Tangled Terms

For those interested in how persons choose to justify their claims to truth, goodness, or beauty, conversations prove as rich in meaning as poetry, though perhaps more as elegy than ode. Because it is far easier to make our declarations than warrant them, we often find ourselves tied into a Gordian knot of self-contradiction when asked to explain ourselves. We have history to thank for this conundrum. Our age endorses two contradicting kinds of warrant. The oldest might be called public, or to use a more formal term, correspondence. “Public” does not refer to anything other than a willingness to say to another the reasons for our claim in such a way that the other person might both understand the reason and have some means to respond in kind. “Personal” justifications, called coherence, are those rationales that are justified by their compatibility with other convictions already accepted by the person making the declaration rather than by an appeal to some mutual and external warrant (see “What Counts as Justification?“). Yet the language we use to make truth claims is not up to the task of clarifying which kind of warrant we are appealing to, drenching each declarative sentence in a murky ambiguity both confounding and tempting. While navigating these claims tends to confound the attentive listener who wishes to investigate the declaration’s truth, the ability to transition effortlessly, even unconsciously, between the two modes tempts careless speakers to make claims they could never justify to another. I’ve harvested a few common turns of phrase from recent conversations and readings that illustrate the problem. Perhaps you’ve noticed them too.

“I know my opinion is true…”

Either you actually don’t know it, or the opinion or belief you’re expressing is not what it seems to be. We call a broad range of truth claims “opinions” that are actually preferences or expressions of taste. It certainly is possible to know such things in a coherence sense, meaning they confirm or fail to contradict all the other personalized truths we construct in our minds that can be justified in no other way. For instance, I know that I am hungry at this moment. Whether that sensation qualifies as an opinion is more of an insult to the term opinion than to my appetite; my uttering it to you is an insult to your attention. So should the speaker be claiming that kind of an opinion true, the listener might wonder why she bothered to speak it. Perhaps she was talking to herself. Perhaps she was making a correspondence claim and casually misused the word “opinion” when she might have more clearly used the indicative term “judgment.” On the other hand, she might have spoken correctly, and when challenged, might have shot back in defense and confusion, viz…

“I have a right to my opinion.”

It is doubtful that anyone would bother wasting this phrase– with the requisite degree of indignation that accompanies it– on a mere coherence truth claim involving personal taste, emotional response, or interior sensation. This kind of claim bursts from an injured dignity. The speaker feels under attack. The implication of this comment is that all opinions ought to be respected, perhaps equally. But this feeling reflects the confusion implicit in the word opinion. Certainly, when used in a coherence sense, everyone certainly does have such a right since coherence truth requires the speaker’s choosing to assign her own degree of value to all putative warrants, so should she accord sacred status to revelations or dreams or any other perception or reflection, her listener must respect that right, so long as the collective assemblage of private truths betrays no contradictions and makes no correspondence claim. The problem arises when said opinion goes beyond the confines of the speaker’s own mind and presumes to state a truth about the common reality we all share. For claims to truth, goodness, or beauty in common reality are subject to an entirely different set of justifications. For these claims, simple non-contradiction is insufficient, and the “opinion” opens itself to the kinds of warrants used in correspondence (see “Settling and Unsettling Disagreements”). In these cases, the speaker might more correctly claim that she has a right to be wrong. Confusion about the use of the word opinion derives from the flaccidity of its meaning. Still, it could be worse. She might be referencing your point of view, in which case the preferred comment seems to be…

“That’s only your opinion.”

This is the flip side of the previous comment. If that one was fueled by injured dignity, this one runs on contemptuous dismissal blithely indifferent to the contradiction produced by your applying the former to your own opinions and this one to mine. This one discounts any differing truth claim on the grounds that it derives from differing perceptions and idiosyncratic reasoning, in effect accusing it of carrying only coherentist meaning. It goes without saying that the speaker of this comment disagrees with the claim. Obviously, if she examines its nature to determine if it can be warranted by correspondence, she would be required to find the warrant for her disagreement, but why bother to go to the trouble when dismissing it out of hand by casting it as a meaningless expression of taste or preference disposes of it far more thoroughly? We see a similar lazy tack with related expressions, for instance…

“My logic versus your logic.”

