Thursday, 22 December 2011

What is Truth? The trahison des clercs...

A friend of mine works at Newcastle University, and he reports that recently the Vice Chancellor, Professor Chris Brink, a logician by discipline, was considering refreshing the University’s Vision or Mission or some-such.

The story is that he wished to include in it a reference to truth, in relation to the aims of research.  Apparently the Faculties of Medical Sciences and of Science, Agriculture and Engineering were happy with this proposal and this characterisation of their work.

But the Faculty of Humanities, and Social Sciences was outraged that he could consider such an idea.  Surely he knew, as all (non-scientific) academics do that truth is simply a social construct, and that a University that claimed to be in pursuit of truth would be the laughing stock of academe (at least in Social Science circles).

This strikes me as the Trahison des clercs of our time.  ‘What is truth?’ asked Pilate, before delivering Truth to be nailed to a tree.

Professor Brink, both as a logician, and having heroically led Stellenbosch University in South Africa through difficult times, and witnessed himself the importance of the Truth and Reconciliation process there, knows a thing or two about truth.

The good news is that the Scientists, Engineers and Medics were mystified by their colleagues’ protestations.  As a doctor said on the radio the other day (discussing philosophy - no reference as I was driving at the time...) ‘It is hard to believe in the impossibility of communication when someone is calling you to deal with a Cardiac Arrest on Ward 6.’

The bad news is that the VC allowed the Humanities and Social Science gang to veto ‘truth’ in the mission statement.

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