Truth, Experience, and Meaning
What follows is an exchange between myself and a fellow believer in regards to the nature and knowability of truth, particularly as it relates to experience.
If you are like me you have encountered countless individuals who "argue" for their view based on some experience rather than providing good reasons. These people just know that they know that they know what they believe is right because of some experience that brought them psychological confidence that they are right. While this approach to the issue of truth is epidemic in Pentecostal circles, it is not limited to us by any means. Mormons, Baptists, Hindus, Muslims, and just about every other religion today claims to have had an experience, and argue that their experience justifies the validity of their truth-claims. When two people claim to have had an experience, and both use that experience to give validity to their opposing truth-claims, both cannot be right. Either one is right and one wrong, or both are wrong.
So how do we adjudicate between competing truth-claims if experience cannot do the job? We do so by use of the rational faculties God has endowed us with. You know what I'm talking about. We use them everyday. When you cross the street you use your mental faculties to discern truth from error so that you do not become road-kill. The same ways we go about discerning truth from error in the physical world can be applied to spiritual ideas as well. Simply put, we must have good reasons to believe what we do, and good reasons to reject those beliefs contrary to our own.
While this is all good and dandy, what do you say to the individual who refuses to give you rational evidence in support of his truth-claim? What do you say to the individual who insists that his experience validates his claims, and that no other proof is necessary? Here is something I have come up with:
"It's very convenient for you to claim that you know you are right and I am wrong because of your experience. It's convenient because it allows you to make a lot of claims to truth without having to substantiate those claims with solid evidence (assertions rather than arguments). By appealing to the private and subjective rather than to the public and objective you have set yourself above critique. The only way a claim to truth can be evaluated to determine if it is indeed true is if evidence is presented that is readily accessible for both parties involved. If no appeal to public evidence is provided no meaningful discussion can transpire. When no evidence is provided to evaluate it becomes nearly impossible to determine whether your claims to truth are true or false.
"To appeal to experience and/or special knowledge is an advantage in that it provides an easy way out of having to defend your beliefs against criticism, but it's also a liability in that it prohibits you from being able to persuade anyone else that you are right unless of course you expect others to simply accept your words on blind faith!"
In the end, the common claim that "I just know that I know that I know" isn't good enough. It's not a solid enough foundation for one's own faith, and it lacks the necessary element to convince others: public evidence. In the end something more than an experience or personal psychological certainty is needed.
You make some good points, but I'm not so sure that we can set reason and experience up on separate poles. You critique views that are "based on some experience" rather than those for which there can be provided "good reasons." I think I understand your point-when we operate only out of what we have personally encountered our world is insular and shallow. We do not allow, then, for limitless going beyond our present state; we are not, to use Dwayne Huebner's phrase, "lured by the transcendent."
Reason does not fall out of the sky. It is nuanced by the contexts in which we live. I would contend that experience precedes reason, and then reason leads back to new ways of experiencing.
I am with you. I don't think we can set reason and experience on separate poles either. What I was trying to communicate is that experience is insufficient as a guide to truth. I have several reasons for taking this position, but my primary reason is that the subjective nature of experience makes it prone to error or misinterpretation. Not only do we have a difficult time describing our experience, but it is often even more difficult to determine the source or reason for that experience (think of the experience of dejavu). We may think the source is one thing when in reality it is another (e.g. we often say the Lord was convicting us of something when in reality the source of our "conviction" was our misinformed conscience).
Furthermore, we can never be certain if our experience is universal, so that the experience described by others is the same experience we have had. Given the subjective nature of experience it is inadequate to bring us to any reasonable amount of certitude that is usually required before we accept something as objectively true. Something else is needed to evaluate the validity of our experience. That something else is reason (clear and rational thinking). The rational, particularly when based on deductive reasoning, is a more sure foundation for knowledge of objective truth. Rationality and experience are not two separate worlds, but when it comes to epistemology our experience (or at least its interpretation) must be subject to the test of rationality to explore its validity or interpretation because only the tools of rationality are objective and universal.
The conclusions we come to using our rational faculties, however, are not divorced from our experience. Our rational ideas ought to conform to, or readily explain our experiences. If what we discover through critical thinking does not line up with our experience of the world, it could be that we were not being critical enough! Take morality for example. Any view of morality that cannot make sense of the universality of our moral impulse, the feeling of "ought" that precedes our choices, or the reason we feel guilt needs to be reevaluated. Our experience is checked by rationality, and our rationality is checked by our experience. This may be similar to what you were thinking of when you said we "experience good reasons."
If I were going to illustrate what I am saying using the illustration of poles I would say there are indeed two poles, but they are intertwined together; i.e. they go hand in hand. However, the rational pole trumps the experience pole in its height. There is no question that both are related and both are important, but I think it goes without saying that one source of knowledge is more equipped to give us objective knowledge of the world than the other. While experience is valuable, it is not sufficient in itself. It needs rationality, but rationality itself can be checked by experience.
We can know something without ever having experienced it. Knowledge of other people's experience is a source of rational knowledge as well. Before accepting other people's experiences as a good source of reason for our knowledge, however, we still subject those experiences to a rational test: Did this really happen or are they making it up? Were they on drugs at the time they experienced this?
You are right in a sense that experience can precede reason, and then the reason we develop from this experience leads back to new ways of experiencing. This happens all the time. But our use of the word "reason" here is different than the sort of reason I have been discussing. Think of the situation I spoke of earlier. Let's say someone was raised being told that having a X-Mas tree was evil. We know that God could care less about it, and yet if this individual was to get a X-Mas tree they would feel convicted. They would reason that they are feeling convicted because they have a X-Mas tree and God is letting them know that He does not approve. This would be false reasoning, not matching up with reality. We know from Scripture (an objective source) that the source of their conviction is their misinformed conscience, and thus their reasoning is wrong. So while their experience brought them to formulate a particular rationale, that rationale was wrong. Notice though, that reason is able to critique their rationale to expose it for what it is: false. Reason is different from the "system of reasoning" that we may employ when considering the information of our experience coupled with our presuppositions. Reason in the technical sense is transcendent to the ad hoc reasoning we do on a daily basis in light of our experience with the world. This form of reason is universal, and can be used to evaluate the validity of other lines of reasoning that people come up with when trying to simply interpret their experience without critically thinking about that experience. The universal sort of reasoning is based on the consistent and clear application of universal laws of logic.
Thanks for your informative response on experience and reason. Let me attempt to synthesize what we are both saying.
Here is what I think we agree upon:
1. Reason and Experience cannot be dichotomized.
2. Reason and Experience are both insufficient on their own; they balance, check, and inform each other.
Here is what I think we disagree on:
1. Whether the "tools of rationality are objective and universal."
2. Whether there is a "universal sort of reasoning" that is "based on the consistent and clear application of universal laws of logic"
Here are some things you say that I'm not so sure about:
1. I'm not sure that Scripture is "an objective source." (I'm also not sure what you are saying it is an objective source of, but even so I'm not sure what your reasoning for this is. As I see it Scripture is very subjective as it: (a) is forever bound in human language form (and ancient language at that), (b) it arose in response to cultural situations, (c) the authors used cultural conventions, metaphors, and ideas to convey their message, (d) is primarily written to a specific community (not all humanity). This, of course, is not central to your argument on experience and reason.
2. I'm not sure that I have as much faith as you in the objectivity of reason. As I stated in my last email, my position is that "reason does not fall of the sky. It is nuanced by the contexts in which we live. I contend that experience proceeds reason." I wonder what leads to you believe so strongly in the universally consistent success of "rationality." I would agree with your statement that "experience is insufficient as a guide to truth" (I'd agree more if you said "experience alone") but I'd also contend that a related statement is true: Reason alone is an insufficient guide to truth.
I want to expand on that last statement, but first it is important to parenthetically point out your emphasis on deductive logic. It seems to me that you are equating this with reason and/or logic and that it is the deductive act that you are claiming is universal. I stop to make this observation because I will respond to this version of "reason." This distinction allows me to argue for non-discursive knowledge (as I shall) and not be forced into calling it unreasonable or irrational.
Returning now to the question, Why is reason alone insufficient? This, of course, gets to questions of the nature of truth and how we know. Reason is closely tied to propositions and knowledge encoded in discursive forms. While these make it widely accessible it does not follow that deductive reasoning is thus universal. The kind of reason you describe (deductive, propositional logic) fails to account for the truth that can be known intuitively, in artistic expression, in mystical experiences, and in all other sorts of non-discursive forms.
I'm arguing that we can't even begin to use such reason without first having experienced the world. When we were growing up as kids we learned by experiencing (we were not even cognitively capable of deduction). In human history, the "tools of rationality" have not always bee in vogue, applied, or even known. In the Hebrew Scriptures the type of knowing often advanced is not simply based in heads, but is personal and heart-centered. Furthermore, in the NT people are brought to know by experiencing Christ and through the Holy Spirit's prompt.
