Pragmatism, The Evil Demon, and Inquiry-Limiting Hypotheses

Joey and I talked a lot yesterday about the revelatory nature of philosophical reasoning. Sometimes, connections just come to you—and these are the most profound and interesting. Joey had this happen to him in Paradoxes yesterday, and little did I think the same thing would happen to me exactly twelve hours later. I’ll also preface this blog post by saying it’s one of those ones that Joey thinks most people don’t like—I’m going to work you through my own thought process in depth, instead of quickly reaching a conclusion that can be applied in many disciplines. However, I still think this is interesting.

Throughout my discussions with Joey (and Brian, when he visited) about pragmatism, I have tried to defend three different arguments in favor of a correspondence theory of truth. I have come to believe that the first two are dead ends, but I always had hope for the third. After what I’ve realized today, I think that the third may be correct.

The first defense was an argument suggested by Brian. It goes roughly as follows (and yes, the gravity example was lifted directly from his formulation of the argument):

1A. The pragmatist says that when I say “the law of gravity is true in Newtonian physics”, I mean that it is useful to believe in the law of gravity.

1B. It is useful to believe in the law of gravity.

1C. The only reason that it is useful to believe in the law of gravity is because there is a fact of the matter about the fact that I will fall down if I jump off a building.

1D. Therefore, a commitment to believing in things because they are useful requires a further commitment to the fact that there must be some truth-functional basis for their usefulness.

I believe that this argument doesn’t work, because the conclusion, 1D, doesn’t follow. The point of theories of truth is to explain what I mean by asserting something. A believer of the correspondence theory of truth says that I mean that that thing is true. A pragmatist says that I mean that it is useful to make this assertion under certain conditions. The fact that there necessarily exists some objective world which provides a mapping against which all things are useful or not does not deny the pragmatist’s claim. In “Consequences of Pragmatism,” Rorty explains that “For the pragmatist, true sentences are not true because they correspond to reality, and so there is no need to worry what sort of reality, if any, a given sentence corresponds to—no need to worry about what “makes” it true”. But argument 1 is precisely a claim about what makes pragmatic language “true”. I think that this just begs the question. Argument 1 assumes the pragmatist is committing to defending the explanations for what I mean in asserting a proposition. By hypothesis, the pragmatist refuses this commitment. I don’t think we can force him to make this commitment on pain of circularity.

The second defense was quite different. My argument was just that the world best justified by a Rortian pragmatism is not a useful world, or at least one that I would want to live in. I still think that his suggested world (especially as articulated in Part 5 of “Consequences of Pragmatism”, which I understand is quite different from his suggestions in other papers) would be a terribly depressing and nihilistic world in which to live. Obviously, though, the fact that I wouldn’t want to live there isn’t an argument against pragmatism without further argument. In any case, I think this style of objection to the usefulness of a pragmatic world doesn’t work for two reasons.

First, I don’t think a pragmatist has to defend a “post-Philosophical (with a capital P)” world. I think we can just conceive of pragmatism as a specific philosophical ideology that bridges the gap between philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. It doesn’t necessarily have to make a further normative claim on how our world should be—it can just be a claim on how we should conceive of the world we live in (and even then, that might be more than it is claiming).

Second, this is more of an issue with Rorty’s specific account of usefulness than a denial of pragmatism in general. A different interpretation of usefulness (for instance, as directed towards the preservation of the human species, to provide an example that I don’t subscribe to but which at least serves as a contrast) would produce a different final world, and that world might be one I’d prefer. I’ll get back to this a bit later.

The third defense was the one I always felt was the most promising. My argument was pretty simple: Given two theories, we should choose the one with the most explanatory powers. I felt that pragmatism had less explanatory power than the correspondence theory of truth. This is because you can explain pragmatism in terms of the correspondence theory of truth. You could just say that it is true that in all actual cases of language, we use words pragmatically. However, you cannot explain the correspondence theory of truth in terms of pragmatism. You can’t say that it’s useful to use words in a truth-functional way, because pragmatism denies that there is any essence to “using words in a truth-functional manner”.

Jump ahead two months. I was spurred by some questions put to me by another ex-debater (Julian Switala) to start reading about dream-skepticism, and I came across “Can I Know That I Am Not Dreaming” by David and Jean Beer Blumenfeld. This article spells out Descartes’ argument for why we might always be dreaming, and therefore we cannot know to be true any belief which is based on our experience. This moves into the discussion of Descartes’ evil demon.

At the very end of the article, they described Michael Slote’s answer to the proposition that an evil demon determines all of our experiences. Michael Slote argues that some hypotheses are “inquiry-limiting” if an agent’s accepting them “ensures the impossibility of his coming to have rationally justified or warranted belief (consistent with his other beliefs) in more and more true explanations of various aspects of or facts about the phenomena in question.”

