The Truth is Out There: Pragmatism and The X-files
It occurred to me the other day that the American Philosophy of Pragmatism shares some remarkable similarities with the television series The X-files. Let’s start with the TV show’s moto – “the truth is out there.” If you never saw the show it revolves around two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, a man and woman who are assigned to cases that explore unusual and often paranormal circumstances. Mulder is obsessed with discovering the truth about UFO’s and he is convinced that “the truth is out there” waiting to be found.
Each week the pair, Mulder eagerly and Scully with less enthusiasm, would track down the solution to some bizarre case. Inevitably their efforts would solve the case, but always in a way that would leave you with more unanswered questions than you started with. No matter how many questions were answered there was always more mystery and uncertainty. Through nine seasons Mulder’s faith that the “truth is out there” never waned. Every week he attacked each new case with the same innocent enthusiasm as if the truth was right around the next corner.
This sounds to me remarkably like the American Philosophy of Pragmatism. Like Mulder, the Pragmatists believed that the truth was out there. And like Mulder and Scully the truth was never in hand and always around the next corner. That is because the philosophy of Pragmatism rests on a foundation of what Charles Sanders Peirce called Fallibilism. Fallibilism is the understanding that no matter what we think we know it will never be the whole truth. Peirce realized, as did his friend William James, that the truth was out there, but it was much bigger than we could assume we knew with certainty.
As scientists Peirce and James both realized that our understanding of reality is created through a process of sampling. Peirce worked for the coast guard making maps of the ocean floor. The way you determine the shape of the ocean floor is by determining the depth of the ocean at different places. You drop a weighted line into the water from a ship and record how far the line goes down before it hits bottom. Then you move the ship and do it again, and again, and again. From all of these measurements of depth you can create a topographical map of the ocean floor.
The accuracy of your map always depends on the number of depth measurements you are able to take and how close together they are. That is your sample size. If you take a measurement every few miles your map will not be very accurate. If on the other hand you take a measurement every few feet you will create a very accurate map.
If our objective is to create a map of reality, what kind of sample are we talking about? Obviously the sample of reality that we have access to is limited by the constraints of our physical senses and our minds. Human bodies are only able to perceive through those means – maybe there is a lot more to reality than what can be perceived in human form. In fact, forget the maybe, advances in technology have already shown us that there is more. We have discovered sounds beyond what the human ear can hear, light that the human eye cannot see, and an atomic universe far smaller than we can feel with human skin. How much more reality is there beyond what even our machines can tell us about? We are one species of animal, on one planet, in an immense expanse of time and space. We have five senses and one mind to work with. Thinking that we know what is ultimately real is like thinking we can map the entire ocean floor after having dropped only a few weighted lines.
The Pragmatists wanted to leave a great deal of space around what might ultimately be found to be real and at the same time they never lost their faith in the fact that “the truth is out there” – that indeed “something” is ultimately real. There is a reality and it can be known. But we are safest to assume that what we currently know is the tip of the iceberg of truth while never losing our spirit for inquiry.