I'm wondering, then, what convinces you that deduction is such a reliable tool? Have you deduced that it is? That would be circular. Has some outside authority said that it is? If so, what authority? Or, perhaps you have experienced the success of deduction in your personal experience of trying to make sense of the world? I suspect that it is probably the latter and that your faith in the universal potency of the "tools of rationality" has been pragmatically discovered.
One final point. I think there is a distinction to be made that would strengthen your case. You talk about "tools" that are universal, but you also talk about "objective sources" (you cite Scripture as one, for example). I think the difference between these is key. Subject and method are related, but are not the same. The methods ("tools" if you will) are human creations that attempt to understand a phenomenon. Depending on time, place, and context some tools work better than others. Subjects, though, are the source. They are the end. The tools are the means.
How do you know any of this that you are saying? How do you know your understanding of rationality, and its relationship to experience is true (and by "true" I mean that it corresponds to the way the world really is)? How do you know we cannot know anything objectively, but only subjectively as a community? That is in itself a claim to know something objectively, and thus is self-refuting. Yet it is these sorts of claims that lay at the heart of the postmodern epistemology you seem to have adopted.
You are claiming that you know we cannot have objective knowledge. For this idea to be meaningful and taken seriously you must do one of two things. Either you must admit that this proposition concerning the nature of knowledge does not correspond to reality, or you must defend the notion that it does. If the former, why advance it and try to persuade anyone of it? If the latter, then reality can be known objectively in some areas. It is an inescapable dilemma.
Relativistic epistemology is flawed at its core. It looks at the difficulty involved in the knowing process and falsely concludes that either (a) there is nothing to know (ontology), or (b) nothing can be known (epistemology). While the knowing process is difficult, it is unreasonable to conclude that there is nothing to know or that we cannot know anything, denigrating every claim to knowledge as mere opinion-none more right than another. Indeed something exists, so there must be something to know. The only way there could be nothing to know is if nothing existed to know, and no one existed to know it. Furthermore, we must be able to know something objective about that which exists, and the knowing process in general, otherwise we could not function in the real world on a day-to-day basis, and we could not say anything about the way knowledge works, including its inadequacies. To even begin the process of developing an epistemology we must already know some objective things about knowledge.
You are offering me a particular view of the world, and a particular view of the way knowledge works. In effect you are saying that you know knowledge is not that way, but this way. You are making an objective claim as to how knowledge works. But if knowledge is as relative as you say, and cannot lay hold of anything objectively true, then your view of knowledge is not true either. It is just your opinion. Then why should I take it seriously? Why should I correct my view if both our views of knowledge have nothing to do with reality, and cannot express reality?
In your email you spoke in many propositions, and I understood what you meant to convey very clearly. Truth is obviously not inherent within propositions themselves, but propositions can and do convey truth. Nobody is claiming that they can do so perfectly (because language is imperfect), or that every proposition we might put forth corresponds to reality (only an omniscient being could utter inerrant propositions). But there are some propositions that must reflect reality. Take God's existence for example. If I say "God exists" that statement is either true or false in virtue of the logical Law of the Excluded Middle. Either God exists, or He does not. If I say God exists, and He doesn't, then the proposition is false. If I say God exists, and He does, then the proposition is true. But the proposition must be true or false, and it will or will not correspond to reality based on the nature of reality. And the reality is that there are only two options when it comes to existence: existence, non-existence. A divine being must fit into one of those two categories, and thus a proposition which states so is true. How we know whether the proposition "God exists" reflects reality, or the proposition "God does not exist" reflects reality is an issue of epistemology, but the fact that there is a reality (and that logic can reveal this truth, and express this truth in propositional statements) is an issue of ontology.
There is no question that human beings are subject to bias and perspectivalism (as I argued in "The Question of Truth and Apologetics in a Modern/Postmodern World"), but this does not mean we cannot know anything objectively. We may not know fully, but we can know at least some things objectively. I objectively know the principles of math. I objectively know the principles of logic as well. I may apply those principles incorrectly and thus come to wrong conclusions, but because of the objectivity and universality of logic someone else could point out my misuse of the laws. This could only be done if the laws themselves are something objective that we recognize, rather than invent.
I agree that reason does not fall out of the sky, but it is not a human construct either. Logic is not a Western invention. It is basic to the human mind, and intuitive in nature. If I was giving you directions to my house and told you to make a left right on Orange Avenue you would know I misspoke because the law of contradiction informs you that one cannot make both a left and a right at the same time and in the same way. No one has to teach you this. You know it intuitively. The laws of logic are first principles. First principles are universal, and first principles can only be known intuitively. As Aristotle said, there are some things that cannot be proven, but without them nothing can be proven. Anybody who tries to argue against the laws of logic must use the laws of logic to do so because the laws of logic are first principles, and as such they are universal and inescapable.
To even communicate with language we have to use the laws of logic. The Law of Non-Contradiction (LNC) is necessary for language to mean anything at all, and thus for communication to take place. When you say "God exists" the LNC informs me that "God" is a token to express a particular idea, and that it necessarily excludes all other ideas. Likewise, "exists" is a token to express a particular idea, and that by using "exists" you mean to exclude all other ideas. If the LNC was not objectively true language would be meaningless, and communication impossible. We simply cannot dismiss the objective nature of the laws of logic. The only thing we can dispute is their proper application to a given topic. It is simply impossible to for anyone to escape the various forms of rationality, which is why I cannot agree with your statement that there were people in history who were unaware of it. It is simply impossible.
I agree with you that reason alone is insufficient as a guide to truth. Experience is necessary as well, but experience serves more as a check for the conclusions of our rational faculties than it does our starting point. Whenever we experience something we always have to ask ourselves whether our experience was genuine, and whether we are interpreting it correctly, etc. This is because experience is very subjective. Something that is objective must be used to evaluate our experience. That something is rationality. We may use the objective tools in an improper way, but they are the tools we must use nonetheless if we wish to test our experience.
It seems as though you are placing experience over reason in the epistemological quest. I find that odd. Experience seems far less adequate to discover truth than does reason. How often are our experiences corrected by what we come to know, compared to the times in which our knowledge is corrected by our experience? People thought the sun revolved around the earth because that is what their experience told them, and yet that experience was shown to be false when examined by reason. Your experience with matter tells you that it is solid, and yet reason has shown that matter consists primarily of empty space. After knowledge has corrected our interpretation of our experience, then we come to understand how it is that we misinterpreted our experience in the first place. The fact of the matter is that experience is very prone to misinterpretation, and thus cannot be the beginning point for determining what is true. It may be our initial point of contact for establishing our beliefs about reality, but it is not the starting point for evaluating those beliefs to determine whether they are justified or not. We must resort to reason at that point. Our own process of reasoning can be flawed, but at least the rational process is based on some objective principles. Experience has no objective, intuitive principles to be evaluated by. It must look for something outside of itself to justify it.
You said, "While these make it widely accessible it does not follow that deductive reasoning is thus universal. The kind of reason you describe (deductive, propositional logic) fails to account for the truth that can be known intuitively, in artistic expression, in mystical experiences, and in all other sorts of non-discursive forms." You have honed in on deductive reasoning. While I obviously believe in deductive reasoning (as does every human being in practice, if not in theory), I have not been specifically referring to it (you seemed to acknowledge that). I am including all aspects of the reasoning process, including the use of the first principles of reason known only through intuition, not through deduction or induction. In fact, we could not even exercise deduction and induction if it were not for intuitive knowledge. Deductive and inductive reasoning follow from those first principles as necessary corollaries. Since those first principles are universal, so is the validity of deductive and inductive reasoning. We can misuse the principles of such reasoning, or fail to apply them consistently, but we must use them nonetheless.
To answer your question, then, the reason I am so convinced that deduction is a reliable tool (one of them) to get at the truth is because it cannot be any other way. If it were some other way we would have to admit that the first principles of knowledge-those intuited rather than learned-do not exist. If they do not exist, knowledge itself is not possible because the first principles give us the foundation for all thinking. The fact that we must know something about knowledge and the knowing process before we can seek to explore and justify a theory of epistemology proves that there are some things we cannot not know. Rationality flows from those things. In the case of deductive reasoning, while it is possible that our premises may be flawed, leading to a false conclusion, it is not true that this invalidates the deductive process. It only shows that the deductive process does not work properly if you have your facts wrong. The laws of logic show us that induction and deduction give us truth. Experience, however, shows us whether our premises are true. As Norm Geisler and Fran Turek wrote, "Logic can tell us that an argument is false, but it cannot tell us by itself which premises are true."1
Let me respond to your questions/critique of my last email on reason and experience. First though, let me thank you for your good spirited critique. As Michael Apple says, the best compliment we can be paid as thinkers is to have our ideas carefully considered and evaluated-even critiqued-by our colleagues. This issue is one that has irked me for some time and your email just reminds me that this is an issue that isn't so easy to resolve.
