Four concepts of truth (cont.)

02.25.2013, 3:05 PM

We’ve hit the 50 comments limit, but the conversation is hopping, so I want to re-open the comments thread for “Four Concepts of Truth.”  Thanks to all who are participating!


49 Responses to “Four concepts of truth (cont.)”

  1. David Blankenhorn says:

    Anna Cook:

    I wanted to say, I’ve been thinking more about the concept of “truth is one and cannot be known,” which you describe so beautifully in your comment, and which for short-hand I’ve been thinking of as the “through a glass, darkly” concept of truth. And I want to say that, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this concept is in fact a version of “truth is plural.”

    In both, for example, the emphasis is on epistemelogical modesty, or what we cannot validly claim. In your “through a glass, darkly” concept, you suggest that there is indeed a perfect Truth out there, but it’s just that we as fallible subjective humans can’t fully see or understand it.

    I think that the theologian Bernard Lonergan has something like this in mind when he says that “truth is objective, but our understanding of it is subjective.” In other words, if we could see and understand the universe the way God sees and undertands it, yes, we would find one objective perfect Truth. But since we can’t see and understand that way, we are left with shards, pieces, partial understandings, we see only darkly. And precisely because this is true – part of the human condition – we are obliged to say that, among us frail humans, there can be and often will be more than one legitimate answer to any one important question, and that, in turn, not all legitimate truth claims fit together haramoniously like pieces of jig-saw puzzle. That is, as a practical matter, we must operate on the principle that truth is plural, not one.

    Yes, in your adumbrated conception, truth is one as God sees it, but since we aren’t God, and never will be, we are back as an operational, how-we-think and how-we-treat-one-another matter to, truth is plural. So, we may not have to go to five concepts. Maybe four will do. Does that make sense to you?

  2. David Blankenhorn says:

    Schroeder:

    I’ve been thinking more about your comment on the pros and cons of deductive reasoning, and I think I was too hasty when I said, I agree. As I think more, it seems that I disagree. My actual rejection of this method is deeper and more thorough-going than yours seems to be.

    You suggest that, if the governing or founding premises are true, then deduction is a valid way to try to reason things out. I don’t think so. The reason why, in brief, is what Leszek Kolawkowski calls the cornucopia of infinite reason. By that, he means that nearly anyone can come up with an infinite number of reasons for nearly anything. So if I choose – perhaps by virtue of some trauma I’ve suffered, or some good or bad experience with a parent, or some sin I’m committing (or plan to commit), or some biochemical or genetic substrate conditioning, or the piece of cheese I had for lunch – to argue that because A and B are definitely true, then C is also probably true, I can literally, if I want to, spend the rest of my days generating plausible reasons why it’s so, irrespective of what C actually is.

    So my conclusion is that this way of operating (deduction) simply won’t work in a valid way, no matter how heroic or sincere or broadly-based or long-lived the effort (cf Greg P), since there is nevertheless nearly always and almost by definition far too much room for bias, error, blind spots, passions in disguise, intuitions hiding behind formulations, etc etc. Therefore my formula for trying to figure out the answers to difficult questions is: Trust the inductive, mistrust the deductive.

  3. David Blankenhorn says:

    D-Lapp:

    You ask for more clarification on “the thing is only the thing,” because to you the idea seems arbitrary.

    For me, the concept is important because it says: Try to avoid magical thinking about the thing. Describe the thing as precisely and concretely as possible. Only attribute to the thing those qualities that the thing incontrovertibly possesses. And once you say what the thing is, don’t say that it’s also something else.

    That’s about as good as I can do for now, by way of making the idea I am proffering more clear.

    When I hear about essences, and about qualities that flow logically from these essences, I grab for my wallet, because I am extremely wary of using words that are so vague and elastic and mysterious-sounding. To me, words and formulations such as these invite magical thinking.

    Let’s take a very prosaic example, dear to my heart: a martini. In my (correct!) view, a martini is five parts gin, one part vermouth, with two olives, shaken, chilled, and served in a chilled martini glass.

    So what is the “essence” of a martini? It is gin? (After all, gin is by far them main ingredient.) Or is it the alcohol? Or is the romance that I associate with the drink? And what about those poor benighted souls (and sadly, their ranks are growing!) who wouldn’t be caught dead with a gin martini, but only use vodka? Do they misunderstand the essence of the drink? Or do I?

    And if there are certain qualities of the martini that flow ineluctably from the drink’s essence, what are those qualities? And why are they qualities, but not essences – even assuming that we could agree (which we can’t and never will, except through ultimately arbitrary formulations) on the question of what is the essence of the drink?

    And then, finally, why is it so important to define the drink’s “essence” and therefore its derivative “qualities”? How are we made wiser by these researches? Wouldn’t we all be better off by simply defining a martini in a straight-forward, empirically-minded way, including the part about disagreements over gin versus vodka? If we do it this way, there is so much less chance of magical thinking. The drink becomes … only the drink; it may still delight us in all the same ways, but in our mind, the drink no longer allegedly has essences or qualities that require complex philosophical formulations to state or to understand.

    And if this is true of the humble martini, how much more true must it be – how much more care along these lines should we take – when it comes to much bigger and deeper things? The human person. A sex act. A political system. It’s even more important, it seems to me, in these much more complicated instances, always to take special care in describing and understanding any one thing as … (only) the thing.

  4. Anna Cook says:

    David,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response to my earlier comment — it is always nice to have someone go away, think about ideas, and then return for further discussion!

    I went back to your own description of “truth is plural” as a philosophical-political perspective, and upon re-reading agree that you could probably collapse “truth is one, but cannot be known” into the “truth is plural” category — certainly functionally speaking! — since, as you say, even if there is a metaphysical Truth (in this view), since we cannot reach it in this lifetime, it is functionally unusable as a touch-point.

