Monday, June 27, 2011

Some More William James

Continuing with the History of American Thought, and William James's contribution to it, I suggest that the idea that we may very well exist in a "God"-less universe leads to two philosophical questions, both of which were formerly answered by the existence of God.

The first asks what is the source of morality, or maybe, what is the ultimate moral authority? We covered that a little in the previous post regarding James's The Will To Believe.

The second question, with which we will now begin to deal, is, what is the source of ultimate Truth?  Is there even one?  Another way to look at this question, a beginning point anyway, is, what do we mean when we say we "know" something?  Is there a difference in belief and knowledge?  If we claim to know something that turns out to be false, is it fair to say that we did not actually "know" it, we only thought we did?  And if we believe something is true, what is the point of claiming knowledge of this truth if we recognize that at some future time we may discover that we are wrong.  Is there such a thing as knowledge or is it all just belief?

Whew!  Why did I think this would be easy?  Anyway, knowledge claims are based on various foundations.  Aristotle believed that reason led to knowledge.  The empiricists believed that examination of "the facts" would lead to knowledge of truth.  Generations of thinkers relied on the authority of Aristotle.  Others insisted that "holy scripture," "The Bible," were the only true authority, that God was the one sure source of knowledge, the determinant of Truth.

In What Pragmatism Means, James argues that truth is what "works."  If we have a question and a possible answer, we "test" the answer, see if it "holds up."  Against what do we test it though?  Something in the writings of Aristotle?  Look in the Bible?  James says that the pragmatist doesn't rule this appeal to authority out, it can be used as a starting point, at least, but he doesn't accept "authority."  He treats it more like informed opinion.  What we also do, he says, is try it in the real world.  Think about Aristotle and his idea that a bigger stone would fall at a greater velocity than a smaller stone.  The pragmatist, indeed even the empiricist, says, "let's see."  And if we determine that the stones fall at the same rate then we consider what we have (Aristotle says this, we just saw that) and we decide.  The pragmatist sees no reason to distrust his own eyes simply for the sake of being faithful to the statement of a man who lived 2,000 years ago and can no longer be questioned, so he decides that, at least for now, the truth appears to be (is?) that two different sized stones fall at the same rate.

But the question remains, what IS the Truth?  Have we found it?  How can we know?  The urge to check our findings is strong.  But how?  We would like to consult some ultimate authority, someone who "knows."  That was always "God."  God would know.  If only we could ask Him.  Which led many to the Bible.  The Bible is God's word, God wouldn't lie to us (would He?); try to find the answer in there.  Of course the Bible is finite and the number of possible questions is infinite so we can see that the Bible cannot answer all questions.  Right?  And anyway, the thinking is, what is the source of Truth if there IS no "God"?

James, as far as I can tell, says that there is no such source, there is only what works.  We hold these truths, then, until new information comes to light and then we incorporate the new information into our new Truth.  Obviously, then, we cannot afford to get to married to any particular truth, since new information may show us to be at least slightky in error.

So, do we ever really "know" anything or don't we?  What do you think?  (There is more in this vein coming, it's kind of a major philosophical question.  ;  ) ) 


  1. Jeez, don't I even proofread these? (Yes.) WTF? " ... get to married ... ?" "Slightky?" D'oh!

  2. notacynic:

    John 8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

    Alfred North Whitehead, a British mathematician who became an American philosopher, said: "There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that play the devil."

  3. "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?"

    Might be a semantic issue here. Maybe the oath should be to tell as much of the truth as you can, leave nothing out and tell no untruths. Does anybody really know the "whole truth"?

  4. Epistemology -- how to establish truth -- nature of knowledge-- verify
    meta physics -- soul, God, artificial intelligence
    value theories -- Political -- ethics/morality -- aesthetics/beauty -- social customs

    Knowledge is verified by true statements. "All unmarried men are bachelors."
    Truth of conclusion is guaranteed in validity of premises.

    "Do you believe me or your own eyes?" G. Marx

    I can't add much more, it makes my lazy eye worse. But I think you launched this series from a statement by Sarge about seeing a group of Mexicans and "knowing" they are illegals. Sarge was may have worked off a premise as we all do for foundation, maybe like the idea the sun will come up tomorrow. How do we know this? Well, it came up every day of my life, history has no chapter about such a lapse of rythme and science says this carcinogenic atomic fire in the sky will burn for many millions of years to come and sling the planets around it by gravity for as long. But, there is room for doubt. I would not bet on it, but the whole gizmo could lose it's mojo and the wheels come off our galactic carriage, a mis-carriage of logic, hah! But can we know, beyond any doubt that brown people before us are illegal, no. There is only probability, no certainty, you cannot construct a statement that will make the valid argument that this can be knowable.
    Sorry Sarge if you read this, this is not an attack on you, it is a thought about knowledge, and what knowledge, or truth, is.

  5. OK Darrell (It's Darrell, right?) you're partly right. This does tie in with Sarge's post, though I had started down this path already. I mentioned it there as a means of leaving a short comment there rather than a long one.

    I'm pretty sure Sarge would have rephrased had he known I was going to "be so picky." But it was a good starting point for me.

    We (humans) often use the word "know" when what we really mean is "believe," or even just "suspect."

    What you describe above, regarding the Sun, is what I believe they call "reasoning by induction." It's an excellent starting point as I believe it (the Sun rising and setting each day) is where science began.

    Every day the Sun rose (always in the East), traveled across the sky and set (always in the West). But, keen observers noticed, not always in the exact same point on the horizon. Which led to more observation and charting and theorizing and testing and further theorizing; you know, science.

    More to come ...

  6. NAC,
    Being partly right is a huge victory for me. If I can get through the day with a couple of those, it was a good day.
    I thought the sun rising discussion is deductive reasoning, so I go to wikipedia and read that, then inductive reasong, they are related and either I had a stroke last night or not enough coffee this morning, after reading it I can't figure which it is, so I will just go with "your right" it's inductive, oh and you got the name right as well.

  7. As far as I can tell, Darrell, inductive reasoning is when we reason that something will happen the way it "always" has; deductive reasoning takes place when we don't see the pattern, maybe there isn't one, and we "put two and two together" and come up with our conclusion.