we think so or not. Plagues cannot be stopped or mitigated by chanting, appeals to supernatural powers, or bloodletting. Human actions can, possibly, change how natural kinds of truth impact humans, for better or worse, but cannot change the their causal properties. The entire physical world is composed of natural kinds and causes.
Money is real and has very tangible consequences. If you do not have any, you are in very serious trouble, possibly life-threatening trouble. If you have a lot, then luxury, ease, and opportunity beckon. Money has a material presence, traditionally in the forms of coins and paper, and can be counted, calculated, and subjected to the most advanced, complex mathematical analysis. Nothing could be more real in our lives, more concretely manifested, with quantifiable properties and consequences.
But it is not a natural kind of truth. Its meaning, its value, its reality, does not derive from its physical properties. What makes money money, what confers its value, makes it real, derives from the communal belief that it is valuable. Money is money because we trust that others share our belief in its value, and trust the backing and assurances given by those who issue it. RAI stones, bottle caps, and shells are not money in our culture. They may, perhaps, be valued by some, and might be bartered, but they are not money.
During times of stability and general wellbeing, we go about our daily lives assuming the bedrock fiscal reality of money. The foundational nature of belief and trust as the source of value for money becomes distressingly apparent, however, during times of communal crises, such as war, fiscal collapse, and pandemics. Doubt about the value of money, and mistrust of the assurances and policies of those who issue it, can provoke hyperinflation or deflation, bank-runs, stock crashes, hoarding, and acquiring gems, gold and other and precious metals.3 They also reveal why trust in the leader of a society, especially in times of crisis, is so important, for trust is, quite literally, the coin of the realm, critical for surviving times when confidence and trust have been undermined or lost.
Money is but one example of human kinds of truth arising within a social context that are real, have concrete consequences, yet derive from shared communal belief. Our life is structured, organized, and populated by human kinds of truth: stop lights, building and legal codes, jails and juries, tools and toys, voting rights and election outcomes, democracy and despots, corporations, ego, intelligence—the list is endless. Many, if not most, have material properties, but their reality arise from communal beliefs and agreement.
I am amused, and deeply disturbed, when I see reports of the most recent poll assessing whether Americans believe in global warming—as if the issue is a referendum! It is not a human kind of truth; not a phenomenon that is amenable to belief. Its causal properties are not determined by popular belief or majority rule, and government proclamations banning the term will not make it disappear.4 Unlike money, or corporations, or election results, global warming is a natural kind of truth. It is indifferent to human beliefs. Global warming is happening, with evermore-likely catastrophic consequences. Human action can mitigate it, but only by taking the necessary steps that impact the material causal pathways governing it. Likewise, pandemics cannot be wished away, are not subject to politically opportunistic remarks, cannot be cured by beliefs in supernatural powers, or ended by leaders asserting that, “One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”5
Failure to distinguish between natural and human kinds of truth can have dire consequences. Many deaths result when pandemics and global warming are treated as human kinds of truth. It could be called murder if decisions are made by leaders who, knowing that it is, in fact, a natural phenomenon, but because it is unprofitable or politically problematic, promote policies and practices that exacerbate and accelerate it.6 Leaders who understand the difference between natural and human kinds of truth and seek to use this understanding for the public good, not personal gain, save lives and rescue societies in crisis. Electing those who don’t can be fatal.
- This approach is convincingly argued (convincing to me) by Ian Hacking and John Searle, among others. It is, however, not universally accepted; epistemological issues have been the subject of fierce disputes for centuries.
- Obviously, these averages and do not reflect differences due to gender, race, poverty, or country.
- They are “precious” only because we deem them so.
- As former Florida governor, Rick Scott, now the state’s US senator(!), had mandated.
- Trump, February 27, 2020.
- Oil corporations have known for over 40 years that global warming is occurring, have made business plans to maximize profit, and also sponsored political policies, politicians, and practices to deny it. A recent Secretary of State, the CEO of a major oil company, was deeply involved in these actions for decades. The Koch brothers, owners of an oil company that is also major industrial polluter, have spent decades and untold millions, with great success, to influence public opinion and governmental actions for their profit.