    My only feeling of caution would be that it is important (in my view) not to fall into imagining that all truths are, then, somehow equivalent in terms of their … human utility? or human impact? not that I see you arguing for such a perspective, but I know that discussions of “plural truth” can sometimes fall into the trap of pure political wrangling, where the vision is then of the winning “truth” simply being the truth with the most backers, or the well-placed backers. This is where I think the notion of discernment and striving toward the (unreachable) truth becomes important: it holds us accountable to more than simply what is politically prudent or practical or personally gainful to believe in. It holds us to, to fall back on antiquated language, “a higher truth.” I think perhaps this limitation on plurality is what you are getting at when you write:

    …the notion that, within certain (and debatable) ranges, there are, among persons of rational capacity and good will, inescapably diverse and at times conflicting understandings of what is good and what is true; and that, absent the resort by society to violence and coercion, these divergent views do not and likely will never fit together into a harmonious pattern in which every aspect of truth reinforces and is reinforced by all the other aspects.

    To my mind, the “certain range” has to do with harms: are human beings using their adherence to truth A to perpetrate harm against others (humans, animals, the ecosystem). To use a non-family example, is the “truth” that global warming is a liberal conspiracy and/or not supported by scientific measurements harmful? well, yes, if it means that the political support for coping with climate change is stalled and environmental degradation results (including loss of human life and quality of life, particularly among the most vulnerable).

    So I guess what I’m saying is that we do have tools to explore the relative value (both practical and in relation to “higher truth”) of small-t truths; and we can perhaps make progress shedding some unsupportable or harmful truths in favor of more-supportable truths that enhance (rather than detract from) the well-being of our human family and the ecosystem in which we thrive. If this notion of better/less-better (or bad/less-bad) truths and the process of discerning between them fits within your notion of truthful plurality, then I think I would happily fold me “fifth rail” back into your forth category.

  5. Anna says:

    Evidently David Blankenhorn hasn’t read Ogden Nash, or he would know the essence of a martini:

    “There’s something about a martini
    Ere the dining and dancing begin:
    To tell you the truth, it’s not the vermouth -
    I think that perhaps it’s the gin.”

  6. Mont D. Law says:

    Here is the biggest problem I have with Truth however you arrive at it. Show a man the One True Path and he’ll never be content to walk it alone. And any that fail to be persuaded to walk the path can be forced or eliminated. The problem believers in religious truth have in the west have is they no longer have that power.

    It’s the major reason I don’t have much truck with it on the whole. I care less about how people arrive at the truth than how their truth is manifests in the world.

    I don’t care how a Sikh arrived at the truth about honour, I care that he’ll kill his daughter for violating it. I don’t care how the Williamsburg Jews arrived at the truth about modesty, I care that they harass women on the street. I don’t care how Robie George came to the truth that masterbaition is a great evil, I’ll care when he tries to stop me from masterbaiting.

  7. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – First, for the sake of any Sikhs out there, it’s not the religion that prescribes honor killings. It’s coming from cultural beliefs.

    http://www.gurmat.info/sms/smsarticles/advisorypanel/gurmukhsinghsewauk/sikhismandhonourkilling.html

    But to get to your point, you clearly have a well-defined idea of Truth and your own one true path. Killing your daughter for the sake of family honor is wrong. Harassing women on the street is wrong. Trying to stop people from masturbating is wrong.

    You evaluate how someone’s truth is manifested in the world based on your own truth, your code of what is the right or wrong thing to do.

  8. Mont D. Law says:

    (But to get to your point, you clearly have a well-defined idea of Truth and your own one true path.)

    But I don’t insist that anyone who refuses to walk with me will suffer anything at all. I don’t try to punish anyone who doesn’t share my truth. I get one vote, just like anyone else, I don’t predict the end of civilization when I lose. I didn’t say I didn’t believe in truth. I said I didn’t much care how people came to their truth only how it is manifested in the world.

  9. Teresa says:

    David and Anna, do I understand your position correctly, if I state that this is more anthropocentric. Rather than Truth is one and is known, and runs downhill, and lands on man so-to-speak, your view would say there is a Truth and can’t really be known … so, we look to define the little truth of each issue.

    Anna, you mention that we have tools to determine the ‘better’ truth in a particular case. Could you elaborate a bit more on what those are?

    Also, wouldn’t the tools that you would use be truths, themselves? I know you’ve cautioned us “not to see these little truths as equivalent in … human utility”, but is the implicit understanding here that what one truth solves one issue, it cannot be assumed to solve another?

    Last question: is the Golden Rule the overarching truth looked to by your position … with the addition of the least harm done per instance?

  10. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – I think you’re sidestepping the question of what is truth and how to find it. Instead, if someone’s beliefs lead them to act in a way you think is good, you approve of them and maybe their beliefs. But if a Sufi does things you think are bad, you disapprove of their beliefs.

    If we decide what is true by the fact that it gives us a conclusion we like, we’re assuming we already know the truth.

    “But I don’t insist that anyone who refuses to walk with me will suffer anything at all. I don’t try to punish anyone who doesn’t share my truth. I get one vote, just like anyone else,”

    Really? What if you lived in a society where the majority of people voted that honor killings are good?

    And I would certainly be willing to punish someone who carries out an “honor” killing or harasses women on the street.

  11. Diane M says:

    Teresa’s comment raises an interesting question, “Also, wouldn’t the tools that you would use be truths, themselves?”

    If you don’t have a notion of truth, how do you have a notion of how to decide what is true?

  12. Kevin says:

    I’m suspicious of truth expeditions because too often the truth gets used as a weapon against others. Everyone has his own version of truth, regardless of how he arrived at it. In fact, I think that’s my truth: that everyone has his own truth. And maybe that no truth should be used to harm others.

