Not so long ago, you could have described the job of science and philosophy as the pursuit of truth without anyone even raising an eyebrow. Now, many people believe that philosophy itself has shown that there is no such thing as truth, there are only a number of different perspectives. To think that some of these are better or truer is elitist, undemocratic, totalitarian.
There’s something attractive about the kind of democratic pluralism this view encourages. But it is ultimately unsustainable and no one wholeheartedly believes it. People’s commitment to the equal validity of all points of view soon evaporates if one such view turns out to include denial of the holocaust, young earth creationism or the existence of an intergalactic conspiracy of lizards. To allow someone the right to their opinion does not require conceding that their opinion is any good. Sometimes respecting a person’s right to believe what they do is really respecting their right to be crazy.
But there is something in the desire to allow different perspectives which is right. It’s not that there is no such thing as the truth, only different points of view. Rather, there are many points of view and it’s the totality of the true points of view which is the truth. To see as much of the whole truth as we can, we need to see as many truthful perspectives as we can.
A common metaphor that captures this idea is that we always look at things through a particular lens. Sometimes people take that to mean that we never see the world as it really is, we always see it distorted in some way. That’s the wrong way of cashing out the lens metaphor. A better way is to say that if we look through a lens and it’s a good one, we’ll bring something of the world into sharp focus and make it clear. But almost invariably that comes at the expense of other things that are either completely out of the frame or blurred.
So, when we look at the world through the lens of say, sex or gender, you’ll see all sorts of real differences between populations of men and women. You’re only being misled by this if you take this to be the complete picture and ignore everything else that is out of the frame or blurred. Switch lens and look through the glass of material wealth, and you find that almost everything in life – from educational achievement to health and longevity to choice of mate – is affected by your position on the economic ladder. And indeed it is, but it would be equally mistaken to think that this is the only or key factor in explaining human behaviour, because you’re missing all the things you would see if you were looking through a different lens.
Genetics provides another such lens. Genes have an influence on so much, from who we vote for to whether we believe in God, that it can easily appear to be the key to human understanding. You can see how far we have bought into this by the fact that if identical twins both develop, say, breast cancer, people react as though that is only to be expected. If oonly one does so, people react as though this is an anomaly that needs explaining.
Culture is a fourth lens, and I think one reason why the rather tedious nature v nurture debate rumbled on so long was that different researchers were seeing so clearly how important the one they were looking at was that they just couldn’t conceive that they were only seeing one part of the picture.
The general principle is that it’s only when you have a whole variety of lenses and you avail yourself of all that they can capture that you can see the fuller truth of a situation. Take as an example this picture of a Victorian woman giving alms to a poor person in what looks like India.
Depending on which lens you look through you might see this image as depicting the superior compassion and philanthropy of the female sex (gender lens), the socio-economic division in society and the principle of noblesse oblige (class), a snapshot of a moment in time when the white imperialists lorded it over the indigenous Indian population (history), the details of circumstances which effect whether people choose to be generous rather than not (social psychology), an example of how a certain behaviour – altruism – resulted from tit-for-tat co-operation (evolutionary psychology), how Christian women follow Jesus’s teaching and give to the poor (beliefs), how behaviours reflect character (Aristotelian virtue ethics) or personality (developmental psychology).
Each of these lenses gives you just one aspect of the truth. You don’t have to choose which one reveals the real nature of the situation, and no one by itself can give you the accurate picture. You need to avail yourself of all of them.
Spelled out, the principle seems so clear as to be obvious. And yet in practice we often neglect it. For example, think about how we interpret studies which show differences between the sexes. A few years ago, I conducted an online survey asking people what they complained about. I then looked to see if the sex of the respondents made a difference. It did. The men complained mainly about ineffective politicians, poor service and public transport. Women tended to complain more about the cost of living, spouses, partners and friends, and the weather. They also complained a lot less about television.
To take another example, a former colleague has run an online thought experiment where people are asked questions about a very specifically described situation. There were asked whether, in the exact case described, it was “morally wrong to have sex if the partner will come to regret it” or “morally wrong to have sex if the partner is intoxicated, albeit cogent, and would not have had sex otherwise”. 57% of men thought sex would be immoral in the first case, 71% in the second, compared to 68% and 80% of women respectively. With the high numbers of people taking part, this was a highly significant statistical difference.
