Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge

Our bipolar arguments often come down to the nature of experienced reality. Should we focus on the experience or from the reality we wish for it to reflect? If experience itself is the focus, we are likely to interpret the reality we form in our mind as a creative and person endeavor but if we focus on what that endeavor strives to create, we seek a kind of reflection of something external to it (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?). These positions are captured by the use of two knowledge terms. The coherentist thinks the perceptual wall that separates mind from matter must inevitably distort what it seeks to reflect. The correspondentist might ignore that obstacle or seek to pierce it by various stratagems (see “What Counts as Justification?). But as we too seldom provide the warrants for our declarations, we too often ignore any issue of consistency in our justifications for them. It is difficult to be a pure correspondentist or a pure coherentist in ordinary living. We are too dependent on perception and lack the self-discipline to be consistently one or the other, and so long as we focus on the pragmatic outcomes of our choices about truth, goodness, and beauty, we muddle through. But our regret over error and our yearning for better leads us always toward some simpler and, we hope, more workable view of these two opposing modes of justification. Our dissatisfaction is rooted in the complementary flaws in each mode. Correspondence resolves public dispute but it relies on a serious limitation of the twofold act of knowing. It consists of perception and reflection. In its admiration for modernist axioms of commitment, universal reasoning applied to individual experience, correspondence requires limiting the experiential side so as to diminish the variabilities of sense data and context while expanding the opportunities for logical analysis. A laboratory experiment is its exemplar, so empirical science is its most convincing proof, with expertise and broad competence engaging a higher proportion of experience to a lesser degree of rationality, finally tapering off to the kinds of unique context we can term undistilled experience, which implies it whizzes by in all its singular glory and all its temptations to error. Coherence celebrates the glory and finds ways to turn a blind eye to error by finding an entirely different mode of justification: the “stickiness” of our private convictions, their ability to confirm each other in an entirely different schema of commitment.  Coherence applies to many of our mental constructions—ideas, beliefs, emotions, imaginations — but it invariably fails to settle disputes. Our dissatisfaction with either modality thrusts us toward novel attempts to find the golden key that gives us maximal reliability. What would that look like? What new problems would it engender? We are always looking for the best way to slice this pie.

The neatest choice would be perfecting one or the other. To be a pure correspondentist would be to see all claims to truth, goodness, and beauty as declarations about external reality verifiable by their correspondence to actual components of that reality. Any sentence we speak that does not correspond to that requirement could be an exclamation, interjection, question, or command but could not be declarative. To say, “The cat is on the table,” when perceptual evidence indicates otherwise to any observer would be either a lie or an error. To be a pure coherentist would thrust one into solipsism, the condition of doubting the reality of anything outside the perceptual wall of one’s own mind. All truth claims would thus be verifiable strictly by reference to those claims already accepted as true within the perceptual wall. All claims justified by other means or offered by other persons would vanish in a cloud of irrelevance.

The obvious problem with both positions is their demand for certainty as a requirement for knowledge, one inconsistent with innumerable conditions of ordinary life, so we turn reluctantly from certainty to doubt, for knowing what is true, good, and beautiful is a necessary condition of our existence. Honesty requires us to face both our need and our poverty in satisfying it.

But who says we need to be honest? One response to our dilemma is to turn to a spurious certainty by exaggerating what we can know about truth, goodness, and beauty. Another is to redefine these terms to make knowledge of them easier to attain.

All efforts to pierce the perceptual wall, the barrier that separates our perceptions from the reality they seek to reveal, must be stymied by that barrier. One solution might be to seek truth only within our minds rather than through some relatedness to reality. Revelation, insight, inspiration, memories of the ideal, pantheistic intuition, transcendental experience, and so on are designed to give certainty without universal verification. To the coherentist, these methods confer true knowledge if what they reveal agrees in content and mode of transmission with her virtual circle, her schema of previously accepted ideas. For example, she could hardly embrace divine revelation if her virtual circle did not already include belief in a deity, nor could the content of that revelation hold truth for her if it disputed beliefs already held as true or moral imperatives already embraced as good. Her task in the face of such challenges is either to reject the anomaly or reorder her entire schema of knowledge so as to allow it to nest comfortably among the other components of her virtual circle. Since rejecting it is infinitely easier in both conserving energy and removing doubt, she will most likely choose that option, and if she should exercise it frequently enough, will find herself actively avoiding such encounters. Should the anomaly prove sufficiently disturbing to force itself into consideration, she will face a serious reordering of what she had thought true, a catharsis, that forces her to see her world anew.

