Truth vs. reality

I believe I have just had a breakthrough in my understanding of truth. The classical (and intuitively dominant) theory of truth is probably the correspondence theory, which basically proposes that truth entails the correspondence of a statement to reality. The correspondence theory of truth, despite its intuitive appeal, is poorly regarded for a variety of reasons. One problem is defining what it means for a statement to ‘correspond’. Another problem is whether the correspondence itself represents a ‘truth’ (which leads to infinite regression). All of this I found easy enough to grasp (as in, by the end of a philosophy intensive undergraduate degree I more or less felt I had a handle on it). What I continued to struggle with was ‘if truth is not correspondence, what is it?’ There are, of course, a variety of alternatives, but explaining them will not get to the nub of my confusion. One example is the coherence theory of truth, which proposes (to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) ‘A belief is true if and only if it is part of a coherent
system of beliefs.’ Maybe to some of you this makes total sense, but the notion left me entirely flummoxed. Specifically, I was flummoxed by the idea that truth was a property of relations between beliefs. Why did believes matter when determining truth? I was, of course, stuck on a a very fundamental misunderstanding of the transformation the concept of truth undergoes when it transitions from correspondence theory to a coherence theory, namely, truth ceases to be about reality.

This is the breakthrough. Truth is not necessarily about reality. When we ask ‘what is truth’, we are not necessarily asking about how the world is. We might be asking about how the world is, but not necessarily. Instead, epistemology is concerned about the criteria by which sentences are deemed true or false. Correspondence theory proposes sentences should be deemed true or false based on whether they correspond to reality, while coherence theory proposes that truth or falsity is determined by the relationship between beliefs. Coherence theories therefore draw a distinction between beliefs and the reality that those beliefs are about: the question is not whether beliefs fit with reality, but whether beliefs fit with each other.

In my next post I will explore this issue in relation to knowledge and Justified True Belief.

Thank you for reading,

CreativePhilo

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Thinking and the unthinkable – The edges of reality

A friend and I are currently working on writing a philosophy paper on epistemology together. Both of us are dissatisfied with epistemology’s current obsession with Gettier problems*. Both of us more or less agree that Gettier problems get something wrong about the nature of knowledge, or that the knowledge that Gettier problem’s interfere with was already unobtainable anyway. To paraphrase my friend, we always only believe the truth by chance.

Having reached this consensus, however, our positions immediately diverged as to the nature of the human condition in relation to truth. For, she maintained, the problem facing human knowers is that we can never eliminate the possibility of unknowable truth, and so we should consider ourselves to be dealing merely with appearances**. I, in contrast, maintained that what she was trying to say was impossible to think or mean. To phrase the issue in a way that favors my side of the argument, our debate is on the thought that we should give to the unthinkable: Emily’s position is that we should leave space for its possibility, and mine is that such space cannot be left because whatever we think of, by definition, cannot actually lie beyond the scope of thought.

Since our conversation I’ve been doing some research, and, unsurprisingly, this debate is not a new one. Indeed, we each seem to have settled into the role of our respective favorite philosophers. Emily, speaking as Kant, argues that all we know is the apparent world, and that we cannot get at the reality underneath. I, echoing Hegel’s famous response, argue that we can do away with the idea of the real and the apparent: there is simply the indivisible world, for we can never encounter the beyond.

I was greatly aided in my interpretation of our conversation by Lee Braver’s article ‘Thoughts on the Unthinkable‘. For the first half of the article he follows the historical conversation on the unthinkable, starting with Parmenides forbidding us from thinking about the unthinkable to the Hegelian position I have already described. If that were the end of the story then I would feel well vindicated in my position. However, Braver continues on to argue that what is absent in the Hegelian story is humility: for by Hegel’s philosophical system our rationality is rendered into the entirety of existence, and all of our investigations become only investigation of ourselves.

When put in terms of humility, I become somewhat uncomfortable with my own position previously described. I did write my undergraduate thesis arguing the ultimate path to knowledge was through humility, and it is certainly an arrogant kind of claim to say that all that exists is that which is within the realm of mind. However, Braver acknowledges that it is difficult to make room for this other in any sensible way. His proposal is essentially this: the other, the unthinkable, can only be encountered in that which we do not understand. We encounter the unthinkable when our expectations are violated and we are thrown into confusion and fear. He here draws a distinction between relative unthinkables and absolute unthinkables. Relative unthinkables are those things which are initially incomprehensible, but which, upon reflection, can be drawn into the fold of human understanding. Absolute unthinkables, however, are those things that defy all attempts at understanding or comprehension.

I find this account both appealing and confusing. It is unclear to me whether or not this is just a re-description of Hegel, or whether it is a significant departure. More problematically, for me, is that Braver does not seem to provide an example of absolute unthinkability.

Let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

*A Gettier problem is basically a situation where someone has justified
true belief but is still right only by chance: for the uninitiated, read
some of these.
** Apologies, Emily, for any disservices I do to your position.

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Narrative and Truth (and the return of CreativePhilo)

Hello everyone, CreativePhilo is back! I have finished my masters degree and am now going to be updating the blog on a weekly basis.

For my first post back, I am going to be talking about narrative, an extremely pertinent topic considering the upcoming Canadian election (since I am sure all of my readers are following the Canadian election with bated breath).