Studies like these seem to be very straightforward. They tell us about real sex differences, leading many to conclude that boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Lots of people object to these studies but the answer come back: I’m sorry, you can’t just reject findings because you don’t like or ones you ideologically object to. Facts are facts, data are data, and you’ve just got to live with them.
Of course, there are still enough flawed studies and dodgy data out there to be wary. But the real problem with such studies is not that they say anything false. The problem is that they only look at one part of a much broader picture and if you can’t see how the part fits into the whole you may as well be squinting at it, no matter how clear that part appears to you.
Take the complaint study. Look through the sex lens and you see a very clear difference. But there were other lenses we could have used and one of these was culture. If you compare people according to whether they were American or British you also see very large differences. What’s more, these differences were greater than the sex ones, so whereas on average there was around a 9% difference in the responses of men and women, and a 13% difference between the responses of Americans and Britons.
This puts the gender differences in an important context. When I looked at this data more carefully, it emerged that the complaint pattern of an American woman was closer to that of an American man than to that of a British woman. So for all the reality and importance of sex differences, culture turns out to be much more important. Clearly it would only repeat the mistake to now say that culture explains it all. The moral is not that we keep looking for the biggest determinant of difference and name that as the real one, discarding the rest. It is rather that the picture is extremely complicated and there are many factors at play, which all interact.
If we return to the second study, now sensitive to the distorting nature of only looking through one lens, you don’t need to even switch lenses to see that the findings are perhaps not quite so impressive as they first seem. You need to simply avoid the trap of placing too much emphasis on the one aspect of reality which just happens to be in sharp focus. And so you look at the data again and see, for all the real differences they show, it remains the case that nine times out of ten, men and women are as likely to give the same answer as not. In the second case, for example, 71% of men and women agreed it was morally wrong, while 20% of men and women thought it wasn’t. That only leaves 9% of men and women who disagreed. So instead of a striking example of how different men and women are, it could equally be seen as an even more striking demonstration of how often they see the world in the same way.
Taking this multifocal perspective is particularly important when it comes to ourselves. We need to recognise that we are multiplicities, and just as there are many lenses for bringing different features of the world into focus, so there are different lenses for bringing different aspects of ourselves into focus.
To switch metaphor here, we might think of mirrors rather than lenses. In the nationhood mirror I see an Anglo-Italian, in the worldview mirror I see a sceptical humanist, in the political mirror I see a kind of social democrat, in the relationship mirror I see a life partner, in the gender mirror a man, in one psychological type mirror an introvert, professionally I see a writer and thinker, in the pleasures mirror I see an eater. All of these things say something about who I am and I do not need to decide which of these identities captures my “real self” and which are merely roles I play, masks I put on. My real self is the totality of all these things.
This way of thinking gives us more resilience. When we think of ourselves just in terms of a few core identities, change can threaten our very sense of self: doubts about our beliefs, a change in our relationship status, a loss of job: all these things can pose an unnecessarily deep existential threat to those who place too much importance on just one aspect of who they are.
This also matters politically. In Identity and Violence, Amrtya Sen argued persuasively that when we come to see ourselves and others too much in terms of just one or two core identities, particularly those of nationhood or religion, we sow the seeds of social division. The greatest hope for humanity and peace is that we come to see ourselves and others in more plural terms.
When it comes to ourselves and the world, however, we must not lose sight of the fact that we cannot simply decide what we want to see. We must use true lenses, true mirrors, to piece together a realistic picture of the world. You can no more be whatever what you want to be than the truth can be whatever you want it to be. But by paying more attention to the many things you could be and in some sense already are, you can widen the horizons of your own possibilities.
Julian Baggini is a British philosopher and the author of several books about philosophy written for a general audience. He is the author of The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 other thought experiments (2005) and is co-founder and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1996 from University College London for a thesis on the philosophy of personal identity. In addition to his popular philosophy books, Baggini contributes to The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, and the BBC. Twitter: @microphilosophy