What Counts as Justification?

Try this. The next time a friend makes some simple declarative comment, ask her this simple question: “How do you know?” Now this exercise should be enlightening for you as well as your friend if you take a moment to examine it. First, you might ask yourself why you picked this particular declaration to challenge. Next, you might pay attention to the tone of your friend’s response. Finally, notice its content. All three observations should prove educational.

As to the first, it seems a peculiarity of our nature that we never notice a need to justify our truth claims unless we find them challenged. Did you disagree with the remark you chose to question? The odds are that you did, and that propensity reveals something about our desire for consensus and civility that is at one level very positive. Unless there’s something wrong with us, we don’t wish to be confrontational, annoying, and fractious. We typically don’t seek out discord. Our alarm bells don’t go off when conversations either confirm or fail to challenge our virtual circles, the complex of mutually supportive truth and goodness claims that make sense of our world. (see “What is the Virtual Circle?”) On the down side of this inclination, our failure to interrogate our virtual circles allows us an unjustified conviction that they are, in truth, the virtuous circle, the single accurate understanding of what reality really is. Our reluctance to challenge others and ourselves could be a social survival mechanism or mental indolence. I am convinced that we have a little unconscious mental calculator that clicks off all the positive reinforcements we receive for our own views of the true and the good. Perhaps this consensus gentium helps us to sustain them. In any case, why would we want to ruffle feathers and disrupt our own placidity by seeking justification to declarations we find congenial?

Of course, we and those we converse with could be wrong. We could be wrong as we think the 9-11 hijackers were when they discussed the pleasures of the afterlife as they steered their Boeing 767 into the World Trade Center. Wrong as Germans who cheered the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, or the Papal Court at the trial of Galileo or the defenders of Jim Crow in the American South in the 1950’s. For social consensus is hardly proof or justification, though it moves mores and conventions. I consider it a kind of authority, and  I have attempted to explain why it is a very poor kind of justification for our truth and goodness claims (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). It fails as soon as it faces serious challenge. Allow me to be clear. Its failure in no way disproves the truth it attempts to justify. The collapse of consensus is a consequence of disagreement, meaning a failure of authority to justify the truth claim. It is simple. Challenge dissolves authority. Some other warrant must be sought if the claim is to be defended. Your asking the simple question, “How do you know?” is exactly the kind of challenge authority fears if only because it opens the door to disagreement.

The second thing to notice in this little exercise is the tone of your friend’s response to this simple question. If it hints at some defensiveness, you might back off. But why would she object to a simple request to explain why she thinks something to be true? After all, she put it out there, making the truth claim, stating the declaration, staking out the position, structuring a sentence so as to say “this is true” or “this is good” or even “this is beautiful.” If you agree, wouldn’t it be interesting to gather more proof for your own judgment, and if you don’t, wouldn’t it be even more interesting to understand why someone thinks differently, perhaps with enough rationale to help you arrive at some little arc of the virtuous circle? So you asked, and since she bruited the truth claim to begin with, isn’t she under some obligation to respond?

You would think so, but perhaps you might back off a bit if you also consider that her justification might very quickly veer into very personal territory. Oddly, that depends not at all on the nature of the declaration itself but rather on the nature of the justification she uses in her own mind to make sense of it, to convince herself that what she said to you, what she really thinks, reflects some truth. Should her warrant fall into the realm of correspondence, she might reference an article she read or a comment made by her podiatrist or mechanic, or maybe an experience she had that she feels no hesitation to relate. That is the way correspondentist justifications go. They are external, singular, and common, so if you then reply with a conflicting kind of warrant provided by an article you read, an expert you consulted, or an experience you had, the two of you will find further conversation fruitful as you compare the strength of the warrants you used in your truth claims. But perhaps the response to your question will be different. Your friend pauses as she searches for the right language to express an entirely different kind of warrant, one far more personal and less easily communicated. In this case she justifies her declaration not by some correspondentist warrant but by a coherentist one. Support for her declaration is not something external but something deeply personal, composed of the entirety of her experiences and reflections on them: in short, her values and her world view. For you to ask her to justify her truth claim is synonymous with asking her to justify herself and her understanding of her world. What is more, if she should attempt such a feat, how should any real conflict in your viewpoints be reconciled? What is most certain about her coherentist virtual circle is that it is different from yours. How could it not be? She has had a lifetime of different experiences and the lessons they teach to build it, and if she relies on her personal truths with any regularity, she is likely to regard the logical rigor with which she has constructed her world view to be also a matter of personal preference. To challenge her claim is to challenge everything that makes sense of her world and the means she’s used to build that sense.

