Better, Blended Systems of Knowledge

You make some declaration. I nod sagely and reply, “That’s true.” In this culture my reply might have entirely different meanings depending on the mode of justification I am embracing at the moment.

Should I be at that instant a coherentist, my response would indicate that your declaration accords with my own schema of beliefs, whatever that may be composed of and however strictly I apply my own rules of logical entailment or the principle of non-contradiction. A second listener might find the declaration completely bogus if it fails to meet his very personalized truth test. Should disagreement arise, we would all smile ruefully and change the subject, for coherentism’s flexibility also forbids any means of resolving dispute short of the exercise of power, which is a topic of great interest to postmodernists but of little comfort to those who think truth should carry its own power to resolve disputes.

But if, like most of us, I can switch effortlessly to the other mode of justification, correspondence, then my assent to the truth of your statement would depend on its being provable by a preponderance of the evidence in a different kind of accord—one with the reality we all have access to. My agreement might be motivated by the memory of an article in a scientific journal I read recently, and such empirical evidence is a very strong correspondence proof indeed. Or in the echo of your words I might quickly calculate the logical arguments for and against your claim and agree that yours is valid. Or I might have in mind the assenting testimony of someone possessing expertise in the matter you refer to who would surely agree with your statement. Or perhaps I lack these strong proofs of judgment, and consider what my father always said about the subject, so my agreement is prompted by authority. Least convincing would be some singular event I lived through that came to mind as you spoke, and though such undifferentiated experience is not very convincing, it often guides my views of truth, goodness, and beauty because it is so readily accessible (see “What Counts as Justification?”).

Now you probably do not know what motivated my reply. The true danger is that I may not know either, for most of us switch effortlessly, perhaps unconsciously, from one mode of verification to the other. Unfortunately, this dualism means that the simple statement, “It is true,” has entirely different meanings depending on whether at any one moment we are speaking as a coherentist or a correspondentist. As it is not possible to live purely by the lights of one justification mode or the other, it seems wise to investigate the kinds of hybrid systems that might make the best use of each mode’s strengths while always being mindful of its weaknesses in the universal human search for truth, goodness, and beauty (see “Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge”).

Let us suppose you lean toward a coherentist view, considering your own experience to be the best guide to your choices, rejecting the imposition of outside standards and rules, embracing the uniqueness of your own tastes and values. Do you drive or use a smartphone? Take medicine or visit the doctor? Then you have incorporated empirical truth into your personal schema and so accept at least the arc of correspondence science into your virtual circle of personal truths (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). Did you take that car to a mechanic for service or use some web-based advice for getting the most out of that cell phone? Then you also embrace another correspondence proof of judgment: expertise, and while it is fine to reject some experts, only a true coherentist would reject the closely studied experience that forms the basis of true expertise. Have you attempted to argue a point with a colleague or friend? Why? If you embrace the personalized nature of rational thought, that it derives from personal experience as an idiosyncratic and personal process rather than organizes it as a form of universal modes of consciousness, then you must also think that we each reason differently. But to argue the logic of a viewpoint is to assume a shared rational framework. Of course, you can embrace each of these correspondence proofs of judgment as arcs of some personalized schema, but then you would have to ask yourself what differentiates you from a correspondentist. Appropriating these truth tests while still calling yourself a coherentist does allow you to apply them inconsistently depending on mood and preference, but that practice violates the sole truth test you claim to subscribe to: the principle of non-contradiction.

Correspondence has its own set of difficulties. I will discuss the major issues regarding each of the three subjects we all make declarations about. Since determining truth is a precondition for determining goodness or beauty, my first concern will be to examine truth claims. For some of these, we must embrace coherence as the only alternative..

Truth Claims

Any truth claim supported by correspondence truth tests should be termed a judgment to indicate our willingness to provide justification and to distinguish the claim from an opinion, which is a truth claim for which we can offer no verification or whose verification derives from our virtual circle as a coherence claim (see “Tangled Terms”). Our judgments are the kinds of claims we can support by the five proofs of judgment used to support any correspondence claim mentioned earlier. So what kinds of claims qualify as judgments as opposed to “mere” opinions? It is easy to classify some judgments: scientific hypotheses, laws, and theories; simple conclusions logically based on incontrovertible fact; mathematical theorems and proofs. These all depend on close reasoning and carefully limited experience; the more we can bring to our judgments the more reliable they will prove. Not all judgments are so fastidious though. At some point, we make declarations supported by a single experience, the most questionable authority, or the most amorphous or careless thinking, and so our judgments merge seamlessly into unsubstantiated opinions; therefore without our even noticing it, we make truth claims supported only by our virtual circle and, when questioned, find ourselves reacting defensively or dismissively.

