I suggest reading Michael Lynch’s article in the New York Times Opinionator blog before reading past the break.
Posts Tagged ‘foundationalism’
Question: do we attain certainty of at least some facts? We are certain, for example, that of two disjunctive propositions, one is true, the other false. We are certain about the truth of the principle of noncontradiction. While there is a trade-off between the utility of justifying informative claims and indubitably, for the principle of noncontradiction does at most say that there are at least some true sentences. Therefore, we know that there are at least some certainties about logic and there exists some true sentences. This is no argument, for it is exists outside the reach of argument: any criticism would, so the argument goes, have to assume the principle of noncontradiction, making it immune from argument. Therefore, the skeptical position is wrong about some state of affairs.
Is this true?
Two skeptical responses:
- We might note that a great deal of theory-laden cognition takes place when considering the principle of contradiction. We might, although it sounds silly at first blush, have made a simple mistake in our reasoning. Purported past cognitive state p is to person S actually a memory of past cognitive state p. We might misremember p, no matter how certain we are that we remembered p correctly; or be unaware that we have an improper justifier for p; or the justifier for p may be proper, but we may not be aware of it.
- The principle of noncontradiction is wholly supported on the structure of the argument itself, opening itself to the criticism that, while it is assumed as an axiom, logicians and mathematicians that one thought some axioms were obvious or indubitable have turned out to be, upon further reflection, far from obvious or indubitable. Just as Euclid’s fifth axiom could be rejected and still provide consistent non-Euclidean systems, the principle of noncontradiction can be rejected, producing paraconsistent logics.
Are we then certain of at least some facts?
Philosophy can never discover any universally admissible truths … The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver the truth but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious or definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be “another side” in what we take for granted, and never to allow us to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it. (Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial, p. 135)
When there was a recognized final Authority and intellectual court of appeal, the professional thinker could perform a useful function and he could do so with dignity – especially if the authoritative truths were available in a Holy Writ, and literacy which gave access to it was a specialist accomplishment which he did not share with all and sundry. Surrogate final sources of truth have since been sought – the Inner Light of Reason, Experience, History, Nature – but unfortunately these ladies do not speak with a clear, single or unambiguous voice. (Ernest Gellner, Words and Things, p. 13)
A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
In Wittgenstein’s posthumous Philosophical Investigations he argues that meaning of terms is equal to its use within language: each ‘linguistic universe’ has its own rules. Content cannot be separated from criteria by which they are judged: criteria is never inter-cultural, but sub-cultural. Each discipline or ‘language’ game has its own standards, which cannot be reducible to other standards or principles. The task of the philosopher is then to describe and clarify standards, not to judge, defend, or criticize proposals laid out within a ‘language game.’ Criticism can only point out the misuse of language, or violations of the rules.
Argument or judgment does not cross disciplines, for they exist only in reference to criteria of the rules of the game. This leads to relativism, where there is no rational choice to be made between competing games: all games are equally defensible.
‘Faith’ is often taken to be a theory that is not taken on logical or empirical grounds. This is little more than a simultaneous disparagement of theories that are not logically or empirically grounded and an assumption that such grounding is possible.
It is impossible, so I conjecture, to ground anything. If this is the case, according to this description of faith, all theories are equally faith-based. That doesn’t seem right. At this point, most people see this as a reductio of the conjecture of the impossibility of grounding. I can intuitively tell apart a scientific theory, they might say, from religious theories. Therefore, some theories are grounded. The nature of grounding is then examined in detail.
Jonathan Schaffer’s The Debasing Demon [.pdf] was an immense pleasure to read. Some highlights:
I will draw three lessons from the debasing demon. The first lesson is that all knowledge is imperilled by sceptical doubt, even knowledge of the cogito. This clarifies the range of scepticism. The second and related lesson is that anti-sceptical strategies relying on a residue of knowledge immune from doubt cannot succeed. The debasing demon leaves no residuum. The third lesson is that deception and debasement do not exhaust the forms of sceptical doubt. In that sense, there are more demons in epistemic hell than are dreamt of in epistemology. (Schaffer, 228)