This kind of comment vivifies the postmodern notion that consciousness is fundamentally private and incommunicable, justifying a thorough coherentism (for more background on this issue, please see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents.”) The phenomenological position has a long heritage, but its insistence that reasoning is molded by experience or culture is refuted by the universality of mathematics and worldwide standardization of scientific disciplines just as its fundamental claim that objective reality is unknowable is disproven by, among many other things, the triumph of technology. Since even devout coherentists find these correspondence truths difficult to reject, they must construct some inventive twists in their virtual circles to maintain their objections. Coherentists are thus handicapped by a requirement for epistemological purity that their opponents can avoid. Correspondentists who defend the intersubjectivity or even the objectivity of experience are not required by their position to claim that all reality is knowable by reason or common experience (the historical errors of science’s champions to claim more territory for correspondence knowledge than it can support have been responsible for both the hubris of scientism and the disaster of the human sciences), but coherentists are compelled by the exclusionary nature of their argument to reject the possibility of any objective knowledge. The result is that modernists may embrace a place for both correspondence and coherence, but postmodernists must reject correspondence in its entirety or introduce contradiction into a virtual circle whose only truth test is the presence of non-contradiction. One of the many embarrassments of that absolute rejection is that they must somehow reject the truth of the scientific enterprise. One way is to denigrate science as one more kind of propaganda by saying…

“Culture is composed of the stories we tell of ourselves.”

This one is particularly slippery because, after all, at least some of culture is exactly that. But the perniciousness of this claim lies in the privileged status it accords to stories at the expense of the other kinds of truth and goodness claims that form culture: e.g. moral values, traditions, laws, and theories. The root of the dichotomy that puts narrative on one side of the scale and other kinds of conceptual constructs on the other can be traced to the fabrication of mature postmodern theory by the poststructuralist movement of the 1970’s. Their opposition to modernism and its errors was complete; they were deeply contemptuous of rationalizations for exploitation that modernism had endorsed: imperialism, colonialism, racism, classism, capitalism, and misogyny. Postmodern critics dismissed the rickety and elaborate (and self-contradictory) justifications modernism had erected to excuse its exploitations as mere stories the powerful tell themselves, grand narratives with all the freight of fictionalizing and world-creating that stories require. Of course, demoting a theory to a story not only diminished the theory; it also elevated the story, something the literateurs who composed postmodernism thought perfectly splendid. But no matter how sustained the effort at epistemological equivalency or how insistently an entertainment culture places narratives before us, stories are neither reality nor adequately suited to explain it (for more on why, please see “Tall Tales.”) We grow blind to moral reasoning and the lessons of experience when we think they are, and so blur all judgments into opinion, all analysis into parable. It is little wonder that the urge to question everything is deeply ingrained in our culture today, and so we…

“Challenge authority!”

