Truth, Skepticism, and Art

In the comments section of my post from last week, Philipp Blume suggested that well-founded skepticism would be a beneficial element that can help to promote intellectual growth. While I agree that it’s important for students to learn to distinguish fact from fiction and that they need to understand that their teachers and textbooks can lead them astray, I found myself viscerally wanting to deny the role of doubt in education. As I vacillated between responses that supported and disagreed with his comment, I realized that the only way for me to reply to his well-considered observation would be to consider the nature of truth, how to be skeptical in a humanistic manner, and how to incorporate these values into the art of music.

This election season appears to be bringing us closer and closer to a postmodern paradise in which all truth is relative. Each day seems to arrive with news of another disagreement on basic facts, ranging from a grand parsing of exactly what noun was being substituted by the pronoun “that” (an instance of what Daffy Duck famously called “pronoun trouble”) to the economic impact of various legislative proposals. As our political leaders and contenders for office work to define statistical analyses and the public record in ways that suit their agendas, constituents can find themselves unable to determine reality from fabrication. Beleaguered journalists cede their attempts to determine the comparative veracity of each statement and instead report the claims from each side, peppering their articles with quotations of the standard dualistic ripostes.

On the surface, the best response in this sort of environment is to adopt a lack of credulity as our neutral stance. Every argument has an equal and opposite counterargument, and each can seem equally valid or invalid. Therefore, we preserve our independence and sanity by doubting every assertion. We assume mendacity as the order of the day and refuse to believe anything said within the political discourse. The problem with this reaction is that it equivocates between things that are unequal in value. Some statements contain more grains of truth than others. Sometimes the candidates engage in pure prevarication.

Sports provide a welcome safe haven during these times. Events that are timed seem to exist in a state of pure objectivism that allows us to compare achievements across eras and locales. If I tell you that I ran a two hour and 50 minute marathon, that simple fact conveys a world of information and allows you to place me within a hierarchy among every person who has ever participated in a timed marathon distance race. If I tell you instead that my marathon personal record is four hours and one minute, my commensurate standing shifts into an entirely different stratum. The world record in the 100-meter dash is 9.58 seconds, and anyone can mark off an equivalent distance and measure their skill in relation to this standard. But even in these instances relativism can creep in, as some marathons are run on more challenging courses and wind-aided sprints don’t count towards the certified records. Lines become blurred still further when performance-enhancing drugs come into play, as I can recall Lance Armstrong winning seven Tours de France titles that have been redacted from the official archives. In an almost-Stalinistic redrafting of history, when cheating is unearthed after the close of an event, the recorded results no longer match the outcome on the field itself. Even so, team feats achieved without fraud are preserved as they originally occurred. A perfect game in baseball is an inviolate accomplishment; even in that singular instance when a blatant umpiring error prevented the final out, the game was archived as a one-hitter for the pitcher in question—in this case, Armando Galarraga. Those people who witnessed the game can tell beautiful stories, but the chronicles of baseball history are unambiguous.

Our understanding of particle and quantum physics can lend further credence to a philosophy of relativism. The experience of time itself is a comparative phenomenon, begging the question of exactly how we even define 9.58 seconds. Seemingly solid objects in actuality contain vast amounts of space between their constituent molecules, and photons can act as waves or particles depending upon whether or not their action is being observed.

In such a mysterious universe, many people ask whether objective truth is achievable and knowable. I would argue that the answer to this question is a vigorous “yes.” Even though the activity of electrons is mysterious, we know enough about this behavior to predict the properties of subatomic matter with enough certainty to run the computers on which this article is published and distributed. While it’s theoretically possible to move through time the way we move through space, our limited ability to control time allows for standards like seconds and minutes to remain constant measures of human experience.

