This article consists of reviews of four books that, while different in many ways, have certain things in common. Some of the connections are fairly direct—A. C. Grayling’s The Frontiers of Knowledge and Erik Hoel’s novel The Revelations both deal with neuroscience and consciousness—while others are more contingent, but no less compelling. The other two books are Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge and Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth. The main thing these books have in common is that they attest in their different ways to the importance of truth-seeking.
Truth vs. Totalitarianism
Jonathan Rauch, author of the classic defence of free speech, Kindly Inquisitors (1993), now offers us, as the subtitle of The Constitution of Knowledge puts it, “a defense of truth.” As Rauch admitted during a recent Free Speech Champions online drop-in, the book’s title is slightly obscure, even a bit academic—and yet the title is utterly fitting.
Rauch deals with the nature of truth and the threats it currently faces from internet culture, whether represented by the Trumpian right or the cancellers of the woke left, and provides some tips for fighting back against these threats. It is deeply philosophical as well as deeply topical, an elucidation of broadly liberal epistemology as well as a sally against those who would overthrow it. It is also very well written, with a light and often humorous touch brought to bear on sometimes dark topics; it is at times stirring and affectingly personal in its call to arms in defence of truth.
Rauch sets out a Constitution of Knowledge using an extended metaphor: the US Constitution. If the US Constitution, in the way it establishes rules by which the country should be governed and within which all political actors must operate, is the definition of political liberalism, then the Constitution of Knowledge is the core of epistemic liberalism: the set of rules by which we must govern the search for truth. “Rules, not rulers,” as Rauch puts it: for most of human history, truth has been decided by authority or force, and only within the last few centuries, since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, has this new order come to dominate. Despite its relative youth and vulnerability, the Constitution of Knowledge, or “liberal science” as Rauch put it in 1993, has proved the most effective way to find truth. No philosopher-king or pope or dictatorship has ever, or could ever, do what liberalism has done for truth and freedom. We take these achievements too much for granted. But, as Greg Lukianoff says of free speech (a key component of the Constitution of Knowledge), the ideas underpinning them are “eternally radical.”
What, exactly, is the Constitution of Knowledge? It is not just a system of rules governing truth-seekers, but the system that defines what truth is made of. To summarize: truth is to be found through a long and thorough process of checking, wherein nobody can end the argument and no personal authority can be invoked. This means that everyone must submit their ideas to criticism. And this, in turn, means that untrammelled free speech is essential but not quite sufficient, for it is only after a gruelling process of analysis by the rest of the “reality-based community” that one’s proposition will be accepted and put in the textbooks. In short: instead of a Hobbesian epistemic nightmare, knowledge-making is decentralized, spread over a vast social network of checkers who kill each other’s ideas rather than each other; only once a claim or theory has passed this test can it be considered knowledge in the public realm (subject to revision or refutation, of course).
Rauch provides examples of this evolutionary system in action and explicates his thesis with reference to thinkers from Karl Popper to Charles Sanders Peirce. The justification for this system is its sheer effectiveness. What else has produced several centuries of peace, freedom and knowledge? But the Constitution of Knowledge is under attack from many angles.
Rauch is on the centre-right, and vociferously anti-Trumpian and anti-woke. His book is a balanced rebuttal of both these strands of anti-liberalism. It is a landmark in these tiresome culture wars.
Rauch is very positive about recent moves by tech giants like Facebook and Twitter to fact-check and regulate their platforms. As he says, Facebook is a self-defined publisher as well as a platform, and thus has responsibilities to tune its algorithms to favour truth rather than neutrality—after all, its history shows that neutrality can often be used as a euphemism for the toleration of conspiracy theories and falsehood. However, Rauch is not blindly sanguine about social media, admitting that the “monopoly issue” is one that we are currently unable to overcome. But Facebook’s Oversight Board and similar initiatives are, in my view, potentially dangerous. Perhaps, as Rauch says, if there were no social media monopolies, and consumers had a range of platforms with different rules to choose from, such regulation would be a step in the right direction. But giving Silicon Valley executives ever more control of what has become a major part of the public sphere seems unwarranted. The same goes for mainstream media: Rauch rightly points out that many of the attacks on it are overblown, but at the same time some of its august outlets seem to be beyond saving.
Rauch is also a little too soft on religion. He says, rightly, that the Constitution of Knowledge should determine only what counts as knowledge in the public realm; apart from that, people are free to believe what they like. But then he criticises “militant secularists” for pitting science and faith against each other. I agree that people can think what they like, however wacky their ideas; but the implication that faith is somehow purely private is wrong: as Rauch himself says, Christian Science cannot be allowed to run the Food and Drug Administration. Most religions do make claims in the public sphere, about ontology and ethics, and they are often well funded in doing so. Christian nationalism is one of the nastiest elements of Trumpism. It is not just when Christian Science kills children that this issue arises: there is a fundamental antagonism between science and faith. If faith confined itself to the private sphere, that would be fine; but it doesn’t. In fact, it can’t, because its claims are claims on all of us, and on all of knowledge. That is the central point of religion: that it is true, and that it would behove the rest of us to be converted to it. The Constitution of Knowledge is based upon reason, evidence and persuasion, which cannot be true of faith—and this matters more, in my opinion, than Rauch allows. See Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact for the definitive case for this view.