What is the relation between narrative and truth? The naive reaction to this question, I think, is to say that narrative pertains to story while truth is, well, the truth, what actually is. Stories may or may not align with the truth at the speakers whim or knowledge. However, contra the naive line of reasoning, I would argue that many ‘facts’ of human life are narrative dependent, in the sense that without narrative certain crucial facts about reality do not exist. For so often the way that we explain or interpret an event is crucial to the actual nature of the event itself. For example, when friends have an argument, often the resolution entails imposing some kind of theory upon the events. Now, the scenario is much more complicated when we are dealing with conflicting narratives, so I will be setting that thorny (though central issue) aside for the purposes of this example. Often the resolution of a dispute involves both sides agreeing on a story or narrative of what actually happened. Both might agree that they were just having a bad day, or that one of them was rude because of lack of sleep, or that the other had just not realized how much they were asking. In this way the dispute can be resolved: the narrative tells them who owes who, what went wrong, and provides a heuristic to avoid such disputes in the future. There are usually many theories that can be applied and many ways that an event can be understood, but the reality of the matter does not solely exist in the configuration of atoms: narrative language plays a constitutive roll in the nature of the event.

This, of course, does not answer the question of whether there are true or false narratives, but only points out that the problem is not solved by turning to the natural sciences. The issue with true or false narratives is though false narratives seem easily definable (at least in theory), it is much more difficult to define a true narrative. False narratives seem easily identifiable in that there can be explanations for events which just seem false, or to focus on incorrect features of an event. For example, a child may say that her invisible friend made her commit an act, and she may even believe that to be the case, but it still seems to be ultimately false. True narratives are more complicated because a single event seems to allow for multiple true narratives. For example, if someone is asked to say who they are, they can focus on a plurality of features in their own past to define their identity. Whether there is a ‘true’ narrative is difficult to discern.

The real meat of the issue though comes when we examine how narratives create facts. For narratives have a reflexive affect: when we describe an event we look at it differently, but the way that we look at an event is an important constitutive feature. For example, a newscaster or politician may say that healthcare is the defining issue of an election. This is partially an epistemic claim about what people currently care about, but it can also serve to draw attention to healthcare, to try to make the election about healthcare.

In this initial investigation I have mostly raised questions, but I will revisit the topic.
Please let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

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Revisiting Reality

In a previous post I talked about Husserl’s notion that we should bracket off the question of whether reality is distinct from human experience.  You can see that post here: link.  To give a quick rehash for those who don’t want to go re-read, there is an old philosophical debate between realists and idealists.  The realists say that reality is mind-independent, while the idealists say that reality is mind-dependent.  The Husserlian compromise is to essentially say ‘why does it matter?’  I think that this is in many ways the best response to the argument, but I also have some notions I would like to present on the subject.

I’m inclined to say reality exists in a mind-independent way (look at this philosopher going out on a limb).  I think that it is the more probable hypothesis.  I say this mostly citing evolutionary psychology as evidence – the mechanics of our mind make much more sense if reality is mind-independent.  However, I think that reality, as it is possible for us to know, is mind and sense dependent.  This includes my previous statement that reality is probably not mind-dependent.  That is a notion that we have within the mind.  I think that human notions cannot correspond to anything outside of experiential reality.

I think that our perspective on the world is entirely anthropocentric (indeed, it is so much so that it is impossible for me to point out an alternative – never has a thought been had by a human that was not anthropocentric).  We see the world at a certain size, we define organisms by their relation to us, we write history as it relates to us.  It is we who divide the world into objects – into plants and animals, into microbes, into ideas.  Without consciousness these objects vanish – all the wondrous motion of the universe becomes less then nothing.  All the pieces are still moving, but outside of consciousness the pieces have no meaning.  Without consciousness the world as an experience disappears.

So, that is what I think of the substance of reality, let me know what you think,

Thank you for reading,

CreativePhilo

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What is substance?

I’ve written enough posts now that it’s hard to keep track of when I’m repeating this… but fortunately most of the subjects that I talk about don’t grow stale after a single post.

One of the most fundamental debates in philosophy is the nature of substance.  What is reality made of?  The traditional lines are between realists and idealist – the distinction being that the realist things that substance is mind-independent and the idealist thinks that substance is mind-dependent.  Humans are instinctively realists, but the question is not one easily resolved.  I would describe the problem thus: there does appear to be a world that is observer independent, filled with consistent patterns.  This world seems to have brought us into being through the physical process of evolution – this theory well explains our existence, the mechanics of our mind, and our experiences.  However, technically speaking, we have no mind independent experience of this world.  In other words, no human has ever known the world in a mind independent way – without the mind there is no world as we know it.

One alternative proposed by Husserl for this debate was that we should bracket the question off.  Husserl basically asked ‘who cares whether substance is mind independent or mind dependent?  What difference does it make?’  This leads in to Husserl’s notion that the properties of an object that we should attend to is its phenomenological properties (basically its experienced properties).  This sounds idealist, but it kind of isn’t.  Husserl wants to focus on experience, but he wants to set aside the question of whether that experience is of something other or of one’s own being.

Given my inclinations towards phenomenology, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m very sympathetic to Husserl, though I need to be upfront in saying that my knowledge of his philosophy mostly comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  I think that human experience can be well-subsumed within his framework. 

It may seem like many of our scientific theories are dependent on assuming an independent reality, but I’m not sure that is necessarily the case.  Technically speaking all scientific observations are made phenomenologically – they are explanations of our experience.  I do not think that the explanations suddenly spring a leak if they fail to specify whether they think the substance of experience is indepedant of the mind.

Let me know what you think 🙂

CreativePhilo

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