    So then the question becomes, how do we peaceably co-exist with sometimes incompatible truths?

    What’s great about America, theoretically, is our capacity to accommodate everybody’s truth with minimal stress and strain. People who hold religious truths are protected from threats to practicing those truths, but they also have a quid pro quo obligation not to impose those truths on others.

    I think there are gradations of truth: universal truths, substantial truths, insignificant truths. Some truths matter more than other truths.

  13. TRthriving says:

    Here are a couple of ideas I’ve found helpful in wrestling with the nature of truth and how we know it:

    Truth is a person. This is, obviously, the Christian adaptation of the Greek concept of Logos and strongly related to the doctrine of the Trinity but i don’t think one has to be a Christian to see value in the idea. Persons are complex, dynamic, and social, yet they are still one. Persons can be known externally but important aspects of persons can only be known if they reveal themselves to us. Note that I’m not suggesting a metaphor here but an ontology, that truth IS a person.

    Reality is stratified. This idea is a favorite of critical realist philosophers and is closely tied to the concept of emergence. The take home epistemological point is that different levels of reality are known in different ways, knowing them requires different “tools.” The psychologist, physicist, poet, and mystic each bring approaches to knowing, each approach is better suited to knowing certain levels of reality better than others.

    Taken together these ideas (among others) have left me with a collaborative, world-open, progressive view toward truth and the possibility of knowing it, hopeful that we are “getting somewhere” and with a high degree of confidence that we have some things pretty well “pinned down.” But my ontological security is ultimately founded in a relationship with a person (Truth), rather than confidence in a set of propositions.

  14. annajcook says:

    Teresa asked:

    Anna, you mention that we have tools to determine the ‘better’ truth in a particular case. Could you elaborate a bit more on what those are?

    Teresa, you ask a good question, one which I don’t think I have a definitive answer to. From my perspective, evaluation of truths comes down to ethics — asking ourselves what it means to live ethically (in relation to the land, in relationship to other humans, perhaps — if you are religious — in relation to God or another metaphysical being). And I believe that one of the key “tools” we have available to us is conversation. Ethical discernment can happen in isolation, but I think it’s best to check one’s beliefs (truths) against the beliefs of others: we all have blind spots, and others can help us see a more complete picture of potential harms or potential positives of a given ethical position.

    I also think we have evidence in the form of historical, cumulative experience, to draw upon. If the effect of a certain truth over time has degraded the quality of life of a certain group, or of humanity as a whole (or our ecosystem), then perhaps it is a not-good truth, in comparison to a truth that has improved life on certain measures. Obviously, interpretations of the evidence can vary and this is where collective discernment and conversation can come to our aid. Yet I think it’s important — I’m an historian after all! — to realize that we do have historical evidence to refer to when thinking about the potential outcomes of a certain ethical position.

    What tools might you envision us using to discern better vs. not-better (or bad vs. not-bad) truths?

  15. mythago says:

    So what is the “essence” of a martini?

    This is the wrong question, because you have already presupposed part of the answer: that a martini is a drink made of exact proportions of particular types of liquor, and that’s that. Why is this ‘correct’?

    In other words, you are arguing from a premise you haven’t established, and then trying to extrapolate from it. What if you’re wrong? What if the only reason you believe this is ‘correct’ is that your grandfather, or your favorite college bar, mixed them that way, whereas most bars mix three parts gin to one part vermouth? If the original form of the martini was equal parts gin and vermouth, then are you not wrong when you claim to have the correct, or proper form?

  16. David Lapp says:

    David:

    Let’s take a very prosaic example, dear to my heart: a martini. In my (correct!) view, a martini is five parts gin, one part vermouth, with two olives, shaken, chilled, and served in a chilled martini glass.

    So what I hear you saying is that the “the thing is only the material thing.” We can’t know about the essence, or properties, of a thing, because we can’t use our reason to discern anything beyond what our five senses are telling us.

    You are an empiricist. Yes? If not, please tell me how you are not an empiricist.

  17. David Lapp says:

    By the way, David, speaking of martinis — since you started this whole hair-splitting, mind-numbing conversation, I move, on the premise of basic justice — don’t even argue with that — that you must send each of us participants in this conversation a martini.

    I’m thinking of Barry’s cartoon: “There’s somebody wrong on the Internet!” And I can’t make him stop! I need relief!

    Plus, if you send us each a martini, then we can examine for ourselves what the darn thing is!

  18. Kevin says:

    A martini isn’t about gin and vermouth if your name is Luigi Martini, from Florence, Italy.

    But the martini example is a perfect metaphor for marriage (you knew I’d go there!). Regardless of its historical origins, it can be made with gin or vodka (as a gin martini man, it pains me to acknowledge that fact, but it is a fact, whether I approve of it or not).

    The implications of the “vodka” martini are rather minor. It’s not worth my time to launch a crusade against people who want to drink vodka martinis, even though it certainly violates my sensibilities, and is in some historical context incorrect. I doubt I could sue a restaurant for serving its patrons a vodka martini. In fact, it has become a point of delight to my dining companions whenever I order a martini with dinner: “Kevin, get a martini, we love it when you lecture the server about martinis!”

    Sure, I’d rather restaurants call it a “vodka civil union” instead of a vodka martini, but that’s really just me being prissy and fussy. I know in my heart I’m right and I can always try to dissuade my dining partners from partaking of such a counterfeit drink. But a vodka martini might be just perfect for, say, my friends from Russia, and I think they deserve cocktail happiness just as much as I do.

  19. David Blankenhorn says:

    D-Lapp:

    Labels or would-be labels such as “empiricist” and “essentialist” leave me cold and uninterested, mainly because I don’t know they mean, plus, almost always when I hear them said, what is being said amounts to a kind of accusation. So I don’t really know whether I am or am not an “empircist,” and the question does not concern me.

