The Swan-Peattie Debate

Assignment 2, by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 693, Summer 2001, taught by Dr. Rebecca Knuth

Swan argues that librarians should not act as arbiters of truth. Instead, their goal is to provide free access to a wide range of materials. He points out that people do not deliberately seek falsehoods. Though we all might have our own notions of truth, the free marketplace of ideas allows opposing viewpoints to conflict and, through debate, eventually reveal the truest one. Enshrining a true view as something unassailable denies this debate; it turns a view worthy of discussion into one of dogma that should not be questioned. Despite allowing falsehoods and untruths into the realms of discussion, Swan still holds that there is some notion of truth that librarians can turn to as an absolute legal defense, such as in the case of libel.

Peattie also enjoys the goal of a wealth of different ideas. However, he draws the line at including those ideas that are false or lies. A lie is an untruth stated with the intent to harm or deceive. He asks why we should even bother entertaining ideas that we know are false or that we will never act on. Indeed, if the point of intellectual freedom is to determine the truth, or different aspects thereof, it seems counter-productive to fog the issue with falsehoods and lies.

Swan and Peattie's debate has uncovered the issue I find to be the most core, yet troubling, with intellectual freedom: how do we determine truth?

I do not believe in an objective, knowable, separate truth. Various Idealist and solipsist strains of Western philosophy, Eastern mysticism, and modern quantum physics question that there is some objective reality separate from observers. Even if there is an objective world "out there," all of our information must come to us through our senses. This means the raw data of experience (qualia) is limited to what we are physically equipped to handle. We then organize those sense data into understandable experiences. We "tune out" those parts that don't seem relative, and we organize events to fit our existing paradigm, classification schemes, or language syntax.

In short, I do not believe in any absolute facts. Every "fact" has undergone some sort of human mental processing, which depends on that person's mental categories and context. For example, I may say, "My coffee is hot." What is hot? Most temperatures daily encountered by humans are between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius. Yet is my coffee "hot" compared the frigid vacuum of space or the center of a molten star? I may try to remove this relativity by saying, "My coffee is 98.4 degrees Celsius." Even if my thermometer is accurate, and assuming I have an eyesight acute enough to read a thermometer to that accuracy, what does that number tell us? First off, the scale was designed by humans. Temperature, technically speaking, is related to the kinetic energy of the system. So the measurement really gives an indication of the average speed of the water molecules bouncing around in my cup. Yet this definition is based on an atomic model produced by thousands of experiments; yet I have done none of these experiments and have never seen an atom. In an attempt to be more concrete and definite, I find that my explanation relies on a broader and broader framework of assumptions and human thought. And we have not even begun to discuss the nature of coffee (Is the temperature of the water or of the few coffee particles in my cup that really concerns me?) or of private property (How is it my coffee?)!

When "facts" are so strongly dependent on an entire mental structure, I am loth to declare outright that they are either true or false. At the very best, it seems that truth can only be determined in the limited context in which the "fact" is stated. For this reason, I stand in even greater support of the free market of ideas than is Swan.

Yet then I wonder what happens when people begin to live in accordance to their diverse notions of truth or righteousness. If all views are equally valid, it seems that all people should have an equal right to live up to their own ideals. Yet when the communist who denies private property takes my car for a drive, or when the black supremacist won't give me a job simply because I'm white, or when the new history professor tells me that Abraham Lincoln invented the airplane, I suddenly seem to recall some notion of truth after all. I say, "No! That car is mine and you can't take it without my permission; race is not an excuse for discrimination; and the Wright brothers invented the airplane." And I think most people, including the judicial system, would agree with me.[1]

If we are sure enough of our truth not allow theft by a person who doesn't believe in private property or discrimination by a person who doesn't believe in racial equality, why are we so willing to allow them to intellectually hold or encourage those views? It suggests that in the realm of ideas we don't know what truth is; yet when it comes to action, we all have a reasonably good idea after all.

I still wrestle with this contradiction. To date, my best reconsiliation is as follows: Ideas can do relatively little damage alone; the benefits of a free exchange generally outweighs the emotional stress of encountering odious opinions. However, when these ideas become actions, they enter a much more concrete realm where harm and physical damage is more obvious. Since there are basic rules that need to be agreed on to live in a society (just as there are basic rules to any boardgame), there exist laws or less formal social norms that dictate acceptable actions. These laws (at least in a democratic society) are reached through some level of consensus. In this way, they are an average, a melding of diverse ideas, into some common ground to hold us together. Yet this average is only a working model of consensus; intellectual freedom is still necessary if we expect these laws and norms to grow or change with time under the influence of new ideas.


1. Of course, just what is it that objectively makes the car mine? Should we really hire an equal number of black and white actors to play slaves in a Civil War movie? And of course Leonardo di Vinci thought of mechanical flying machines before the Wright brothers were even born. I find I easily oscillate between some notion of objective truth and complete relativism.