Truth Requires Telling More Stories From More Perspectives

I kicked off my 24 hour blogathon with a post questioning the value of stories and how to get around the pitfalls by which stories oversimplify complex moral and factual realities. In reply there are already two excellent replies. One is from Alex Songe, which leads to a great opportunity to briefly explain Nietzsche’s approach to the problem. Alex wrote:

I first encountered this line of thought in Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. Taleb’s conclusion is similar to Tyler Cowen’s. We have to tell ourselves multiple narratives when we’re interested in true belief. Using the facts as we see them, we should tell a range of narratives to see the kinds of possibilities available through narrative. A rational person may believe the most likely narrative, as he sees it, but a “messy empiricist” should always entertain alternate narratives as well as respect the most likely hypothesis or narrative.

A great example I’ve seen of this is Robert M. Price’s talk about the Jesus Myth theory. He doesn’t maintain that Jesus could not have existed, but that it isn’t necessary that he existed given the evidence apologists rely on. When apologists argue against Jesus as a myth, they don’t rely on primary evidence, but on the interpretations of experts that confirm traditional beliefs about the texts. The purpose here of the hypothesis is to show the range of possibilities given some background facts.

This is very Nietzschean advice. Nietzsche’s perspectivism is the idea that since we cannot ever see things from outside of perspectives, we must multiply them rather than convince ourselves that we can ever be detached. Rather than attempting to see things from an impossible “view from nowhere”, we must attempt to see things from as many “somewheres” as possible.

This is often confused for relativism. “Everyone has their own perspective so there is no true one, so everyone is right.” But that’s not what Nietzsche is saying. What he is saying is that there are facets of a subject which can only be grasped and understood from within different relationships to it. The table looks different standing across from it than how it looks from underneath. To really understand the table is to investigate it from numerous angles and then to constantly be able to incorporate into one’s thinking the important details learned from each angle.

Nietzsche thinks that part of the epistemic challenge of getting the truth is to feel differently towards subjects because in different feeling states different important aspects of the things will come to light. When you are angry your anger leads you to seek out faults. When you are in love your love leads you to seek out strengths. When you are hopeful you see the positive possibilities, when you are fearful you plan for the dangers.

One of the dangers of scientism is that it threatens to delude us—against what cognitive science teaches us—about our abilities to reduce knowledge to something pure and objective. Science is an unrivaled tool for creating indisputable perspectives. But those perspectives are not the only ways to see some things. Understanding things under a microscope is not knowing how they feel or what their objective value is. We need to incorporate the perspective of science. We cannot say things in other perspectives which are contradicted by scientific facts. But those other perspectives also need to be taken on their own terms without thinking foolish things like “just because we can understand that, scientifically speaking, we are made up through and through of atoms” that all other modes of discourse about human experience are just “illusory” and that “all there really is is atoms” (or some more basic subatomic reality). Just knowing the physiological constituents of our brains does not by itself invalidate our logical, moral, or emotional categories of explanations which our brains express. (I talked about this in more depth in my post, Thinking According to Scale.)

And especially when dealing with values, part of finding things “objective” values—i.e., their value which can be defended in ways that do not merely express prejudices and subjective idiosyncracies—we need to engage in subjectively valuing things from different angles and see how those different feelings and priorities make real features of the things we are valuing (or disvaluing) become clearer.

In this way the advice Alex referred to is crucial. Alternating the stories we tell is a way to explore different interlocking and prima facie contradictory narratives emotionally and to find the truth between them. Not all stories are equal of course. Religious narratives don’t gain a get-out-of criticism free pass just for sometimes operating on the symbolic level rather than the literal one. What’s insidious about the (primarily Abrahamic) religious narratives atheists are often countering is not that they are mythic but that they confuse the mythic for the scientific and the myths even do a bad job even at the philosophical questions they are trying to address. While some of what they do and say can be admired or redeemable when we look at them from certain perspectives there are many perspectives (and I would say more of them) under which they can be seen to lead to counter-productive epistemologies, ethics, and metaphysics that clash with what we learn from our best and most illuminating perspectives. I talked about this in my posts  How Genesis Is Not Only Literally False, But Metaphorically False and True And False In Adam And Eve.

In this vein of thinking about alternating stories we can understand Eric Steinhart’s “Wicca and Atheism” posts from last month. Rather than giving a definitive final word on metaphysics or endorsing Wicca or endorsing Wicca’s pseudoscience as legitimate, the goal was to explore how adopting the stories Wiccans and various atheist metaphysicians tell about the world can be illuminating. These are just perspectives though. These are just stories. They don’t trump scientific ones, but take various kinds of logos and mythos to get deeper into both human and metaphysical realities that can only partially be described in strict quantities and which we must inevitably talk about and engage in. No one is without metaphysical and valuing tendencies. To keep them from being blindingly dogmatic, self-deceiving stories, we need to investigate them from as many perspectives and through as many different stories as we can. This is another way of being dialectical, one that embraces rather than avoids stories, but simply multiplies the stories and includes stories which deconstruct other stories and themselves.

Objectivity, in the sense of deference to the world and its ability to transcend our subjective perspectives, is best attained through the multiplication, comparison, and ranking of perspectives, rather than the escape from them all.

For more on these themes, see my post On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Perspectives.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.