    As far as I can tell, I don’t think that you or I or anyone depends for knowledge only on the five senses, since we all have minds; we all can think and reason and hope and dream and speculate and ask and fear and pity and hate and do other things that depend on brining our whole persons (not just eyes, ears, nose, touch, taste) to the task of engaging the world and trying to make sense of it. So, I guess, if an “empiricist” is someone who depends only the five senses, then my answer is, no human being is an “empiricist.” But as I say, labels of this sort simply do not interest me.

    Martinis, on the other hand, do interest me. And then next time I see you, I propose that we head to a bar and carry out some epistemological reseach!!

  20. Schroeder says:

    You suggest that, if the governing or founding premises are true, then deduction is a valid way to try to reason things out. I don’t think so.

    David,

    I think you must be using “deduction” in a very different way than I’ve ever heard it be used and in a different way than the dictionary or logic text books define it.

    The Random House dictionary says that logical deduction is:

    “A process of reasoning in which a conclusion follows necessarily from the premises presented, so that the conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true.” (emphasis mine)

    This is also the definition I remember from taking logic in undergraduate.

    So when you say, “if the governing or founding premises are true, then deduction is a valid way to try to reason things out. I don’t think so,” it seems a little bit like saying “I don’t think that a triangle has three sides.” Because by definition, in a valid deductive argument, the truth of the premises implies the truth of the conclusion.

    …which is why I think you must be using a different definition of “deduction.” That’s fine; but it’s confusing because it’s not a definition I’m familiar with or that I can find in the dictionary.

    Also, an inductive argument is:

    “Any form of reasoning in which the conclusion, though supported by the premises, does not follow from them necessarily.”

    So it’s pretty similar to deduction except that 1.) it’s easier to use in the real world than deduction because it’s not as stringent and 2.) it’s harder to counter than a deductive argument because it doesn’t necessarily need all of its premises to be strong.

    But 3.) it’s less certain than deduction, 4.) it’s just as susceptible to bad premises as deduction, and 5.) it’s actually much more susceptible to the “cornucopia of infinite reasons” than deductive reasoning is because the more premises you have, the stronger an inductive argument is.
    (Whereas deductive arguments are most impregnable when they have as few premises as possible, because then there are fewer points of attack.)

    Most religious arguments that I’ve heard are inductive arguments. Sometimes people (religious or otherwise) do make ridiculous deductive arguments, but they are ridiculous because of the premises not because logic doesn’t work.

    Everyone has his own version of truth, regardless of how he arrived at it. In fact, I think that’s my truth: that everyone has his own truth.

    Kevin,

    No one has their own truth. They just have their own best guesses about truth, but that doesn’t make their guess correct. Truth is just “what is.” So, unless you think we all have our own separate realities, then no one has their own truth.

    Wouldn’t we all be better off by simply defining a martini in a straight-forward, empirically-minded way, including the part about disagreements over gin versus vodka?

    But, David, this is an essence. Essence comes from the Latin word esse which just means “to be.” An essence is just what something is. The main difference between your conception of essence and David L.’s conception of essence is that you seem to think that “what you see (or otherwise sense), is what you get.” David L. (and I, actually) think it can sometimes be more complicated than that.

    Why are essences important? Well, while we may disagree about the ins and outs of what is essential to a martini, we at least know that you’re talking about a drink and not about an elephant.

    Also, if you ordered a martini, and the waiter brought you apple juice, you would probably say that the waiter didn’t bring you a martini (among some other choice words :-)). So you believe in essences too.

  21. David Blankenhorn says:

    Kevin:

    Well done! I mean, as in “most excellent comment” — not, God forbid, that a man of your discernment when it comes to martinis would turn around and ruin the entire Wa of the situation by ordering his steak well-done.

  22. David Blankenhorn says:

    Schroeder:

    Well, you are presenting deduction in a strict, almost mathematical way. But in my experience, that is not how most deductively arrived at philosophical truth claims work.

    Take Marxism, for example. It’s true that Marx said he was engaged in rigorous science, such that conclusions flowed from premises in precisely the kind of strict, mathematical way that you imply, but few serious thinkers today believe that that is what Marx was doing. (I certainly don’t, and I’ve read a lot of Marx and a lot of Marxists.) Yet Marxism lives on, at least in some circles, as a kind of secular religion, still formally pretending to be “scientific,” but being nothing of the sort. That is generally my experience in bodies of social thought derived through deductive reasoning.

    And similarly, on “essence,” for you it means simply “what is.” OK, fine, if that’s all we are saying, then I certainly believe in essences — particularly as regards martinis.

  23. mythago says:

    then I certainly believe in essences — particularly as regards martinis

    Why is your preferred ratio of gin to vermouth the ‘essence’ of a martini? There’s no hallowed tradition of that ratio going back to the origin of the martini (quite the opposite). You seem to be saying that it’s the ‘essence’ of a martini as a way of putting an empirical spin on your personal preferences.

  24. David Blankenhorn says:

    mythago:

    The correct ratio is 5/1. Any deviation is not misguided, it is error; failure to comply is not imprudence, it is sin. On some matters, the natural law must be respected.

  25. Kevin says:

    Thank you, David.

    And yes, I’ve returned steaks lacking a proper pink hue!

    I love that you brought up martinis…they represent a milestone on my becoming a curmudgeon: lecturing hapless wait staff when they innocently inquire as to whether I want gin or vodka in my martini. I used to pounce: “young lady, I’ve requested a martini; there is no need to inquire about what alcohol to use….” Can you imagine?!

    It’s not so amusing as it used to be, and it’s ceretainly not productive, so I’ve resigned myself to ordering “gin martinis.”