In your response you directed your comments to the heart of my email. So that we get somewhere and so that there is clarity to our discussion I'm going to do the same with your email. However, before doing that I want to briefly observe that we've moved from the original concern-reason and experience-to a slightly different topic. I'm not sure if we reached an understanding on those grounds so I'd like to simply say that I'm not suggesting that reason is unimportant (just as I don't think that you are insisting that experience is invalid). I think we both are responding to similar problems with difference of emphasis (e.g. I think you and I have both see the problems that result when "experience" used to validate all sorts of religious nonsense). When I defend experience I'm not defending this foolishness at all! I'm saying that experience verifies truth claims. In this sense, experience follows reason (you referred to it as a "check."). In another sense, experience precedes reason as it is experience that provides the "stuff" (issues, if you will) of reflective evaluation. The practical is at both ends of the cycle. I'm very influenced by American philosopher John Dewey in this regard. For example, it was Dewey who noted in Freedom and Culture that it is mistaken to make a generalization based on observation of actual circumstances and then "obviate the need for continued resort to observation, and to continual revision of generalizations..." The actual is both the source and arbiter of ideal. However, because of the depth (and sometimes obscure expression) of his ideas I'm not sure that I'm defending Dewey's notion of experience fully. This will take much more thought. However, let me simply say here thank you for reminding me that reason has a crucial role and that I'm confident that there is not a reason-experience dichotomy.
Now to the heart of your email...
As I reread your email I notice how you did well to provide a focused opening and the rest of your essay grew nicely out of this beginning statement. This is what you said:
How do you know any of this that you are saying? How do you know your understanding of rationality, and its relationship to experience is true (and by true I mean that it corresponds to the way the world really is)? How do you know that we cannot know anything objectively, but only subjectively as a community? That is in itself a claim to know something objectively, and thus is self-refuting. Yet it is these sorts of claims that lay at the heart of the postmodern epistemology you seem to have adopted.
Rhetoric, Language, and Irony
Let me observe that this sort of question has always struck me as sort of ironic. It seems to be a way to avoid the actual question and simply turn the question back on the asker. While this may have worked for crumpled Columbo and for devil's advocates all over, it might not be the most sophisticated way of participating in intellectual dialogue. (I don't intend to be mean-spirited here. I acknowledge that you went far beyond the above statement in your lengthy response. Also, I admit that I've been known to be a devil's advocate on many an occasion!) My point is that while this question may be an effective rhetorical devise, it may also be a way to evade the question.
Beyond being a clever tool, I'm inclined to believe that a question like this may actually lead us to miss the point. In other words, in focusing in on the words we might miss the sense of what is being said. Let me try to demonstrate the irony here. Christian scriptures call us to "be moderate in all things." Are we really to be moderate in "all" things? Should we be temperate in our lusts and deceitfulness? Should we be moderate murders? Ought we moderately obey this verse? Also consider the verse that claims that "the heart is deceitful in all things." Was the author of this verse being deceitful when s/he penned these words? Can we actually understand these words or do our cunning and dark hearts twist the very meaning of this passage about deceitful hearts?
However, the fact that the above question may smack of rhetoric and irony doesn't mean that I can just avoid the issue so I'll further my response by talking about epistemology.
The quoted question and ones like it presuppose ideas entities such as "truth," a "way that the world really is," and the actual existence of objectivity and rationality. Aren't these themselves beyond proof? Can we use truth to truly demonstrate that truth exists? If we are intent on demonstrating the existence of "truth" and what "really is" we'll have to turn to either experience or dogmatic statements. I choose that former.
You mentioned an "epistemological quest" which I'm assuming you connect with finding the intuited "first principles" you mentioned in connection with Aristotle. The quest metaphor brings to mind a title of one of Dewey's books: The Quest for Certainty. In The Quest for Certainty Dewey argues against such Platonic notions as eternal forms. These arose out of the human need for security in a world of vulnerability and chance and the accidental. Ever since Plato and Aristotle philosophers have been searching for peace of mind in an uncertain world. This quest has biased us and we have been too long on the epistemological path. Dewey insists that the philosopher's task should be more about making judgments and finding meaning than seeking certainty.
We've got to give up our fascination with epistemology. In your response to Palmer's idea of community and education, you ask: "What is there to test people on?" I could be wrong but this may further show how your ideas assume objectivity. Tests and testing in traditional, technocratic educational systems assume their own neutrality. Tests, it is thought, are an equal way of measuring learning. However, as the curriculum reconceptualists and other advocates of qualitative inquiry have clearly shown, testing is both an inadequate gauge and is certainly not without bias. Traditional testing is flawed as it clearly favors certain student populations and, in its uni-dimensional nature, fails to accurately assess educative growth. It's not so much that I dislike the word "test" but that I think your use of it may show reveal that you think of epistemology as the teacher and epistemological methods as the test. You often refer to "laws" of logic. In a post-Newtonian world we would be better off to see that reality is not so subject to these linear laws. Truth is multi-hued, idiosyncratic, paradoxical, and weird! So when you say, "Progress implies movement toward an end" it sounds like you are describing something on a linear continuum. My point is that we give up the ideal of uni-directional progress in knowing for a kaleidoscopic notion of growth in a myriad of directions. (I say this knowing that below I posit my own continuum. This was done for conceptualizing the idea of mediation, not to imply that the search for meaning has one end.)
Perhaps the problem is with the way we define truth. I think your position sees truth as something like TRUTH or The Truth. Let me make a few observations. First, there is a difference between the actual existence of a thing and a judgment. For example, quoting Dewey:
I hear a noise in the street. It suggests as its meaning a street-car. To test this idea I go to the window and through listening and looking intently...organize into a single situation elements of existence and meaning which were previously disconnected. In this way an idea is made true; that which was a proposal or a hypothesis is not longer merely a propounding or a guess. If I had not reacted in a way appropriate to the idea it would have remained a mere idea; at most a candidate for truth that, unless acted upon the spot, would have always remained a theory. (Westbrook, 131)
The noise was merely a theory - or "candidate for truth" - until it was verified in experience. This locates truth in verification, not prior to it. Dewey justifies his assertion by noting the difference between plain existences of events and judgments/ideas about them. Truth is concerned with judgments not bare existence. That is, the truth (and its opposite, falsity) are qualities of evaluation. On their own, "[e]vents do not 'truly' happen" - truth must have a reference point. The noise in the street existed prior to its being true. Only upon the experience of verification was a truth claim possible. (Westbrook, 135).
Much later in his career Dewey again wrote about the dangers of an absolutist idea of truth:
The claim to possession of absolute truths, and of final, unalterable standards, might conceivably be even a boon, if everybody had the same set of absolute truths and standards, or if there were in existence some method by which differences could be amicably ironed out and men brought to agreement. What upholders of absolute principles always forget is the vulnerability of their implicit assumption that the principles which they advance are the absolute principles which any can accept. The claim to possession of first and final truths is, in short, an appeal to final arbitrament by force (Westbrook, 521).
He goes on to note that "the claim to possession of the truths by which life should be directed" is said to originate "outside of actual experience" and the claim is asserted to be incapable of being tested by anything in experience...." The ironic thing about this is that opposing viewpoints often hold such views of reality and there is no way to resolve this except by force.
So what is truth's place?
Again I'm influenced by Dewey, but for readability I'll endeavor to not quote as much! It is important to differentiate between perceptions, knowledge, and truth. Absolutist epistemology assumes that at some level truth can be known on its own (by reason). The absolutist might say that experience can evaluate reason, but does not precede reason (and thus truth). I think the problem with this is that it supposes that in our experiences we clearly perceive truth. However, there are times when what we "truly" perceive is not "truly true." For example, when gazing into the night sky we may think we see a star but instead of an actual celestial body all we really perceive is the light emanating from the star. While the existence of the star is not in question, the veracity of our perception is.
We "know" through our perceptions but this is not truth. In other words, knowledge sits in-between perception and truth "mediating" between the two. However, as a mediator, knowledge is not a mirror of reality; rather it is a judgment as to the worth/workability of something. I don't mean "workability" in the since that something is known to be true because it makes us happy but that it is proven/demonstrated in experience. For epistemology, knowledge is concerned with actual things. Knowledge is the judgment of propositions/probabilities about things. In other words, I'm saying that truth and knowledge are not the same thing while absolutist epistemology conflates knowledge and truth (See Westbrook 120-137).
To take this a step further, I want to observe something about the timing of truth. Based on what I've said truth can be said to come into existence. That is, it did not previously have life until a positive judgment was made. In Dewey's street car example, the phenomenon was not "true" until it was proven to be so. Truth is made (or at least verified) in time.
In summary, "Truth" is a relationship between an object the knower's correct thoughts about the object. While reality exists independent of the knower, "truth" cannot not exist without the presence of a knower.
I want to end this section by quoting something you said about epistemology. You say,
"To even begin the process of developing an epistemology we must already know some objective things about knowledge." This seems to be circular, or at least ironic. Before we can begin the knowing process (epistemology) we must "already know?" How is that possible? This seems to remove knowing from any process (or experience) and claim that there are pre-encoded laws for knowing. The irony in this is that these pre-existent principles have already confirmed the process; i.e. why do we need to have a process of knowing if we already know? Why search for truth if truth is intuitively self-evident?
