Answer to Daniel, Ross, and Joey

I disagree with Daniel, Ross, and Joey.  Well then.  Over the summer, when Ross, Joey, and I first started arguing about pragmatism, I was very hostile to pragmatism.  Although I’m not quite ready to jump on the pragmatist bandwagon with Ross and Joey, I have become much more sympathetic to pragmatist philosophy.  I think explaining why could shed some light on this discussion.

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty’s argument for pragmatism is that truth is a function of sentences, and sentences are a human creation, and therefore truth is made rather than found (p. 5).  In Philosophy and Social Hope he acknowledges what is wrong with that argument: “If we take the distinction between making and finding at face value, our opponents will be able to ask us an awkward question, viz., Have we discovered the surprising fact that what was thought to be objective is actually subjective, or have we invented it? If we claim to have discovered it, if we say that it is an objective fact that truth is subjective, we are in danger of contradicting ourselves.  If we say we invented it, we seem to be being merely whimsical.  Why should anybody take our invention seriously?” (p. xvii-xviii) Therefore Rorty retreats to saying that the distinction between appearance and reality is not a useful distinction.  But even this I thought was problematic, because a) the appearance/reality distinction is often useful, i.e., “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”, and b) theories like Newton’s laws are only useful because they correspond in some way to the real world.  What use would the statement F=mq, where q is the number of friends you have, be for physics? None, because this statement has no connection to the causal relations “out there”.  However, I recently read an essay by Rorty that changed my mind.  Rorty writes in Truth and Progress,

“Pragmatists think that if something makes no difference to practice, it should make no difference to philosophy.  This conviction makes them suspicious of the distinction between justification and truth, for that difference makes no difference to my decisions about what to do.  If I have concrete, specific doubts about whether one of my beliefs is true, I can resolve those doubts only by asking whether it is adequately justified – by finding and assessing additional reasons pro and con.  I cannot bypass justification and confine my attention to truth: assessment of truth and assessment of justification are, when the question is about what I should believe now, the same activity.  If, on the other hand, my doubts are as unspecific and abstract as Descartes’s – are such that I can do nothing to resolve them – they should be dismissed, with Pierce, as ‘make-believe.’  Philosophy should ignore them.” (p. 19)

Reading this was very useful for me, because it gave me a better way to characterize pragmatism.  Pragmatism claims that since human knowledge is always limited and fallible, it is useless to distinguish truth from justification.  Consider, to borrow an example from Scott Sumner, the progression of theoretical astronomy from cavemen, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler/Newton, and finally Einstein.  Each theory in the history of astronomy was later overturned by the next figure – and we have no guarantee that Einstein’s model won’t be refuted in time.  None of these theories were ever true, if we take true to mean corresponding to “The Way the Universe Really Is”.  However, each theory has better justifications than the previous theory, and is therefore more useful.  The point is that we can never arrive at a truth above and beyond justification, because those truth claims will always be based on justifications.  Therefore the best we can hope for – and all we really need – is rational justification consistent with the best empirical evidence.  I take this statement to be consistent with Rorty’s point of view.

This also answers my two earlier objections:
1. Although we can never escape from appearances, we can replace less justified appearances with more justified appearances.
2. Newton’s laws of motion don’t have to correspond to reality to be useful – they just have to be justified by the best available evidence.

Therefore I would disagree with Ross’s statement: “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.”  Justification doesn’t presume a correspondence theory of truth – representation presumes a correspondence theory of truth, but a justification doesn’t have to be a representation.  Further, I think that the pragmatist theory of truth has better justifications than the correspondence theory of truth.

So far, however, the argument has no impact.  All the pragmatist has shown is that foundationalist philosophy cannot accomplish its goals, not that it has any harms.  How can the pragmatist then go on to boldly claim that entire fields of philosophical inquiry should be scrapped? If we really take to heart the pragmatist’s message that our knowledge is always limited and fallible, shouldn’t we be extra careful not to rule out inquiry before seeing where it leads? Even if we don’t ever achieve Absolute Certainty through foundationalist philosophy, we might still arrive at some wonderful result that no one could have anticipated, the philosophical equivalent of penicillin.  If there is no harm and unknown benefits, how can we condemn Philosophy-with-a-capital-P? This is how I interpreted the driving force of Moerner’s post.