    You should see what happens when they serve me a cup without a proper saucer!

  26. Teresa says:

    Anna asked:

    What tools might you envision us using to discern better vs. not-better (or bad vs. not-bad) truths?

    I have no answer for this, Anna. I’m struggling with what you and David have been saying. Anna, my Truth is a Person … so, I tend toward #1, but it’s in the life is messy world that I find myself in positions #2, #3, and #4; alternating as the case may be. It’s #1 when I’m abstracting. #3 when I’m more mystical. #2 and #4 when I’m trying to apply to an individual or a social issue, a concrete help.

    Given my predilection of wanting my own way and thinking I know everything, my principal tool is a hammer and everyone else is a nail. :)

    Seriously, my one object is how best can I love my neighbor as an individual and as society. I work from 2 principles to do that best … Gospel based. First, if I don’t love my neighbor whom I do see; how can I say I love God, whom I don’t see. Second, bear ye one another’s burdens, and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ. The Good Samaritan is my human role model.

    I get really confused when it comes to real people with real concerns with real lives. When is mercy called for? When is justice the better tool? When is proscription, if ever, needed? When do I say to you, you can’t do this? If better looks worse for some persons, what’s that mean? When is better for society but not the individual, a best we can do alternative?

    I can only ask you back, Anna, because I have no answer to your question … how did you arrive at your ‘truth’ position?

  27. Matthew Kaal says:

    David,

    If your experience is that the definition Schroeder gave is not how most deductively arrived at philosophical truth claims work, might it be that you haven’t been hearing that many deductive arguments? If most people are failing to make an argument that is, by definition, deductive – how can we claim these are deductive arguments?

    As for Marx, his arguments are flawed because his premises are flawed and most folks now acknowledge this. Marxism’s deductive claims collapse because several of the underlying claims don’t hold (about human nature, labor market dynamics, the course of history and social development…etc…), not because the deductive structure of the argument itself is unsound. Deduction is simply a tool – the content in the premises has to reflect “what is” for the conclusions derived from them to be meaningful in any real sense.

    Getting back to the bar. Our claim that Kevin is a gentleman is based on the premise that he knows to order a proper martini (Gordon’s perhaps? Stirred naturally, as one never wants to bruise the flavor of the gin) and to pair it with a tenderly rare steak. If it turned out that Kevin actually ordered the bad house wine and the overdone chicken *shudder*, then we have to to re-evaluate our opinion of him as a classy guy because our original premises turned out to be unfounded.

    [Kevin, forgive this ungracious hypothetical, I don't doubt our original premises are, in fact, what is]

  28. Schroeder says:

    David,

    Here is my frustration, though, and maybe you can help.

    It sounds like, from the tone of your comment, that you’re implying that I have idiosyncratic definitions of “essence” and “deduction,” but my definitions are the ones in the dictionary, the ones in philosophy books, and the ones that philosophers (that I’ve read) seem to be using when they write about them.

    So I have two questions:

    1.) What do you mean by deduction and induction?

    2.) How can anyone have a conversation if there is no way to know what words mean outside of personal definitions? I feel like we’re getting into absurdest territory here… it reminds me a little of Derrida.

    Regarding Marx, Marx uses mostly inductive reasoning. He looks at history and makes predictions about the future and judgments about reality. These are inductive arguments. His main argument about the Material Dialectic is an inductive argument. (And, IMO, a pretty weak one from what I recall.)

    I’m not aware of any deductive arguments he makes (although he might make some); but can you show me any?

    I Googled Marx and “deductive reasoning,” and I found an online quiz that gave one of Marx’s statements about the Material Dialectic and then asked whether it was inductive or deductive reasoning. The answer was “inductive.”

    Finally, if Marx does make any deductive arguments, I would imagine that they use absurd premises and might not even be valid. Or maybe some of them are good arguments. I don’t know, not having seen them.

    I’m really not trying to be snarky; I’m really just trying to understand where you’re coming from.

    I mean, here is my take: Good arguments (whether deductive or inductive) are good. And bad arguments (whether deductive or inductive) are bad.

  29. annajcook says:

    I can only ask you back, Anna, because I have no answer to your question … how did you arrive at your ‘truth’ position?

    Hmm. I think my “position,” such as it is, has grown up organically through experience and exposure to various frameworks for understanding the world. It is a work in progress, and I imagine will be for the rest of my life.

    I would say, at the most basic — when push comes to shove over the question of moral truth(s) — I favor utilitarian outcomes (what effect will this have?). I’m am not sure where this orientation toward the practical comes from; perhaps from my belief that metaphysical questions can never fully be answered — therefore, we are left to think about the effect of our actions.

    For example — to take a debate that we circle around at FSB continually — when it comes to judging people by their motivations (beliefs) vs. their actions (how they behave toward others), I will always weigh actions more heavily than motivations when it comes to assessing whether a given example is morally “better” or morally “worse” (in my view).

    My own values are no doubt deeply informed by the Protestant Christian culture in which I grew up, including the liberal arts college I attended that was heavily influenced by its Christian identity. But I think the emphasis on practice over doctrine, and compassion over judgment has strong cross-cultural / pan-theological / trans-historical threads. I have seen it again and again in different philosophical and theological traditions.

    For a good historical overview, I’d recommend Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; you can also check out her Charter for Compassion project online. Armstrong’s work has deeply informed my own approach — particularly in the way she privileges practice over “right thoughts,” and emphasizes the importance of human well-being as an underlying moral value.

  30. David Blankenhorn says:

    Matt: As I see it, I am surrounded by deductive arguments, most of them, as my father would say, not worth shooting. I guess I agree with Schroeder that it’s theoretically possible to do thing right, but when it comes to non-mathematical things, such as human beings, I really don’t see it being done right. Not with Marx. Not with any of it, as far as I can see.