We might wonder where that line should be drawn. Take conceptual knowledge as an example. If correspondence requires us to point to reality and say, “There is my proof,” to what may we point when making truth claims about any concept? Consider justice. We have a huge and weighty system in place to deliver it; two million persons in the U.S. are incarcerated for violating it; lawyers and judges develop expertise to define and extend it; and we all are required to conform our behavior to it. So it might be worthwhile to ask where in reality does it exist? What are we talking about when referencing it? How do we know what it is and isn’t? Now a coherentist “knows” that justice is whatever his experience, beliefs, and values tell him it is, but that would hardly satisfy the jurist or prisoner. The pragmatist airily dismisses the question and considers the judicial codex or cultural value system as the source of justice (see “The Foundations of the Law: an Appetizer”). But the correspondentist claims that justice has real existence, is a standard that we approach yet never master, even to the point of civil disobedience to the positive law we reject in favor of it (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?“). Where does she search for it in the reality we all have access to? Plato’s answer was that we all have some tarnished conception of true justice like a dim memory that nags at us. Aristotle claimed that this concept, like all concepts, is the product of repeated exposure to specific instances that gradually flesh out generalizations. Each imperfect application of the concept produces through logical analysis a conception closer to the “true” meaning of the word as it applies to varying experience. Now this notion might appeal to the coherentist who sees his own experience as unique and personalized, except she also sees reasoning as formed by experience and therefore equally idiosyncratic, private, and closed to analysis. This leaves no room for a universalist and correspondence meaning of the term. So when we say a certain law is unjust, do we reference the coherence or the correspondence meaning of the concept? I would argue that concepts, like the language we invent to articulate them, are real only within the human mind that thinks about such things but also that our minds function so similarly that you and I can have productive conversations about our concepts regardless of their origins, enabling logical analysis and expertise as correspondence proofs of judgment concerning the nature of concepts. This position is called conceptualism, and is distinguished from nominalism, the view that only material things have reality and the poorly named realism, the notion that concepts have real objective existence in a Platonic sense.

We also hold our beliefs to be true, though should we think them “true to me,” we may trust that they are rooted in coherence rather than correspondence. So corrupted has our understanding of warrant become in this postmodern age that a person may find nothing irrational in claiming her belief in an afterlife is “true to me.” What does such a truth claim signify? Does it mean that only the speaker will partake in the afterlife? Or is it more likely to mean that the speaker is making a correspondence claim (an afterlife exists in the reality we all share) with only a coherentist warrant? Can beliefs boast of any other kind ( see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?“) People believe all kinds of things, of course, but the proper use of the term expresses a preference that potentially corrupts the judgment necessary to determine prooof before preference can be exercised. How could reality be determined so as to structure preference if it is already warped by a preference that should properly follow rather than direct it?

I think it possible that we make no real distinction in our minds between judgments we are prepared to support and the beliefs that derive from our judgments and extend them beyond the scope of justification. For instance, it is a valid judgment to think that a creator exists. In our present state of knowledge, a creator seems logically necessary to explain the existence of creation (recent cosmology offers a counter-argument and judgment, it is true). The nature of that creator seems a suitable subject for belief, but such beliefs could not assert that the universe is older than the creator, for that would violate both the available evidence and the reasoning that justifies it.

Beliefs are the dim glow beyond the light of our knowledge, suggested by it but too speculative to be justified as yet. Our beliefs therefore may be based on our correspondentist judgments, though they are too tinged with desire to be judgments themselves and so are always coherentist (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). Related words like faith and hope follow the same template. The speaker who proclaims her faith as more certain than knowledge is certainly speaking the truth, provided she stipulates it to be coherence based, for within that schema of justification she may assert whatever she wishes so long as she avoids contradiction. She might also remember that differing coherence truth claims allow for no means of settling dispute and thus require her tolerance of differing beliefs and opinions, and, of course, she must also recognize as a condition of her schema that her convictions are not binding on anyone else.

Can our emotions be said to have correspondence reality? Certainly, in one sense they can. Legal and less-than-legal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco all have psychotropic effects. In a neurological sense, emotions are merely electro-chemical reactions in the brain, available to anyone with access to an MRI or a pharmacy. In that sense, they hardly seem unique, proprietary, or some inaccessible bastion of private reality. On the other hand, their impact on our judgments can neither be analyzed nor ignored. In terms of justification, they seem much more relevant as coherence warrants than as correspondence ones. The degree to which that attribution handicaps correspondence as warrant depends on how much you value and trust your emotions. Still, in the there-it-is reality of correspondence proofs of judgment, the power of emotion is a wedge issue for coherentists.

It is unlikely that a correspondentist would thoughtlessly revert to a coherence warrant, though it is always comforting to find at least one little arc of one’s virtual circle aligning with the way things really are. The reverse situation is, unfortunately, much more likely as a thoughtless appeal to non-contradiction from within the perceptual wall might bolster a declaration properly appealing to correspondence. All those “truths of the heart,” “gut feelings,” and premonitions likely rise into consciousness from the virtual circle and should be viewed with a degree of suspicion when they advance a truth claim about the reality we all share.  The classic example of that kind of thing is a declaration of someone’s religious claim to truth or goodness, which is clearly a claim binding on all of reality, yet one inevitably backed by purely coherentist warrants (see “Religion and Truth”).

It seems clear that a workable justification model would find room and apportion proper value to all the ways in which we seek to know truths about ourselves and our reality and avoid self-contradiction in doing so. But wait. There’s more. For however much we celebrate truth as an imperative, we desire something else even more. All of our judgments about truth are merely the means to the end of choosing. Homo sapiens, “wise man,” seeks wisdom because he must somehow choose the good in the storm and stress of ordinary living. I use this word for now simply to mean that which we desire at the moment of choosing. That requires two different pieces of knowledge. First, we must isolate the truth as we choose to define and warrant it. Only then can we choose the good. But how can we know what that is? That question certainly deserves an answer, but it must always be preconditioned by finding truth as a means to that end (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“).


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