An Epistemological Conversation

Alexandre Ederer: Truth is subjective.

Adam Pearson: It depends what you mean by “truth.” If truth is a relation of correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs in the world, then no, truth is not subjective. It is supremely objective.

Even truths about my own mental states can be objective; if I say “I dreamed about having sex with an attractive woman last night,” and really did, then that is an objective fact. It is not a matter of whether I “think” I did or not; I either did or did not, and that is the basis of the truth of the matter.

Emile Graham (quoting Woody Allen): Perception is irrational.
It implies imminence.

Adam: Sensation is neither rational nor irrational; perception is the attachment of meaning (thought) to sensation. It can be irrational or rational.

Emile (still quoting Woody Allen): But judgment of any system of phenomena exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.

Adam: This Woody Allen quote is utter gibberish. Judgments are cognitive processes, the products of conditions and relations to stimuli. We make judgments about whether to hold in our pee or not or whether there exists a supremely powerful Deity. There’s no contradiction between judgment and abstract concepts. We can judge concepts just as much as we can judge whether our hands have been sufficiently washed or not.

Alex: Everything is subjective to one’s own experience.

Adam: Alex, whether you believe in gravity or not, if I drop you out of an airplane without a parachute, you’re still going to fall. The elements of the periodical table will still have the same atomic mass. etc. etc. There are truths that are not “subjective to one’s own experience.”

Now, there may be some subjective truths; Kierkegaard discusses these in contrast to objective truths. But to claim that all truth is subjective is demonstrably false if we take “objective” to mean “true independent of observers, though verifiable by any observer with the appropriate instruments to verify it.” 

Alex: I was Talking about social facts and not physics facts; I do not know enough about physics to claim anything.

Adam: I understand this, but you said that all truths are subjective and the facts of physics need to be taken into account because they are counterexamples to this claim.

Emile: Subjectivity and objectivity are weaved in a more complicated way than that. All truths are subjective to one’s own experience. For a schizophrenic, whatever his mind contrives is true.

Adam: Not exactly; objectively, the delusions of the schizophrenic remain false. It is simply the case that the schizophrenic treats the delusive products of his mind as if they were true and may indeed believe them to be such.

Emile: Well, people of the past had no notion of gravity therefore it is experience which created that truth.

Adam:  This does not follow; the law of gravity as such was not formulated by them, but all of their behaviour and experiences with physical thingswere nonetheless governed by it. Things didn’t just start falling down, due to being attracted by the earth’s gravitational pull, when the law of gravity was formulated.

Gravity has always functioned in our solar system since the early stages of its formation. This would still be true even if there had never been any forms of intelligent life on the earth. Therefore, the truth of the law of gravity was not created by experience; it was simply discovered by experience. The truth was already there in the universe; we simply hadn’t understood it yet.

Emile: My point is that I think you’ve never either a) fallen out of a plane or b) seen proof of atomic mass beyond books or media of your experience. An objective truth would be, something like “I think, therefore I am”, this claim is truly independent of experience, and even so it is tautological: as Wittgenstein said, “The world is all that is the case”.

Adam: I don’t have to fall out of a plane to know that I would do so if I left it while it was in mid-flight; if I had the requisite scientific knowledge and technical skills, I could indeed verify the atomic mass of any given element as could anyone on earth. The fact that the same result invariably obtains regardless of whose “experience” the observation is gives us sufficient grounds to believe it.

I have strong inductive evidence to believe both claims as well as sound mathematical arguments. These were, again, discovered by human experience, observation, and reasoning. However, their truth is again, not dependent on the latter three things.

Emile: Well, I think I did prove that truth depended on experience to say the least.

Adam:  No, you did not. You proved that the discovery of truth depended on human experience and observation. This is a point with which I can fully agree. However, this is not sufficient to make the claim that truth depends on human experience; gravity would still operate even if there were no more human beings in the universe to observe it.

Emile: Also, all the “truths” you pointed out depend on a posteriori knowledge. Descartes’ comment however, is a proposition that is true a priori.

Adam:  No, it is a proposition that Descartes thought was absolutely a priori certain, but which closer scrutiny has revealed to be not only based on Descartes’ introspection, but falsely so. Descartes realized that there was a reasoning process occurring, falsely concluded that there was a thinking self behind the thinking and then concluded from the thinking that that self must exist. In fact, all he observed was a flow of thoughts in consciousness. Bertrand Russell and many other philosophers have pointed this out. See his “Problems of Philosophy.”