The correspondentist faces a higher bar in verifying such efforts because both the means of transmission and the knowledge thus conveyed have to be universally verifiable — meaning knowable by any observer — and such claims often produce doubt and disagreement that cannot be resolved by reference to the reality they purport to reveal. Religious convictions illustrate the problem of claiming correspondence truth using coherence means of justification (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?“). This problem’s intractability was gruesomely driven home by the Protestant Reformation. The standard means of resolving it is to enshrine authority as a correspondence means, but that solution only introduces another set of problems that also resist public resolution (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority” ).

If all mystical efforts to eliminate problems of justification testify to our deep need for truth, goodness, and beauty, so too do the efforts of some thinkers to change the terms of the discussion. I will stipulate that they participate in a long intellectual conversation aiming at a moving target. So long as gnostic means of knowing conferred a sense of certainty—conditions lasting until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century—thinkers felt comfortable demanding a very strong sense of certainty for truth, goodness, and beauty claims (see “Premodern Authority). Once epistemological doubt reared its ugly head, the demands began to subside, so that we may claim knowledge today with only a preponderance of the available evidence on our side. If the definition of truth is so flaccid and so flexible, why not go all the way? Wouldn’t it be even easier to claim if we defined it as “whatever works”? At least, this was the thinking of the pragmatists of the earlier twentieth century, who chose to define truth and goodness as so contextualized as to be indeterminable outside the specific situation to which the terms are applied (See “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“. Such thinking led to coherentism as it was formulated later in the century. We may choose similarly to define goodness in its moral form as our private value system as we speak our own truth, claiming our right to hold this opinion, which can be applied to quality and aesthetics. These kinds of efforts reduce the difficulties of verifying our truth, goodness, and beauty claims by redefining the meaning of the terms. In practice, all such reductive efforts end in coherentism.

I should briefly mention that correspondentists are equally prone to a false reductionism. The most obvious example is the prevalence of scientism in post-industrial culture, the fervent desire to dismiss all issues not open to empirical verification as impossible to arbitrate. Science is such a praiseworthy endeavor that we wish to amplify its truth-finding skill, but that very skill derives from the limitations of its methodology. Attempting to apply empirical methodology incorrectly has led to the manifold errors of the pseudo-sciences and the human sciences (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences). Attempting to dismiss any investigation not open to empirical method as nonsense has led to the arrogance of scientists who implausibly dismiss all questions of goodness and beauty as irrelevant because such questions are unsuited to their mode of inquiry. Another correspondentist error has been to demand such rigor in rational investigations that issues without strictly definable parameters and closed rationalist systems simply disappear from discussions, as evidenced by the work of the logical positivist philosophers. I need not mention that most issues pertinent to human life are not so easily disposed of. Oddly, when strong empiricists and strict rationalists do attempt to address such issues using the kinds of techniques we all must use in everyday life, their thinking seem as fallible as our own. I am thinking here of Freud’s letters, Bertrand Russell’s social critiques, and Stephen Hawking’s and Richard Dawkins’s religious commentary; these all demonstrate the full spectrum of human fallibility.

I hope I have made two things clear in this brief survey of our zeitgeist’s efforts to simplify the search for truth, goodness, and beauty. First, no such effort succeeds. Second, we continue to try. Imagine the brashest ignoramus proudly touting his own narrow views. He is proclaiming truth. He offers a theory of goodness. He cannot help himself. He’s only human.

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