  31. Schroeder says:

    As I see it, I am surrounded by deductive arguments, most of them, as my father would say, not worth shooting. I guess I agree with Schroeder that it’s theoretically possible to do thing right, but when it comes to non-mathematical things, such as human beings, I really don’t see it being done right.

    Alas, and maybe I’m just more pessimistic than you, David, but I think this is a problem for all forms of reasoning (not just deductive), and perhaps especially for inductive reasoning – which as I’ve said, borrowing your term, is the most susceptible to the “cornucopia of infinite reasons” (know, in layperson terms, as far as I can tell, as “confirmation bias”).

  32. Diane M says:

    @David Blankenhorn – “As I see it, I am surrounded by deductive arguments, most of them, as my father would say, not worth shooting. I guess I agree with Schroeder that it’s theoretically possible to do thing right, but when it comes to non-mathematical things, such as human beings, I really don’t see it being done right. Not with Marx. Not with any of it, as far as I can see.”

    But this isn’t a fair argument. Most people use deductive reasoning badly therefore deductive reasoning is not a valid way to arrive at the truth.

    And somewhere in there is buried some idea of what truth is so you can know that the person’s reasoning isn’t getting you to it.

  33. Diane M says:

    My take on inductive versus deductive reasoning is that they both have their place. Either one can be done badly or well, but if they are done well, they are useful.

    I wonder if we could make it more concrete, though. Here’s my understanding of deductive and inductive reasoning.

    Geometry is deductive reasoning done right. It uses some assumptions and is then able to proceed to proving things we didn’t already know. Go Math!

    Deductive reasoning misused looks like this:

    For reproductive success, men need to mate with fertile women and women need to mate with men who give them gifts.
    Therefore men will be innately attracted to women who look fertile (i.e young and healthy), but women will be attracted to rich men.

    The problems with the above example (aside from irritating all the women you know) are that:

    a. The first assumption is probably not true. Women need to mate with fertile men and men need women who can do more than be fertile.

    b. There is a leap somewhere in there between a male hunter who gave you gifts and rich men in modern society. If we have some innate attraction to the things that make a male hunter, they are probably not the same things as the things that make a rich American.

    c. We don’t know for a fact that it is possible to pass on the genetic trait be attracted to X or that we can pass it on differently to males and females.

    d. In the end, observation of actual people should count for more than deduction. If when you survey women or look at their taste in movie stars you find that they are attracted to men you look fertile, that means more than a theory about being attracted to money.

    One big problem with a lot of deductive reasoning in the world outside of math is that we don’t know so much and have to make so many assumptions, that we end up with conclusions that may have no basis in reality. Then, being human, we forget that our grand theory of economics was based on the idea that people would behave rationally and they don’t, and nothing works they way it is “supposed” to.

    I’m less clear on inductive reasoning, but I think it looks more like most science. You collect a lot of data and come up with a hypothesis to explain it. If you get the right results, it becomes a theory. Later on, you may discover that your theory was wrong and make a new one.

    Inductive reasoning doesn’t seem superior, just a way to move forward testing theories when you don’t have assumptions you can start with. Maybe most of the time it’s what we have to do in life because most things are more uncertain than math.

  34. Teresa says:

    The correct ratio is 5/1. Any deviation is not misguided, it is error; failure to comply is not imprudence, it is sin. On some matters, the natural law must be respected.

    David, natural law is against persons having a delightful sense of humor. :) :)

  35. mythago says:

    David, I know you meant that tongue-in-cheek, but as satire, it’s brilliant. It’s an excellent deconstruction of the argument that something is eternal, essential, and driven by natural law – an argument stubbornly asserted in the fact of evidence and history. “This is how I’ve always done it/this is what I like, therefore it is the Essence of the Thing”, repeated louder when there is countervailing evidence, perfectly illustrates the fallacy using the whimsical example of a martini instead of, say, marriage.

  36. John D says:

    The martini example is an excellent choice, not just because martinis are wonderful but there was a slow redefinition of the martini. And though defenders of “traditional martini” may be louder, have many supporters on their side, and even claim that the 5:1 ratio is an essential aspect of the martini, that tradition does not hold up to scrutiny.

    Some may claim that a martini that does not meet this 5:1 ratio, does not meet the definition of a martini, and should not be called one, if drinking such a thing should be permitted at all. Alarmists claim that it brings their own martinis into question and could possibly lead to the end of drinking altogether.

    However, history shows us that many individuals have varied the amount of vermouth in the drink, ranging from 1:1 to those who were drinking a glass of cold gin with an olive in it. In fact, the 1:1 proportion can be shown to be older than the 5:1 proportion, although defenders of “traditional martini” claim that this is unrelated to martinis as they are consumed today. The defenders of “traditional martini” also claim that martinis have been mixed in a 5:1 proportion for millennia, despite that vermouth was first made in the 18th century and martinis do not seem to exist before the 19th.

    So, about the truth of martinis…

  37. maggie gallagher says:

    When people redefine martini, it makes it a lot harder to get one.

  38. David Blankenhorn says:

    John D: Are you being tongue in cheek, or is it really true that martinis were at one point thought properly to be half vermouth? To me, this is a point of doctrinal significance.

  39. mythago says:

    When people redefine martini, it makes it a lot harder to get one.

    Have you ever actually ordered a drink in a bar, maggie? Because that’s just silly. A martini is a mixed drink, not something that comes in a sealed bottle, and it can be made to order (and usually is, given how people vary in how ‘dry’ they want it). “I want a martini, and it should be five parts gin to one part vermouth.” Or, “I want a martini with vodka, not gin.” Or, “I want a bone dry martini, with only a drop or vermouth.”