If the quest is not for certainty or epistemology, what is it? I am contending that the quest is for meaning. In this section I've established what I don't believe. Now let me move to positive principles.
Truth and Meaning
Your question to me-"How do you know that we can't know?"-assumes True knowledge as the basis of my thought. Why presume that as my basis? When objectivity and absolutism are critiqued one basis of the critique is the preference for meaning over Truth. There is a quest, just not an epistemological one.
The fundamental human quest is the search for meaning and the basic human capacity for this search is experienced in the hermeneutic process, the process of interpretation of the text (whether artifact, natural world, or human action). This is the search (or research) for greater understanding that motivates and satisfies us... The act of theorizing is an act of faith, a religious act.... It is an expression of the humanistic vision of life.-James B. Macdonald, 1988 (Quoted in P. Slattery, 1995)
Not realizing how rare the human experience with Truth is, I think we use ideas like truth (and its near equivalents) too often in language when we really ought to be substituting words like "meaningful." We often insist that ideas that work for us and seem reasonable and feel right are "true." We use the word too casually and unconsciously connect goodness, neat logic, and a range of other ideas (like objectivity) with truth. However, when we conceptualize in such ways what we really should be intending is that these ideas are not so much True as they are meaningful. Perhaps we find them sensible, irrefutable, wise, obvious, and even serviceable so we call them True. I'd prefer that we deem them full of meaning-ideas that deeply express authentic understanding.
Take something like love. In worlds where we subjugate the loving experience to "laws of reason," qualities of the heart cannot be meaningfully understood. Love is beyond reason and logic. It is not subject to tests. Love is not measured to be true in a laboratory; love is known to be real in the heart.
Here are two possible ways to respond and my preliminary thoughts. One possible response to the above points is that truth and meaning are not mutually exclusive. This is correct, but remember I'm critiquing what I've referred to as Truth/TRUTH/the truth. Recall what I noted above about confusing "bare existence" and "ideas and judgments."
Another response is that we have given up on truth all together and have settled for what is "edifying," that is "therapeutic criticism." (Richard Rorty, quoted in Westbrook, 540). What I'm advocating is not feel-good relativism; I'm not banishing truth to non-existence! Rather I'm raising a caution flag and with Reinhold Nieburh saying, "The truth, as it is contained in the Christian revelation, includes the recognition that it is neither possible for man to know the truth fully nor to avoid the error of pretending that he does" (quoted in Westbrook, 529). In spite of this we are fascinated by metanarratives.
You mentioned that what I had written reminded you of postmodern epistemology. Let me make some observations on postmodernism. As I understand it, on one very important level postmodernism does not posit a new paradigm. This is where modernity often misunderstands postmodernism. It doesn't always seek to be another competing theory. While postmodernism argues against linear paradigms it does not always respond by substituting an alternative method. The very critique is that technical recipes and formulas for "knowing" are, by their nature, misguided. Modernity responds by saying "Well, what is your method?" but this misses the point. Postmodernism is a critique; it deconstructs; it is post-structural. Slattery explains this well: "Poststructuralism is not a system but opposition to the structure of understanding as a unified system... Simple definitions are impossible-even a contradiction of the premise of deconstructionism because every linguistic explanation must be exposed for its internal contradictions. In this sense, deconstrutionism is not a method but a critique" (160 and 161, 1995). [Note: I don't mean to suggest that postmodernism, deconstructionism, and poststructuralism are the same things. For the sake of argument, I'm grouping them here.]
Before moving on I anticipate a question: Isn't the valuation of deconstructed paradigms a sort of structure in and of itself? I think this type of question is just a way to deflect the argument and that is why, at the beginning of this essay, I talked about the circular reasoning this exhibits.
While in one sense postmodernism is a critique, for some thinkers postmodernism does have something to offer in the way of a "paradigm" (for lack of a more adequate term). While we certainly want to read ideas like "formula" or "recipe" into the postmodern procedure there is a sense in which it does offer some methodological principles. I find the most helpful way to understand this is through chaos theory. Essentially chaos theory simultaneously recognizes wide variety and harmony; an aesthetic labyrinth of apparently discontinuous patterns. The borders for the model are wide, very wide. I'm a scientific featherweight so I'll rely on others to explain this.
John Briggs uses weather to explain the theory: "With its variability, general dependability, and moment to moment unpredictability...weather is...an example of a mysterious order in the universe." It is also described by William Doll in terms of the Lorenz's findings:
First, chaos is not a wild, random abandon. Far from it; the pattern is quite orderly but complex. Chaos refers to this complex ordering. It is not possible to predict with complete accuracy where the next point on the trajectory will be (no two trajectories repeat exactly), but neither do the points fly beyond the bounds of the diagram. Two, the trajectories have both "bounds" and a center "attractor" area. Neither of these are precisely defined, but as the trajectories fly out from the center area they are attracted back, only to fly out again. The system, in its dynamic tension between moving out and back, has an overall coherence. Three, on occasion, any given point on the trajectory will "flip over" from one "owl's eye" or "butterfly wing" to the other. These "flip over" events are certain to happen at any time but unpredictable for any given moment. One cannot say when such a flipping will occur, only that it will. The pattern is random, but it is a pattern." (See Slattery, 1995 for references for Brigg and Doll)
To rephrase your question: How do I know any of this that I am saying? I guess the basic answer is that I know what I have said to be meaningful. I perceive it to be true, and can measure its meaningfulness by my experience and can thereby judge whether it is of value. However, I cannot really be dogmatic about the TRUTH of these claims.
I've given up the quest for episteme: true and certain knowledge. On a political and religious level I've seen that it leads to violent conflict. On a philosophical level the bias for metanarrative ignores how realities are socially constructed. I'm not denying reason-only its primacy and a certain confidence in its ability. I don't reject logic, but have doubts in its efficacy in verifying truth in a non-linear world. I'm certainly not giving up on truth, only my ability to sufficiently know it. Perhaps I'd be more comfortable about referring (as Apple does) to "truth-until-further-notice" rather than The Truth. In a world infused with meaning we can still have ethical behavior and can act with conviction. Our conviction, though, is not confidence in laws of reason that define what is; rather it is a feeling based on what we have has proved to be meaningful as we and others have experienced the world. This conviction is tempered by a recognition that finite humans cannot (fully) possess the infinite. While we may have moments of transcendence, this leads to humble recognition of how far we are from fully attaining knowledge of truth.
I do hope this makes sense and that you'll be able to offer me some constructive feedback. As I think of what I'm suggesting, I realize that this is a break from the mindset of many Christians. At certain moments I'm not even sure if I believe it all! Or rather, I'm not sure I have adequately used the right words to express what I'm saying. I'm sure you'll have some helpful things for me to consider and I look forward to hearing from you.
I really don't know where to begin. It is clear that our disagreement does not concern a few fringe points, but the heart and soul of epistemology. We have two very different worldviews. While the dialogue has not yet proven fruitful for bridging the gap, it has made clear just how wide the gap really is.
For the sake of time and space I cannot respond to everything you wrote. I will limit my comments to clarifications, and address those statements that reflect the widest gaps in our views.
Let me begin with the positive. You said, "I think we both are responding to similar problems with difference of emphasis (e.g. I think you and I have both see the problems that result when "experience" used to validate all sorts of religious nonsense). When I defend experience I'm not defending this foolishness at all! I'm saying that experience verifies truth claims. In this sense, experience follows reason (you referred to it as a "check"). In another sense, experience precedes reason as it is experience that provides the "stuff" (issues, if you will) of reflective evaluation." I agree.
Now for the areas of disagreement.
Rhetoric, Language, and Irony
You are advancing a particular epistemology; an epistemology that is rather relativistic. Essentially you are saying that we cannot know if what we think we know is really true, or if it's just true for us. You have reduced the concept of truth to meaningfulness. I counter-argued that if we cannot know anything for sure then we cannot know for sure that we cannot know anything for sure. This was not an evasion of the issue or a rhetorical device, but a tackling of the issue head-on. I was pointing out that the claim of relativism is based on an objective claim, and thus relativism as a philosophy is self-refuting. Making an absolute truth-claim that one cannot know anything absolutely is like saying "I cannot speak more than three words in English." If you were to ask me, "How can you only speak three words in English when you just spoke nine words in English?" you would not be evading the issue, or trying to be cute. You would be pointing out the self-refuting nature of my claim.
Epistemological relativists have not abandoned the concept of absolute truth, for they firmly believe that epistemological relativism is the way "truth" really is. In essence they are saying, "Truth is not that way; truth is this way." Relativists are certain that knowledge works the way they say it does, and yet they oppose people who advance a certainty of any sort. In the end, relativism says one cannot believe knowledge and reality to be any other way than the way they say it is, if they want to be "right" about knowledge and reality. The problem with this approach is authority: How do you know the truth of the matter is that there is no truth? The deeper problem, of course, is the self-contradictory nature of the claim. So my statement, rather than trying to evade the question, was intended to bring out the two fatal flaws of the relativistic viewpoint: the problem of self-contradiction; the problem of authority.