There is much that is personal in the book concerning Rauch’s sexuality. As he says, it was only through free speech that minorities convinced the wider population of their equal dignity and the justice of their demand for the same rights as everyone else:
Yes, every time someone told me I could never marry because gay people are promiscuous or our unions are sterile or God disapproves, it stung; but every foolish or bigoted claim was an opportunity to make my case and shine by comparison. Every demonstration of hatred or ignorance was a chance to show love and speak truth. Every encounter, every explanation, moved the social needle a little bit toward justice.
Rauch concludes his book with an eloquent call to arms. The Constitution of Knowledge is so unintuitive, so unusual (for it is so much more natural to insist that we alone are right, that faith or tradition or authority or force is the real determinant of truth), that we will have to defend it every day for the rest of our lives. There will never be a shortage of people and ideologies seeking to overthrow it. But it is an honour as well as a burden to engage on the side of this “fighting faith.” As Bertolt Brecht remarked, on the subject of totalitarians: “For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” The war is never-ending, and complacency is the enemy. Jonathan Rauch has earned our gratitude for elucidating what civilization means—what it must fight to retain from enemies on all sides, known and unknown—and for providing hope that the war, in its current form at least, can be won, for it has been won before against much stronger foes.
The Constitution of Knowledge in Practice
If Rauch offers an elucidation and defence of the Constitution of Knowledge, then A. C. Grayling shows us what it can do. His The Frontiers of Knowledge is a survey of various areas of human enquiry, from the nature of the universe to human evolution, ancient human history and the problems posed by the brain, the mind and consciousness. Grayling’s range here is just as remarkable as it has been in the past.
Grayling takes us to the very edges of human knowledge, relaying what we have achieved while showing us where new mysteries await investigation. He also analyses the nature and difficulty of knowledge-production. His book evokes both exhilaration and pride in our species. But its insights are also humbling, for though we have found out a great deal about the universe and ourselves, large questions remain, many of them perhaps beyond our comprehension in the near term.
This is not just a beautifully written survey of known facts and much-discussed problems. Grayling brings his philosophical training to bear on these facts and problems in original ways. On the search for ultimate truth in physics, for example, Grayling argues that the scientists’ search for a simple, unifying theory might be misguided: we could be “inhibiting ourselves by requiring that everything detected beyond the pinhole be dragged back through it so that we can understand it classically.” The pinhole problem Grayling invokes is related to the Parmenides problem, named for the ancient Greek philosopher: we must be cautious about putting reductionism and simplicity before everything else. A great strength of the book is its historical and intellectual breadth and depth. Grayling takes care to explicate the views of relevant thinkers throughout history, and the good and bad ways in which they affect our current view of knowledge.
Grayling’s book overlaps with Rauch’s in striking ways. Both discuss the provisional nature of truth and the need for a decentralized network of rational checkers, and both show us that knowledge is a pre-eminently public phenomenon. As Grayling notes,
Knowledge, as contrasted with a Babel of opinions, requires at very least the imprimatur of intersubjectivity and arrival by disciplined means at a recognized level of consensus. To get there, a claim to knowledge has to prove itself—in history, archaeology, and palaeoanthropology as anywhere else. To repeat: everything that can be summoned to assist must be welcome, and in responsible enquiry always is so.
The alchemists guarded their methods jealously; but the birth of science involved the wide dissemination of ideas. Echoing Rauch, Grayling argues that the power of science lies in its “collegial, critical, collaborative” nature, with its “host of talented individuals who built and continue to build the house of science, brick by brick.” The main ingredient of this quest to understand life, the universe and everything is debate—“the motor that drives the wheels of progress.” This recalls Rauch’s view that free speech provides the raw materials of knowledge: while much of what is said will be nonsense, without the Babel of competing viewpoints there will be no truth to winnow out, and ultimately therefore no consensus of experts—in short, no knowledge.
Like Rauch, Grayling is explicit about our limits, biases and ignorance. But both authors show us that we have come so far and overcome so many epistemological hurdles that our ancestors would regard us as gods. This is good evidence that the remaining mysteries will succumb to our investigations. Even if that turns out not to be the case, the effort will be worthwhile for what we learn along the way.
The Mystery of Consciousness
In his discussion of what we know and don’t know about the mind, Grayling is critical of those, such as Daniel Dennett, who claim that consciousness is an illusion unworthy of explanation. In a young discipline like neuroscience, the closure problem of accepting final answers too early rears its head:
The alternative is to challenge neuroscience with the task of really understanding consciousness and selfhood, either to explain them or to explain them away, but in either case to give an account of the empirical fact of the deep and persistent experience of both.
