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Through a Glass Darkly

In fallibilism, fideism, kuhn, popper on 15/06/2011 at 3:41 pm

There exists some way to certify statements as true or false. There must be some reason for believing them, a reason that may rest on other reasons (for example, z rests on y; y rests on x), but there must be some sort of instrument — call it a ‘touchstone’ — that sorts out true from false statements. There exists entrance examinations that determine truth and falsehood, similar to academic standards of admittance. If analogies to instruments and standards are not enough, then a religious allusion may be necessary: true statements are touched with grace by good reasons. This paragraph, in brief, sums up the prism through which the justificationist views the world.

Individuals that believe in this thesis search for good reasons for accepting an empirical statement rather than rejecting it. My first thesis denies the very legitimacy of this search. It does not matter if the externalist program or the internalist program is adopted, there are no good reasons for accepting an empirical statement rather than rejecting it. It is impossible to furnish a good reason in favor of any empirical statement whatsoever. My second thesis is that even if good reasons were obtainable by either program, they serve no useful purpose.

Good reasons cannot be obtained due to the fallacy of begging the question (petitio principii). Start first with sufficient reasons. Suppose that y is offered as a sufficient reason for z; y will fail to establish z unless y logically implies z. If y logically implies z, z will not be proved to be true, even though it is derived from y, for the derivation rests on the assumption y that asserts the truth of z.

As a proof of z, y is circular. In an attempt to justify z the very issue at hand will be begged. Every sufficient reason therefore requires another sufficient reason: z requires reason y, y requires reason x; z is never justified, for to stop at any point in the regress would be to beg the question. There is no known way to end the vicious circle.

Perhaps it is unfair for me to ask for such a strict certification. Almost no one today thinks that an empirical statement, even basic observational statements, can be established with certainty. Individuals that accept the justificationist thesis now do not look for sufficient reasons; instead, they look for good insufficient reasons.

Low levels of uncertainty would provide good reasons: the premises would be plausible, but not certain; the inference would be plausible, but not valid. Using insufficient good reasons to accept a statement rather than reject it is reasonable, it is thought, for when sufficient reasons are unavailable, insufficient good reasons are the only game left in town.

If there were a way to establish the truth of a statement beyond any possibility of doubt, then it would be certified as true. This route is blocked off. Instead, we have a touchstone: insufficient but good reasons. Yet, if we wrongly classify p as true, our error will not be mitigated by possessing a good but insufficient reason. If we correctly classify p as true, our possession of a good but insufficient reason will not help, for we cannot know that we are correct.

As discussed previously, the internalist and externalist programs do certify statements; however, they often incorrectly classify statements, or correctly certify statements only by happenstance. It cannot be known to us when they correctly certify statements, or if the justifier is a proper justifier. Take the two cases where (1) we have a true belief, but we do not know we have a true belief, and (2) we have a true belief, but are in possession of a justifier.

The justifier is a spurious addition, for in both cases we do not know we have a true belief. If this is the case, why search for good insufficient reasons that don’t do anything above or beyond mere true opinion when good sufficient reasons are required in order to properly justify anything?

I say, abandon the prism. It is a path that leads to a dead end, but don’t despair, for there is an alternate route: abandon justificationism in all its flavors: toss aside the fun house mirror that takes culture as foundation: from Wittgenstein’s hinge propositions to Kuhn’s lexicon; throw away the rose-tinted glasses that take conceptual certainties as foundation, from Morrean certainties to religious fideism. The program is a wash. As Popper said,

So my answer to the questions ‘How do you know? What is the source or the basis of our assertion? What observations have led you to it?’ would be: ‘I do not know: my assertion was merely a guess. Never mind the source, or the sources, from which it may spring–there are many possible sources, and I may not be aware of half of them; and origins or pedigrees have in any case little bearing upon truth. But if you are interested in the problem which I tried to solve by my tentative assertion, you may help me by criticizing it as severely as you can; and if you can design some experimental test which you think might refute my assertion, I shall gladly, and to the best of my powers, help you to refute it.’ (Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance, 35)

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