I would argue that objective truth is not only distinguishable, but that it should be valued and treasured. As citizens, we should strive towards the sort of skepticism that allows us to remain impartial as we determine the authenticity of the evidence laid out before us. We should attempt to learn how to discriminate between comforting falsehoods and well-authenticated facts. We should teach ourselves how to evaluate scientific theories that have little corroboration as distinct from those that have been corroborated until their margin of error is infinitesimal.

But as artists, we can embrace the impossibility of true surety. Music exists in that liminal zone where our experience of time is truly relative, and we should revel in our ability to alter audiences’ subjective experience of the passage of minutes and hours. Sounds operate beyond the realm of meaning, allowing for a piece of music to encompass as many personal interpretations are there are listeners and performers. We have the rare ability to engage honestly in those aspects of life that are emotional and intuitive. We should treasure this capacity for authentic relativism as a special aspect of our artistic lives, but should limit its role to our creative acts. In our quotidian existence, we should welcome skepticism as a path to discerning truth.

One thought on “Truth, Skepticism, and Art

  1. Philipp Blume

    Now that you’ve called me out on the turf, I suppose I am obligated to submit a comment, though you may be disappointed by the tangent on which I will end up going.

    Let me start in the middle somewhere. I had an authentic-feeling sensation about the nature of ‘truth’ from reading the late Richard Rorty’s book “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”. You don’t have to accept my belief that music is has potential to be philosophy — but if you do, then I think Rorty’s recommended attitude toward truth in philosophical terms could be applied by us to musical truth. In a nutshell, he says that philosophers should be less concerned with divining the truth, per se — this being a hopeless project, for reasons I won’t go into now — and more concerned with simply making the world less cruel.

    When is music cruel, I wonder? There the analogy breaks down, perhaps. So I say composers should be less concerned with objective truth than with making music more free. Freedom, however, is something we achieve only by negation. That is to say, we don’t create freedom through the imposition of liberating systems/structures/objects (whatever that even means), but by the removal of confining systems etc., such as tonality.

    Tonality is a many-headed hydra, and removing every last one of its heads results in writing music of indefinite pitch — noises, focussing on timbre, etc. Hardly an act of liberation, is it? Some remarkable music has been written in the search for a meaningful ‘atonality’ nonetheless.

    There are other ways to liberate ourselves from tonality than to quash every aspect of it (we can’t all be Heracles and team up with our nephews) is to recognize tonality itself as a construct and take it apart before the ears of our listener. In this regard, the last sound in Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ is an act of liberation (‘truth’) because for a moment the C-E dyad doesn’t sound like an incomplete C major chord even though every other lone C-E dyad in history up to that point was an incomplete C major triad.

    Along with tonality, you have the other hydras to tackle: rhythm, meter, phrase structure, form, orchestration, … all of them actually interdependent, right?! .. and it becomes clear that no act of liberation in this regard is a permanent or all-encompassing one. Each is limited in its scope (no single work can be received as the ‘ultimate’ act of liberation) and in its impact (no single work can permanently overcome our confinements).

    Taking all of the above into account, it makes no sense to use ‘objective truth’ as a cudgel with which to bludgeon our supposed adversaries for their deception. To make music is, perforce, to tell a lie. Rather, with each thing we listen to, we chip away at our unfreedom, and the aesthetic question becomes “How is this effected? What falsehoods are being preserved and to what end?”

    Many have criticized Rorty for being a moral relativist. He isn’t one and I’m not either. It’s not that we shouldn’t call out a lie when we see it, or identify obfuscation of (musical) relationships when it happens. Truth is not ‘relative’, but it certainly is contingent. C major is consonant, but that’s contingent upon an intact and by today’s standards all-too-calcified conception of tonality. As long as we deny tonality’s historicity, we are telling ourselves a lie. But that lie itself makes some wonderful music possible.

    The idea of an objective truth is useful since it takes us further in our self-understanding, but ultimately we have to acknowledge the contingencies each such truth requires in order to operate.

    Sorry if that’s a big bouillon cube to have to swallow, but I hope it provides some food for thought. Read Rorty! I’ll talk about my reservations about him some other time.


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