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Chapter5WhatCanWeKnow2

Chapter 5What Can We Know?Copyright by Paul Herrick. For class use only. Not for distribution. This chapter: 16 pages of reading. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.— Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.[1]1. Relativism, Skepticism, and the Birth of EpistemologyMany people today claim that there is no such thing as objective truth. Truth, they confidently say, is relative to each person. By this they mean two things: First, each person has a unique perspective. Second, each person’s perspective is equally valid because there is no objective basis for saying that one person’s belief is true and another’s is false. Thus, if you believe something is true, that makes it true for you and no one has any objective basis for saying that your belief is false. Likewise, if I believe the opposite is true, that makes that true for me and no one has any objective basis for saying that my belief is false. So, for example, if Fred believes that global warming is a hoax, that is his truth. If Susan believes that global warming is real, that is her (alternative) truth, and there is no objective fact that decides the matter one way or the other. Both are right. In philosophy, this view is known as “alethic relativism” (from the Greek word aletheiafor “truth or disclosure”). It is also called “relativism about truth.” According to the advocate of this view, those who believe in objective truth are mistaken. The real truth about truth is that truth is relative to each person. There is no such thing as an objective truth that is the same for everyone or that can be accessed by everyone. Of this the alethic relativist is certain. Relativism about truth sounds exciting to many today, especially to those who have an adversarial attitude toward traditional ideas. The claim that truth is relative can be found, in one form or another, in the writings of philosophers who call themselves “postmodernists.” It can also be found in the writings of those multicultural theorists who copy their basic premises from relativistic postmodernist philosophy. Some of these multicultural theorists go further and relativize truth not to each person but to each racial or ethnic group. If one group believes such and such, then that makes such and such true for that group and the group’s belief cannot be criticized by anyone outside the group for there is no objective fact of the matter that is the same for everyone across all groups. If another group believes that so and so, then that makes so and so true for that group, and that group’s belief cannot be criticized by anyone outside that group (for the same reason). Each group, on this view, has a unique perspective that cannot be assessed or criticized on objective or rational grounds by members of another group.   However, whether in the individual or group form, relativism about truth has severe problems. When the relativist asserts that truth is relative, isn’t he making an objective claim about the nature of truth? Isn’t he saying that (being relative) is the way truth really is—“really is” in a non-relative way? Isn’t he saying that, in fact, truth is relative and we all should agree? In other words, isn’t the relativist in effect claiming that it is objectively true for all of us that truth is relative? If so, isn’t he contradicting himself? But if a theory cannot even be asserted without self-contradiction, why believe it?Furthermore, if the relativist gives us reasons to believe that truth is relative—in hopes we will see the light and agree on the basis of common grounds—doesn’t that contradict his claim (that truth is relative)? For common reasons given for a view—reasons available to all–would have to be nonrelatively true, wouldn’t they? But if no good reasons can be given for the view, then why believe it?   The question, What is objective truth? is examined in metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that seeks a rational account of the most fundamental aspects of reality. (We’ll examine the concept of objective truth in a moment.)The concepts of truth and knowledge are closely related. When we say that someone “knows” something, for instance, “Pat knows that the moon has mountains,” we ordinarily mean, in part, that the claim said to be known (in this case, the proposition that the moon has mountains) is true in an objective sense. As we will see in more detail in a moment, we also ordinarily suppose that the knower has a sufficient reason to believe that the claim is true. It follows that if objective truth does not exist, then neither does knowledge in the traditional sense of the word. It should be no surprise, then, that those who deny the existence of objective truth usually also reject the traditional concept of knowledge. “Knowledge with a capital K is a myth,” some say. “Nobody really knows anything. All we have are opinions, and one opinion is as valid as any other.” Those who make this claim usually sound so confident that they give the impression they really know what they are talking about. Time for another definition. A skeptical person is someone who is hard to convince. A skeptic with respect to a particular subject is someone who is hard to convince on that subject. A religious skeptic, for instance, is hard to convince on matters of religion. In philosophy the denial of all knowledge is called “global skepticism.” If the global skeptics are correct, knowledge as we normally use the term is a total mirage. Which raises an interesting question. If knowledge does not really exist, then what are people doing when they claim to know something? The answer some postmodernist global skeptics give echoes an idea first stated by global skeptics in ancient Greece who debated and opposed Socrates. A claim to knowledge, they claim, is in reality just a sinister power grab. When someone claims to know something, they are simply trying to bully you into agreeing with them. In other words, they are trying to get their way. In most cases, they are attempting to gain power over you. As some of the ancient Greek Sophists put it, victory, not truth, is the hidden goal of every claim to knowledge. Or so say many critics of the traditional concept of knowledge. However, if the global skeptics are right, then isn’t their confident assertion—that a claim to knowledge is merely a disguised power grab unrelated to real