As Russell correctly pointed out, Descartes’ observations and introspection only gave him grounds to say one thing: “there are thoughts… there is thinking taking place in consciousness.” And this proves nothing of a Cartesian “ego.”

Emile: Simply put, you can acknowledge that truth without getting your ass of your couch because it doesn’t rely on experience.

Adam: No, you can’t. I don’t believe there is a Cartesian Thinker beyond the stream of thoughts; the “I” is itself a pattern of thought. Reasoning is just another biological process within the human organism, and it is as conditioned as all of the other processes.

Emile: I hope you speak French.  The following is from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:
3.05 Nous ne pourrions savoir a priori qu’une pensée est vraie, que si sa verité pouvait etre reconnue dans la pensée meme sans objet de comparaison.
6.363 La procedure de l’induction consiste en ceci que nous adoptons la loi la plus simple qui puisse etre mise en accord avec NOS EXPERIENCES.
6.3631 Mais cette procedure n’a aucun fondemen logique, son fondement est seulement PSYCHOLOGIQUE.

Adam: Indeed… this is precisely what I’m saying. Descartes’ cogito did not have a logical foundation–this is Russell’s point–it only had a psychological one. It was the output of his introspection.

Emile: And here’s the last comment I’m gonna put on here because I think philosophy is bullshit and these pseudo-philosophical debates are even more retarded:
4.112 Le but de la philosophie est la clarification logique des pensées. Le resultat de la philosophie n’est pas de produire des “propositions philosophiques” mais de rendre claire les propositions.

Adam: Why is philosophy bullshit? The burden of proof is on you to explain that.

I would agree with Wittgenstein in your quote here; it is only the viewpoint of half of the philosophical community, however, the analytic philosophers. The Continental philosophers have a different point of view.

I think philosophy sharpens the intellect, clarifies thought, and sheds light on the assumptions we make and the vague ways we use language. In so doing, it uncovers illlusions, makes us more aware, gives rise to insight, and helps us determine how we will live. The results of this are practical and tangible and bring about the sprouting of the seeds of wisdom within us. This is no bullshit.

Alex: This has been fascinating; my goal was not to start a debate, though. It was just to give an absolute statement, saying that I will say things, in earnest, as what I believe they are at that given time.

My question, Adam, is if most truths are subective with some objective, how do I make a statement that says: what I am Saying is MY truth, as I see it, as objectively as I can see it?

Adam: I actually believe the reverse is true; most truths are objective, but we have some subjective truths as well. Of course, we must put some proviso on this; the objective truths are truths about a relative universe (in Einstein’s sense of the word “relative”), and hence they must be somewhat relative as well.

The proposition “there is a red bicycle in my backyard” is true if there really IS such a bike there and false otherwise. This is not a matter of opinion and any observer can go verify it. This is an objective truth.

In fact, our daily lives depend on such truths. Before I can go teach at Heritage Regional, I need to know that the school is still there. And I can be justified in the belief that it is there because any number of observers–hundreds of students, a team of teachers and administrators–can go and verify that it is there. Its presence–relative to a particular location on the Earth–is an objective fact.

Now, what you seem to mean is that “what I am expressing is the way I see the world at this moment; it is my current perspective or way of thinking.” And this idea is totally unproblematic. In fact, it would be hard to find someone who would disagree with it. Put that way, I would wholly endorse your position.

Emile: Well, I think these bullshit debates do show this: suppose you say “I will tell the truth”, everyone will make their own judgment on the validity and meaning of your statement.

Adam: Yes, I can agree with that, though the multiplicity of judgments does not prove that truth as such is subjective, only that opinions of it are varied and conditioned by the backgrounds of those who express them.

Emile: Our discussions also show that people are more likely to believe what you say, if you confirm what they already believe.

Adam: True, this is an observable and widely-documented psychological fact. And you are probably not likely to believe what I am saying since it seems to come up against some of the things you believe. And that’s fine. This is simply the way I see things. You have a right to disagree and if you do, I’m happy about it! Discussion would be boring and far less illuminating if we all agreed on everything. Diversity adds richness to the world.

Emile: Well, the final thought I will add to this discussion is from Marcel Proust; he wrote that “A good book is one that tells me what I already know.”

Adam: I agree… I think he meant that a good book expresses things we had realized but didn’t yet have the words to make those realizations conscious. Good books give us the vocabulary to express our own latent knowledge. In this way, they tell us what we already knew, empowering us with the wording of the author.

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