A: It seems obvious that we can find truths about reality. As a species we accumulate an ever-increasing cache of knowledge which will continue to expand long into the future. We are not perfect, but can account for our inadequacies and biases, and, by adjusting for them, the objective character of reality unfolds before us. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we explore uncharted vistas of wisdom until all is within reach.
B: I must admit, that was indeed well said. You sound like an informed, educated man – striking down nihilists in your noble pursuit of truth! You must teach me the way such that I can join your band of roving Aristotelian truth-seekers! May I have the privilege of asking a few questions?
A: Of course – great men such as me do not fear truth or questioning!
B: Excellent – however, I hope not to offend you with my ignorance (posthumous men tend to clash with supposedly great men). I am very curious as to how you find truths about reality. What method do you use to climb these great vistas? I myself much prefer down-going.
A: Well, of course, the scientific method and analytic philosophy. These processes force a rigor upon the mind which propagates truths and destroys untruths.
B: Ah, I see! It must be satisfying to have found such boundless wells of knowledge! I am quite excited to prod further into such investigation, but, before hearing your methodology, I require one quick clarification, should you be so generous. We have, thus far, taken truth as self-evidently defined. However, so promising a well, I’m sure, can entertain the scruple of asking: how do you define “truths”? You mentioned them only a moment ago.
A: Indeed I did, and, though questions like these are awfully base in a discussion of such promise, I certainly can withstand them. Truth is, of course, that which conforms to reality. A truth is, in fact, the case, while an untruth is, in fact, not the case. This seems to me painfully obvious – beyond the level of dispute.
B: And dispute I shall not; remember, you are teaching me! The way you speak, though, leads me to another question, one in which the answer seems straightforward such that I hesitate even to ask: You do believe these truths are absolute – am I correct? They do not vary from place to place, person to person, culture to culture, or through other distinctions – is that your view?
A: Indeed it is.
B: Excellent! Now, I would be delighted to hear your truth-seeking methodology!
A: Alright. As I said before, the two methods which allow us glimpses of an accumulating truth are the scientific method and analytic philosophy. Allow me to explain them one at a time. The scientific method is, of course, the systematic observation of the world. We take detailed, controlled measurements and construct falsifiable theories which attempt to explain the laws governing them. These theories are compared, and those with greater predictive capability are considered superior. In this way we pursue…
B: Excuse me, great teacher, but I was wondering when you would begin talking about truth? All of this is very interesting, but, seemingly, beside the point.
A: What do you mean? This is how we find truth – or, rather, it is one of our two methods.
B: Well, it seems that you have described a method of crafting models based on the predictability of your future experience. This is, of course, subject to the Problem of Induction; however, even if it wasn’t, I was wondering, how you justify your experience? Specifically how are you so certain that it correlates with reality – I assume that is what you think, no?
A: Hogwash! You are merely creating problems where none exist. Certainly we can never be certain of anything – our claims are always provisional. I am not certain that I experience reality as it is; however, this is no real challenge. In fact – this is exactly why we do peer review, why we repeat experiments. My observation is justified in the fact that it is similar to the observation of others.
B: Excluding the contradiction you are so certain of, all you have said seems both flawed and beside the point. You claim that your experience is similar to that of others, but how do you determine this? You can’t mean that you have immediate access to their experience, or that they can directly share it with you. No, you mean that they communicate their experience to you and it matches yours. This is flawed on two accounts. First, you must and can only receive their communication through your experience – the potentially faulty mechanism you are attempting to justify; this seems, to me, viciously circular. Secondly, the way they communicate – the words they use – would have been conditioned into them by the same society in which yours have. Imagine that their world is inverted: they experience up in the same way you experience down. Now, you have been conditioned to call opposite directions ‘up’, however, you use the common word to point toward a common experience – which is obviously fallacious.
As it happens, though, this is all beside the point. Even if you were correct in that your observation was similar to all other people, it still does not establish your principle – that observation can or does reflect reality as it truly is. I ask again, with all the respect I can muster for such a great man – how do you justify your experience?
A: Gah! You’re being too skeptical! The problems you raise are only important to ivory-tower philosophers who need something to publish on! No, I stick by my previous statements. It is simply absurd to affirm that observation doesn’t reflect reality. Since my experience seems similar to the vast majority of others, I can infer that I am coming to correct conclusions about what’s real.