truth—also a disguised power grab unrelated to real truth? When they try to convince us to agree with them, aren’t they merely doing what they claim to hate? Isn’t their skepticism also nothing but a sinister power grab? If it is, why believe it? Furthermore, if all we have are unsubstantiated opinions, and if one opinion is no better than another, then the postmodernist rejection of the traditional notion of knowledge is just one more unsubstantiated opinion. If so, then why believe it? These critics of tradition can give no solid reason for their view without contradicting themselves. But if postmodernist relativism cannot support itself without contradicting itself, then it is an irrational viewpoint unworthy of a serious critical thinker. I meet students every quarter who subscribe to these relativistic and skeptical postmodernist views. The traditional concepts of objective truth and traditional knowledge are under attack today in some quarters of the academic world. Knowledge and truth, many academics now believe, are collective delusions, throwbacks to primitive times, or (worse) mind-control tools imposed by the ruling class, “the man,” or the establishment. Are these critics of tradition right? Or can the traditional notions of truth and knowledge be defined in plausible terms and rationally defended in the twenty-first century? That is the question before us in this chapter. For clarification we’ll begin with the underlying metaphysical question, What is truth? After that we’ll turn to epistemology (from the Greek word episteme for “knowledge”)—the philosophical study of the nature, scope, and limits of knowledge. What exactly is knowledge? How (if at all) does it differ from mere opinion? What (if anything) can we know? What is the relationship between knowledge and truth? Socrates, as recorded in Plato’s dialogues, was the first to ask these questions in a philosophical context and to propose precise answers within a systematic theory of epistemology.[2] His student Plato was the first to examine them in depth and work out a unified theory in written form. The ancient Greeks are the founders of epistemology as an academic subject. 2. What Is Truth?The most widely held definition among philosophers today is the account first expressed by Socrates in the dialogues of Plato and stated more formally in the logical works of Aristotle: A proposition is true if it accurately corresponds to the facts; it is false if it does not. Truth, in short, is correspondence with the facts. In philosophy, this is known as the correspondence theory of truth. Notice the way each of the following true statements accurately corresponds to, or specifies, the relevant facts: There are craters on the Moon. The White House is located in Washington DC. And notice the way the following false statements fail to correspond: There are large cities with skyscrapers on the Moon. The White House is located in Minnesota. Although most philosophers throughout history have thought that the correspondence theory of truth is simply common sense made precise, two alternative theories have been proposed. According to the coherence theory of truth, what makes a proposition true is that it belongs to a coherent system of propositions. A system of propositions is coherent if its members are (a) logically consistent and (b) stand in a sufficient number of explanatory and logical relations to one another. A well-written novel is an example of a coherent system of propositions. However, the coherence theory faces an objection that nearly all philosophers find decisive. It is possible to specify two equally coherent systems of propositions that are related in such a way that one contradicts the other. Since the two systems are contradictory, they cannot both be true. Yet both are equally coherent. If so, then truth cannot be mere coherence. A second alternative to correspondence is the pragmatic theory of truth. According to this theory, truth is usefulness. A proposition is useful if belief in the proposition serves a human purpose. The pragmatic definition also faces an objection that most philosophers find fatal. Some propositions are useful in the pragmatic sense, even though they are clearly false. Hitler’s racial theories, for example, were useful to him in the sense that people who believed them helped him attain power, yet his theories have been proven false. But if a theory can be useful and yet false, then truth is not simply usefulness. For many reasons, the correspondence theory remains the mainstream, as well as the commonsense, view.<Box< Objective and Subjective Truth Contrasts are always helpful when learning an abstract concept. Philosophers draw a distinction between objective and subjective truth. Roughly, atruth is objective if that which makes it true—its “truthmaker”--is an objective fact or feature of reality—a fact that exists on its own, independently of what anyone may or may not believe. A truth is subjectiveif that which makes it true is a subjective aspect of a person’s consciousness. Suppose I believe that strawberry ice cream tastes better than vanilla ice cream, and I state my opinion. My opinion is subjectively true because it is true by virtue of my personal or subjective sense of taste. It is not true (that strawberry ice cream tastes is better than vanilla) for those who dislike the taste of strawberry, and it will no longer be true for me if my taste changes. There is no objective fact of the matter, existing independently of my subjective taste, that makes the statement true. That which makes my opinion true for me is my inner sense of taste—a subjective aspect of my consciousness alone. An objective truth, on the other hand, is true by virtue of the facts, which are what they are regardless of what people may or may not believe or like. For example, it is objectively true that the moon has mountains. This proposition will remain true even if a dictator takes control of the world and convinces everyone that the surface of the moon is as smooth as silk. The proposition (that the Moon has mountains) will remain true even if everyone believes it is false, for its truthmaker is a fact about the Moon—a fact that exists independently of what people may or may not believe. In this way, some truths are objective, and some are subjective. On the standard interpretation, the correspondence theory of truth is a theory of objective truth. <Box

Chapter5WhatCanWeKnow2