    Although, if you were trying to follow up David’s example with more satire, that was pretty good too. We know that the martini used to be in a ratio of 1:1 gin to vermouth, and somewhere along the way was redefined to mean a much higher ratio of gin; David’s “essential” martini is, itself, a redefinition, and his grandpa might, with just as much foundation, grumble that he can’t get a decent martini anymore because kids today have redefine it to mean a glass of watery gin.

  40. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: For reproductive success, men need to mate with fertile women and women need to mate with men who give them gifts.
    Therefore men will be innately attracted to women who look fertile (i.e young and healthy), but women will be attracted to rich men.

    That’s not a misuse, and it’s not ‘deductive reasoning’. It draws from both inductive reasoning (observation of human societies and our primate forbears) and on deductive reasoning (evolutionary theory) both of which are tested against the other.

    And yes, obviously it can be taken too far. Both men and women look for other traits besides youth/beauty and ability to provide. Nevertheless, evolutionary theory does tell us that men are more likely than women to prioritize youth and beauty in a partner, and women are more likely than men to prioritize income, dominant social status, ability to provide, etc.

    Re: We don’t know for a fact that it is possible to pass on the genetic trait be attracted to X or that we can pass it on differently to males and females.

    Uh, yes, the ‘type’ that we are attracted to is largely hereditary. Though there are other influences too….women prefer different sorts of men when they’re ovulating than when they’re not, and women who want large families tend to be attracted to a different physical type than those who don’t.

    It’s unfortunate the way some feminists keep denying the clear and obvious insights of evolutionary theory as applied to marriage, relationships, etc.

  41. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Yet Marxism lives on, at least in some circles, as a kind of secular religion, still formally pretending to be “scientific,” but being nothing of the sort. That is generally my experience in bodies of social thought derived through deductive reasoning.

    Marxism is no more a secular religion than liberalism, capitalism, or any other ideology is a secular religion. It’s not a science either (mostly because it includes normative judgments). It’s a philosophical framework for analyzing history and economics and for making judgments about what kind of society we ought to have. It obviously has problems, but I’m not sure it holds up *worse* than most of the other philosophical frameworks out there.

    Marx can be faulted for claiming his thought was value-neutral and scientific when it wasn’t, but by the same token any body of thought that makes value judgments isn’t really going to be purely scientific either.

  42. Teresa says:

    What do we do when our Concept of Truth has been breached? I’m not sure, David, I would have categorized persons and beliefs in the way you’ve done; but, there’s real merit in talking about consequences for us as individuals when long held beliefs, central to who we are or think we are, undergo a seismic shift.

    I think, just for the sake of argument, positions #2, #3, #4 have an easier time adjusting to change. #2 sees life as getting to know the Truth, so it adapts, maybe a bit reluctantly, but it moves on. #3 thinks Change is Truth, so its pretty happy with it all. #4 thinks whatever works for a person, that’s OK. All these positions pretty well move on with whatever life (martinis) comes along.

    This doesn’t mean that any of the above positions don’t have their preference for a martini and its mix. They probably pretty well do. However, “live and let live” seems to apply to these folks when change happens.

    My concern is for those of us with more leanings to position #1. How does that position accommodate, if that’s even possible, big structural change? How does one say there’s the Natural Law for Martinis, and its this. See, here it is. And, now you say what?

  43. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: For reproductive success, men need to mate with fertile women and women need to mate with men who give them gifts.
    Therefore men will be innately attracted to women who look fertile (i.e young and healthy), but women will be attracted to rich men.

    That isn’t necessarily deductive reasoning (it can be based on observations of nature), and it isn’t a misuse of anything- it seems to me to be pretty obviously true. It doesn’t describe every particular case, obviously, but men are more likely than women to be attracted to youth and beauty, and women are more likely than men to be attracted to wealth and social status.

  44. John D says:

    Of course I’m serious. What kind of person would take the issue of martinis anything but seriously?

    And I find myself in agreement with the link Maggie Gallagher posted (I’m at work, so I can’t fix myself a strong drink to get over that shock quite yet). Yes, there was the time when drinking gin was considered completely uncouth, yet in that time, there were few other options for hotting up a relatively mild drink (vermouth is only as strong as a wine, and for the record I’m happy with a glass of it, over ice, twist of lemon). Vodka doesn’t show up in American drinking habits until around WWII.

    This martini example is instructive, since the history of the martini shows us that the combination that seems unchangeable has changed a lot over the years, and that the “traditional martini” is something that was concocted only recently.

    Jumping back to the main topic: for some things there is Truth, for others, only truths.

  45. Diane M says:

    The problem with using martinis as an example is that they are human-invented and they don’t really matter.

    “Martini” is a word. It means what we all agree that it means. If you insist that it means orange juice, you will never get what you want in a restaurant.

    On the other hand, if you make a martini with different ingredients or proportions, it tastes different. It is not actually the same thing as a martini made the older way. You’ve changed the word, but the “thing” – a drink that if five parts gin and one part vermouth still exists separately and differently from a drink that is made with vodka. (Unless you drink it up. Then it doesn’t exist.)

    So on the one hand, yes, we humans can agree to change the meaning of any word we want to. We can call martinis oobleck or frindle.* We can say that martini is the name of Hawaiin Punch.

    But there is still something in the real world made with gin and vermouth that tastes a certain way and has certain physical characteristics no matter what name we give it.

    Truth is not the name you give something. Names are something you use to describe things.

    I am not sure what an essence is. Things exist outside of and before humans come along and name them or even think about them. (I might be creating the universe with my mind, but probably not.)

    What makes the things that exist become a unit worthy of naming no doubt has to do with us and our perceptions. Nevertheless, something exists beyond our way of putting the pieces together.