Compare two propositions: (A) An external world is ordered in a way so as to create our experiences, or (B) an evil demon controls what we encounter and perceive as an external world. The evil demon proposition is necessarily inquiry-limiting, because all of our sense experience is supplied by a deceiver, so all explanations based in our experience are suspect. In contrast, the external world hypothesis is not obviously inquiry-limiting.

Why should we prefer non-inquiry-limiting hypotheses? Slote’s somewhat surprising answer is that we should reject inquiry-limiting hypotheses because they conflict with the end of science.

“[Science] seeks to give explanations of events, processes, etc., but also to give, as far as possible, explanations of all the various aspects of the very things it posits in its explanations. For it is a goal of scientific enterprise to gain deeper and deeper and more and more explanations of whatever things there are in the world, wherever possible.”

Science demands that we follow the Principle of Unlimited Inquiry:

“(a) that it is scientifically unreasonable for someone to accept what (he sees or has reason to believe) is for him at that time an inquiry-limiting explanation of a certain phenomenon, other things being equal; and (b) that there is reason for such a person to reject such an explanation in favour of an acceptable non-inquiry-limiting explanation of the phenomenon in question, if he can find one.”

I think that this is basically the same style of argument I made against pragmatism. I was really excited to discover this passage and see the similarities between Slote’s argument and my own. So, based on this reading, let me try to formalize the argument I made a bit:

3A. Pragmatism and the correspondence theory of truth are explanatory theories—they purport to explain what we mean by asserting something.

3B. We have no access to an epistemic means to discriminate between two explanatory theories about the meanings of assertions.

3C. There is a possible practical way to discriminate between them: Given two theories, we should not prefer one that is an inquiry-limiting hypothesis.

3D. Pragmatism is an inquiry-limiting hypothesis:

It can’t explain truth-functional sentences (my original example)
It rejects the idea that truth-functionality has content as a characteristic of sentences.
It rejects entire parts of philosophy as “disinteresting”.
It forces us to attribute the way things are entirely to contingency.
3D’: The correspondence theory of truth is not obviously inquiry-limiting.

3E: Therefore, we should reject pragmatism.

3D is not the critical premise. I think that most pragmatists view this as a virtue of pragmatism, rather than a problem with it. Rather, 3C is what most pragmatists would try to deny. I find Slote’s defense of 3C to be distinctly unsatisfying. It seems to beg the question (to consider a reductio, why should the function of science define our choice in theory, rather than say, the function of truth-seeking?). Moreover, my faith in science is not absolute. (You can probably expect a blog post sometime by Joey about this…)

With that being said, I think that there is a legitimate way to defend 3C. Two tracks suggest themselves. I think that both work. First, ultimately, what are pragmatism and the correspondence theory of truth? They are ideas that try to explain what we mean with words. It’s obvious to me that there’s some sort of content to all statements that I consciously make within the syntactic rules of language. (Even if you don’t agree with Searle, at least bear with me that syntactically correct statements contain semantic content, even if they aren’t semantically coherent.) A theory of meaning should be able to explain this fact to me. One which arbitrarily imposes limits on what I can mean by my words would fail this test. The pragmatist might object that he avoids this concern, because he presents an error theory for why my intuitions about really meaning to talk about truth statements are false. But I feel that the very notion of salvaging pragmatism by presenting an error theory means that pragmatism has already lost. How could we have an error truth without truth?

Second, I was inspired in this by Rorty’s own professed love for 1984. I found one of the most disgusting features of this futuristic world the idea that newspeak could eliminate patterns of thought from the population by eliminating them from the language. I think that the (perhaps pragmatic) need to avoid any conclusion like this is what speaks against inquiry-limiting hypotheses. I think this goes to the heart of my own fears about pragmatism. What is to stop us from going past the point of no return? Maybe pragmatics dictates that we get rid of whole parts of philosophy, maybe we will think it’s useful to get rid of parts of language. When are we ever in the proper epistemic position to be confident in our judgments of what is useful, if we take usefulness to be the underlying principle behind all propositions?

The great irony of this is that Michael Slote seems to be a pragmatist himself. He subscribes to the view that defines “’p is epistemically reasonable in believing q’ as ‘if p were a rational being, and if his concerns were purely intellectual, it would be reasonable (i.e., a good thing) for him to believe q.’” I doubt that he would welcome my reinterpretation of his views.

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3 Responses to Pragmatism, The Evil Demon, and Inquiry-Limiting Hypotheses

  1. Ross says:

    I think this post is a justification for pragmatism.

    “3B. We have no access to an epistemic means to discriminate between two explanatory theories about the meanings of assertions.

    3C. There is a possible practical way to discriminate between them: Given two theories, we should not prefer one that is an inquiry-limiting hypothesis.”

    In other words: we can’t determine which theory of truth is more true, so we should adopt the theory of truth that’s more useful, where “use” is defined as “not inquiry-limiting.”

