“Truth is a construct”

Knowledge is fleeting, as the history of science amply demonstrates. But how is knowledge generated, and how do facts establish themselves as such? We tackled these questions with philosopher Anne Meylan and historian Philipp Sarasin.

Interview by Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl
English translation by Gena Olson

Ms. Meylan, Mr. Sarasin, do you read science fiction?

Philipp Sarasin: No. I read a lot of non-fiction. When I do read literature, then I like to read long novels. 

Anne Meylan: It’s the same for me. If I read fiction, then I go for classics that I have been wanting to read for a long time. As a teenager I was a big fan of Star Wars.

What interested you about Star Wars?

Meylan: It was just the first movie that had amazingly impressive special effects. There was also this whole new world in space with interesting family dynamics. But when watching the movie again today, the fascination has definitely faded. My daughter really likes the series, though. 

Science fiction is speculation about the future, while academia is all about facts. How do facts come to be? 

Meylan: Can facts come to be? Aren’t they just there? For me this is a central question. 

Sarasin: In Latin, factum means that which is made, which is manufactured. Facts are things that we can observe again and again. This cannot be separated from the medium, the institutions, the manner with which we observe these things and talk about them. This means that meaning is ultimately produced by us. Facts are something that we manufacture.

Meylan: I prefer to use the German word Tatsache (facts or actualities) instead of Fakten. It is true that when I look at things from different perspectives, I perceive them differently. But this doesn’t change the fact that they exist. The danger is confusing the perspective from which you observe something with the actual thing itself, which can be observed from any number of perspectives. 

Sarasin: But how do you know that the thing actually exists?

Meylan: That’s an epistemological question. My claim is of a metaphysical nature – namely, that things exist. Of course, you can always ask yourself whether it is possible to know everything about things, or how well or truthfully you can understand the world. But it is another thing altogether to say: Because I don’t know something, it doesn’t exist. This is an unacceptable conclusion. 

Sarasin: Yes, that’s true. We have no grounds to claim that there is nothing out there. The philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between – and for me this is a central starting point – the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) and how we perceive it. His argument was that the thing-in-itself is unknowable. This means that perceptions are created through our categories, through how we are capable of thinking. Today you can say that Kant was a product of the late 18th century, and we now no longer believe in the stability of rationality presupposed by his philosophy. However, the argument that everything that we do is shaped by the limits of our cognition is just as valid today. 

Meylan: I’m not a Kantian but rather an empiricist. I don’t want to defend empiricism against Kant but would like to emphasize that although we may not have access to reality, it still exists. This is important – facts or actualities exist. However, this raises the question of what means one has to access these facts. These means can be very different. A big problem is cognitive bias. When we look at something, our perspective is always shaped and steered by certain presumptions and our prior knowledge. A typical cognitive bias is confirmation bias. For instance, if you put forth the hypothesis that people who drive four-wheel drive vehicles are worse drivers than others, you will find reasons to support this belief and ignore others. This is often the case. Particularly in the humanities we have the tendency to see only the evidence that supports our theory.

Sarasin: It’s the same in the natural sciences. 

Meylan: The natural sciences are easier to defend than the humanities when it comes to these kinds of questions. In the natural sciences, the perspective of the researchers have much less influence on the findings. 

But it’s also true for the natural sciences that findings aren’t set in stone, but rather fought over until a consensus is found. And this consensus can then later be disproven and revised. How do these scientific “truths” come about?

Sarasin: In the modern sciences there has been, at least since the 19th century, the incredibly strong conviction that it is possible to understand the world as it really is. This view is referred to as positivism. However, in the scientific system of the 19th century, procedures were developed to control how science is conducted. That’s why there are recognized methods for scientifically ascertaining facts and truths. The idea is to ensure, more or less, the validity of what science puts forth as “true.”

How does that work? 

Sarasin: In the humanities and the social sciences, we do not claim to have the divine view and to know what is true and what is false. Rather, we are a community of academics who have to show our research methods, our sources, our experimental settings. These are things that can usually be checked by others. And we talk about the world in a specific way. Physicists describe the world in a different way than historians. 

Is this a framework that was agreed on?

Sarasin: It’s a framework that has developed. It is, as mentioned before, a consensus that one achieves and that is temporary in nature.

Meylan: I have difficulty with this argument. It’s too relativistic for me. Of course, we come up against the limits of our cognition, and it is difficult to recognize the truth. And we will never be sure if we have recognized the truth or not. The possibility of making mistakes, of being wrong, is inherent to the sciences. But this in no way means that facts are constructed. 

Sarasin: Researching and understanding the world is always dependent on our perspective and our means of acquiring knowledge. Of course, we can establish natural laws that help us build a washing machine or a car. Both exist and both work. Planes exist and fly too. So there seems to be something to these concepts. But this doesn’t mean that our intellect fully comprehends these things. There is no adaequatio rei et intellectus, no correspondence between reality and the intellect, like Aristoteles says. Ultimately, even mathematics is a construction of the human mind. The question is: How robust and how plausible is the knowledge that we develop?