This mantra has been the theme of the last five hundred years, so one might think it tried and true. From the Protestant Reformation that spawned modernism through the postmodern thought revolution that challenged it at the dawn of the twentieth century, intellectual history has been a roundelay of questions, objections, and rephrasings of accepted wisdom. But one needn’t know any history to observe this in action: each person’s life is a microcosm of the same process as we first believe, then trust, and finally interrogate the truth, goodness, and beauty claims that we were born into. I cannot say this maturation process has always been as forthright and aggressive as it is today in a world where yesterday’s verities are today’s ironies, but surely something like it has molded more and more lives since the sixteenth century. So why do I in turn challenge the authority of the phrase? I think it blurs both the nature of authority and the possibility of challenging it. First, it is tempting to throw all “received wisdom” into the same basket, making it easy to assume that all the “truth” we learned as children or from the culture is equally dependent on authority. An unlikely coalition of religionists and postmodernists support this view, the former to elevate authority and the latter to denigrate it. In an earlier essay (“Authority, Trust and Knowledge”) I referenced C.S. Lewis’s claim that our acceptance of science is built on the authority of the scientific community. No less an authority than John Paul II in his encyclical Fides Et Ratio makes the same claim. But surely the paradigms of science are quite different from the pronouncements of parents. The facts of the history text are of sterner stuff than the musings of the first-year teacher citing them. One may choose to accept anything on authority, but when appeal to a stronger correspondentist warrant is available, we have the choice to reach for it, and only our own limitations of time and energy inhibit the effort. So strong warrants for truth and goodness claims are often accessible: empiricism, logic, or expertise supports so many of the truths we choose to take “on authority.” This is quite different from those truth and goodness claims for which authority is the only possible warrant, such as those supporting religious dogma. I think religionists blur the difference between authority and stronger correspondence warrants because they seek to elevate authority to the level of these justifications, perhaps to blur the line, perhaps because their own acceptance convinces them of its legitimacy. Quite the opposite motive moves postmodernists, who proudly seek to challenge authority wherever they find it, seeing it as an implement of cultural control masking simple power relationships. Their motive is to sap the strength of stronger justifications, reducing all to the level of authority, a source of power they feel very comfortable confronting. Historically, their ease derives from the earlier challenges to religious and political authority in the name of modernism, efforts whose modes postmodernists appropriated for their own attacks on modernism itself (not that modernism ever shirked from attacking its own modes of knowing as well).

There is still a whiff of the lone protester blocking the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square about this exhortation to challenge authority, an invitation to bravely man the barricades. Come on! After six hundred years of attacks, authority has all the starch of a wet paper bag, its fatal weakness being its inability as justification to resolve challenge on its own terms. We might miss that weakness if we fail to isolate authority from stronger modes of justification, which are indeed much more difficult to attack and which contain within their own methodology the means to resolve challenge. Or we might overlook how tiresomely often authority is used as an easily wielded form of cultural control just as postmodernists charge. This effort is understandable, for nothing in our complex and bureaucratic zeitgeist is easier than setting up a top-down “authority.” Only it can’t work that way for two simple reasons: acceptance must be granted from below, so to speak, and it is always tentative in a society nurtured on questioning everything. As often as it is set up, it gets knocked down simply as a function of its nature as warrant. For when we “challenge authority,” we break the reed of trust that props it up. Should we appeal to a stronger warrant, authority fails, for example, as religion retreats in the face of competing scientific claims or as parents accede to the wisdom of childrearing experts. Should we withdraw assent in the name of a competing authority, the effect is the same, for what can our original authority offer as a counter? Should it proclaim its righteousness more loudly, more insistently, more violently in the face of challenge? This, of course, explains the absurdity of religious conflict (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). It is no great thing to challenge authority, for the challenge alone dissolves authority as justification for truth and goodness claims. Challenging power is a different and harder matter, but the decision to do so derives from the knowledge that such an act would accomplish some perceived good, and determining the good thrusts us right back into issues of warrant. The problem then gets harder: finding goodness is a far greater challenge than finding truth, particularly by means of either authority or pragmatic convenience. Of the three categories of goodness– instrumental, qualitative, and moral– the search for moral goodness is the most difficult of all, in part because in an age that reveres science the way earlier ages revered religion, we find empiricism deaf to our pleas for clarity about moral goodness (See “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). Science can only approach the perceptual. The great failure of our age is the failure of moral judgment, so it is no wonder we wish to find someone of whom we can say…

“She is a moral authority.”

But she is only if you trust her to be. We see two bottlenecks in this claim, each limiting the qualifications of those who can claim moral preeminence. The issue of authority is the same as in the example above. No one can claim authority over you without your permission, for authority by nature is power freely granted through an act of trust. To labor this point for clarity, let me distinguish someone being granted authority over you versus your freely granting it. Of course, all kinds of persons and positions assume positions of authority in complex social arrangements: policemen and principals, clergy and clerical workers at the DMV. But until you accept their power over you willingly, trusting in its legitimacy, they can have no authority. We all know what happens right after you reject, say, the authority of the policeman. But the power of the gun and badge are not synonymous with the authority most citizens grant the person who carries them. Our bowing to power is an act of pragmatic calculation rather than moral reasoning. It is the polar opposite of granting authority, though one might not know it from observing our response to the demands of either.

