In my last post I made the point that truth is contingent on human motivations. I got a couple comments interpreting me as saying that truth is arbitrary. This is definitely not what I mean, and it's also not the first time I've encountered this confusion, so I want to write a brief post to tackle this point head on.

What does it mean to say that something is contingent? It means that it depends on something else. So, for example, when I said in my post that truth is contingent, I mean that it's a concept whose shape depends on other things, like the shape of other concepts and our motivations.

This is quite different from claiming that something is arbitrary. Something is arbitrary if it is chosen or formed without concern for suitability to some purpose or is otherwise not dependent on other things. For something to be arbitrary it has to be like a free variable in an equation, totally unconstrained by anything else, existing outside causality.

(There are shades of meaning in language I'm excluding here. Some people use "arbitrary" to mean "lots of degrees of freedom" rather than "infinite degrees of freedom". But my point will stand so long as you agree that "contingent" implies "no or very few degrees of freedom" and "arbitrary" means "lots of degrees of freedom".)

Laid out like that the difference between these terms is clear enough, but then why, when I write about something like truth being contingent, do people interpret me to mean that it's arbitrary? I'll try to tell a plausible story to explain why I think this happens.

When we're young we develop a fairly simple ontology of the world. Some things seem fixed and permanent and other things seem variable and changing. Fixed things stay the same and don't change, and variable things change a bunch. For example, to a six-year old, things like their relationship with their parents, what foods they like, and what games they like playing probably feel fixed because they have no memory of them having been any other way. Meanwhile things that change seem to do so for arbitrary and literally inexplicable reasons because at that young age we're still building up our model of the world and it doesn't have very many gears in it yet. So we start to organize the world into what seems like a natural dichotomy: those things that are fixed and those that are not.

As we get older we encounter new concepts, including abstract concepts, and have to adapt our ontology to account for them. One of the main ways this adaption happens is via metaphors. So when we learn about ideas like "objectivity" and "subjectivity" we build our intuitive understanding of those concepts on metaphors about things that are fixed and variable, respectively. As a result, objective-coded concepts, like truth, end up on the fixed side of the categorical divide, and subjective-coded concepts, like experience, end up on the variable side. We then pull in associations we have with fixed and variable things to give nuance to our understanding of objective and subjective concepts, and as a result think of the objective as fixed and permanent and the subjective as variable and changing.

What does this have to do with people thinking I said "arbitrary" when I said "contingent"? My theory is that because things that are contingent are not permanently fixed but changing with the flow of causality, they get coded as not-fixed, and then due to having built up an understanding on metaphors that draw a split between the fixed and the variable, "contingency" gets lumped into the "variable" cluster and thus can be read as "arbitrary".

Even if you think my story about how this error happens is nonsense, this still seems like a plausible explanation at the level of "contingency" getting lumped in and associated with everything in the "not-fixed" category, and so gets interpreted as a claim to arbitrariness due to a lack of a properly excluded middle. This is likely exacerbated by experiences with people who first claimed something "depends on context" and then used that claim as a rhetorical wedge to argue for arbitrary things without appeal to evidence or reason.

But whatever the cause, thinking contingency implies arbitrary is a mistake. Things that are contingent are not arbitrary. Rather, they are heavily constrained by causation. In fact, I might go so far as to claim that, if you step back and look at the whole of the universe, nothing is arbitrary and everything is tied up and contingent upon everything else that has happened. That something is contingent simply means that it's not fixed and permanent because it exists within the flow of time rather than outside it. We might alternatively say it's embedded in the world rather than floating free outside it in a dualistic, ideal form. That's a big deal, but also that's also all. No arbitrariness required.


I could have written another version of this post that said something like "arbitrariness is in the map, not the territory", but I already did that for another concept, so you can just read that post instead to hear that argument.

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