There are two answers to that question.

The first answer, which I don’t fully understand, is Rorty’s claim that humans should develop a new self-image, in which they don’t have responsibilities to nebulous entities like “God” or “reality”, and only live for themselves and other human beings.  Frankly, right now I think this idea is a little silly, but I’m willing to be open-minded.

The second answer requires that we distinguish two conceptions of philosophy.  One conception of philosophy is that the questions are more important than the answers.  Thomas Nagel is a respected supporter of that view, and he writes in The View From Nowhere that “certain forms of perplexity–for example, about freedom, knowledge, and the meaning of life–seem to me to embody more insight than any of the supposed solutions to those problems.” (p. 4)  This is probably the view of many humanities professors, especially those who like to hate on the hard sciences or those who think we should read the classics just because they are The Classics.
The second conception of philosophy is that the purpose of asking questions is to answer them.  This is the camp that I fall into, and it includes both foundationalists, who think that philosophy can achieve absolute knowledge with absolute certainty, and quietists, who (as I would define them) think that with a little empirical evidence and some linguistic clarification, we can dissolve most philosophical problems.  Here are two examples of what I would consider successful quietist answers to philosophical problems:

1. Free will.  The best analysis of the problem of free will I’ve read is chapters 2 and 3 of Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves (the rest of the book is good, but not necessary to the amazing arguments in those two chapters).  Dennett points out that in a deterministic world, there can be creatures with the ability to take in information from their environment, engage in rational decision-making, and then take action to affect external events – so everything about free will worth wanting is compatible with determinism.  Discussions of free will often get muddled when people use phrases like “couldn’t have done otherwise,” but once we have a better handle on what we mean when we use certain terms, the confusion goes away.  The problem of free will is solved.
2. Religion.  A lot of intelligent people who wouldn’t consider themselves agnostic about the existence of gremlins-that-only-exist-when-you-aren’t-looking-at-them consider themselves agnostic about religion and don’t see how anyone could be arrogant enough to conjecture one way or the other about God’s existence (this category included myself at one point).  Adopting pragmatism allows us to see that they are asking the wrong question.  The relevant question is not, “does God exist?” but rather, “do we have any reason to believe that God exists?” Once we ask that question, we can reasonably answer “no, we don’t have any good evidence for that claim,” and we can give up the tedious debates about theology and philosophy of religion.

Presumably, Rorty tries to do the same thing with epistemology.  Although I haven’t read enough Rorty to go into any detail, my guess is that Rorty has a way to dissolve epistemological questions and paradoxes by giving up the justification/truth distinction.
Therefore the reason we don’t need Philosophy-with-a-capital-P is that, if we are willing to give up the idea that there must be answers to certain questions, we can engage in productive philosophy-with-a-lowercase-p that answers our questions to our satisfaction.

I’m not sure I completely agree with Rorty just yet.  In particular, I am inclined to defend something like the scientific method and to argue that there is a rational, objective way to demonstrate that some claims are more justified than other.  As I understand it, Rorty would argue that I am still clinging to the idea that we can achieve a Gods-eye view.  But that’s another story.

3 Responses to Answer to Daniel, Ross, and Joey

  1. joeyglick says:

    I don’t think you read either my, nor Daniel’s post.

  2. mcdonaldb says:

    I’m a little offended by your accusation. I read both posts – Moerner’s in depth, I skimmed yours (I didn’t read yours in depth only because what I had written was mainly complete by the time your post was published). I think my arguments respond to all the relevant claims.

  3. Ross says:

    “However, each theory has better justifications than the previous theory, and is therefore more useful.”

    Can you explain what you mean by “justifications?” Personally, I don’t see a need for an intermediary between “theory” and “usefulness.” It seems sufficient to simply describe each new theory as more useful than the previous one.

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