You gave examples of the command to "be moderate in all things" and "the heart is deceitful in all things," apparently as examples of things that could be construed as self-contradictory. I disagree. It is clear that these are rhetorical devices, not intended to represent absolute truth. These statements could be shown to be false (not true to our experience), but they are not self-contradictory. It may be false that we are to be moderate in all things, but it is a contradiction to say that you can know for certain that no one can know anything for certain.
Obviously the command to be moderate in all things is not absolute. Everyone recognizes that. But how is it that you were able to recognize that the Scriptural command to be moderate in all things cannot be taken in an absolute sense? It was due to your reasoning abilities. You thought of counter-examples to the command, and reasoned that if there are counter-examples to moderation in all things, that the moderation being spoken of must be qualified. You understood that the statement is an exaggeration to make a point. But when it comes to the claim that we cannot know anything for certain, how can one know that is true if indeed it is true? How can one know that we can't know anything for certain if the way knowledge works actually prevents us from knowing anything for certain? At best we could say it is possible that we cannot know anything for sure. The statement simply fails to meet the qualifications of its own criteria, which is why it is self-refuting.
You said, "In The Quest for Certainty Dewey argues against such Platonic notions as eternal forms. These arose out of the human need for security in a world of vulnerability and chance and the accidental. Ever since Plato and Aristotle philosophers have been searching for peace of mind in an uncertain world." This is an example of the genetic fallacy: dismissing a claim because of its origin. You are looking at what (supposedly) motivated the ideas Plato and subsequent generations put forth, and then rejecting their ideas based on their motivations. But their motivations are irrelevant. They may have been searching for peace of mind in an uncertain world, but that does not mean that what they found to be true is not true simply because they wanted it to be true. It is like people who dismiss theism by saying, "People want to believe in the existence of God because they need something beyond themselves to give meaning to their life." Ok, so what if that's true? Say I need a crutch because I am mentally and emotionally weak. What does that have to do with the question of whether God exists? Nothing. Indeed, if we can dismiss people's ideas because we think their motivations are invalid, then maybe theists should dismiss atheism out of hand simply because the atheist does not want to believe in God, because he doesn't want to be accountable to anyone other than his own self. This is not about trying to find certainty at the expense of honesty, but rather about trying to find truth. Truth is not what we want to make of it. Knowledge of a non-reality is no knowledge at all.
This is not even a quest to be certain of all things. But just because we cannot be certain of all things (or even most things) does not mean that there is nothing we can be certain of at all. Maybe "certainty" is a bad word to use. Let's just talk about certitude. Very few things can be known for certain in the sense of apodictic certainty, but there are many things that we have every reason to believe are actually true (not just true for the community), and no good reason to think they are not true. In those cases we have every good reason to believe that what we have discovered is a picture of the real world, even if that picture may be smudged in some parts. As I said in my article on truth and postmodernity, knowledge can be compared to looking at oneself in a fun mirror. While our image may be skewed in places, it is not skewed in all places. There are some places that we have an accurate picture of reality. I do not think it's wrong or restrictive to recognize that we can know certain things as they really are. Epistemological relativism is restrictive in that it tells people that no matter how good the evidence, they cannot claim to have knowledge of a transcendent reality; they are only allowed to consider it to be meaningful for themselves.
You said, "We've got to give up our fascination with epistemology." Why would you make such a statement? Epistemology pertains to how we know what we know. All of education is wrapped up around issues pertaining to epistemology. You have spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of your life pursuing questions of epistemology. In fact, it took long hours of studying epistemology for you to conclude that we spend too much time studying epistemology. Do you suggest that we simply "know" without ever caring to determine whether that knowledge corresponds to reality, or are you simply denying a reality to which knowledge can conform? Are you suggesting that we should never determine whether 2+2 = 4, or are you simply denying the reality of mathematical concepts?
My point about tests was not to evaluate the effectiveness of traditional forms of testing, but to point out that if there is nothing we can objectively know there is nothing to test people on. If there are no right answers, how can we tell someone they answered it incorrectly? Why teach if what you are teaching is not true? Because you find it meaningful? This treats truth like ice-cream. We pick what we like. Is this how we pick medications? Do we go to the pharmacy and order the pills that are meaningful to us? No, we order the pills that heal our disease. Meaningfulness is not the issue.
Looking back I think I have been equivocal in my use of the word "truth," and this has caused considerable confusion. Sometimes I used "truth" to refer to our perceptual and conceptual knowledge of the external world. At other times I used "truth" to refer to the way the world exists independent of the knower; i.e. apart from observation. The latter is an inappropriate use of terminology. The way the world exists independent of a knowing subject is more precisely termed "reality." Reality refers to the object "out there" as it exists in itself, while truth is a relation between the object and my right thoughts about that object. Truth obtains when my thoughts about the world just so happen to correspond to the way the world really is. Reality is ontological, while truth is epistemological.
I am fairly confident that we both agree reality exists independent of the knower. Your quote of Dewey about the street car demonstrates as much. Dewey rightly pointed out that while reality exists independent of the knower, the relation of truth can only be instantiated in the presence of a knower. Seeing that we both agree (1) there is a reality independent of the knower, and (2) truth is a corresponding relation between a knower (subject) and that which is known (object), the only thing left on which to disagree is how accurately we can and do know reality. I believe human knowledge and reality often coincide, whereas you seem to believe they rarely, and perhaps never do. Our perception of reality (what we call "knowledge") can be mistaken, but it is not always mistaken. Indeed, on many issues our knowledge can accurately reflect reality, no matter how imperfectly due to the limitation of language.
You quoted me as saying, "To even begin the process of developing an epistemology we must already know some objective things about knowledge." Then you said, "This seems to be circular, or at least ironic. Before we can begin the knowing process (epistemology) we must 'already know?' " Maybe I was not clear. I spoke of the "process of developing an epistemology," which refers to the process of determining how knowledge works, and determining whether our beliefs about reality coincide with reality. Indeed, to start this inquiry we must already know some things to be true (first principles). If we didn't, we could never start an evaluation of our knowledge because we wouldn't have any objective tools through which to do so, and neither would we be able to evaluate whether we were making any progress. You said, "Why do we need to have a process of knowing if we already know? Why search for truth if truth is intuitively self-evident?" What we know are first-principles, that's it. That's all that is self-evident. Everything else must be discovered. Some truths we discover inductively, while others we discover deductively.
Truth and Meaning
When I say "God exists" I am not making a claim to meaning. I am making a claim to truth. That propositional statement can be evaluated-not to determine if it is meaningful to me, but to determine if it is an accurate description of reality. If I say God exists and yet He doesn't, while that idea may be meaningful to me, it is not true. If my community finds the statement "we are birds" meaningful, the fact of the matter is that if I jump off the Empire State building I will find out that the idea is false. The quest for truth cannot be reduced to meaning. Truth may be meaningful, but just because someone finds something personally meaningful does not mean they have found truth. Those who try to reduce truth to meaning either deny the validity of ontology, epistemology, or both. While we may not perfectly know reality, or may be mistaken about reality, there is a reality and it is possible to know at least some of it.
Of course love cannot be proven rationally. No one is saying it can be. However, if you claim you love me, and yet stab me in the throat, my rational mind kicks in and tells me that your claim of love is a false one! Our rational minds tell us that if one's love is true, they will do certain things and not do others. But of course we cannot prove love in a propositional way-it's not a proposition.
I do understand that postmodernism is little more than a critique of modernism, but those who hold to this deconstructed modernism still have to live life. What model do they use to interpret their life through? They use what's left of the modernistic model (though it is incomplete, and contradictory which is why relativists can never truly live out their relativism). Since the model they use looks quite different from modernism, and since it contradicts modernism, I see it is a competing model. While it may have started out as a deconstruction of modernism, it has turned into a worldview of its own.
I want to reiterate points I made in my last response. Logic is a first-principle that we cannot not know, and is the starting point for rational thinking. While we may be mistaken in our application of logic, all of us presuppose the laws of logic for such basic things as verbal communication (language) and math. Do you know anyone who would not see a problem with being told to make a "left right on Orange Street"? Neither is there a single soul on Earth who believes in square circles. It is inherently contradictory, and thus people reject the notion. When we correct someone's thinking we often do so by appealing to their sense of logic, showing them how they applied it incorrectly. Once shown their error, the person just "sees" it. It cannot be proven, only seen because it is intuited as a first-principle. And anybody who wants to deny the existence of logic must employ logic to do so.
If language is as limited as you seem to think it is, how is it that I can understand what you mean through your use of language? If language is so flawed, and we cannot know anything for certain about reality, then how can I be expected to believe that the view of knowledge you have communicated to me via letter is a true picture of the world? Why should I correct my view if both our views of knowledge have nothing to do with reality, and cannot express reality?
