Saturday, August 09, 2003

Make It So

I don’t doubt there are things that are what they are because of the way we think about them, which is to say, because of the will or whim of a sovereign community. Famously, it is consensus not connubium that makes a marriage; and imaginary medical facts can send you off to real jails and madhouses or, thanks to a show of hands at some hotel in Toronto, turn a disease into a life style choice or vice versa. There is nothing new about such astonishing feats of creation from nothing. We read in the Talmud that the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disputed for two and a half years whether the creation of man had been a good thing. Eventually they took a vote. I guess that settled that. But even admitting that it is indeed possible to do things with words, one has to ask why anybody is especially impressed with these somewhat less than earth-shattering miracles, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” he asked earnestly. “Yes, I’ve seen it done.”

May I suggest that what has been novel and remarkable about the last couple of centuries is a partial escape from the tyranny of the illocutionary? In the near total absence of reliable knowledge, truth was bound to be an act of social will, a set of sacred, obligatory clichés. These days, having figured out how to let reality get a word in edgewise, we actually do understand a thing or two including our location relative to the Sun and the other stars, the nature of the chemical bond, and how living things work. Even granting that the objectivity of the various sciences is to some extent inversely proportional to their human relevance, you’d think we’d be impressed if not relieved to encounter at least a few examples of facts that remain the case whether or not you believe in them. But, of course, it is quite possible that the obsession of retail Postmodernism with the relativity of knowledge is actually an indirect recognition of the new state of affairs, just as the Fundamentalist’s newly found interest in radical skepticism is pretty obviously a response to the practical impossibility of doubting the reality of the evolution of life.

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