Grayling champions the new field of neurosociology, which understands the mind not only as a function of the brain, but also a function of interactions between brains, and between brains and the outside world (he is careful to note that this perspective need not jettison materialism). He argues that, “on the great questions of mental lives and their character and qualities as we live them, we are more likely to learn about them from literature, history, and philosophy than from neuroscience.”
Erik Hoel’s debut novel, The Revelations, explores related territory. In a recent interview with Iona Italia on Areo’s associated podcast, Two for Tea, Hoel notes—quoting Melville—that a mighty work requires a mighty theme. What mightier theme could there be than science in general—and consciousness in particular? Consciousness, in the form of the human experience, is the first and last theme of all art. But rarely has consciousness been explored in fiction so directly or in such philosophically and scientifically rich ways as Hoel achieves. In the podcast, Hoel champions the novel as capable of something no other art form or scientific approach can yet do: inhabiting other consciousnesses. This resonates with Grayling’s point about the value of literature when it comes to understanding the mind. The idea of literary science, or scientific literature, is echoed by Richard Dawkins in his recent Books Do Furnish a Life and in another Two for Tea interview. The causal connection between events at the level of biochemistry and that of our subjective experience is so little understood as to render the former nearly irrelevant to the latter, as Dawkins puts it in the interview. It is in the exploration of our subjective experience that poetry and literature make their unique contribution.
The Revelations is a novel about consciousness and experience—both a murder mystery and an investigation of the greatest remaining scientific mystery. Its hero is a mad iconoclast called Kierk Suren—perhaps an echo of Søren Kierkegaard, whose philosophy champions the subjective. Suren is a man obsessed with solving the problem of consciousness. The novel provides a deep investigation of human life and sociality, in by turns frenetic and languorously reflective prose.
One of the main influences on the novel appears to be that of Thomas Pynchon. But to describe it as Pynchonian would be misleading: Hoel’s voice is unmistakably his own. But both Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and The Revelations deal in the possibility of revelation. Hoel takes us to the very threshold of truth, to the brink of resolution; but the journey towards that precipice perhaps contains the real lesson, the real revelation. In one passage, consciousness researcher Carmen is inspired by the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia as well as by the death (and possible murder) of a fellow researcher, Atif, to reflect on life, love, death and loss:
Her mind has been spiraling lately, concentric, always beginning with Atif but then jumping out to the suburbs of history, and then the whole of the pale blue dot, to all those who have lived and died—Descartes and the princess in love and kept apart, primitive hunters dying far away from their beloved gatherers, all one hundred billion souls that have existed on this planet, until Atif became a semiotic signifier for the entirety of the sadness and the too-soon-ness that was human life …
Formally and thematically, Hoel delivers a supreme work of art.
The Power of Fiction and the Necessity of Freedom
Salman Rushdie’s writing shares with Hoel’s a freewheeling but disciplined style, as well as a concern with both the diversity and the universality of human experience. In his latest essay collection, Languages of Truth, Rushdie argues for the power of fiction as a route to truth. His own favourite genre of magic realism, he says, might invoke the mythical and the impossible, but only so as to open one’s eyes to some human truth:
For me, the fantastic has been a way of adding dimensions to the real, adding fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh dimensions to the usual three; a way of enriching and intensifying our experience of the real, rather than escaping from it into superhero-vampire fantasyland.
Rushdie’s essays, compiled from the last two decades, are a trove of both wisdom and literary style. Rushdie argues for and attests to the power of fiction, as well as for the need to fight back against the censors and liars of our age, from Trump to the woke. There are essays dealing with the poison of Hindu nationalism, Rushdie’s late friend Carrie Fisher, the autobiographical in fiction, Philip Roth, his contraction of Covid, Osama bin Laden, the importance of free speech, Bhupen Khakhar, the hijras of India, Chinese totalitarianism, Muhammad Ali, and much else. Rushdie adopts many voices and many roles, exemplifying the multifacetedness and hybridity that he so beautifully champions in his fiction.
But he is no milquetoast relativist. He argues forcefully for certain positions. One essay eviscerates religion, demanding secularism and the universal freedom of and from all totalitarian ideologies. In fact, freedom is the only absolute value for Rushdie: the freedom to speak, write, think and love. In a moving piece lamenting the death of his friend Christopher Hitchens, Rushdie describes Hitchens’s solidarity during the terrible years of the fatwa:
He and I found ourselves describing our ideas, without conferring, in almost identical terms. I began to understand that while I had not chosen the battle, it was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humourlessness, philistinism, and the new offense-culture of the age). Then I read Christopher using exactly the same everything-he-loved-versus-everything-he-hated trope, and I felt … understood.
This collection is a magnificent testament to the career of one of our finest writers.
For the Love of Pluralism
Pluralism is a good word. It contains none of the fashionable connotations of diversity or predictable disappointments of multiculturalism. It simply connotes multiplicity and toleration. Many voices, many paths to truth: the central justification for freedom of speech and thought.
Each of the four books discussed here champions this ideal. Together, they form a powerful argument for freedom.