B: Hm, I can recall a time in which the great scientists were considered great skeptics, but, again, this is beside the point. It appears, good teacher, that the longer you talk, the more numerous and egregious your contradictions become, as well as the more pointedly you dodge the principle which you must necessarily affirm. You first said to me that truth is both correspondent to reality and absolute. Now you are telling me that some of these truths are founded on experience, a viciously circular mechanism which relies on the assumption of an unjustified principle and can differ from person to person. You seem unable to justify why your experience should be considered any more valid than even the obviously insane except by what you perceive to be a “vast majority”. Do you really think that majority can be an adequate method to determine absolute truth? More to the point, a number of these insane people could think themselves to be part of a majority; that is, they could not determine that their perception is flawed. Given this, what makes your experience privileged? One could imagine an insane individual rigorously studying his experience and determining principles based upon its predictability which differ profoundly from yours. Now you would claim that this is invalid, but on what grounds? Even further, how can your experience even be considered better at determining what is real?
A: What you say is nonsense! As I have said, we cannot be certain that our experience is valid. There is some small chance that I’m insane or being tricked by a malevolent entity – I do not deny this. But it is absurd to actually believe it!
B: I don’t recall mentioning what I actually believe as of yet, my good man! However, I am wondering how you assess the value of this probability. What method could you possibly use? You may say that it seems to not be the case, but, in either scenario, how would you expect it to seem? This seeming which you have is itself part of your experience – the mechanism you are attempting to justify. And, to address your frustration, I would think that a suitable path to truth should be able to withstand such questioning!
A: Again with the non-problems – you really are impenetrable! Perhaps these are interesting questions at a dinner party, but I laugh at the authority you give them over the scientific method. Since my experience is consistent with the vast majority of the sane, I conclude that I am experiencing the world correctly. More to the point, it is absurd to deny the success of science in achieving knowledge. Science builds planes, lets us explore the stars, and puts food on our tables. It gives us the description of our being: how we function and the narrative we take part in. Quite simply, science works.
I can see, however, that you are set on being difficult. Thus, I suppose I should move on, as you seem to be much more likely convinced of analytic philosophy as a path to truth.
B: If you insist, though I’d question the empirical verifiability of that statement. You can teach me in any way you wish.
A: Very funny…
But, as to the second method of determining truth, I suppose I shall begin at the simplest point. Analytic philosophy is the attempt to establish rigorous definitions of words and incorporate them into a logical structure known to only output statements which necessarily follow from their premises. It is this rigorous logical framework which distinguishes it from other forms of thinking and allows it to, as I have claimed before, propagate truth.
B: Hm, indeed this sounds very interesting. Could you give me an example of this type of logical structure?
A: Certainly – I assume you’ve heard of modus ponens? This is a form of argument which asserts that, given the premises If P is true then Q is true and P, then, logically, Q must be true.
B: Forgive my ignorance, but it does seem you missed a premise which the entire argument depends upon. For, simply from the two statements you have provided, I am under no obligation to accept the conclusion. Suppose we called your first premise P1, your second premise P2, and your conclusion C…
A: You’re beginning to frustrate me! If P1 and P2 are true, then C follows logically! It’s as simple as that.
B: Trust me, I don’t mean to offend such a great man as you! However, I am still obligated to ask, on what grounds, considering only P1 and P2, can I accept the statement you just made? I could accept P1 and P2 while still rejecting the conclusion. In fact, it is precisely this premise which you missed! You must add the statement If P1 and P2 are true, then C must be true – we can call this P3.
A: Well, I suppose. However, this doesn’t affect much…
B: Doesn’t affect much? I can’t see how you reason that… You have just consigned yourself to an infinite number of premises – an unlimited number of propositions which must be asserted! Now, suppose I accepted P1, P2, and P3, but still rejected C. How could you put my worries to rest? Well, you might add another premise – If P1, P2, and P3 are true, then C must be true, this we can call P4. As you can probably see, this process will repeat for every Pn – I must now accept P1, P2, P3, and P4, as well as, eventually, P5, P6, P7, and so on (Carroll 43)!
A: Hm, well this is indeed interesting, but how could it possibly affect our pursuit of truth?
B: I would think that claims which require an infinite number of supporting propositions are quite difficult to justify as truth.
A: Maybe so, however you appear to be attempting a kind of sleight of hand while adding your infinitude of propositions. What you attack is, in fact, merely the mental process of deduction. Perhaps it is impossible to reduce this to a premise. That is, when you reason in this way, you are actually doing something, and this something is external to the scope of the argument being made. If you attempt to reduce it to a premise, then you are making a grave error (Pettit 67).
B: Indeed – you may have a point. However, this realization alone still wouldn’t oblige me to accept the argument. Instead, I must now ask about the justification of your base deductive rationality, or what we might call Reason itself.
A: Well I want to say that Reason is self-evident. It just seems to be the case that, given the truth of P implies Q and P, then Q must be the case. Here my reasoning capacity takes hold and forces me to accept the conclusion.
B: I must admit that your use of self-evidence sounds very similar to wish-thinking. It’s obvious that you want to affirm your Reason as an adequate method to truth, and, as such, you’ve chosen to assume the principle which best allows you to do this without proper justification. This appears to me inherently flawed. You’ve still given me no reason to accept this, should I deny it – only asserted it even louder.