    In the end, I don’t find the martini example very convincing as a way to approach the nature of truth or how to find truth. It just shows that we can change names and invent new things.

    Changing names and inventing new things can be good or bad. In the case of a martini, it doesn’t really matter very much.

    When you look at things like politics, changing names is often a way to make your side sound better and at its worst turns into double-speak. It can be a way to hide underlying truths – drone attacks sound a lot better than robots that kill people.

    Inventing new things often leads to progress (I can change an ink cartridge without getting my hands messy), but it is not inherently good or bad (I can watch classics on Netflix and I can watch “reality” TV).

    None of this really seems to me to get us any closer to figuring out what truth is or how you can get to it. Which may not matter, because really, I think we all already have ideas about exactly how to figure out whether or not something is true.

    *Literary references to Dr. Seuss and Andrew Clements.

  46. Diane M says:

    he problem with using martinis as an example is that they are human-invented and they don’t really matter.

    “Martini” is a word. It means what we all agree that it means. If you insist that it means orange juice, you will never get what you want in a restaurant.

    On the other hand, if you make a martini with different ingredients or proportions, it tastes different. It is not actually the same thing as a martini made the older way. You’ve changed the word, but the “thing” – a drink that if five parts gin and one part vermouth still exists separately and differently from a drink that is made with vodka. (Unless you drink it up. Then it doesn’t exist.)

    So on the one hand, yes, we humans can agree to change the meaning of any word we want to. We can call martinis oobleck or frindle.* We can say that martini is the name of Hawaiin Punch.

    But there is still something in the real world made with gin and vermouth that tastes a certain way and has certain physical characteristics no matter what name we give it.

    Truth is not the name you give something. Names are something you use to describe things.

    I am not sure what an essence is. Things exist outside of and before humans come along and name them or even think about them. (I might be creating the universe with my mind, but probably not.)

    What makes the things that exist become a unit worthy of naming no doubt has to do with us and our perceptions. Nevertheless, something exists beyond our way of putting the pieces together.

    In the end, I don’t find the martini example very convincing as a way to approach the nature of truth or how to find truth. It just shows that we can change names and invent new things.

    Changing names and inventing new things can be good or bad. In the case of a martini, it doesn’t really matter very much.

    When you look at things like politics, changing names is often a way to make your side sound better and at its worst turns into double-speak. It can be a way to hide underlying truths – drone attacks sound a lot better than robots that kill people.

    Inventing new things often leads to progress (I can change an ink cartridge without getting my hands messy), but it is not inherently good or bad (I can watch classics on Netflix and I can watch “reality” TV).

    None of this really seems to me to get us any closer to figuring out what truth is or how you can get to it. Which may not matter, because really, I think we all already have ideas about exactly how to figure out whether or not something is true.

    *Literary references to Dr. Seuss and Andrew Clements.

  47. John D says:

    Diane,

    I think the martini discussion is quite productive, since people are better able to see past their preconceived notions about drinks. Yes, there are parameters: if I pour brandy, creme de cacao, and cream into a martini glass, I’ve still made a brandy Alexander, and not a brandy-and-chocolate martini.

    But, as you point out, martinis (and gin and vermouth, for that matter) are human inventions. As is language. So, I would argue, is marriage. We create these parameters by our discussion and understanding.

    Some argue that the concept of marriage comes from outside human society. But the word is just another word with its own history. [Side note: delving into word origins to determine the meaning of a word is generally unhelpful. Every time I see someone dissect a word to "prove" that same-sex couples cannot marry, I want to ask them about all the other words whose word origins would indicate that we're using them wrong.]

    Language is a slipper thing. I suspect even Star Trek’s Vulcans would say that the polysemic nature of language undermines any quest for absolute truth. (I’m on home territory here.) When someone asserts that [a certain word] has [a certain definition] this may not rule out [another definition].

    If I ask for a martini and you give me a glass of vodka with an imperceptible amount of vermouth, I’ll be disappointed. I can’t really claim that you haven’t given me a martini, just not the type of martini that’s right for me. It certainly is the right martini for someone else. [Ian Fleming dubbed the vodka martini a Vesper. On a trip to China, I had a room-temperature martini; the bar called an ice-cold martini a "007."]

    And so it is with “marriage.” The meaning of the word can shift from user to user, without excluding certain meanings. Perhaps by embracing polysemy, we could reach a marriage of minds on this (which, for the record, is not a binding legal contract between two people of the opposite sex, when used in this sentence).

  48. Mark Diebel says:

    David,

    FYI – from my readings today in Practical Theology by Gerben Heitink (work related) I find five approaches that have some relation to your four concepts of truth.
    1) The Normative – deductive current that sounds pretty much like what you are talking about in your number 1. It is a position that starts within a tradition and proceeds from there. It represents a whole set of practices and beliefs and a style of relating to “the world”. It also has considerable force, and comes from more than one location. Protestants and Catholics are represented. Heitink says that it does not fully encounter the social setting or reality.
    2) There is an empirical-analytical current that highly values research methods, including qualitiative and quantitative methods. Very academic and for the purpose of developing methodologically rigorous knowledge.
    3) A political-critical approach that favors more subjective interactions and participation with a population at disadvantage. This arises from liberation theology. The concern in particular criticizes the empirical current in that it will fail to understand the power dynamics of society. The empiricist-analytical current is dubious about the value of the knowledge this stream produces.
    4) A hermenutical-mediational approach – such as used by Don Browning – develops through practical reason – practical conclusions that may be revised over time and with more information.
    I think all of this points to the difficulty in society of actually determining truth about specific circumstances or situations. There are many opinions about how to approach “reality”, and characterize it, as well as determine how that situation relates to a theological belief or another. Your question is important for bringing that fact to light, but this thread has not advanced (that I can understand) how to approach social reality. Or am I wrong?