    “You can explain pragmatism in terms of the correspondence theory of truth. You could just say that it is true that in all actual cases of language, we use words pragmatically. However, you cannot explain the correspondence theory of truth in terms of pragmatism. You can’t say that it’s useful to use words in a truth-functional way, because pragmatism denies that there is any essence to “using words in a truth-functional manner.”

    My understanding of the pragmatist hypothesis is not that we use all words pragmatically. If this were the case there would be no impetus for pragmatist criticism (e.g. Wittgenstein, Rorty’s position that we should get rid of philosophy departments) because we would already be speaking in the most useful way possible. Instead, my understanding of pragmatism is that it is useful to view language in terms of its utility rather than its correspondence to reality. For this reason, I think your argument goes the other way: pragmatism can account for correspondence, but correspondence cannot account for pragmatism. As a pragmatist, I’ll readily concede that the correspondence theory of truth is a useful way to approach many problems. If you subscribe to the correspondence theory of truth, however, I think you are bound to assert that the correspondence theory of truth is TRUE (and if you don’t, I think our differences are primarily semantic) and thus that the pragmatist notion of truth ought to be excluded.

    “I found one of the most disgusting features of this futuristic world the idea that newspeak could eliminate patterns of thought from the population by eliminating them from the language. I think that the (perhaps pragmatic) need to avoid any conclusion like this is what speaks against inquiry-limiting hypotheses. I think this goes to the heart of my own fears about pragmatism. What is to stop us from going past the point of no return? Maybe pragmatics dictates that we get rid of whole parts of philosophy, maybe we will think it’s useful to get rid of parts of language. When are we ever in the proper epistemic position to be confident in our judgments of what is useful, if we take usefulness to be the underlying principle behind all propositions?”

    A couple of comments.

    1. I think we disagree on what is meant by “usefulness.” For me, usefulness describes the strength of the tools that allow me to do whatever it is I want to do. Usefulness is a question of means, not ends. We might discover new tools (like gas chambers) that are really useful for doing things that are really bad. Or we might discover new tools (like blogs) that are really useful for doing things that are awesome. For that reason, it’s never necessary “to be confident in our judgments of what is useful.” These are ethical problems, not epistemic ones.

    2. This does bring up an interesting question, however: what if there are more Hitlers in the world than Gandis? If this were the case, we wouldn’t want to increase the ability for people to “do whatever they already wanted to do” because those things would be bad. I think this what you’re getting at when you ask “what is stopping us from going beyond the point of no return?” There is, in fact, nothing to prevent people from using useful means to achieve bad ends. I think there are significant problems, though, with the argument that people can’t be trusted to be good at things. Not that this argument is necessarily false: one could make the argument (and many have) that the better we get at doing stuff the closer we bring ourselves to annihilation (e.g. nuclear weapons, global warming, etc). It seems clear to me, though, that this argument is non-unique: we’re already getting better at doing stuff now. Pragmatism just gives us a useful metaphor that allows us to get better at stuff a little bit faster. If this argument is true, then, the logical normative implication is to reverse centuries of human progress, and we might as well begin by blowing up Pomona.

    3. Let’s assume newspeak could eliminate certain ways of thinking. If this were the case, I don’t know why the solution would be to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Newspeak is a useful tool for dictators, yes. But that’s precisely why it’s important that people know about it, otherwise all the people who wanted to accomplish bad ends would read 1984 and be like “this is sweet” and all the people who want to accomplish good ends would be standing around with their fingers stuck in their ears humming to themselves.

  2. dmoerner says:

    Unfortunately I don’t have the time right now to respond in-depth. I do have a question though:

    What does it mean to have a justification for pragmatism? What kind of account of practical (or theoretical) reason is behind that view?

    You mentioned that usefulness is a relation of means to ends. Is the argument then that all reason is instrumental?

    I’m trying to provide some answer to that question. If you think that my answer is pragmatic (and I don’t think it is), that doesn’t mean pragmatism is justified. It just means that we haven’t found an answer to the question yet (or perhaps one does not exist).

  3. Ross says:

    To answer the first question: I don’t think there’s such a thing as a justification for pragmatism, and in fact I think the notion of a “justification” presumes a correspondence theory of truth. Rather, people “should” become pragmatists only insofar as pragmatism seems attractive (in other words, “useful”) to them. In CIS, for example, Rorty doesn’t claim that his argument is true: he simply tries to frame his argument in such a way that the reader finds it useful.

    Consequently, I don’t believe that other people should necessarily be pragmatists or share my philosophical views. I only think that the pragmatist argument should be made as clearly as possible in order to maximize the number of useful tools available to each person. The notion of a “justification,” by contrast, implies that if only everyone understood the justification in question they would (or at least should) become a pragmatist.

    I’m a little unclear on the second two questions, so I’ll let you clarify if you’d still like me to answer.

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