And that introduces a wrinkle, for on what grounds should you grant any authority? It makes little sense to say you grant authority on the authority of the one you grant it to, does it? So how do you decide whom you should trust with moral authority? This thorny question has been answered for all of us by our childhood trust in parents and other adults, a trust logically granted in one area because it had earlier been earned in others. Children trust their parents to handle their childhood needs, one of which is moral suasion. So all parents, or at least all good parents, qualify as moral authorities, at least to the children who freely grant their trust. Is the situation analogous for adults, who have learned lessons of human fallibility all too well? It seems so, for adults grant moral authority with the same kind of rational assent perhaps leavened with a stronger rational approval of the institution that supports its moral leader. So we willingly give our trust to pope, patriarch, ayatollah, or shaman in moral issues, and also to police, judges, and civil magistrates because the institutions they lead have provided us with a moral compass we approve of. When we investigate the basis of such assent, and especially when our trust is violated, human fallibility being what it is, moral authority seems like a pretty precarious thing, principally because of the weakness of authority as a warrant for truth and goodness claims.

But then we face the second bottleneck: we are granting moral authority, and in this most difficult of goodness issues, the problems of authority are multiplied by the elusiveness of moral certainty. We face immediately the collapse of the stronger correspondence warrants for truth and goodness. Empiricism cannot guide us, for moral goodness is not perceptible, removing all such questions from science’s purview. Science is the strongest warrant for many truths, but it must be blind and dumb to moral issues. Expertise is not very useful for moral questions either if only because morality is too contextualized to conform to the demands of repeated, similar experiences that the development of expertise demands. We have seen three moral systems based on logic: virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and duty ethics; but these efforts to systematize moral agency are complex to negotiate and less than perfect in practice. It is true that many, perhaps most, persons today rely on the weakest of correspondence warrants for truth and goodness, undifferentiated experience. In practice, this total reliance on the demands of the moment as calculated by a fairly random attribution of value to the factors involved is indistinguishable from moral pragmatism or even emotivism (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). It is little wonder that moral authority still retains its attraction despite the ravages of the last five hundred years. It offers certainty and clarity, provided it is not challenged, but, of course, in a diverse and divisive moral landscape, it always will be challenged. And even the slightest consideration of the competing warrant of a challenge destroys the trust necessary to maintain any authority, especially the moral kind. Religious fundamentalists of all stripes seem to forget this. They seek a premodern position for authority, a return to the trust that nourished it for the ten centuries before the Reformation. They seek to overturn a reality in which…

“People will believe what they want to believe.”

Since many persons equate “belief” with “opinion,” the intent of this one is probably similar to dismissing a truth claim as only an opinion, but perhaps something more attaches to this expression. The use of “belief” ups the stakes, for while “opinion” is a pretty meaningless term in our culture, “belief” still retains at least a hint of theology about it. We all call our religious convictions “beliefs,” not “opinions.” And this is appropriate, for the etymology of “belief” includes an emotional attachment to whatever we claim to be true, or good, or beautiful (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?“). I really do believe what I want to believe. Now this affection is not an impediment to my claiming coherence knowledge. The freedom to select from a nearly infinite buffet of perceptions and reflections limited only by the weak restraint of non-contradiction implies exactly the kind of affective choosing that coherence permits and “belief” signifies. I may believe myself capable of great feats of courage or acts of self-sacrifice in such a schema. I think it true because I wish it true as I assemble my virtual circle.