And that brings us to the third point. What do you, her sympathetic listener, do with her declaration? On what grounds do you, can you, respond? Should you find her warrant to be correspondentist, you may without fear proceed to a discussion of the merits of the claim itself. You may offer supporting or challenging evidence to further or dispute her position with every confidence that such a discussion will not imperil your friendship and perhaps will improve your mutual understanding of the issue under discussion. But should you see her argument as coherentist, you must tread more lightly. For a supporting argument adds no heft to hers. As it is based on a virtual circle and therefore personalized warrant, the addition of another from an infinity of private warrants will do little to add support to her argument unless, of course, she treasures that little consensus calculator I mentioned earlier. And should you disagree, what of it? The same reality ensues. She can not only discount your argument as simply a variation of experience, as she should, but may also find you challenging her entire world view and the intellectual or emotional means she employs to structure it, for to find an anomaly in one part of the virtual circle is to introduce anomaly into its entirety. You are not merely challenging a truth claim, it seems, but also the entire identity of the person who made it. No wonder our disagreements are often so corrosive!

To put it plainly, correspondence arguments must be based on one of five justifications.

Empirical (scientific) warrants are the strongest simply because they make use of techniques designed to minimize the errors our reasoning is most prone to. First, they limit themselves intentionally to a very narrow range of perceptual experiences. Even within that narrow range, they further limit the quantity of specific experiences under review. They attempt to replicate those experiences to eliminate variance. They use precise language to explain what the experience has taught, which is why science is fond of the only infinitely precise language available: mathematics and the statistical methods it employs. They reason based on the experience, building explanatory hypothesis on closely examined experience rather than attempting to force experience to mirror preconceived judgments. The edifice of science over the last two centuries has been built on this knowledge foundation. But such efforts are limited in scope. Science can address goodness issues of utility—it can tell us the best materials to use in constructing an elevator cable—but it simply cannot speak to issues of quality or moral goodness or beauty because its methods require perceptual and measurable data (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“).

And so we must seek logical verification of many of our experiences, attempting to find an ordered series of deductions derived from similar experiences or logical necessity. Such thinking, best exemplified by a geometric theorem, is universal and ordered, but the underlying structure is provided by human reasoning rather than standardized experience as produced by scientific experimentation. For the last century, British philosophers have devoted themselves to ever more rigorous use of logical structure in their pursuit of certain knowledge. The result has been a perverse discrediting of reason applied to experience as a means to truth. But if we define knowledge as “truth by a preponderance of the evidence,” we can salvage reasoning as a means to knowledge while still accepting its openness to challenge. We can verify a logical correspondence argument to a listener, settling possible dispute by appeal to a universal reasoning process.

As experiences are so variable, we often rely on expertise to give us correspondence justification, for the careful application of universal reasoning to varied experience may produce judgments about truth and goodness that are admittedly less reliable than empirical or strictly logical applications because they take into account the variability of experience but attempt to apply a universal logical filter to these experiences derived from careful analysis. The kinds of experience that produce expertise are easy to identify: they must be different enough to allow thoughtful analysis to reveal distinction but similar enough to distill the essence of the thing being studied. And there must be many of them. I was pleased to see Malcolm Gladwell addressing this requirement in Outliers, though his standard of ten thousand hours of practice and study seems a bit rigid for a warrant that allows so many kinds of activities. Though it may require that much time to become an expert programmer, perhaps something less might be asked of a short order cook, though the same sort of mental effort might be required to perfect skill and technique. It goes without saying that experts only speak with a strong warrant in their own field of expertise (see “Expertise”).