While the knowing process can be difficult, and while we may not know many things for certain, and while language may imperfectly capture the truth, there are things we can know with certainty or great certitude. Certain statements must either be true or false, such as the statement "God exists." Either He does, or He doesn't. One can only exist, or not exist. There's no middle option. We call that the law of the excluded middle. This is not an invention, but a first-principle of rational thinking known to all men. So while language may be limited in its ability to capture truth, it is not powerless to do so. No one is claiming that humans have infallible knowledge, but recognizing the fallibility of our knowledge ought not lead us to conclude that we cannot know anything about the world "out there" at all. I can know for certain that I exist. I have every good reason to believe it, and no good reason to doubt it. It's not just meaningful, but objectively true.
Epistemological relativism is just as bankrupt as epistemological objectivism. The former denies that we can know that anything corresponds to reality, while the latter maintains we can know reality perfectly without bias. Both are extreme positions that do not match up to the facts, logic, and experience. We must embrace the truths of both positions, while rejecting their weaknesses. We admit the fallibility of human knowledge, human bias, human ignorance, and presuppositions, but we maintain that we are not always fallible and ignorant, and that our biases may be bent toward the truth. While we do not know truth perfectly, we are not cut off from truth. While not everything we think we know corresponds to the way the world really is, that does not mean that what we think we know cannot have any correspondence to the objective world.
Thomas Nagel, atheistic philosopher at NYU, recognizes the existence of absolutes and tries his best to argue for them without appealing to a divine being for their source (and he rejects evolution as a valid explanation). What I found interesting is that an atheistic philosopher such as himself recognizes the bankruptcy of the epistemological relativism/subjectivism that dominate philosophical circles today. Let me quote a few of his points below.
Nagel said that "the familiar point that relativism is self-refuting remains valid, in spite of its familiarity." Why does he say so? He explains in detail:
Because if I argue that all beliefs about the world reflect perspectives that are local, I appear to be making a claim about how things really are while at the same time denying that human beings are capable of such general (non-local) claims. Suppose, to take an extreme example, we are asked to believe that our logical and mathematical and empirical reasoning manifest historically contingent and culturally local habits of thought and have no wider validity than that. This appears on the one hand to be a thought about how things really are, and on the other hand to deny that we are capable of such thoughts. Any claim as radical and universal as that would have to be supported by a powerful argument, but the claim itself seems to leave us without the capacity for such arguments. Or is the judgment supposed to apply to itself? I believe that would leave us without the possibility of thinking anything at all. To put it schematically, the claim "Everything is subjective" must be nonsense, for it would itself have to be either subjective or objective. But it can't be objective, since in that case it would be false if true. And it can't be subjective, because then it would not rule out any objective claim, including the claim that it is objectively false. There may be some subjectivists, perhaps styling themselves as pragmatists, who present subjectivism as applying even to itself. But then it does not call for a reply, since it is just a report of what the subjectivist finds it agreeable to say. If he also invites us to join him, we need not offer any reason for declining, since he has offered us no reason to accept. Objections of this kind are as old as the hills, but they seem to require constant repetition.
Nagel does make room for the subjectivist position when it comes to practical reason, but not theoretical reason.
Nagel argues that reason is the one thing that allows us to transcend the subjectivism inherent to the self. Through reason we are led "inexorably to certain thoughts in which 'I' plays no part." This process of reasoning is not the process of working out what I myself believe to be true, but what I believe is true for all of us. Our ability to reason is what allows us to transcend the self. "The essential characteristic of reason is its generality.... To reason is to think systematically in ways anyone looking over my shoulder ought to be able to recognize as correct.... To be rational we have to take responsibility for our thoughts while [paradoxically] denying that they are just expressions of our point of view."
He says, "What seems permanently puzzling about the phenomenon of reason, and what makes it so difficult to arrive at a satisfactory attitude toward it, is the relation it establishes between the particular and the universal. If there is such a thing as reason, it is a local activity of finite creatures that somehow enables them to make contact with universal truths, often of infinite range." He does not believe that reason always brings absolute certainty, but he does argue that reason aspires towards universality.
How does he justify the idea that we finite beings can lay claim to universal knowledge? He notes that the opposite claim-humans cannot have knowledge of universals-makes a declaration that is just as universal in nature. Claims to know things that transcend the self are inescapable. The only thing we have to decide is whether we are going to acknowledge that what appears to be universal (and we have every reason to believe is universal) is indeed universal, or if we are going to relegate what appears to be universal to the personal.
I read a quote today that, in some ways, expresses parts of my response in different words: "There may well be an eternal objective truth beyond all of our words, but the minute that truth is spoken by a human being who is a subject, it ceases to be either eternal or objective. Both the sacred Scriptures and the creeds of the Christian church can point to, but they can never finally capture eternal truth." (John Shelby Spong, 1991, 169).
I understand what you are trying to communicate (in the words of Spong), but I can't help but to ask, Is the idea that objective truth ceases to be objective the moment it is spoken objectively true? If so, did that objective truth cease to be objective the moment Spong spoke it? If not, why should I care what Spong has to say about it? In the end his claim is either self-refuting, irrelevant, or both.
I do not question the impossibility of capturing the infinite in finite language (but even this does not mean that we necessarily distort the infinite the moment we reflect on it or speak about it; it only necessitates that we cannot put our arms around the totality of it), but I do question the idea that anything objectively true ceases to be so when processed by the human mind or uttered in human language. If God objectively exists, and I say "God exists," how has the objective truth been diluted? There may be some objective truths that are more difficult to filter through human language, but clearly not all objective truth becomes subjective when channeled through human language. So I could buy what Spong is saying if he qualifies his statement. If he fails to qualify it, however, then his picture of the way reality really is should not be taken seriously, because the moment he describes objective reality it ceases to be objective (and he ceases to make any sense).
Jason, your correspondence has helped me to rethink certain parts of what I've said. First of all, you have showed that I need to be clearer in asserting that truth does exist and can be known. Furthermore, there are standards of judgment we are accountable to. You have also shown the bankruptcy of relativism. In this opening section I want to reflect on where I think you are right by talking about objectivity, subjectivism, and relativism.
1. You're right! (Where I think we agree)
Objectivity is an important notion to retain. If we lose faith in actual truth, we lose (among other things) the prophetic edge to call evil for what it is. Oppression and exploitation-whether physical or spiritual or both-are always unjust. They are wrong-objectively wrong. While phenomenology has added great insight into the dynamics of human interaction and the "social construction of reality," it may ignore the objective political circumstances that really exist. Neo-Marxist scholar Michael Apple is worth quoting here:
Phenomenological description and analysis of social processes and labeling, while important to be sure, inclines us to forget that there are objective institutions and structures "out there" that have power, that can control our lives and our very perceptions. By focusing on how everyday social interaction sustains peoples' identities and their institutions, it can draw attention away from the fact that individual interaction and conception is constrained by material reality (2004, 132).
In our concern with perception of reality we must be careful not no let our quibbling eclipse the very real particulars of lived experience. However, my concern is when "objective" becomes an -ism and our own perceptions are equated with reality. Furthermore, I take issue when particular results are presupposed to be objectively true prior to examination. While we may assume that because there are objects in the world that objectivity exist, this faith does not extend to assuming what is.
As -isms, Relativism and Subjectivism are precarious notions. First consider subjectivism. Like objects, subjects exist in the world and thus we recognize subjectivity. However, the human subject (the ego) can be misplaced as an -ism and aversely influence the knowing process. Dewey has rightfully noted this and called the -ism "egoism." When thought only changes our mental disposition (i.e. the process is only inward) we give inordinate appreciation to the effect. Since I do not locate truth in Platonic Forms, I must insist that there must be outward, objective evidence. Those ideas like idealism and realism that seek verification in the mind and not in actual existence are ironically guilty of subjectivism. Truth changes the world. The mind and the body, the inside and the outside, the object and the subject, are together involved in the knowing process. The danger is when we isolate one aspect and claim that it is epistemologically chief. These are Dewey's ideas so hear him now:
All the theories which put conversion "of the eye of the soul" in the place of a conversion of natural and social objects that modifies goods actually experienced, are a retreat and escape from existence-and this retraction of the self is, once more, the heart of subjective egoisms (Dewey, 1929, 219).
Now consider relativism. Again your concern is valid. While my previous correspondence has demonstrated concern about a "global" form of knowing, this does not imply that all is relative. The words of Donna Haraway are good:
Relativism is a way of being nowhere while claiming to be everywhere equally. The "equality" of positioning is a denial of responsibility and critical enquiry. Relativism is the perfect mirror twin of totalization in the ideologies of objectivity; both deny the stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective.... Relativism and totalization are both "god-tricks" promising vision from everywhere and nowhere equally. (Haraway, 1991, quoted in Doll and Gough, 2002, 173)
2. Where I think you're wrong
You could have predicted that I would inevitably get to this part, so here goes....