But surely not all of our beliefs are wishes on the order of Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy. Many of our beliefs are negative ones. Atheists disbelieve in a caring Father in the sky. Suicides believe life is hopeless. By what definition could these dark thoughts ever be judged “wishes”? Though counterintuitive, the term still applies, I think. In terms of warrant for correspondence truth, beliefs lie just outside the borders of knowledge, meaning that their warrants are too weak to be considered “true by a preponderance of the evidence” simply because either the evidence or our reasoning about it is insufficient. (Of course, beliefs are perfectly satisfactory as coherence justifications for the kinds of personal truths that build a virtual circle.) The trick is to apply the right warrant to the correct belief. The question of whether God exists is hardly a coherence one, so the nonbeliever and the theist face the same correspondence knowledge issue that cannot be answered in this life. Each seeks to extend her knowledge of what can be answered, entering the realm of belief. So long as each recognizes the limits of assertions based on their respective beliefs, no foul. Two key problems are translating belief into authority and revelation into correspondence truth. For more on this issue, please see “Religion and Truth”). Since we cannot know by a preponderance of the evidence, we must believe something simply to complete our picture of the world; we must supplement the virtuous circle, that conceptual construct of real truths about the world that we have discovered, with arcs of the virtual one that we must construct. These constructions constitute our beliefs. There is no escape from this effort. The agnostic who finds wisdom in proclaiming her ignorance still must act, and her actions must give the lie to her claim of indifference (see “The Lure of the Will to Believe” ). This irresistible urge to complete the virtuous circle, to know reality even when that completion requires construction rather than discovery, characterizes all belief. It is perhaps the strongest of our impulses, for it allows us to do what we are made for: choosing the good. Since that choice requires first knowing the reality that contextualizes the choice so as to frame options, we are moved to knowledge, and then to the belief that completes it. This impulse drives us to curiosity about the world and allows us to learn from experience, but it also tempts us to premature closure of our virtual circle in what is surely the mistaken judgment that it is the virtuous one. So, yes, belief is what we wish to think true if only because the extension of our knowledge into that murky territory is our only means of claiming comprehension about our environment and opening it to instrumental, preferential, and moral goodness, even if what we do know pushes our beliefs into the depths of despair.

This constructive effort is considerably more creative for the coherentist who may structure her beliefs as knowledge verified by non-contradiction and integrated into her virtual circle by whatever degree of logical rigor she wishes to apply. It is more circumscribed in efforts capable of correspondence justification, for the judgment I must bring to my effort to secure knowledge requires a deliberative attempt at objectivity expressly at odds with the license granted in coherence. In truth, the judgments we make in attempting to build the virtuous circle regard the temptations of belief as obstacles to knowledge, for all kinds of biases tempt us, in Plato’s words, to fall in love with our own opinions. So the correspondentist faces a border battle in regard to belief. Embraced too uncritically, they tempt her to hubris and premature closure, to exaggerated claims to knowledge of the reality we all share, yet she must still embrace beliefs at some point to complete her picture of how reality operates so that she might choose the good as she understands it. And the border between knowledge and belief is a moving one as we grow in wisdom. So how do we grow wise in arbitrating the ever-shifting boundary between our knowledge and beliefs? The best advice I have seen is to follow Karl Popper’s warning: seek anomalies in our own judgments and the beliefs we build upon them. Search our cherished truths for falsifiability. Subject our supposed virtuous circle to all the skeptical objections we can throw against it. As unpleasant as errors are to find, the discovery of each is a corrective to the temptations of premature closure.

We cannot help but to complete the shapes of what we only dimly perceive in the foggy distance, and that bit of construction must derive from what we can see in the foreground. So we properly base our beliefs upon our knowledge. But even this process of cautious completion, extrapolation, and exploration reminds us of the temptations of belief, for we mold the unknown so as to conform to the known despite all of our caution. Just as medieval mapmakers drew great white spans upon their charts yet chose to confine them by the continental outlines they knew, so must we shape the unknown by the reality we know. St. Paul had it right: faith really is the evidence of things not seen. Modesty should caution us on that score not to claim more evidence than we are given, for we are seeing through a glass darkly, no matter what we wish to believe.

It may be a psychological truism that people will believe what they want to believe, but it turns out to be a very poor moral directive. Better far to say that people should believe what is true, recognizing that beliefs extend rather than constitute knowledge, at least for correspondentists. Coherentists face a rather different problem, for their freedom to claim their beliefs and opinions as certain knowledge exacts its ironic price. The postmodern battle cry, “Perception is reality,” must always end in the stalemate of “my truth versus your truth.”


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