How can you test this robustness?

Sarasin: By trial and error. Some planes crash, after all. Or scientific theories are proven false when they don’t stand up to new evidence. Here the scientific community plays an important role: Researchers review theories and present alternatives if necessary. At the end of this process a stable theory emerges – until it is proven false. I would never go so far as to claim that facts exist autonomously. The concept of a fact or actuality is already questionable to me as a historian. What is the fact, for example, if you look at the Second World War? There are many interlocking individual elements in this story, and it is difficult for me to isolate them as fixed individual facts. 

Meylan: I am not one hundred percent in agreement with this. It is true that we do not have a divine perspective. We have our limits. Natural scientists, for example, have specific instruments that they use to conduct research. Sometimes these devices have defects...

Sarasin: And effects.

Meylan:  ...but the fact of the matter is that we make progress. We know more and more about how nature works. And we have the means to check our findings. There are many things that used to be accepted as true, but today we know them to be false. But this doesn’t mean that truth is constructed bur rather that our view of reality is limited. There is no reason to think that reality doesn’t exist or is a construct just because we have limited perspectives. I see no argument for this conclusion. Moreover, there are facts that no one would deny. 

For example?

Meylan: Global warming. No one really denies this anymore today. Or the Holocaust – this is a fact that no one with good intentions can deny.

Would you make a distinction between historical and scientific "facts"? 

Sarasin: This is a distinction that definitely has to be made. When we look at history, historical agents have always applied interpretation to their world. Nature, however, does not interpret itself. With regard to historical facts, there are events that are absolutely incontrovertible. The Wehrmacht invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. This is a single fact. 

Meylan: I’m glad that you say that. 

Sarasin: For more complex events such as the Holocaust, there is vagueness for example with regard to the question of how many people were murdered. Or vagueness about the sequence of events: Was there a single command that set it into motion? Or did the Holocaust develop out of a specific wartime dynamic? This is a question for research. Another peculiarity of the humanities and social sciences: They are preoccupied with phenomena that would not even exist without interpretation. The Holocaust was only possible because of the particular interpretation that portrayed Jews as the enemy of the German people who had to be eliminated. That means interpretations, worldviews, perspectives are integral parts of this historical event. 

Why is knowledge fleeting? 

Sarasin: There are types of knowledge that are more stable and others that very quickly become obsolete. I strongly suspect that the fleeting nature of knowledge is rooted in the fact that we observe the world and nature with fleeting means. 

Some interesting great shifts have occurred in the history of knowledge – the establishment of the heliocentric model, for instance, or the theory of evolution. What happens in these phases? 

Meylan: A truth establishes itself because we can then explain a certain phenomenon better. Suddenly you understand things and can connect the dots in a totally new way. Here historical context plays an important role. It influences our cognition and how good our research can be. Maybe at the time only in Italy would it have been possible to establish heliocentrism as the new model. 

Sarasin: The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn wrote a book about these paradigm shifts over 50 years ago. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t describe them as the breakthrough moments for the truth but rather as processes that are pretty contingent. For example, because the professor dies, the students are finally free to think new thoughts. 

So new knowledge (often) arises by chance?

Sarasin: Yes, by way of contingent situations. Looking back, you can say that something prevailed. Of course, there is also the phenomenon whereby a theory gets challenged so much over time to the point where it can no longer accommodate evidence to the contrary and then falls apart.

Meaning it doesn't pass the robustness test?

Sarasin: Exactly. It gets replaced by a new theory that can better absorb and integrate the new data. You can describe this as progress, because you are then able to explain the world in more complex terms. But whether this is the same thing as the truth about reality is another question. 

Meylan: You’re claiming that there’s no truth, only stories. But our goal as researchers is to find out what the truth is. Whether we achieve that is uncertain, but it’s what we aim for. Why do you want your objects of study to be mere constructs? I find it counterproductive. We’re searching for the truth, are we not? If we say that everything is a construct, it does not sound particularly legitimate. 

Are you undermining the sciences, Mr. Sarasin?

Sarasin: No, I’m undermining metaphysics. Ms. Meylan is ultimately a metaphysicist. She has a claim to truth that wants to be completely affirmative by believing in the possibility of making affirmative statements about the world. But this point of view denies the fact that truth is something that is constructed by people – the factumthat I mentioned earlier. These are our truths – what else would they be? To deny this is a metaphysical position that can neither be proven nor disproven. Instead I try to put something together based on what I know. In doing so I of course try to understand the world the best I can. There are robust assertions about the world that first have to be disproven. If we take, for example, Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, it is impressive how thorough he was with crafting his theory and how he openly describes the process of developing it. He takes over 600 pages to describe how he constructed his theory.

Meylan: In this sense I agree with using the verb “construct.” We construct our theories in the sense that we do research. And there is no certainty that we will discover what the truth is. There we are not as far apart as I thought. But you cannot say that all theories are true. Some are more plausible than others.

Sarasin: Agreed.