You seem to have a cadre of philosophical tools that each rely upon a pre-existent, self-evident reality that is static and unchanging. You call this machinery "first principles," "Law of the Excluded Middle," and "deductive logic." I'm sure these have their place, but I find them problematic in that they give little to no account for the human subject as interpreter/decipherer/explainer of reality. I suppose I could counter these tools with one of my own-the principle of indeterminacy posited by Heisenberg. Essentially this principle challenges the Newtonian idea the fixitity of nature and nature's independence from our observation. The principle of indeterminacy shows that knowing has an unavoidable effect on the known. In regard to Newton's measuring of velocity Heisenberg showed "that interaction prevents an accurate measurement of velocity and position for any body...." By the interchange of observation (of an object) we effect the measurement of the object. (See Dewey, 160-161).
Sorry, I'm digressing and don't mean to give you a philosophy lesson, so back to your tools. While I'm critical of the seamlessness of deduction you seem to advance, I think the major flaw is that you assume the criteria for knowledge even before you begin knowing. I quoted you on this before, but because it is significant I'll repeat what I said:
You say, "To even begin the process of developing an epistemology we must already know some objective things about knowledge." This seems to be circular, or at least ironic. Before we can begin the knowing process (epistemology) we must "already know?" How is that possible? This seems to remove knowing from any process (or experience) and claim that there are pre-encoded laws for knowing. The irony in this is that these pre-existent principles have already confirmed the process; i.e. why do we need to have a process of knowing if we already know? Why search for truth if truth is intuitively self-evident?
To "already know some objective things about knowledge" before we even begin to know is to choose the rules before we choose the game. You seem to decide in advance what constitutes legitimate knowing: rationality. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it is not, but why must we conclude this in advance? Dependence on that which cannot be proven (and thus must be defended as a "first-principle") seems dubious to me. It is what Dewey called "a priori rationality." A priori rationality is not good epistemology (rationality also does not account for a myriad of non-rational ways of knowing including through the mystical, the arts, intuition, and by revelation.)
Ideas and doctrines are theories, hypothesis, that until proven, cannot be called "true." We both agree that it is a mistake to equate knowledge with certainty. Yet you seem to be so certain in your defense of rationality, which you say we know in advance. I'm not so sure. As the model proposed below will suggest, knowing is always tentative.
3. The Epistemology I'm Advancing
You were rightfully taken aback by my saying that epistemology is overrated! What I meant by this, though, is the method for truth-finding should change. In fact, the change is so dramatic that it doesn't appear to be epistemology because of what is usually connoted by the term. In the strict sense of the word (how do we know?) I continue to place a premium on epistemology.
Above I spoke of objectivity; here I want to make it clear that I believe that ideals/universals do exist. But they exist (at least initially) as hypotheses. We only know them in light of present testing in the laboratory of human experience. Advancing this scientific metaphor is key. In fact in might not be metaphorical at all. The scientific method proposes that to know we first are presented with perplexity (a problem), we posit some response/answer, and then repeatedly test that hypothesis. The testing goes on and on. It is refined, reflected on, challenged, and changed. Science leads us to truth, but it is always provisional truth. So when Michael Apple speaks of science as "truth-until-further-notice" he does so in recognition of the conflicts, revolutions, and ambiguity that characterizes the scientific community (Apple, 2004, 93). The work of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) is seminal in this regard.
I need to make it clear that I am talking about science as a method, not the disciplinary organization of scientific findings. You will see how when used as a method, this scientific mindset applies to a range of areas: theology, ethics, and choosing which car to buy all profit from this procedure.
Given what I have said above about subjects and objects, if the scientific method is to be our exemplar in epistemological process, and it must make sense of them both. From Dewey we are assisted here. At the risk of being overly linear, from his The Quest for Certainty we can extract a procedure of sorts for knowing. Knowing proceeds as such: Perceive, Respond, Refine/Reflect, Know.
Each of these "steps" involves an active relation between subject and object. The subject perceives an object, responds to an object, reflects on the object, and knows an object. (Dewey, 1929). It is also important to recognize that this relationship is active. The steps above are verbs in the active voice. There is life here. This is not the abstract deduction of grand old ideas that exist apart from life. Rather than using bulky ideas to understand existence, the day-to-day is the means to positing and knowing the ideal. The transcendent is found in the immanent.
Whatever can be acted in and upon, whatever may be perceived, is defined by particular experience. Universal generalizations are created products of specific inquiry, not principles that define investigation. We gain general ideas of the properties of a thing from specific objects. For example, our idea of what constitutes a table, or "table-ness," is defined by specific experiences with specific tables. Some are round, some are rectangular. Some have four legs, some have less. Some tables are used for eating; some for computing. The variance in what constitutes a table implies that we do not hold an a priori conception of table-ness; rather our general ideas are fruits of particular instances.
To illustrate the process we cannot know "icy" until have experienced something that we perceive to be icy. We do not project ideas of "iciness" onto un-experienced objects; rather we experience particular things, compare these experiences, and by means of induction come to give meaning to general categories.
Each of these steps is important. Admittedly in the course of this correspondence I have focused more on perception and response than on the others. As the Haraway quote above shows, though, relativism is not my target. My ambition is making sense of the world, finding meaning in the subjects and objects of this world. The aim is not to quench the fires of contingency-these are inevitable amidst the collision of atoms, subjects, objects, tribes, and religions. The goal is not a weltanschauung [worldview] that applies to everyone, but a means by which various ends can have live communally life in peace and justice. A much better vocation than the deduction of otherworldly ideas is the engagement in this world through an active knowing that takes seriously human perception as it seeks the ideal in the actual.
Jason, I'm curious to hear your feedback. I hope it is evident that I've tried to move us toward common ground and I hope I've been a good sport in doing so!
You have definitely been a good sport. I think we have made headway in clarifying our ideas and delineating the boundaries of our positions. In doing so it has become clearer as to where we overlap and where we don't.
You said, "Those ideas like idealism and realism that seek to verification in the mind and not in actual existence are ironically guilty of subjectivism. Truth changes the world. The mind and the body, the inside and the outside, the object and the subject, are together involved in the knowing process." If I am understanding you correctly I completely agree. Truth can only be attained when there is a thought/proposition, and it is verified with the real world. As J.P. Moreland wrote, "Truth is a relation of correspondence between a thought (belief, sentence, proposition, statement) and its object in the real world, such that the object is the way the thought represents it."2 And again, "Correspondence is a two-placed relation between a proposition and a relevant fact that is its intentional object. Similarly, the truth relation of correspondence holds between two things--a relevant fact and a proposition--just in case the fact matches, conforms to, corresponds with the proposition."3
You spoke a lot about objectivity and subjectivity. I agree that the knower affects the process of knowing, and can color what it is that he comes to "know," but this does not relegate us to the subjective. Our nature as subjects does not eliminate the possibility of being objective. J.P. Moreland explained it like this. There are two ways to be objective: (1) psychological-the absence of bias (2) rational-the ability to tell the difference between good and bad reasons for a belief, whether or not you accept that belief.4 Humans are psychologically objective (50/50) only in areas we know nothing, or care nothing about. Once we come to know something about a topic we typically go from being psychologically objective to psychologically biased, even if it is only a minor bias. Such bias is to be expected and is good. What would be the use of studying out an issue/topic if after having studied it you could not take a position on it? We should expect informed people to be psychologically biased. But does the presence of bias stop us from being rationally objective? Are we locked into our own culturally relevant way of viewing the world? Is reason and argumentation useless for the person who is no longer psychologically objective? No. We all know this to be true because we have all had experiences in which we changed our beliefs on an issue because they were challenged by good arguments. It should be clear, then, that our psychological bias (lack of psychological objectivity) does not eliminate our ability to be rationally objective. Postmodernists understand this. That's why they try to reason with the modernists to change their worldview, while at the same time denying the validity of reason and argumentation.
You said, "I think the major flaw is that you assume the criteria for knowledge even before you begin knowing. To 'already know some objective things about knowledge' before we even begin to know is to choose the rules before we choose the game. You seem to decide in advance what constitutes legitimate knowing-rationality." When I said "To even begin the process of developing an epistemology we must already know some objective things about knowledge" I was referring to what we know by intuition. We have to know the law of non-contradiction. We have to know the law of the excluded middle. These are not things we learn, but things we take for granted as we investigate our world to determine what is true and what is not. As Budziszewski writes:
Epistemological relativism says that unless can say how you know something that we cannot say we know it. But we must start somewhere, and that starting point entails self-evident truths that do not require justification to be called knowledge. It is a mistake of the modern era (Descartes, Kant) that we want to understand the act of knowing before we understand the things we are trying to know. We can't talk about how we know unless we know something about knowledge. And if we know something about knowledge, we have knowledge of something. So we start with those elementary things. We know certain things underivitively. We must know some things in order to even explore knowledge, or develop a method of epistemology.5
We must have some knowledge a priori for us to gain more knowledge a posteriori. I believe rationality is just one of those things we cannot not know.
