Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pragmatic Truth

I recently heard a lecture by a renowned philosopher of science on pragmatic approaches to truth, and it raised some interesting questions for me. On his account, which is grounded in his reading of Peirce, James, and Dewey, "truth" as a predicate has different meanings depending upon the "domain of discourse" in which it is applied. He takes as basic what he calls the "scientific" or "factual" domain, in which "truth" basically means correspondence in Tarski's sense.

But he identifies three other domains in which that sort of correspondence conception of "truth" will not work. For example, we can say that it is "true" that Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street even though it is not a fact in Tarski's sense. This is dubbed "literary truth", and we are told that it is the overall literary context that determines which sentences are "true" or "false" in this sense.

So the literary domain is one area in which we need a different notion of truth from "scientific" or "factual" correspondence. This seems fair enough to me, though I would add that it seems as if one might be able to find another route for defending the acceptability of sentences like "Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street" without actually proposing a model of truth in which the sentence is regarded as "true" in a technical sense. But literary truth is not the domain that I found most interesting.

The other two domains, ethics and religion, caught my attention to a much higher degree. In ethics, he suggested that "truth" be understood in a progressive sense. "Weak ethical truth" he ascribes to those propositions that are universally, or nearly universally, accepted by all human communities, with the proviso that these be propositions that have to do with the enhancement of human involvement with social projects regarded as fundamental. I will add that the talk that I heard was just a popularized presentation of a much more sophisticated argument made in a book-length treatment of the matter, and that is why this definition of "ethical truth" seems so thin and cartoonish. A fuller case is made for it in the book.

In addition to "weakly ethically true", however, propositions can be "strongly ethically true" if they lead to a progressive enhancement of the body of propositions that are successful and enhancing human involvement in fundamental social projects. One can imagine any number of objections to this notion of strong ethical truth, starting with what it is even supposed to mean. But although I was interested in the ethical domain more than in the so-called "fictional" domain, I confess that it was really the fourth domain that I found most interesting.

The religious domain has its own conception of truth drawn from the sociology of religion, in which the stories told by religious movements are described not as propositions that can be either true or false but as "myths", stories that have some underlying message or instruction or exhortation. I am not an expert in the sociology of religion, but my own (limited) familiarity with the literature suggests to me that "myth" is an invented category devised precisely in order to give some account of why religious sentiment is as widespread as it is given the implausibility of the literal truth of its claims. In short, my impression has been that saying something like "Myths are neither true nor false in the literal sense" is simply shorthand for saying "The claims of religion are obviously not factually true, but they guide the lives of millions of people and communicate deeply held values and foster important practices, so we may regard propositions within the religious community as not open to factual dispute in any important sense." Whether this view is adopted for paternalistic or diplomatic reasons seems hardly relevant: the important thing, it seems to me, is that the factual claims of religions are never taken seriously as factual claims, because those who study the sociology of religion are, usually, not theists themselves and so take it for granted that any claim about a deity that presents itself as a factual claim will necessarily be false.

But along comes the pragmatist, who says that we should go farther than calling the claims of religions "myths", we should define a domain of discourse within which the claims of religion are actually true, though "true" in the technical sense that is specific to this particular domain of religious discourse. So the pragmatist proposes a definition of "religious truth" that runs parallel to the definition of "ethical truth" sketched above, but that is clearly intended to be quite distinct from the correspondence version of truth found in the "scientific" or "factual" domain. On the pragmatist conception of truth, a proposition P is "weakly religiously true" just in case there is a community with a religious practice R and an extension of that practice, R*, such that R* involves the affirmation of P and the transition from R to R* would be religiously progressive. A proposition P is "strongly religiously true" just in case P is weakly religiously true and the practice of affirming P would be retained in any indefinite sequence of of religiously progressive modifications of R*. Although this project may sound anti-realist in its orientation, the pragmatist argues that it is really a realist view of truth and one is prepared to believe it in this case because, frankly, the "scientific" or "factual" domain is explicitly treated as fundamental. That's where "real" truth lies.