Moreover, this is subject to the same objection I presented before. If Reason is simply self-evident to the individual, how could you address an insane man who operates with what you may call obviously-flawed thought processes? Certainly the ways you Reason would be different, but who’s to say that one is correct? His would seem just as self-evident as yours.
A: I see your point. Though, I would think that meaningful dialogue requires this principle. In fact, it seems that accepting any claim requires it. Since we are partaking in such dialogue we must accept it.
B: Can you not see the circularity in that statement? Meaningful dialogue implies the use of Reason, thus we must Reason that Reason is valid – you’re using your Reason to justify your Reason – your deduction to justify your deduction! This seems viciously circular and unsatisfactory.
In fact, in order to justify Reason I would be quite wary of any reasonable or rational method. That is, if you wish to avoid circularity in your justification. Moreover, if you wish to be circular in this way, you must further justify why your circle is true as opposed to other possible circles which could be constructed. However, this justification would either be reasonable – and thus another circular argument needing external justification – or unreasonable, which I’m sure you would disavow. It seems you’re left with the infinite or the unreasonable.
A: Well, so what if our justification requires an infinite amount of propositions? Whether there are an infinite number of circles as you were suggesting or an infinite number of premises as was said before – indeed they all could be true. Perhaps we could even realize a sound rule which all of these follow – thus we could accept this higher-order principle and the infinity of propositions it represents. This would allow us to be aware, in some sense, of the entire infinity of propositions we are accepting.
B: I’m tempted to ask if you reasoned to this conclusion, though I suppose this would be quite inadequate… I’ll take your claims in reverse order. Even if you attempt to establish a meta-rule as you describe, this rule will itself have been established by the Reason you wish to justify. Thus it’s not escaping the circle, but merely adding another to your web.
The question of whether infinities can be acceptable sounds quite different, though I would venture that it isn’t. That particular statement itself – “an infinite number of propositions can act as justification” – must either be unreasonable or justified infinitely itself. Thus it’s only a sophisticated way to sneak in another circle.
A: Your absurdity is laughable! However, is it not also true that I could justify this base Reason using observation? Could it be that logic holds no necessary truth, but instead reflects reality so undeniably that we call it deductive?
B: Perhaps our first exchange wasn’t sufficiently convincing, but I would be shocked if you could establish any truth with experience.
A: Ha, what then do we do? Fail to realize anything as true?
B: I suppose the correct response would be to accept our limitations with dignity as opposed to pretend to know the unjustifiable. Our desire for that which is unattainable seems, as it is, all too human.
A: You’re simply impenetrable! You can’t possibly be saying there is no truth…
B: Indeed not – I would never be caught in such an unjustifiable assertion! No, on the contrary, it seems that we have an undeniable desire for absolute truth and that this fuels our inquiry. Further, it seems that, in order to know anything about reality, we must determine the reliability of potential truth-sources like experience and base Reason. However, to figure this we must use verification which transcends these sources. Our inaccessibility to these transcendent verifiers are a symptom of being human. I merely find it, quite frankly, dishonest to speak of truth and knowledge in such an authoritative way.
A: We haven’t spoken of knowledge with any depth at all – what could you possibly have against it?
B: Well, nothing I suppose. So long as it doesn’t entail sufficient justification or truth.
A: Well, alright then; I disagree with virtually everything you say. In fact, I have a faint suspicion that you are one of the insane individuals we have spoken of! If what you say is true, how could you possibly live? You would find yourself in a lonely, chaotic, indeterminable world.
B: In fact, I find the response to these realizations perhaps the most important aspect of philosophy. But, to answer your question, I make the same assumptions that you do, indeed for the same reason – utility. I, however, don’t pretend to find reality behind them. This seems something like a tautology with unsatisfied conditions. Like placing truth behind a bush and finding it there.
[At this point, the utility of both characters to the author had subsided. Thus, they both disappeared in a puff of teleological smoke.]
21 March, 2014
The style of Skepticism used in this dialogue was influenced by a Christian Transcendental Apologetic technique proffered most notably by Sye Ten Bruggencate among many others, which has been dubbed “Presuppositional Apologetics”. While the author disagrees with the conclusions offered by these individuals, their work was crucial in his development of the ideas presented.
Sye Ten Bruggencate’s ministry can be found at http://www.proofthatgodexists.org/.
The citation for this is listed below with the other sources. For those wishing to investigate further, special attention should be given to the multimedia section of this website.
Carroll, Lewis. “What the Tortoise said to Achilles.” Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Douglas R. Hofstadter. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1979. 43-45. Print.
Pettit, Philip. “Winch’s double-edged idea of a social science.” History of the Human Sciences 13.1 (2000): 63-77. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
Proof that God Exists. Absolute Apologetics. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.