Rationality is inescapable. Everybody uses it because it is hardwired into our mind from the Creator. Those who wish to deny rationality must use rationality to deny it. Ravi Zacharias tells the story of his encounter with a Hindu professor of Eastern philosophy. The professor asked him to speak to his philosophy class on the topic "Why I am not a Hindu." Ravi spoke, revealing several areas in which Hindu religious philosophy is self-contradictory, and concluded that Hinduism must be false because it contradicts the law of non-contradiction. At the end of the lecture the Hindu professor dismissed Ravi's arguments saying, "You have made a grave error. You are trying to evaluate an Eastern religion using Western logic. You must use Eastern logic to evaluate Hinduism, and when you do you will find there is no contradiction." The professor then went on to explain how there are two forms of logic: Western, Eastern. He said, "Western logic is either-or logic. It is either this, or that. God is either personal, or He is impersonal. Eastern logic is both-and. It is both this, and that. God is both personal, and non-personal. To understand Hinduism you must use Eastern logic, and when you do you will find it is a perfectly coherent system." At this point Ravi responded, "Sir, let me ask you just one question. Are you telling me that if I want to evaluate Hinduism I must either use the both-and system or nothing at all?" The professor was completely stunned. After a few moments he said, "The either-or does seem to emerge, doesn't it." Ravi said, "Yes it does. And I will clue you into a little secret. Even in India people look both ways before they cross the street. They understand that it's either the bus, or them, not both." The laws of logic cannot be avoided. It doesn't matter what part of the world you are from, or what religion you were raised in. The laws of logic apply equally to everyone because they accurately describe the kind of world we live in. We may deny rationality if we like, but we have to live in a world governed by rationality. While we may deny rationality with our lips, we cannot deny it with our actions. Our actions will always betray the errant philosophy we claim to follow.
You said "knowing is always tentative." To an extent I will agree. Most things cannot be known with 100% certainty, and thus our knowledge of them is tentative. The greater certainty we have that an idea is true the less tentative the belief in that idea becomes, but it will always be held with a degree of tentativeness. However, there are some things that we can know for certain, and they are not tentative. I know for certain that I exist. I know for certain that there are no such things as square circles. I know for certain that a bachelor is an unmarried male. These are indubitable truths.
I completely agree with your application of the scientific method to the process of knowing. Most of the things we believe we came to believe using induction based on experience. Induction cannot give certainty, so those beliefs can be classified as provisional truth (truth-until-further-notice). However, this does not translate into skepticism and the equality of all beliefs held-in-provision. For example, I cannot prove beyond all doubt that God exists. I can, however, prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is rational to believe He exists. My conclusions, while provisional, are not believed with hesitancy and great reservation. I realize that I could be mistaken; I am open to be shown evidence to the contrary, but the evidence is so good for God's existence that I can hold to that belief as the truth. As I said in my article on "Apologetics in the Postmodern World":
The fact that we inherit a particular tradition which gives our knowledge a perspectival slant which may not correspond to reality does not mean that our tradition cuts us off from reality itself. The recognition that we may not always be able to see behind the veil does not mean that we can never see behind the veil.
We cannot ever be certain that our view of reality corresponds to reality itself, but we can adopt the most satisfactory and fruitful views known to us. Being convinced of the superiority of the perspective we have discovered "as the best and most reliable route to reality known to us," (Gary Hart, Faith Thinking, 65) we commit ourselves passionately to that standpoint and
"invest it with universal intent, claiming for it a truth which is not only 'for us' but for all, eagerly inviting others to come and share our outlook on the basis that 'you get a much better view of things from over here.' We cannot prove that it is so. While such a commitment to this critical realism is a faith commitment, but not a blind faith commitment. But we passionately believe it to be so, and we invite other to put it to the test, in the hope that the truth which has, at it were, seized us from beyond ourselves, may do the same to them. (Gary Hart, Faith Thinking, 223)."
The stand we take on our view of reality is not arbitrary as in relativism, but is a stand based on our interaction with and critical evaluation of many perspectives, involving personal responsibility in our engagement with reality. We can be content with the status of our tradition as true knowledge until other views arise to change our views.
The level of truth we may prescribe to in light of the recognition that we cannot completely transcend tradition (and thus our perspectives are limited) is that of certitude. Transcending our own traditions, gaining views from other perspectives, and developing the best view of things does not give us the apodictic certainty desired and demanded by the Enlightenment (which postmodernism has shown to be impossible), but it does give us the best view possible. While we cannot have certainty that our knowledge is a one-to-one correspondence with reality, we can have certitude that it does because we have attempted to view it from several perspectives, and have adopted the best perspective from which to view it. We can say that we have found a truer perspective from which to view reality than others, but we must admit that there may be a better perspective yet available. With this critical view of reality we cannot confuse our understanding of reality with reality itself (for our understanding is limited and provisional), but we can have the best bid in town.
While we will never arrive at our destination if we are on a quest for absolute certainty of all things knowable, we can arrive at a destination called "truth," even if in intellectual humility and honesty we admit that there may be more sea to sail than we have sailed thus far, and are willing to embark on the journey.
Yes, we are making some headway for which I am glad. In light of the fact that we've used up plenty of space in defining, defending, and then redefining our ideas, I'll make my comments brief.
I like what the comparative outlook you have regarding "level[s] of truth." When you speak of gaining a "truer perspective" but still being on the lookout for an even "better perspective yet available" I find myself agreeing. I also agree that all systems of thought, by definition, require some system of rationality. Your Ravi Zacharias example illustrates this nicely.
So then, just a few questions:
1. You talk about "what we know by intuition," and things that we "have to know." These "things we take for granted" are the First Principles you have referred to earlier. I want to take issue not with their existence but rather with their status as "truth." We both have said that truth is the combination of a proposition and its verification in the real world. It seems that things we "have to know" are not subject to verification, they just exist. If this is true, we cannot call them true can we?
2. Again I'm less sanguine than you regarding the "laws of logic." You say they "accurately describe the kind of world we live in." I'm not so sure that they apply as completely to the outside physical world as much as they do to the thought world of rhetoric and systematic thought systems.
3. What is a "level of truth?" Is there a truth-hierarchy? How is this hierarchy proven?
In all, I think we are in near agreement. Without wanting to initiate another rabbit trail, I'd contend that we are using two different language-systems to describe the same reality.
1. Good question. I haven't thought of that. Let me think out loud for a moment. Why assume that we can't call the First Principles "true" simply because they are not verifiable? All knowledge is built on First Principles that cannot be proved or disproved, but only exemplified. They are simply known. Prove to me that there are other minds. Prove to me that there is a past. We may be able to offer some justification for these beliefs, but not sufficient to convince a radical skeptic. But need we? There are some things that are so self-evident that there is no reason to doubt them, and no reason to offer justification for them. If we did not bring certain First Principles to the epistemological table none of us could build an epistemology. To even grasp the process of knowing we must know something about knowledge, its character, its goal, etc. Where does that knowledge come from? It comes from intuition, and is universal. To deny those First Principles one must use those same principles, demonstrating both their inescapable and universal nature. So while I cannot prove the existence of other minds, I have no reason to doubt this intuitive knowledge. If I have no reason to doubt it, I have no reason to justify it. I simply recognize it for what it is: truth. If we can't call self-evident knowledge truth, what can we call truth?-for we use that self-evident knowledge to discover all the other things we call truth.
Of course we might even question the idea that First Principles are not verifiable. I would argue that they are verified rationally, but not experientially.
2. If we were presupposing an atheistic world that might be the case. Of course, if it was the case that the laws of logic have no relationship to the outside world we could never know it because there would be no way to get outside of our own evolutionary delusion that we call "rationality" and "logic" to verify if such was the case. There would be no way to know whether human rationality possesses the ability to reflect reality, or if it is just the product of meaningless chance forces, both past and present. We would be stuck with the same skepticism that plagued Darwin. Darwin wrestled with this question, calling it his "horrid doubt." He wrote, "With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy." Darwin recognized that in a purely material world--a world in which everything is produced by random chance processes--objective and reliable knowledge seems improbable. That recognition cut off the very branch Darwin was sitting on. A materialistic view of the world cannot ground knowledge in any meaningful way.
If, however, we are postulating a theistic world in which an Intelligent Creator made man in his image, and the universe for man, it would make perfect sense for God to make us with First Principles that accurately reflect the reality of the universe, as well as make it possible to discover those realities. The question, then, becomes What good evidence is there to reject the existence of God? If there is none, then we are not faced with the problem of the mind-matter correlation. What advantage does atheism have over the Christian worldview at this point? None! The atheist is left with skepticism, never knowing if the way he has conceived the world is the way the world really is, or is the product of meaningless and random chance processes that have fooled him into believing that he actually "knows" anything.
3. I did not mean to create a hierarchy of several layers of truth when I spoke of the "level of truth." I merely meant to convey that "truth" is not tantamount to absolute certainty; that the definition of truth should not be "that which cannot be mistaken." If that is our definition, very few things in this world can be labeled "truth."
1. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 63.
2. Moreland spoke these words at a live seminar at Biola University in La Mirada, CA on January 31, 2005.
3. J.P. Moreland, "Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn," a paper presented at the November 2004 Evangelical Theological Society meeting in San Antonio, TX.
5. J. Budziszewski interview with Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason Ministries on May 4, 2003 on KBRT AM 740.
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