So as I think about this proposal I have, on the one hand, great admiration for the adroitness on display, not just in the talk but in the book version of the argument. Indeed, the book version makes for fascinating and compelling reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary pragmatism. I think that this particular pragmatist has done about as good a job as could reasonably be expected of anyone trying to defend this point of view. On the other hand, I also found myself wondering about the precise motivation for this conceptual scheme, given the pride of place given to the so-called "factual" domain. I wondered, for example, why it wouldn't just be a lot simpler to say "Look, Jesus did not literally rise from the dead. That proposition is literally false. The people who believe it have false beliefs, and false beliefs cannot count as knowledge. Nor does it help matters to say 'The Resurrection is a metaphor for sacrifice, redemption, and kenotic love, and it is successful primarily because it is such a very powerful and motivating metaphor, so we ought to keep the image in our religious culture', because that is tantamount to saying that false belief and ignorance are useful tools for the common involvement of humans in their social projects. Instead, we should just abandon these propositions--indeed, we ought to abandon religion altogether and replace it with something else."

Come to find out--as the expression around here goes--our present pragmatist actually does make that very recommendation, in a sense. He does not endorse the elimination of religion in the sense that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris do. He thinks that religion does play a valuable role in society, a role not unlike the roll played by beautiful art and literature. It expresses humanity's deepest longings in a metaphorical and artistic way, and that is a function worth retaining. The rub is that he thinks that, in an ideal world, that function will be gradually taken over by institutions other than religion. Institutions such as art and literature, for example. And he thinks that religion is "progressive" just in case it makes clear to its adherents that its claims are not to be taken literally and are to be used only for humanistic unitive purposes. Presumably that sort of thing could indeed be accomplished by plenty of institutions other than religion, and our present pragmatist thinks that, if all goes well, religion will indeed not so much disappear after the manner of extinction called for by Dawkins but will, rather, evolve in a Darwinian way into something really quite different from religion as we know it today. And that will be a Good Thing.

For the theist, I suppose, all of this will seem somewhat paternalistic. The Christian believes in the literal truth of the Resurrection, not some metaphorical kind of analogous truth. Indeed, St. Paul famously argued in defense of the literal truth of the Resurrection, claiming that if it were not literally true Christians would be the most wretched people on earth. So clearly the theists themselves take these propositions to be literally true, and importantly so. What good does it do to pat them on the head and say "There there, your beliefs are 'true', don't worry" when what you really mean is "Your belief is false, but we're going to let you hang on to it for a while because it makes you useful to society, docile, and pleasant to be around, but as soon as I can find a way to make you useful, docile, and pleasant without you committing yourself to falsehoods we're going to go that way instead"? Having dealt with the problem myself I can imagine being a little nervous about "literalism" in religion, especially when the context is something like creationism, so I'm not saying that I don't sympathize with someone who wants to find a way to parse the propositional content of religions into what ought, and what ought not, to be taken as literally true. But I would stop short of claiming that none of the propositions can be taken as literally true, if only because that would open me up, quite rightly, to the charges of question begging and special pleading.

So my puzzlement consists in a picture of truth in which everybody knows that "factual" truth is fundamental, and that the pragmatic model of "truth" in these other domains--fiction, ethics, and religion--is not really what anybody really means by "true" but we're supposed to hang on to this model anyway rather than coming right out and saying that the claims of religion are false or that ethical judgments are relative to the cultures that make them or something along those lines. In short, I'm not sure what the philosophical payoff is supposed to be in seeing truth in this way, short of finding some way of not coming off looking as obnoxious as Dawkins or as uninformed as Harris when talking about religion. The model is an elegant one, but its central component--the retention of the word "true" as the predicate for consistency, usefulness, or success within a domain--strikes me as useless. I've been wrong about this sort of thing before, though, so I stand ready to be corrected.


TheOFloinn said...

Seems to be a fundamental equation of "truth" with "fact." But truth is an act of faith; it derives from the same source as "trust." So a couple promises to be true to each other; the map indicated the direction of true north; Leonidas was true to his promises; and the bricklayer put down a true line of bricks.

Science is "true to fact" and the trust is betrayed only because the facts later turn out to be wrong. Literature is "true to life," and so on.

Mathematics is true in a different sense than those invented by the professor. A theorem is not true because it corresponds with any factual matter in the world. It is true because it derives from an unbroken line of deductions from agreed-upon principles or axioms. This is the truth of 'coherence' rather than 'correspondence.'

Vitae Scrutator said...

As it happens he did discuss mathematical truth in his talk, and also in the book, using Hamilton's quaternions as his example. I left out his discussion of "mathematical truth" mostly by inadvertence, but also because he doesn't treat it in quite the same way as the other domains (there is no distinction drawn between "weak" and "strong" versions, and it's all about symbolic formalization and game playing).