Failing in such efforts to examine experience, we fall upon the lesser kinds of justification: authority, the kind of cultural or traditional support excoriated above. It offers several unique strengths as a warrant for correspondence claims. First, it is easily accessible. We are all familiar with its power, for we were all children obligated to accept the truth and goodness claims of parents, teachers, and other adults. Their warrant was our trust in their persons or the institutions that placed them in our path. We accepted their declarations not because we had proof by a preponderance of the evidence but because they had demonstrated their reliability in earlier claims. But as any parent of a first child knows, that trust is often undeserved, at least in the beginning. For authorities are not necessarily experts. A strange extension of this kind of warrant might be termed cultural authority, the kind of diffused assurance that “everyone thinks so, and so it must be true.” As mentioned above, this kind of trust in the culture is ridiculously easy to call into question, for history has shown it to be as insubstantial as the music of the spheres (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”).

Even more spindly is undifferentiated experience, the weakest kind of correspondence support, yet the one used most frequently by ordinary persons to support their truth claims. It is the weakest because it posits its conclusions on a clear falsehood: that some present experience can be understood in light of some past one. It is false because the context of each experience must be different even if the experience proved similar to a prior one. But even if the context of some undifferentiated experience should prove identical—say the thirty-fifth tossing of a coin—one difference remains: time. No two experiences can ever be identical for that reason alone– time changes context– so the conclusions we draw from prior experiences applied to present ones must always be suspect. Still, despite this fatal flaw, we all use undifferentiated experience promiscuously simply because it is often all we have to go on in the supersonic whizz of choices about truth and goodness that face us each day.

A correspondentist faces further challenges as she approaches the frontiers of her knowledge, that hazy landscape where her means of warrant are insufficient to provide truth as correspondence must define it: knowledge by a preponderance of the evidence. If she is thoughtful in analyzing what she knows versus what she believes, she will find her beliefs to be as much construction as discovery (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?“). The etymology of belief gives away its flaw when asserted as truth: it signifies an attachment or preference quite at odds with the dispassionate judgment required for assessing claims to truth, goodness, or beauty. Properly applied belief uses the bases of knowledge to project logically consistent beliefs about those subjects we cannot know: do aliens exist, how did the universe come to be, what happens after death, etc. It is, however, a problem when bruited as a warrant in public life (see “Belief in the Public Square“).

It is, of course, possible to reject these five correspondentist arguments in favor of a coherentist one, finding justification in the logical concordance of any and all perceptions granted credence by the thinker. This virtual circle of coherent truth claims is far more comprehensive yet also more personalized than any single correspondence claim. It may include any number of conveyances of putative truth: experiences, emotions, beliefs, imagination, intuition, and whatever else the coherentist chooses to value as a means to meaning. He gets to decide for himself what degree of rigor to bring to his efforts to harmonize his own beliefs, values, and truths. In this attempt, his sole limitation and thus his sole warrant is the principle of non-contradiction, a recognition that something cannot be both true and untrue simultaneously. The truth limit to his declarations is set at whatever degree of rigor he determines as appropriate, and at that limit he must be consistent in the kinds of claims he makes about truth, goodness and beauty. If he is logically insistent, he might even extend this requirement to the idea called logical entailment, meaning he is obligated to accept not only those claims that might be consistent with his virtual circle, his personalized reality, but also all claims that might in the future be also consistent. He may find any number of inputs congenial to such an effort to stabilize claims. No one may gainsay his efforts or critique the fastidiousness of his construction. Even the logic he brings to his sole means of justification is beyond the critical reach of another, for “it makes sense to me” is as much the credo of the coherentist as “it is true for me.” His reality is his perception and both are of his own creation. Of course, such flexibility comes at a price. The coherentist can never critique another’s virtual circle, so he must be tolerant of disagreement. Should his friend assert a conflicting declaration, he is obligated by the principle of non-contradiction to reply with a polite recitation of his own views, no matter how they might agree or dispute another’s, with no attempt at challenge or reconciliation. Such a conversation, a hallmark of postmodernism, would be guaranteed to be congenial if unenlightening (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“).

I will leave it to you, reader, to decide if such conversations are worth having.

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